Thursday, our last full day in Beaune, we planned to wander the town, see the ramparts, lunch at Ma Cuisine, then relax for the evening as we geared up for our Friday drive from Beaune to Avignon, about a three-hour trip.
Drizzle misted us as we stepped outside of Le Cèdre and strolled through the gardens around our hotel before we set out for town. We began our tour of the defensive walls at Bastion St. Martin, which was built during the Thirty Years’ War (1637). Then we continued on to Tour des Dames, one of four towers built in the early sixteenth century. The tower gets its name from the nuns of the Cistercian abbey, but all traces of the Bernardine convent are now gone. This section of the ramparts used to be a popular walkway for Beaune’s rich. It was a pleasant, peaceful stroll with two-hundred-year-old sycamores towering overhead, their thick canopy sheltering us from a light rain. We continued at a leisurely pace from landmark to landmark until we had seen all of the battlements, bastions, moat, and the wash-house (the Lavoir), built in 1887 at the foot of the ramparts. We stopped at the laundry next to it, which is still in use. Here we also saw where the Bouzaise River resurfaces after disappearing under the Hôtel-Dieu. By now, we had pretty much come full circle on our self-guided tour of the ramparts, so we headed for the Parc de la Bouzaise to work up an appetite for lunch at Ma Cuisine.
Tucked down a cobblestoned alley off the main square, the French bistro was a bit difficult to find, but we soon located it and ducked in shortly before they closed for lunch. We made our way to the last available table near the back of the restaurant and settled in for a relaxing meal. The small operation, which seats approximately twenty-five, was run by a husband-and-wife team. He waited on the tables, and she cooked. We ordered a glass of burgundy from a rather extensive wine list, impressive for such a small establishment. And they had a good offering of wines by the glass. We ordered beef bourguignon. Delicious. We passed on dessert and braved a steady rain as we headed straight for our hotel, where we stayed for the rest of the rainy day, catching up on news from home and updating my travel log.
For dinner we snacked on an assortment of cheeses and breads, and sipped a good port. In the short time we had visited Beaune, I had developed a fondness for the town and was a bit sad to say goodbye, but Avignon beckoned.
Rain fell as we left Beaune and headed south for Avignon on the A6 motorway, ironically nicknamed the Highway of the Sun. We left the verdant vineyards of the Burgundy wine region behind and cruised into Chalon-sur-Saône. From here we motored through the Saône valley south to Tournus, and into Mâcon. We were now at the southernmost terroir in the Burgundy winegrowing region known as the Mâconnais, a landscape of hilly pastures and woodlands renowned for its white wines produced from the chardonnay grape. The area is also serious beef territory, as was evident from the handsome Charolais white cattle that grazed peacefully in the green fields. In Mâcon we followed the Saône, a tributary of the River Rhône, until it joined the Rhône in Lyon, just south of the Presqu’île (peninsula), in the heart of Lyon. In Lyon, we picked up the A7 motorway to Avignon and arrived in the town just as the sun peeked out, a good omen.
After we parked in the subterranean lot, hauled our luggage up the stairs from the underground parking area, and located our hotel, Mercure Avignon Centre Palais des Papes, we were content to simply relax and unpack before we changed for dinner at L’Essential.
We arrived at the restaurant long before the Friday evening crowd, and since there were only two other couples dining, we couldn’t figure out why the service was so slow. This would be the case throughout the entire meal. The couple at the table next to us leaned over and said, “We’re still waiting for drinks.”
There were two three-course prix fixe menus, so Dave ordered one and I ordered the other. For starters, we had foie gras and egg with a black currant jelly, and a melon gazpacho. For mains, Dave ordered red mullet served with roasted artichokes and a stuffed zucchini flower in a truffle broth. I had the spicy duck breast in a rich orange sauce. Dave had macerated strawberries for dessert, and I had the chocolate trio. The fish was delicious, but the duck tough. Before dessert arrived the restaurant became quite crowded, and the service slowed even more. By the time we left, over three hours after our 7:00 p.m. reservation, two large groups had entered the restaurant.
Saturday morning we decided to brave the rain and see the town but only made it to Monoprix, a ten-minute jaunt from our hotel, before the skies unloaded. Monoprix is a major French retail chain similar to the old Woolworth’s stores in the US or today’s Walmart. We scooped up rain slickers and umbrellas for us both, then browsed the aisles. I was checking out store brands on one aisle, names I hadn’t seen since I lived overseas, when Dave said, “Look what I found.” He was beaming. In his hand he held two washcloths. None of the hotels we had stayed in so far had washcloths, and I knew this would be the case from past trips, but we had forgotten to pack any. In France they call them gant or glove. They are made of terrycloth like a washcloth but are sewn like a mitten with no thumb, and slip over your hand. “Get two more,” I told him before we headed to the cash register.
By the time we left Monoprix, the rain had stopped, but halfway to our hotel it started to pour again. Although we were wearing the rain slickers, our jeans and sneakers were drenched by the time we reached our hotel lobby. So we headed straight to our room to change into dry clothes. We waited for the weather to improve, as we wanted to visit Arles, but it showed no signs of letting up, and the skies didn’t clear until early evening, in time to walk to dinner.
Fou de Fafa is a small restaurant that only serves dinner, has only twenty-six covers, will only seat four per table, and when we ate there, offered only one seating per night. Reservations are a must, and book well in advance. As we approached the dark red-and-white exterior, the first thing I noticed was a sign in French: “Totally booked for the evening.” I turned to Dave. “It doesn’t mean us,” he said. “We have reservations.” Just then the door opened and we were greeted by a pleasant woman with a British accent who showed us to our table. The interior was modern, and the decor red and white, simple but tasteful.
Over drinks, Dave told me a British couple owned the restaurant: our hostess, Antonia, and her husband and the chef, Russell. With only one person serving, I anticipated another slow service night, but this was certainly not the case, and Antonia had a relaxed demeanor about her that made us feel neither rushed nor neglected. By 6:45 p.m. every seat in the restaurant was occupied, and Antonia was interrupted at intervals to ask if the restaurant really was totally booked.
For dinner you could choose from a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert, or a starter, a main, and a dessert. I began with salmon tartare with honey, soy, ginger, and fresh coriander. Dave had the goat cheese croustillant with sun-dried tomatoes and black olive jam. For mains, Dave ordered sea bream with saffron cream, fresh vegetable salad, and crushed potatoes. I couldn’t resist having two of my favorite dishes on one plate, so I ordered the pan-seared duck breast with strawberry and balsamic vinegar, served with risotto. For dessert, we enjoyed banoffee pie with banana, caramel, whipped cream, and shavings of dark chocolate. And a vanilla crème brûlée. A delicious meal, and a most memorable evening.
Next week: “Europe 2013: Popes Palace – Avignon, France.”