Christmas in Avignon

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse… on y boit du vin !

At least, that’s what we’d have you believe after our hypnotising trip to the ancient papacy. Encircled by fortified walls and nestled among some of the most prestigious vineyards in the world, this beautiful home to popes past only became a part of France during the French Revolution in 1791.

And so, armed with our joie de vivre, we were rather excited to discover its story in person, and not least through an art form that unites so many of us: wine!

After landing in Marseille, we were escorted by our charming chauffeurs straight to lunch beneath the Palais des Papes where we were welcomed with a festive tipple before we settled into our three courses. For my part, I opted for the vitello tonnato, a nod to the region’s Italian influences, followed by the day’s special: beef cheek ragu, paired with a lovely Ventoux.

After a merry couple of hours, and left perfectly sated, we strolled lazily up to the Palais des Papes, to appreciate the magnificent view of the city from above. The sun was bathing the city in a dusky glow, so we eventually ambled down to the Christmas market to sample a few regional delicacies – truffled tomme de savoie, Parmesan crisps, and sweet native liqueur chocolates known as Papalines d’Avignon – alongside a warming vin chaud. Of course, I had to purchase some cheeses to return home with too.

Next, we checked into our beautiful 16th-century accommodation l’Hotel d’Europe, frequented over the years by artists such as Picasso and Salvador Dali, and writers such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. Despite being one of the oldest hotels in all of France, today it is the luxury hotel in Provence, with a grandiose foyer and charming staff. We freshened up before heading out to restaurant La Mirande for an exclusive chef’s table experience. The fans among us were delighted to be told the restaurant was also Mr. and Mrs. Obama’s favourite Provencal hotspot. Throughout history, La Mirande has regularly welcomed artists and presidents past from the world over, although Chef Alex spilled no secrets (even though we tried to wheedle as much information out of him as possible – in the public interest, of course).

So feeling like glamorous political celebrities ourselves, we took an exclusive gander into the cellars, where we delighted in a tasting from the sommelier herself, we moved to the old servants’ quarters, where we settled down like friends and family at the enormous oak table in the old Pamard family kitchen, already laden with fresh French bread and local produce. First, the chefs checked if there were any ingredients we simply didn’t like, before proceeding to craft a magical gourmet journey to tantalise our taste buds. Equal parts flattered restaurant diner and captivated audience member, I watched the expertise of our chefs as they whizzed around the kitchen, juggling the various earthenware, adding a dash of salt here, and a sprig of fennel there. But none of this flurry prevented them from engaging with us, chatting all things foodie like old friends.

Dinner stretched out into a wonderful and palate-teasing five courses. Beginning with poached egg nestled inside an artichoke velouté adorned with roasted hazelnuts, we went on to discover dishes we’d never heard of in tandem with old favourites such as the classic roasted duck breast – but the pièce de résistance was the dessert, teased to us as a wander into the forest. Lo and behold, dishes of fairytale-esque mushrooms appeared before our eyes, sprouting in the form of meringue and mousse, spiked with porcini, while a river of cream flowed through a chocolate crumble forest bed. Trust us – it worked! As the night progressed, so did our quips and culinary discoveries, and the wine flowed freely.

On the second day, we recovered with a beautiful breakfast in the hotel, before our charming guide Romain picked us up to whisk us away to his favourite estates where he unravelled the behind-the-scenes secrets of winemaking. First stop was Domaine Roger Sabon, where we talked about what exactly it is that makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape such a renowned and unique AOC, as well as its characteristic terroir of galets roulés and dominant varietals, while the winter sunlight drenched the vines around us in a supple golden warmth. We felt like royalty. Appropriately, the region’s name directly translates to the pope’s new castle, and indeed its history dating back to the 14th Century is firmly entwined with its papal legacy. The Avignon Popes were strong promoters of viticulture (and who could blame them!). Into the cellars we went, following the measured path from grape to wine, before sampling the famous fruits of the labour ourselves. Of the dozen or so wines we tried, I perhaps most enjoyed the 2017 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Réserve Roger Sabon, a wine with strong and generous character, and a lingering finish reflective of its region.

On our way to lunch, we stopped to marvel at Le Verger de Papes, the ruins of which crown the hilltop and offer a mesmerising view of the surrounding vineyards. It really felt like we’d been transported back in time.

We were welcomed to the stunning Château Les Fines Roches, a beautiful estate at the heart of the vineyards, and seated in our own private dining room, although had the weather been slightly warmer, we absolutely would have opted to dine on the terrace, overlooking the vineyards. The chef’s relationship with local producers is clear in the ever-changing seasonal menu. I couldn’t resist the foie gras, followed by the ever-French and perfectly cooked filet mignon. Gluttonously, we couldn’t turn down the board of cheeses either, excited to sample the array of uncommon and delicious local products, as selected by our chef.

After a long and languid lunch (the trick to truly relish a traditional French meal is to take your time and savour the wine), we were off to the family-run winery Château La Nerthe. We saw the cellars the Nazis had attempted to pillage multiple times, the secret walls and passageways that emerged as a result, and we got to find out a little more about the unique Provençal culture and language.

The tasting was something else entirely: generous, informative, and nothing short of delicious (although, of course, we all had our distinctive favourites). We savoured our last glass while watching the sun set silkily over the panoramic views.

Back at the hotel, we met on the rooftop for one last dreamy gaze out onto the city walls, before embarking on our final experience of the trip: the cooking class. Entering the establishment cemented us firmly in a 19th-century French novel (with a little less revolution but all of the seduction a lovingly prepared and delectable meal demands): theatrical posters adorned the walls while candlelit tables glowed in the dining room.

We were all quite impressed with Chef Pascal’s unparalleled savoir-faire combined with his kindness in teaching us a thing or two about whipping up a storm in the kitchen. There are a few moments we certainly won’t forget!

After chopping the vegetables, whisking the eggs, and shaving the truffle, we sat down to enjoy our homemade brouillade d’oeufs à la truffe followed by a delectable mushroom risotto. We made fast friends with our waiter, whose quick-wittedness swiftly joined our merriments, and so the evening lasted long into the night, as we sampled digestifs from around the world, from a brandy produced just down the road to a whisky distilled in Japan.

By this point, we had been well and truly spoilt, and couldn’t eat another bite. Satiated, we dance-strolled back to the comfort of our hotel (and if a few of us got lost along the way and discovered the festive nightlife of a former-papal-state-turned-cultural-gem – well, we couldn’t possibly comment…).

To see more, check out our France Instagram highlights @smoothredtravel – or simply pop over yourself for a dreamy weekend away in the wine world’s worst-kept secret.

If you’d like to learn more about Provence, get in touch with our team today on 020 8877 4940 or sales@smoothred.com


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