Chef Gwen explores Provence…


After flying to Marseille from London, we take a high speed train to Avignon and a taxi across the Rhône river to the tiny village of Villeneuve-lés-Avignon. We want to be close enough to explore the vibrant Provencal city of Avignon, but not stay in the fray. The little village across the river is quaint, quiet, and we can walk everywhere, including across the bridge to Avignon in just under 30 minutes.

Magnaneraie-FrontOur hotel, the La Magnaneraie, couldn’t be more charming, with stone walls, an elaborate garden in the back, and narrow winding hallways up odd numbers of steps to the different wings of rooms. Our standard room (about $225 U.S.) is painted powder blue and has a queen-size bed, with a white netting canopy that can be pulled all around the bed to keep the bugs out. Even in October, it’s still warm in the south of France, and the twin lead-paned windows let in the cool night air, and of course bugs, making the canopy crucial. The bathroom is modern, with a large shower and gleaming white tile. The room is larger than I imagined, and so very French.

As we check in, we’re asked if we’d like to dine in the hotel restaurant for dinner. The earliest we can get in is 7:30 p.m.; most Europeans don’t even think about dinner until well after 8 p.m. The early diners are always the Americans. The restaurant is a long rectangular-shaped room with marble columns and dimly lit sconces. Shades of cream and white grace the tables.

We select a four-course prix fixe dinner (about $75 each, excluding wine), sharing each course, so in essence we have eight mini-courses. I start with seared fois gras, of course, and Jeff begins with an ocean salad of Chinese 5-Spice dusted salmon and plump shrimp perched on a tomato coulis. We taste a succulent braised lamb shank and fried veal on top of soft herbed polenta. The server wheels a cheese cart over and we select 3 each from a choice of more than 30 cheeses. We finish with a traditional apple tart accompanied by a not so traditional rosemary sorbet. We’re thankful we have no car, and must walk everywhere, burning the excessive calories we consume.

Breakfast is a feast, served buffet style in a warmly lit room, with tall windows and doors that open onto the terrace and garden in the back of the hotel. “Bonjour, Madame,” a young server says, dressed in a traditional French short black dress with a white ruffled apron. She speaks English, as most French hotel and restaurant workers do. We’ve never seen such a display of fresh and dried fruits, pastries, a half-dozen jams, cheeses, cold meats, poached eggs, and the list goes on. The coffee is strong, the way we like it, and the juices are fresh squeezed. At nearly $35 a piece for breakfast, we feel compelled to eat our share and sample a bit of everything. The baguettes are irresistible, much more flavorful than the ones in the U.S.magnaneraie-Brkfst

Completely stuffed and high on caffeine, we stroll into the garden, admiring the olive trees and an herb garden showing signs of a recent snipping. We retire to the modern living area, scouring the room for a newspaper in English to catch up on the news at home. My first night in Provence is everything I imagined and more. The countryside is beautiful, the hotel is delightful, the little village is old-world, and the food is remarkable. I think I could get used to this.


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