The Priory in Provence

The Provençal countryside is a tad different on this side of the Rhône river. We’re driving on the flatland below a ridge of bare-stone cliffs with the morning sun painting ragged shadows on the rock face. Below the cliffs, next to the road, are patches of vines, olive trees and fruit orchards. Unlike the river valley plains on the east side of the river, we don’t find spreading fields of vineyards of sunflowers, the plots here are much smaller.

A few minutes after crossing Autoroute A7 on the overpass heading toward Châteauneuf-du-Pape we had picked up the D72 and then turned south on the D976, leaving the department of the Vaucluse and entering Gard as we crossed the bridge spanning the Rhône. We’re awake and alert, we have our notebooks and cameras, we’re everything well-dressed food writers should be. We’re on our way to call on one-star Chef Fabien Fage at Le Prieuré, a Relais & Chateaux hotel built in what for centuries was a priory for Chanoine monks.

It’s Thursday, market day in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and traffic slows to a crawl as we enter the town. The already narrow road is even more constrained by the parked cars lining either side. Are those legal parking spaces? We see some blue uniformed traffic wardens, but they don’t seem to be paying attention to the chaotic parking. A travelling fair is coming to town, probably to be set up on the place when the market is over, and its trucks and caravans and pieces of fairground rides are also parked alongside the road.

At the roundabout we turn right (“Please take the first exit,” Victoria, our GPS guide, says) and enter the historic centre of Villeneuve. The roads are paved with smooth-cut blocks, the same colour as the stone used for the buildings. It’s a very tight squeeze, with wandering tourists, cameras around their necks, using the same roadway as the cars. The place looks both old and majestic, and with good reason. When the popes established themselves in Avignon in the 1300s, the Catholic cardinals took up residence across the river, here in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the “new town” by Avignon, building palaces and churches.

We creep past the 14th-century Collegiate Church of Notre Dame and then, to our right, we see a small cobblestoned courtyard with a pair of huge wooden doors set in an arch at its farther end. Above the doors is a stone lintel that reads Le Prieuré.

A handful of meters along the street is a sign that says Parking. Rarely in Provence do you still see signs announcing stationnement; the English word parking has taken over, complete with the standard blue sign sporting the big white P.

Le parking is nicely shaded and we collect our notebooks and cameras and follow the sign for Réception, walking along a trellised path that skirts the swimming pool. The five-star luxury hotel that is now located in the former priory has retained the name, Le Prieuré.

The hotel is much more extensive than it appeared from the street. A number of buildings from various historical period (all old) form a rough U around a spacious central courtyard. It’s Provence and the familiar blue or white shutters flank all of the windows.

Chef Fage has a cold, he’s been sick for three days. But he welcomes us and we sit in the lounge where we drink the best espresso I’ve been served in France…

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