Europe 2013: Popes Palace – Avignon, France

Popes' PalaceGilded Virgin MaryCumulus clouds drifted across a blue sky as we left our hotel and walked toward the mighty complex of austere buildings sitting high on the Rocher des Doms. Our destination was the Avignon Cathedral, built in 1111. Then, the architecture was pure provençal Romanesque, but in the fourteenth century a cupola added to make the cathedral grander collapsed, so the church was rebuilt in 1425 in the Byzantine style. Baroque galleries were added in the seventeenth century and the steeple topped with a gilded Virgin Mary whose glow can be seen for miles.

Although damaged during the French Revolution, and even used as a prison for a while, the interior is richly decorated and boasts a huge octagonal dome and two organs. And there remain a few Gothic tombs of some of Avignon’s popes. Over the years bells have been donated, and today the carillon is thirty-five strong. Despite being dwarfed by its extravagant neighbor, the Palais des Papes, the church is impressive and beautiful.

After viewing the cathedral, we queued up with a small group of tourists to tour the Palais des Papes and its gardens. The commanding, fortress-like sandstone buildings that tower over the surrounding rooftops have dominated the skyline of Avignon for 650 years and were home to seven successive French popes who preferred to administer from Avignon rather than Rome. Why? The short version: political turmoil. During the French Revolution, the structures were threatened with demolition but were instead used as army barracks and remained as such until a hundred years ago. In 1906 the army vacated the palace, and a major restoration began to restore it to its former sacred splendor.

Popes Palace

Palais des Papes is really two palaces, an old one built in 1335 by Pope Benedict XII and a new one built twenty years later by his successor, Pope Clement VI. Benedict, an ex-Cistercian monk, embraced simplicity, while Clement, who came from nobility, favored opulence and loved art. He commissioned Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti to paint magnificent frescoes to decorate the palace. In the great audience hall, portraits of prophets from the Old Testament adorn the vaulted ceiling on a sky-blue background. Bare, dimly lit halls and chapels are on the first and second levels and are linked by wide staircases. There are two chapels, one on top of the other, St. Martial and St. John, and the ceiling and walls are graced with restored depictions of the lives of the two saints. The Palais des Papes is the biggest Gothic palace in the world, at approximately 162,000 square feet of living space and more than twenty rooms.

Popes' Palace

We spent about a half hour strolling the palace grounds, then walked across the Saint Bénézet bridge, which was started in 1177 and completed in 1185. According to lore, the bridge’s construction was inspired by Saint Bénézet, a shepherd boy who, while tending his flock, heard the voice of Jesus asking him to build a bridge across the Rhône. Ridiculed, he proved his divine inspiration by lifting a huge stone, thereby winning support for his project. His remains were interred in Saint Nicholas Chapel, a small chapel built on the bridge between the second and third arch. Originally, the bridge had twenty arches, but only four remain, the rest being swept away in the raging floodwaters of the Rhône. The chapel is named after the patron saint of the Rhône boatmen, Saint Nicholas.

St. Nicholas ChapelIntrigued by Saint Bénézet’s story, I headed straight for the chapel, which has been reconstructed and restored and is now divided into two floors, each with a nave and an apse. In 1670 the bridge was abandoned and the relics of Saint Bénézet were moved to the Hôpital Saint Bénézet within the city walls.

From the bridge we made our way to the Rue des Teinturiers, where we had lunch at an outdoor café—salades Niçoise. Rue des Teinturiers is a lovely cobbled street that runs along a canal and is shaded by sycamore trees. The French call them plane trees. The main attraction of the street is browsing the shops and galleries and drinking and dining. We wanted to see the water wheels. At the height of the weaving boom, the mills were powered by twenty-three water wheels along the canal; the water was also used to rinse the fabrics. Many wheels were destroyed during the French Revolution, and only four remain today.

We spent the afternoon window shopping, then retired to our room to relax. So far, the weather on the trip had been chilly and rainy, and we both felt as if we were coming down with colds. Of course, the good soaking we got walking back from the Monoprix the day before hadn’t helped. Our sneakers still hadn’t completely dried. We ate dinner that night at a bistro near the hotel—piping hot French onion soup, crusty French bread warm from the oven, and a local chardonnay.


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Europe 2013: The Burgundy Wine Region

Burgundy Wine Region

Our last day in Paris, we started the morning with a relaxing buffet breakfast, then took a taxi to the Gare de Lyon to catch the TGV, France’s high-speed train, to Dijon. At over two hundred miles per hour, the TGV is best described as fast. And four hundred and fifty daily connections throughout Europe make traveling by bullet train certainly more attractive than flying—not to mention more interesting.

As we neared Dijon, I was in awe of the acres of vibrant yellow fields that stretched to the horizon, their beauty even more striking contrasted against a backdrop of deep green hills. Naturally, I assumed the crop was mustard seed for Dijon mustard production. However, later in our trip a local gentleman informed me the crop was rapeseed for the manufacture of canola oil. Canola (Canada oil) was bred from rapeseed at the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s. He also told me that since 1950 mustard growing in the Burgundy region has declined with every passing year. Traditionally, mustard seed was grown in Burgundy by the same people who made charcoal. When charcoal production declined, so did mustard production. Today, 95 percent of the twenty-five thousand tons of seed used every year in French mustard production comes from Canada. As I was about to part company with him, he said, “Dijon mustard was first produced for the grand dukes of Burgundy, but the name refers only to the recipe and can be made anywhere.”

An hour and forty minutes later, our train pulled into the Dijon station. We collected our rental car and drove to Beaune, where we would stay for three nights while we explored the Burgundy wine region. We checked into the Hostellerie Le Cèdre, and with no plans for the afternoon except to sightsee, we dumped our bags in the room and set out. But first, at the urging of the hotel staff, we grabbed an umbrella from the stand near the front entrance.

Hospices de BeauneOur first destination was the Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a Gothic building with colorfully glazed roof tiles in an interlocking design of red, brown, yellow, and green. The building, now a museum, was once a hospital and refuge for the poor, who were cared for by an order of nuns.

Collegiale of Notre Dame - FrontNext, we visited Collégiale Notre Dame, a church built in the twelfth century and constantly altered and embellished over the years to represent both Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. Inside are rich tapestries depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. They were woven in Flanders in 1500. The front of the church is on rue d’Enfer (hell) and the back of the church on rue Paradis (heaven), if my French serves me correctly. Collegiale of Notre Dame - BackWhile beautiful from the front, the church is far more intriguing architecturally from the back.

We didn’t take the train touristique, as we preferred to sightsee on foot, but a disembarking visitor said her hour ride was most enjoyable and well worth the seven euros.

As we drew near our hotel, the sky turned a dark gray, and threatening clouds gathered over Beaune. We ran for the entrance to Le Cèdre, reaching it just in time to avoid a dousing.

That night, we had dinner reservations at Le Bénaton. A bénaton is the traditional wicker basket used in nineteenth-century Burgundy to transport grapes from the fields during harvest. The photo shown is courtesy of St. Martin’s Gallery, which sells eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English, French, and Continental antiques.

BenatonLe Bénaton is housed in a former home and is a small restaurant with limited seating. Our corner table was intimate and cozy, although at the hour we had booked, early by European standards, we were the only patrons. The interior was contemporary and decorated in warm golds and burgundy, with open stonework, bois de rose wood floors, and low light for a romantic environment.

While we each sipped a glass of white wine and nibbled on olive bread, still warm from the oven, we perused the menu. We decided to order à la carte, as opposed to one of the set offerings: market, pleasures, flavors, and discovery. For starters, Dave ordered duck foie gras with smoked eel cassis. I ordered the scallops: grilled and in a truffle bouillon. For a main, I had wild turbot and butternut squash with a clementine reduction. And Dave ordered lamb with harissa, and fennel, carrots, and olives. For dessert, chocolate molten cake with a blackcurrant reduction, and gold mountain in a hot and cold caramel sauce. Spectacular!


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EUROPE 2013: Paris, France

Eiffel TowerAfter a fabulous trip to British Columbia and Alberta, I am refreshed and ready to continue my travel blogs, retracing my steps in time to May 2013, when I toured the Burgundy wine region of France, drove to Monaco to watch Monte Carlo set up for the Grand Prix, flew to Lisbon for a visit, and ended my vacation in Spain.

And yes, in a future thriller Darcy and Bullet will follow in my exact footsteps as they race against time to track down a killer before he strikes again. So focused are they on nabbing the murderer that they have no inkling someone else is fervently stalking them—until the hunter has them in his gun sight. Can Darcy stop him before he delivers a lethal blow?

Café LenôtreIn late 2012, my gypsy husband decided it was high time I saw Paris. No, I had never been. Without missing a beat, he began planning our next trip. In May 2013, we boarded a flight from DFW to London and from there to Paris.

Just before noon, we checked into the Hôtel Duminy-Vendôme in Paris. Famished, we dumped our bags in the room and immediately left for a brisk walk down the Champs-Élysées to Le Café Lenôtre. In my head, I played and replayed Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” as I finally had my chance to stroll the popular boulevard. When we reached the Arc de Triomphe, we retraced our steps to the restaurant.

Seated in a quiet corner on the outdoor patio, we played tourist by poring over a map to chart an agenda for the next few days. We glanced at the menus, ordered, and dismissed the puzzled look on our server’s face; by no means is our French good, but we manage. Our orders arrived and our server left. We looked at each other and burst into laughter. Absorbed in our plans for the days ahead, we had overlooked the fact that an “entrée” in French is a dish served before the main course, i.e., a starter. With the attitude that there is a reason for everything, we ordered two more starters, giving us the opportunity to sample a broader selection of dishes and still leave room for dessert.

IMG_6272After lunch, we headed to the Seine for a boat cruise down the river. We queued up at Bateaux Mouches, boarded, and settled into our seats on the upper deck for a view of the iconic sites of Paris—Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Musée d’Orsay, to name a few. There are some things you should experience once, and the river tour was one of them. From what I’ve heard, the summer tourist crowds can be quite unruly, but fortunately we were subjected to only one discourteous group of six, clad in tank tops and shorts, who soon sought refuge below deck, complaining about the chilly, overcast day. More interested in photographing the Eiffel Tower, I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather other than to consider how it might affect my pictures.

Eiffel Tower Up CloseAfter photographing the Eiffel Tower from a distance, I couldn’t wait for an up-close look at this magnificent structure, so the minute we disembarked from the boat we headed straight there. Ever since I had admired the architecture of the Budapest-Nyugati Railway Terminal, also built by the Eiffel Company, I had wanted see the tower.

When we arrived at the famous landmark, I was awestruck by the massiveness of the iron structure. It was impressive in size and construction, and I was looking forward to dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant—for the food, but more so for what I anticipated would be a breathtaking view of Paris. However, I would have to wait. That night, we had reservations at Kunitoraya and planned to retire early, as jet lag had begun to set in.


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