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1940s Archive

An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces

Provence

continued (page 3 of 6)

The Restaurant Mère Germaine in the same town has its own specialties, among them a rich game pâté and a Provençal interpretation of the famous lièvre à la royale. This is a very serious cuisine, as students of the craft put it, and generous as well. And it offers that some wonderful choice of wine, although we wish they would devalue their wine card just a little bit.

AVIGNON—The famed walled city of the popes is one of the prime attractions of Provence. Famed for its gigantic Palace of the Popes and its nursery rhyme Pont St. Bénézet, Avignon is a gay city, filled with theaters and openair cafés, and makes very agreeable headquarters for the traveler. There are three or four acceptable hotels. The ancient town of narrow streets has been bisected by one modern avenue, the classic rue de la République. At either end of this animated thoroughfare are several restaurants where you can get along. After a considerable stay, however, this weary explorer can't recommend one above the other. Avignon must have its food-conscious citizens among those who scribble on public walls, however. On a gray plaster surface near the Préfecture the printed inscription “Vive le roi” has been deftly transformed by the addition of one horizontal and one vertical line to “Vive le rôti.”

VILLENEUVE-LÈS-AVIGNON—Across the river in this picturesque town facing the battlements of Avignon, the outlook is better. Here, behind the church, is a Provençal inn, established in an aged priory, which will delight antiquarians and voluptuaries alike. You may dine either in a sheltered courtyard or in a large paneled dining hall in the Hôtel le Prieuré, and in either case the experience should be memorable. We tried all of the specialties listed on the prix fixe dinner and found them delectable, especially the crêpes de Prieur. These were thin, squared pancakes folded over diced ham, covered with a sauce béchamel and grated cheese and then browned in the oven—a regal entree. Monsieur Mille, the cordial proprietor, is capable of arranging a truly fine dinner party, if you feel in the mood for one.

LES BAUX—This underpopulated, haunting Renaissance village, perched on a steep promontory, is one of the most extraordinary hill towns in France, and no visitor misses it. There is added reason for commending it here, for the best food in Provence can, in our modest opinion, be found in this remote, craggy spot. It is all due to the fact that a truly distinguished restaurateur, Monsieur Thuilier, chose this isolated location (much visited by motorists, however) as the site of his postwar hostelry. The gastronomic peak of your travels, by this happy circumstance, lies high in the weird hills of Les Baux in the Oustau de la Baumanière. The picturesque old Mas de Baumanière has been handsomely restored and furnished by Monsieur Thuilier.

You may dine in large, vaulted rooms or on a verdant terrace overlooking, of all things, a swimming pool. Above you rises the ghostly form of the village, and beyond the stretches an unforgettable view of the Camargue. One immediately compares this inn with some of our own resort hotels high in the western hills. But the comparison stops when you taste Monsieur Thuilier's cooking! This is truly la grande cuisine française, immaculately served and indescribably delicious. There are a few regional specialties, but most of the dishes are on a loftier plane. This is one case where the adjective Lucullan is not misapplied! The service is deft and attentive, and the prices are fair for the circumstances. There a few rooms for overnight guests, and it is wise to reserve them ahead of time. You need a sharp eye to find this shrine to good living. It is just outside the village, off a bend in the road leading toward Arles. You turn off sharply at a concrete post marked with the simple word Restaurant to find the epicurean apex of all Provence.

ARLES—The road leading down from Les Baux passes through Fontvieille, where the old windmill made famous by Alphonse Daudet still crowns the hilltop, and then past the haughty, melancholy ruins of the Abbaye de Montmajour (whose final eclipse came as a result of a scandal which would delight any tabloid editor) to the gracious city of Arles. Once a leading port of the Roman Empire, Arles still retains its incomparable arena and antique theater from the days of Caesar. The church of St. Trophime and its cloister represent two superb treasures of Romanesque art. The city where Van Gogh painted is celebrated for its comely maidens, too. The arlésienne, immortalized by the music of Gounod and Bizet, is still to be reckoned with. Mademoiselle France of 1949, recently elected to the throne of Miss Europe, is an arlésienne herself.

To the gourmet, all of these appealing items do not atone for the fact that the food is indifferent in Arles, despite its famed sausage. There are great sprawling café terraces under the trees, and there is a good hotel named after Julius Caesar, but you had better do your feasting in Les Baux!

The gastronomic desert extends to other famed objectives in Provence. On the outskirts of St. Rémy are two Roman monuments of great beauty and significance. In St. Gilles is one of the most beautiful Romanesque church façades in the world, especially when viewed in afternoon sunlight. The walled town of Aigues-Mortes is the most nearly perfect unrestored example in France. In none of these towns can you obtain good food or accomodations. Here are the places for that picnic lunch, accompanied by a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape! The Pont du Gard, the best preserved of all Roman aqueducts, offers tranquillity to the traveler seeking a serene night's rest. There are two country hotels in this isolated valley which are blissfully quiet, and their food is fair. Finally, there is the large city of Nîmes, equally famous for its Roman architectural treasures. There are good hotel accommodations here, of course, and the food is, shall we say, adequate.

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