Our last planned lunch in Lyons — one more bouchon and more unfamiliar foods — came a-cropper due to a latish return from our morning tour, close to 1:00 pm. Our cruise ship had a 1:45 pm departure. We might have made it, but the price of failure would have been figuring how to get to Vienne on our own hook, and the price of success would be hurried lunch. Discretion proved the better part of valor, and we ate lunch on board. The compressed schedule also prevented on-shore lunches in Vienne, Tournon, and Viviers. Nancy and I did have the consolation of the lovely views from the river. The western bank of the Rhône below Lyon is lined with hills — the Côtes du Rhône — and the hills are covered with vineyards for mile after mile,
Nice, especially while enjoying a glass of wine.
The on-shore lunch drought broke when we arrived in Avignon with plenty of time to see the city and still eat lunch in another Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant.
First Avignon. The central city is still surrounded by wonderfully intact walls that are both crenelated and and machiolated (so they could pour boiling oil on intruders), not to mention 17 feet thick. Avignon was a serious fortress.
The #2 big name attraction is the Palace of the Popes, who moved to Avignon from Rome in the early part of the 14th century. The period is know as either the Avignon Papacy (in France) or the Babylonian Captivity (in Rome), as you prefer. Either way, the Popes built a huge palace cum fortress in Avignon, and kept expanding it until they returned to Rome, seven or so Popes later.
The palace is huge, but the Popes left it broom clean. That’s fine when you sell your house, but it doesn’t add much to touring. The palace is very big and very bare, with no spiritual atmosphere about it. The tour was a let-down to that point, but it picked up when we moved to the Eglise Saint Pierre nearby. The entrance stone carvings and the door are gorgeous, and the interior contains a tapestry that Nancy, who does needlepoint, called “the needlepoint from hell” for those who had to do it, a painting of the Holy Family that I loved, and a moving statue of Mary Magdalene (although my photo doesn’t nearly capture its emotional impact in situ).
Another highlight of the Avignon tour was Les Halles, the food market.
I won’t post photos. You might do something rash, like buy plane ticket. But look at just one.
That’s a trout? I scoff.
After Les Halles we sat down for a while so I could calm down, and wandered the medieval streets of Avignon across town to L’Agape. It’s a stylish place, all black and sleek inside.
But who wants to eat indoors in France on a perfectly beautiful day? Pas moi. And there was no need. L’Agape is situated on the Place de Corps Saint, a square (actually a triangle) filled with tables for a half dozen or so restaurants, and with relaxed and happy people enjoying the day and the food. The whole is shaded by plane trees (sycamores).
It was an idyllic setting for lunch. The waiter brought us menus, which helpfully were loosely translated into English, followed by water and glasses of the blanc du moment, aka the house white, which was very nice: it had found its moment.
Nancy and I both ordered the same appetizer, the leeks with trout and sheep cheese.
First, it was very good. The fish and the leeks both were fresh, and the cheese was very tasty. This leaves you see were dressed with, I think, sesame oil, coriander (not cilantro leaves, the seeds), and something else peppery. As I say, it was very good, and we both enjoyed it. But don’t tell me that was trout, and don’t tell me it was mackerel. Remember the faux trout pictured above that was labeled as trout? Remember the “trout” at La Criée? There is no resemblance between the two fish. Here we have proof positive that the French use random English terms to describe fish on their menus, and, I would add, in explaining the menu to English-speakers. Actually, I suppose it’s all good clean fun, and in my experience, it hasn’t made any difference. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and likewise with fish, at least fresh fish. The dish would have been no better had the fish been trout (as we know trout), and worse if it were mackerel (as we know mackerel). I have often been misled, but never disappointed.
Fo the entree, Nancy had the plat du jour, which we had ascertained was some sort of seafood, and which turned out to be rai, or skate wing.
Have you had skate wing? It is delicious. Order it if you see it. I’ve never had bad skate wing. I prepared it myself in an apartment in the Marias over a hot plate, and it was still delicious. And Nancy’s skate wing was great. She loved it. It came with potatoes with black sesame seeds and sesame oil, the same dressing that was on the lettuce leaves. Delicious.
I ordered the fish of the week, a fish that the waiter, for his own amusement, described as “perch.” I smiled at his joke, and switched to the rosé du moment. It, too, was having a great moment.
Perch? If I had to guess based on taste alone, I would say it was black cod. It can’t be, because it’s a river fish. I’ve never had any other fish that tasted as buttery, and I’ve had perch. The lemongrass sauce you see was a nice accompaniment, and the dish came with some Nicoise olives and a tube of zucchini stuffed with ratatouille that was worth writing home about, or would have been had anyone been home. What a great plate of food!
And what a meal! Lovely food, lovely setting, lovely service. Lovely price. This is a restaurant that fills you with agape, which you will recall from high school Western Civ is the Greek word for the sort of love that generates charitable feelings and acts toward your fellow human beings (as distinguished from Eros and Philia, and I think there’s one more.) It is the love captured so memorably in 1 Corinthians 1-13. Okay, now, even if you’ve never touched a Bible, much less opened it, you have heard 1 Corinthians 1-13 at a wedding or in a movie, or read the words in another context. Or perhaps it’s time to put away childish things.
Go to Avignon. Go to L’Agape. Enjoy. Feel the love.
And don’t forget the #1 highlight of Avignon —
Dancing sur le pont d’Avignon.
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