By Kimberly McDonald
On a rock surrounded by marshlands, in the early 14th century, an enormous hilltop palace was erected to serve as residence, church and stronghold. In the midst of Southeast France’s Provence country, Avignon stands today as a reminder, surrounded by walls and ramparts from the 12th and 14th centuries, of the Great Schism. Many travelers visit this city just to tour the Palais du Papes, but like me they fall under the spell of Avignon.
I arrived by TGV from Paris before noon, greeted by the recognizable sunshine and fresh air of the French countryside. My driver, which had been arranged by the hotel and was the owner of the car service company, spoke English very well and entertained us on the short ride into town with anecdotes about his life during his time in the US as well as some recommendations for the best (non-tourist) authentic Provencal restaurants in town. He advised that his company also drives patrons as far as St. Tropez. As we passed through the narrow streets of Avignon, the chatter gave way to silence. The structure of the Palais du Papes is nothing short of fascinating, for it is truly built on a rock with passageways forged right through…at certain points you appear to be passing just under a section of the magnificent structure.
When the car pulled up to La Mirande, our driver turned to us and said, “You will love this hotel, it’s my favorite.” He furthered, “there are fancier places on the coast and some in Monaco as well, but this place is gorgeous and you will feel at home in no time.” How right he was.
You walk into La Mirande and you know you are walking into a home. Formerly the dwelling of Avignon’s mayor, it is now the pride and joy of the Stein family, who have seen to its restoration with the most circumscribed detail. The foyer gives way to room after room, all designed to bring you back to another era. Fabric and wallpaper recreated from actual patterns designed in the 1700’s. The furnishings, lighting, art work…they immediately transport you to another century, and a life of finery. There are several rooms available for patrons to enjoy afternoon tea, drinks at the bar, a charming room with a huge working fireplace for chilly evenings (standing here I thought how amazing this place must be at Christmas). Outside there is a terrace with lovely gardens, grown in the warm Provencal sun. There are also two distinctly different, yet equally breathtaking dining rooms…and this is still all on the first floor.
The Steins did something interesting in their renovation of La Mirande…and quite intelligent. They managed to keep the rooms authentic 18th and 19th century French Provencal, but the bathrooms are very well appointed and modernized without compromising the flow of the hotel’s design. The tub was ideal for soaking in bubbles made from fresh Provencal lavender, an ideal ending to a day of exploring the town.
My room had a wonderful rooftop terrace, perfect for breakfast or mid-afternoon sunbathing. Upon my tour of the hotel, I found that each room had its own charm…a view of the gardens or the palace…each with its own decor, coloring, personality. Each one as lovely as the last. But there is more to La Mirande than her decor and artwork and chandeliers.
La Mirande boasts a world famous cooking school, right beneath all of this grandeur. Since the mid 1990’s Le Marmiton (translation: the kitchen boy) has been offering cooking classes with some of the most famous chefs in Provence. Set in the original 19th-century kitchen of the maison, the 12-student course invites students to begin their day with an early morning trip to the market for fresh fare. They then reconvene around a huge wooden block table for their lessons. It take three hours to fire up the original stove, before class can begin.
The chefs speak both French and English, and there are six classes offered each week. At the end of each class, the prepared food is served with select regional wines. There is no set number of classes that you must attend to sign up. So, if the warm French sun beckons you on a given day…they’ll understand. Just don’t pick the day they’re making truffles!!!
And as a side note, let me just say that first of all: I don’t care for chocolate. But this place has the best…bar none…hot chocolate in the world. I mean, it doesn’t even taste like any hot chocolate I have ever had in my entire life. I have to get the recipe! But I digress, let’s get back to the lessons, shall we?
The hotel offers packages if you take several classes, and you can contact the hotel in advance if you wish to do a group package (a stay at the hotel, cooking courses, etc). I found every member of the staff at La Mirande to be helpful and accommodating.
Additionally, the hotel has their nightly Guest Table. You have to make reservations for this, so I suggest you do so when booking your room. The Guest Table at Le Marmiton is limited to a seating of 12. The entire meal is prepared in front of you, while you converse with other patrons and sip regional wines. The chef is full of charming stories and anecdotes, as well as information about the regional cuisine. Sometimes local residents book space at the table, known throughout the city as one of the best places for dining and conversation.
Of course, there is an entire city outside the large 18th century wooden doors of La Mirande. There is the Palace…with its lovely gardens and extremely friendly ducks (don’t leave your sandwich laying unattended for long!) and there is an opera house/concert hall. You can get information on what is playing there by going to www.festival-aix.com. There is the Pont D’Avignon to visit, with the electronic tour guide to tell you all about how the city came to be. There are street vendors and artisans, there are restaurants and little night spots. There are boutiques and there’s even a Sephora (it seems to fit in on the strip of shops, even though it does seem out of place in such a historical locale).
There are also fantastic day trips that can be organized ahead of time. The staff at La Mirande excels in its knowledge of the area, so they can help you choose where to go and help arrange transportation as well. They’ll even pack you a picnic lunch if you ask in advance. The driver was right, it did feel like home.
I would highly recommend making Avignon and La Mirande your priority when visiting Provence. The city’s location makes it accessible to other spots for day trips, and the hotel’s charm makes it a warm and welcoming home base that offers more than a comfortable room…it offers the true Provencal experience.
For more information on La Mirande, go to www.la-mirande.fr
To reach Mr Duchene, owner of the Association Taxi de Villeneuve les Avignon call 04-90-25-8888 or 06-08-05-3422