When I began writing this, Joe and I were resuming a solid form after almost melting in mid-30 degree heat for two days in Avignon. Structural integrity and rapidly escalating temperatures aside, it was a refreshing break that brought a new appreciation of wine, fresh croissants, and air conditioning.
We took the Eurostar direct summer service to the South of France, and thanks to vouchers earned from work related trips last year were able to take advantage of Standard Premier on the way out – meaning that proceedings kicked off with the obligatory croissants and followed swiftly by the first glass of the holiday. Sure, it was a small train wine, but hey – we’ve got to start somewhere. Les Valentins Cuvee des Amoureux is a Syrah and Carignan blend, fairly one dimensional admittedly but with smooth tannins and soft ripe fruits, and accompanied by a Provençal beef stew, which actually worked well. A few episodes on Netflix and a train nap later, and we arrived in Avignon with much less stress than airports usually induce.
Avignon, once the seat of Popes, is still an imposing place, even if the Swiss Guard has been replaced with tour guides. Surrounded by grand sandstone walls, it feels like one of the few weekend break destinations untouched by the modern taste for towering glass and steel, and I’m fully in favour of that. A swift stroll from Avignon Central saw us arrive at Hotel Le Magnan. It’s a budget option, and no swish looker on the outside, but give it a chance and you’ll find everything needed for a short stay – air conditioning, a small courtyard for coffee, cold drinks and breakfast, and large clean bathrooms. The staff (who speak both French and English), are friendly and welcoming, even putting up with my heavily accented spoken French. As you would expect for any boutique French hotel worth its salt, the croissants and fresh bread each morning were delicious, the jams all fait maison, and good strong coffee to fortify a day pounding the streets.
Avignon is a great choice if you need to escape to a place that genuinely helps you switch to holiday mode, but don’t have the finances / time / inclination to book a week elsewhere. Even staying by the city walls, you can mildly amble the length of the city within 30 minutes – longer once you get distracted by ice creams, wine shops and restaurants options, but stay focused. You have time.
Being the region of Chateauneuf du Pape, Provençal rosé and Gigondas, it’s no surprise that Avignon is a great base for exploring the wines of the region. There are plenty of specialist shops, bars and enotecas to get stuck in, and when eating out one can easily take a local tour by the glass for a reasonable price. In an effort to strike some sort of balance on holiday, after a morning at the Palais des Papes and le Pont St-Benezet (humming “…sur le Pont d’Avignon” along with the crowds), we struck out to visit the village of Villeneuve Les Avignon, across the Rhone. It was 37 degrees at this hour and the step counter was registering 12kms completed. After an hour’s climb to the Fort St Andre, we unilaterally agreed that a drink was in order.
Aubergine, on the Place Jean Jacques, served a cool rosé and a beer quick sharp. Made from Grenache, this salmon coloured rosé stood up well to being watered down with ice – I may have mentioned the temperature by this stage? No matter that it was the house wine, a rosé by any other name would have tasted so sweet. Watermelon, raspberry and wild strawberry on the nose and palette, with a little pepper. While a fairly short finish, the wine was welcome and cheering enough to while away a few hours on a typical French square.
No visit of mine to Avignon would have been complete without a trip to a wine shop. I’d already picked which one to go to a month in advance I chose Le Vin Devant Soi (The Wine Before You) off le Place de l’Horloge, the main square in the city. Here the owner specialises purely in local wines and various spirits (he jokingly explained to some gathered Americans looking for Cabernet Sauvignon that it was “banned around here”). He helpfully loaded a card to try a few wines in the enoteca machine. Having just received some unfortunate news about a potential job, I made a beeline straight for the Chateau de Beaucastel 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape (starting at EUR 5.50 for 1 oz, EUR 120 for a bottle). I have had my eye on the Family Perrin for some time, as Berry Brothers feature a number of wines from their various Chateaux, but have sometimes been out of my price bracket. Smelling the small taster really took my breath away. The complexity is evident without much effort – a luscious, deep purple, smooth sweet spices like cinnamon, cumin followed by raspberries and cherries, yielding to blackcurrant and cassis. The taste unfolds even more on the palette, still fruity but also slightly savoury, possibly with vanilla right at the end. This is drinking so perfectly now, and I readily admit I spent at least an hour on the train trying to find a reasonably priced bottle.
I did make a purchase of a fun-looking bright pink Tavel and a bottle of 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine Jean Royer. I also tried this from the enoteca. It was a little rougher than the 2000 of course, and could easily stand up to a few more years of ageing. However, there were still strawberry and raspberry flavours, along with Christmas cake spices, almost honey like – but the power of spice is dominate when emanating from the glass. On the palette, there was some acidity and black pepper suggesting that this has potential to be something special. I decided to leave it in storage at home and wait. I may also decant to give it a chance to open up.
By this time, I had been in the shop chatting to the owner for twenty five minutes, with time ticking to get ready for the return trip. I’m pretty sure Joe was ready to put out a missing persons alert.
After a perfect 48-hour break, returning to work on Tuesday felt like being smacked in the face. After 32 years, I finally found my happy place.
Avignon, we will be back – I’ve got my sights set on visiting La Famille Perrin…
Hotel Le Magnan – EUR 75 pp per night (June), breakfast EUR 9 pp
Aubergine – drinks were EUR 3 for a beer and EUR 3.50 for a glass of house wine
Restaurant le 26 – menu formule starts at EUR 15 to EUR 23, excluding drinks
Le Vin Devant Soi – enoteca starts at EUR 1.90 for 1oz