In early November, I found a window of opportunity in my work schedule to spend a week in the Rhône on a journey of discovery. As I have become more and more enamored of the gutsy and pure flavors of its dominant red grape, Syrah, as well as other local stars such as Grenache and Viognier, I have looked forward to visiting this diverse region, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south to the Côte-Rôtie in the north. It was a memorable trip. —K.M.
The TGV bullet train came to a smooth, silent halt after the 3-1/2 hour trip from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. Gliding through the French countryside at speeds up to165 miles per hour, with tidy farmhouses and well-kept fields lost in a blur, is a great way to decompress after a trans-Atlantic flight. I was at the end of a long day's (and night's) worth of travel. It had begun at New York's JFK airport, and now I was stepping off the sleek train platform on the outskirts of Avignon, at the southern end of the Rhône Valley, a little more than 12 hours later. I was tired but not too cranky, given the jet-lag. That said, my friends say I can be cranky even on a good day.
I had glimpsed Avignon only once before, in April from the aforementioned train station, when I had journeyed to visit wineries in my tasting realm, Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, as well as Gascony and Cahors (a mad trip that nearly ended badly—but that's another story). On this trip, however, I was to meet lead Rhône taster and senior editor James Molesworth, who had been already visiting vignerons and tasting for a few days.
On the day I arrived, Molesworth was still in the Northern Rhône in the citadel of Syrah, Hermitage. I found out later that he was having a blast firing off target rifles and .44 magnums with vintner Michel Chapoutier in Chapoutier's backyard after a dinnertime bacchanal. When I met Molesworth the following morning, his ears were still ringing (and would be for a day or two more), and I was jealous. I thought for a moment that I should have met him in Hermitage, drunk Chapoutier's fine Rhônes and fired some major weaponry. But Avignon had plenty to offer.
There were three taxis in the parking lot of the Avignon TGV train station when I arrived, their drivers smoking and bantering, but instead I took a waiting shuttle bus to the old city for 1 euro (I had been told to keep my expenses low). It was that dreaded time in France, Sunday afternoon, when everything of interest seems closed, when the bus dropped me off at the main gate of the old walled city. I rolled my bag up the near-deserted main avenue in the direction of my goal: the Palais des Papes. It was a hideout for the popes, who had fled the warring city-states of Italy (they were on the losing side) during the 14th century. They subsequently proclaimed Avignon the seat of the western church.
Yet even amid all the history, there's nothing like a jet-lag-induced hunger. First things first. I soon spied a bank of restaurants on the city's main square, the Place de l'Horloge. It was still mild enough to eat outside, and I searched out a sunny table. But the clock had just hit 2:30, and I was briskly informed that la cuisine est fermée. Nothing like French officiousness, especially when it comes to eating hours. Fortunately, there was a small brasserie back across the place that was welcoming. "Bien sur, monsieur," the accommodating host said. I liked his style. Just when the French piss you off, they redeem themselves. That is the essence of Franco-American relations: joined at the hip, but walking off in different directions.
I decided to indulge and quickly zeroed in on foie gras. I soon lost gustatory control (a chronic problem, given my expanding waistline). I ordered a medaillon of foie gras and a salade de campagne that promised slices of foie gras. Well, at least the salad was green, I thought. The waiter politely observed that it was beaucoup de foie gras, and I sheepishly agreed. So I went for the medaillon, plus a salade Provençale, which featured plenty of escarole, green onions, olives and savory anchovies, all washed down with some local vin blanc (no name, date or vintage, as is the custom in many smaller restaurants) and a bottle of Badoit. With my hunger sated and a bit of wine coursing through my veins, I finally felt relaxed, and that I had arrived in France.
After settling up, I walked over to the Palais des Papes, the imposing palace of the popes that towers over the old city. I wandered through its Gothic chapels, cloisters and grand banquet rooms for almost two hours. I wanted to get to the top of one of the towers for a view of the city. Unfortunately, I was foiled at every turn by blocked passageways and fermée signs.
Instead, I lingered in the palace's main kitchen, capped by an 80-foot-tall neo-Gothic tower that served as a cavernous walk-in chimney with insets for cooking. There were anterooms for the cooks and to keep the meal warm. I imagined the meat roasting on spits, the bread baking, and the cooks trying to keep up with the demands of the papal court. An audio guide recounted one papal coronation that featured untold hundreds of sheep, cattle, chickens, goats and pigs served in a multi-day feast that also featured thousands of pounds of eggs, cheese and butter, as well as something like 20,000 loaves of bread, give or take. Life was pretty rich back then, I thought, so long as you were a pope or nobleman, or one of the lucky hangers-on.
But the glory didn't last long. Soon after the popes figured that it was safe enough to return to Rome, at the end of the 14th century, the palace complex went into disrepair, and a fire swept the main hall. The site was eventually used as a garrison by the French army, and the damage wrought in revolutionary times by anticlerical fervor was clearly evident in the smashed religious statuary and damaged bas-reliefs. What is left today is impressive enough, but the bare limestone walls, empty transepts, and gusts of wind blowing through barren courtyards imbue the place with a haunting emptiness. The Palais des Papes is a beautiful relic of a lost age, preserved in almost abstract form, a shell of its former splendor.
Before I made tracks for my hotel on Avignon's northern outskirts, I walked up to a nearby overlook. It offered a panorama of the placid Rhône below and the neighboring countryside, from the whaleback of Mount Ventoux in the east to the rugged little range of the Alpilles of Provence to the south. The brilliant late-day sun seemed a good omen.
Then I heard the pebbles, which landed in the gravel just behind my shoulder, or at least that's what I surmised. I looked back to a group of teens loitering on some park benches. A surly bunch, in the French fashion. The riots in France's suburban ghettos were at their peak, and the cluster I saw seemed to fit the image of disaffected youth. But I couldn't be sure, and with no more pebbles flung my way, I walked on. There was also five or six of them, and only one of me. The wind was picking up, and there was a chill in the air—time to leave.
I was to rendezvous with Molesworth at Auberge de Cassagne, in the suburb of Le Pontet. The inn is an island of calm in a busy district, and the staff is warm and welcoming. This is especially true of one of the partners, André Trestour, a genial host with a glint in his eye, who oversees the dining room. Fluent in English and knowledgeable about fine wine and dining, he told me with a note of apology in his voice that he had lived in Belgium for 40 years. I didn't know quite how to respond, except to say that I have a Belgian friend and I understood.
Later, I proceeded to the auberge's Michelin one-star dining room, where Trestour showed me to a table. I was dining alone, which suited me fine, after the long day. As is the case in most of the better French restaurants, there was a good selection of wines by the half-bottle. So, in a faint attempt at economy, I ordered a half-bottle, but splurged as well by choosing Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage White 1996. It was ripe and mature, with luxurious honey and spice flavors that were an excellent match for a wonderful dish of jarret, described as veal osso buco in a confit. I could think of nothing more sumptuous than the nectar that had just washed down the hedonistic jarret.
Read Part 2 of Kim Marcus' journey through the Rhône. For more on the region, see also:
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions