A Fortnight In Provence, Part I

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We’ve a unique feature for this weekend’s travel special; Alex Larman and his now wife, Nancy Alsop, embark on their two-week honeymoon to the south of France, each telling their part. Today, it’s Alex’s turn, as they enter Avignon…

Peter Mayle has a lot to answer for. His bestselling 1989 autobiographical novel painted a deliriously seductive picture of Provence as the garden of France, an endlessly beautiful place stuffed full of eccentric but charming locals, where the average middle-class Englishman could find themselves accepted and part of the community in next to no time. The truth is, as ever, more complex. But what Mayle did so well 25 years ago was to make Provence a destination that hummed with vibrancy, life and excitement. Thus, heading there on one’s honeymoon seemed the perfect way of celebrating a recent marriage in the most stylish fashion possible.

We headed to Avignon, because it seemed the sort of place that we would be happy, and we were right. Large enough not to feel claustrophobic, but compact enough to be wandered round over a couple of days, it’s a riot of beautiful architecture, chic little cafes, gorgeous wine bars (head to Avitus – it’s outstanding) and riverside walks. The only drawbacks are that it isn’t cheap, although the weak Euro when we visited was a very welcome boon, and arguably its most famous landmark – the Pont d’Avignon, one immortalised in song by countless artistes – now charges a rather extravagant fee of five Euros to walk across it, which, given that it only extends halfway out into the Rhone, is an opportunity all too easy to pass up.

La Mirande Provence patio

Something rather harder to refuse, however, is a chance to stay at probably the nicest hotel in town, La Mirande. Set behind the hugely impressive Palais des Papes, this beautiful building originally dates from the 14th century, although the current establishment has its roots in later centuries. The interior reflects this, with each of the public rooms taking the style of a different era. Thus the cosy bar has a 17th century ambience, thanks to its painted ceiling, while the elegant breakfast room summons up the feeling of the 19th century. As for ‘let them eat cake’, the buffet here is a truly sumptuous affair, and the only temptation is in consuming far too much, leaving one rolling out like a medieval Pope who has granted too many indulgences.

However, this is getting ahead of some of La Mirande’s other charms. The restaurant, run by Jean-Claude Aubertin, elegantly combines a sumptuous Renaissance-styled room with some fairly exceptional food. When the weather’s clement, it’s possible to sit out on the terrace and gaze over at the Palais; however, wind stopped play, and so we had the pleasure of sitting in the dining room. A lunchtime sampling of the dishes included many delights, such chicken and pork (separately) as the main courses, a very fine strawberry and pistachio dessert and a sumptuous broth including everything from mushrooms to finely poached egg to start with. True gourmands might want to take advantage of the regular cookery schools, which are held in a well-appointed basement that looks like something out of Gormenghast, or attend the chef’s table on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

La Mirance Provence suite interior

Elegance and comfort are certainly uppermost at La Mirande; our room was decorated in what I’ve come to associate with the effortless style of the 18th century, and the views over the Palais are enough to make the most dedicated unbeliever go weak at the knees and cross themselves. And the final word has to go to the staff, who were charm and courtesy personified; not once were we, representatives of perfidious Albion, made to feel like intrusive rosbifs, but instead we felt pampered and indulged in all the best ways. We left Avignon with a great sense of sadness, but also relief that we had been so fortunate to visit somewhere so pleasant, albeit for not nearly long enough. Another time…

Before we embarked upon the next leg of our journey proper, we decided to head to Marseille for the night. I’d heard a lot about France’s second city, and it’s certainly undergone its own remarkable renaissance since it was made Capital of Culture in 2013. With £6 billion pumped into it, what were once grimy no-go areas now positively sparkle, and the Vieux Port now feels like the heart of a cosmopolitan and forward-looking city, rather than somewhere that you could be stabbed by a drunken sailor. Festooned with stylish bars and restaurants (although some of the more obvious tourist traps are best avoided), it’s a vibrant and thrilling place to pop by, even if we didn’t have enough time to soak up the cultural opportunities. Another time…

Intercontinental Le Dieu

We did, however, have the opportunity to visit the relatively new Intercontinental hotel, or, to give it its full name, the Intercontinental Le Dieu. Situated in one of the city’s most iconic buildings, a former hospital and landmark with stunning views that overlook the port and stretch over to the Notre-Dame de la Garde opposite, it elegantly combines urbane sophistication with historical charm. The original Baroque features make for a stylish contrast to the thoroughly 21st century amenities that, in classic Intercontinental style, make for a suitably relaxing and comfortable stay. Alas, we didn’t get a chance to visit the acclaimed and Michelin-starred restaurant Alcyone, but it is highly thought of, contributing to the perception of Marseille as a thoroughly contemporary destination, rather than the sort of place that you’d be lucky to get slapped by a wet fish.

However, a further adventure awaited, and it’s up to Mrs L to pick up the narrative at this thread, so you can have the other side of what was an entirely enjoyable Provencal treat. Monsieur Mayle – as I’m sure he’d love to be called – got at least a few things right…

The Fortnight continues tomorrow with Mrs Larman’s take on a provencale honeymoon as they head for Aix…

La Mirande, 4 Place de l’Amirande, Avignon. For more information, included details of their ‘gift boxes’, visit www.la-mirande.fr.

Intercontinental Marseille Hotel-Dieu, 1 Daviel Square, Marseille. For more information, visit www.ihg.com.

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