I have always dreamed of visiting Provence. Known for its ancient Roman hilltop towns, gardens that inspired Impressionists painters Cézanne, van Gogh, and others, and a local market each day of the week there is something for everyone here whether you love history, art or food. So after our time in Paris and Burgundy with friends, we drove south through the vineyards to begin a week of exploration in this magical region.
We started our journey in Avignon, which was first a medieval trading town on the east bank of the Rhone River. Avignon linked France to the rest of the Mediterranean world via the Pont Saint-Bénézet Bridge, which as legend has it, was constructed after a local shepherd boy received a vision from God urging him to get the town to build the bridge. Mocked by the townspeople, he is said to have “proved” his divine mandate by miraculously lifting a huge stone. A century later, Avignon gaining in significance and popularity, when the Pope relocated from Rome to Avignon and built a palace in town during what is called the Avignon Papacy between 1309 to 1376. We were lucky enough to stay across the street from the Papal Palace at La Mirande, a beautifully restored mansion originally built as a “livrée” (palace) for the Cardinal de Pellegrue. Today La Mirande is an exquisite hotel that offers a study in three centuries of French decorative arts, lovingly brought to life by the Stein family.
Our stay at La Mirande was, in a word, perfect. And that seemed to be a similar feeling amongst the hotel guests, as we ended up chatting extensively with two other couples, exchanging “pinch me, is this place real” remarks throughout our stay as we passed each other in the hallways. What makes this place so special? The owner, Martin Stein. You can feel the care and attention behind every detail, from each beautiful french antique, carefully selected by Martin, who is “never finished” curating the interiors of his hotel, to the harmony of design principles exhibited throughout the property. Many of the beautiful wallpapers and textiles were commissioned specifically for the hotel and produced by some of the oldest wallpaper printing families in France, using 18th century designs and techniques. From the Victorian dining room to guest rooms done up in the Empire-style in the newest wing of the property, La Mirande is a visual feast. When it came time for dinner, we started with a dry martini (martinis are their specialty) in the central courtyard before heading into the dining room for 5 course surprise tasting menu where each dish was more delicious than the last. Given that the menu is a surprise, be sure to leave the wine pairings to the sommelier. We discovered our new favorite french wine that night – Domaine Saint Préfert 2015 Chateauneuf du Pape. Which I’m excited to see we’ll be able to find itwhen we’re back in the states.)
Provence is legendary for its antiques markets, and I had always looked forward to visiting L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s Sunday market, which includes a beautiful array of cheeses, cured meats and vegetable stands tucked into the narrow lanes of its tiny town, as well as several blocks of antiques laid out on the sidewalk. We arrived early before the crowds, and wandered the lanes in the center of town, gathering cheese and bread for a picnic lunch on the banks of the canal that encircles the town. Aside from our yummy lunch, we didn’t end up taking home any treasures, but didn’t mind since we had plans to visit the massive Avignon Brocante the following day.
The Avignon International Brocante is a pop-up antique fair that is widely regarded as the ultimate source for European antiques, drawing antique dealers from all over the world to buy for their shops and clients. This to-the-trade only event happens 8 times a year, and involves hundreds of dealers spread over 7 warehouses and 3 parking lots. The premise is a little stressful, as vendors aren’t allowed to start setting up until 8am, when they fling the doors of their trucks open and hurry to pull their treasures out for buyers to see. We arrived shortly after 8am, and saw people running with chairs held over their heads to move their inventory into their stall right as the gates opened. If you forget your antique dealer’s license at home, I recommend arriving with the crowds a little before 8am, as security is less likely to ask to see your badge and you can squeeze in with the crowd. From gilt mirrors and pairs of empire-era bedside tables to Art Deco tea sets and vanitas oil paintings, we saw countless treasures and vowed to return one day to fill a container with treasures when we own a house. We only picked up a few small things that we could easily ship home, including a 1960’s marble and malachite chess set, and collection of vintage pyrogenes (match holders/strikers). I also found the original ark bag that inspired Cult Gaia’s popular design for 30 euros and snatched it up!
Between all the antiquing, we made time to visit the Papal Palace. It is free to the public on certain weekends, and we enjoyed touring it’s vast halls. The current exhibit is a little light on the history of the space and focuses on the current restoration efforts but it’s beautiful nonetheless, and the view of the Rhone River and Pont Saint-Bénézet Bridge from the Palace gardens is wonderful.
We returned 2 days later for one more night at La Mirande so we could experience their special “downstairs dinner”. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the main restaurant takes a break and a special dinner is held for 14 guests in the old servant’s kitchen in the basement – an experience that made all my Downton Abbey dreams come true. We learned about French cooking and hospitality over a four-course meal (soup, fish, meat and dessert) paired with a beautiful set of wines from the hotel’s cellar. Only 14 places are set, to ensure the atmosphere is intimate and guests are able to get to know each other. From the salted cod to the poached pear in red wine sauce the whole group was laughing and swapping travel stories, ending with a candlelit round of “bon anniversarie” to celebrate a birthday, and a round of “Frère Jacques”. After dinner we gathered upstairs to continue our conversations over coffees before turning in for the night.
We couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days in Avignon. Thank you Martin and La Mirande for your incredible hospitality!
All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com