Posted by: David Stewart | June 30, 2013

From Pope’s Palaces to the Food Capital of France

These are from some notes I took on our Spring 2013 trip

Saturday, May 11

Avignon, France

Papal Palace, Avignon

We checked out of our little Orange hotel room and drove into Avignon to tour through the Papal Palace. We parked in our now-familiar underground garage and walked to the palace.

The palace has a very nice audio tour for only a couple of euros more than admission price, and they are well worth it. The gadgets you use for the tour had a little screen in them which they occasionally used for additional images, which enhanced things. For example there was a great hall which had been used for banquets, and the screen showed how the hall had looked at other times.

Avignon, France

Flower show, Avignon

The palace tour is organized by taking you through the history of the building’s construction and shows how the building was altered. After the popes moved back to Rome, the building was used by Catholic hierarchy officials until the French Revolution. The church was thrown out of the building and it was adapted for use as a prison. Banquet halls, battlements, treasure rooms (minus the treasure), apartments and chapels were all on display.  I will say that the audio tour arrangement makes it difficult to short-circuit the tour but the history was all fascinating to us so we didn’t mind.

Concurrent with our visit to the palace was a large regional flower show, so many of the rooms and courtyards were decorated with flowers and orchids, which was a nice treat.

Avignon, France

Papal Palace, Avignon

After finishing our tour, we decided to self-cater our lunch and eat in a park outside, preferably by the river. So we rescued the car and drove a little away from the center to find a supermarket.

We indeed found a store outside the core of Avignon in a Muslim neighborhood. Besides appreciating the nice collection of halal meats, we obtained the makings for a lunch – baguette, cheese, lunchmeat and fruit.

But finding a place by the river to eat we ran into our old Avignon problem of parking. So we simply bailed out and started our drive north to Lyon, stopping by a wayside rest area to eat at a picnic table.

The drive to Lyon was by far the worst we had encountered on the whole trip, by far. Although we were taking the fastest toll roads which had been no problem for me in the past, there were several bottlenecks and stretches where we slowed to a stop, mostly south of Valence. North of the city of Valence, it was pretty much smooth sailing until we got into downtown Lyon.

Avignon, France

Model of the Papal Palace, Avignon

Our hotel, the Hotel Saint Paul, was located at the edge of the old city of Lyon, the “Vieux Lyon”, near a train station. I picked it based on our guidebook’s recommendation and because I thought that it’s location near the station might offer a bit more parking options. Looking back on the email I got when I reserved the room, there was some discussion about parking, but it was all in French so I was really flying blind.

Once we got into the town of Lyon, traffic again ground to a complete halt as we snaked along the river. We didn’t think it could get much worse, but once we hit the old town of Lyon, it got massively worse. This was a combination of construction on the road and Saturday night, which brought everyone in to party and drink. Deb commented at one point that this was like the “ninth circle of hell”. I noticed at one point a girl carrying around a box of wine and a glass full, talking with others on the street corner.

Lyon buchon (typical cafe)

Bistroit St Jean, Lyon

We did find the hotel and I dropped off Deb to check out the room and check in while I searched for a place to park. I crossed the river and followed signs to an underground lot which was about a five minute walk from the hotel. Girding my loins, I loaded up with both of our suitcases and headed to the hotel, only to discover I was walking in the opposite direction. After getting set right, I found Deb and the hotel and dropped off the bags. Then we both walked back to the car and picked up our other hand luggage, all the while struggling through seas of people partying and the sounds of a concert wafting over the river.

We were pretty much wiped out after struggling with the traffic and the crowds, and I didn’t look forward to another struggle to find a place to eat. We had heard that there were few decent places to eat in the old town, but our hotel desk clerk suggested a couple of places in the old town to try. The one we landed on which was not already full was called Bistroit de St Jean.

Lyon buchon (typical cafe)

Bistroit St Jean proprietor with Deb

Lyon is known as a food capital of France, and the typical experience is a bouchon. The word means bottle stopper or traffic jam in the rest of the country, but in Lyon it is a friendly bistro which serves up traditional city cuisine. The Bistroit St Jean seems as classically rustic as you might imagine. The music is American old-timey country and bluegrass, and the decor matches it – cowboy hats, bird cages, birdcages and mandolins and checked tablecloths. The proprietor was a jolly soul with an apron covered with buttons and sporting a wry wit – he gave us both a French and English menus so we could “have a French lesson.” He was serving another customer an espresso when he “tripped” and the gag cup of coffee sprung out at the patron, but was held back on the saucer. The food is also classically bouchon as well.

Salad Lyonaise

I started off with a “communard” which is a mixture of red wine and creme de cassis.  Deb had a “salad lyonaise” which had a soft-boiled egg and meat on the lettuce, and a chicken fricassee. I had the quenelle, which is like a fish dumpling in a cream sauce.

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