“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published here October 2016.

train-map

railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for a early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon would take us there in a little over three hours.

img_6321

the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance along with an early breakfast and conversation.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

img_3002

We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left on the metro back to Montmartre, we boarded the train headed south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

high-speed-train

photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence and is north of the coastal city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy [during the 14th century] from Rome to Avignon, it was the center of Christianity for seven decades. From 1309-1376, the Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied by seven successive popes beginning with Clement V.

img_0385

UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterwards, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Popes’ Palace.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are replete with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

For me, the most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then, it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. Only the wildest imaginings can fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, but resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple. We sipped wine there after dark and carried pots of coffee from the breakfast buffet to sit in the morning sun as it slipped in and out of thick gray clouds.

img_5196

closeup on the steeple view

img_5192

rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case, one of the best experiences we have when travelling is a restaurant we stumble upon.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café not far from the hotel. What we ate was simple and so satisfying that I knew we would replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of baked Camembert cheese in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad. A basket of fresh bread and glasses of wine completed the table setting.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

That day, which began in the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in “Not a station, but a Place”, ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

There is a kind of perfection in the harmony of opposites. Enjoyment exists there too.  Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, drizzling afternoon rain. Parisian breakfast in luxurious splendor–provincial dinner in old world simplicity.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie… [If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…]

img_5186

parisian luxury, le train bleu

img_0373

provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

 

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [sliced meat], optional
  • tiny pickles [gherkins or cornichons]
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, etc.
  • chewy baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad, dressed in homemade vinaigrette
img_2289

basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad

img_2291

remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil

img_2293

sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired. [Optional use of garlic, rosemary, salt and peppers.]
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet in preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. To make the world’s best vinaigrette look here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne [always perfect, all the time] as accompaniment.

img_2300

baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread

img_2305

et voilà, c’est mieux avec un verre de chablis

Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino

“The Road has no beginning, and the Road has no end. The towns they run together and they run apart again. Right now is the only moment, and Time is the time to go and make yourself a pilgrim on the Road to Santiago. ¡Buen Camiño!”

David M. Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago

IMG_6694

starburst scallop shell marks “the way”

For more than 1000 years, the Camino de Santiago [the Way of St. James] has been a pilgrimage route from the foothills of the Pyrennes, in southwestern France and northwestern Spain, to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on the Iberian Peninsula. In ancient times it was undertaken for spiritual cleansing or “losing time in Hell”.

Why is this pilgrimage so historically significant? Here’s the story:

James was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee and the 4th disciple recruited by Jesus. He was assigned to the Iberian Peninsula to spread “the word of God”. He made it as far as Galicia in northwestern Spain. Upon returning to the Holy Land he was tortured. Adding insult to injury, he was beheaded. Became a martyr. His body was secreted out of Jerusalem on a boat. Across the Mediterranean Sea, through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Iberian coast, back to the shores of Galicia. His tomb became enshrined in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

IMG_0037

looking towards santiago de compostela

So began the third most important Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem. During the Renaissance and years of religious reformation [16th century] the Camino’s importance waned. It fell even more out of favor during the Age of Enlightenment [18th century]. Yet pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela never stopped completely. Nowadays, the Camino is rocking in popularity. 262,459 certificates [Compostelas] were awarded  in 2015. Pilgrims traveled by foot, bicycle, or horseback. Some in wheelchairs.

In ancient times as well as today, travellers typically carry their provisions in a backpack, camp out, or sleep in hostels, retreating from normal life for days, weeks, or months. Usually their journey ends at the cathedral in Santiago.

There is also another “way” to experience the Camino. In May 2014, I was part of a group of  women who started where most people end–in the courtyard of the cathedral. We walked to the actual “ends of the earth” [Finisterre] on the Atlantic Ocean. We carried only a daypack with water and rain gear. Our worldly goods were transported to the next charming “casa rurales” [bed and breakfast] along the route. After hiking, we enjoyed a hot bath or shower, delicious Galician cuisine and wine, followed by restful sleep–in a bed.

The Camiño de Fisterra-Muxía is the road less travelled these days, particularly in the off-season. On the fourth day we arrived at the lighthouse on Cape Finisterre overlooking the ocean. On the fifth day we walked up the coastline to Muxía where we received the Compostellana [Certificate of Accomplishment]. Meaning–we walked at least 100 km. [It was 117.]

IMG_5251

route from santiago to muxía

IMG_5246

compostela record

IMG_5248

stamps acquired along the way

IMG_6717

lighthouse at the cape

Our group came together through the joint venture of two American women, Sally and Sienna, who met in Spain while Sally was producing a documentary entitled, “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago”. [www.caminodocumentary.org] In 2013 they began organizing small group trips with their company “Stars on the Camino”. [www.starsonthecamino.com]

IMG_6563

sally on the trail

The topography of Galicia is extremely hilly. It is also very rainy which keeps the landscape lush and green. And, in May, there were fields upon fields of pink foxglove. So much future heart medication growing wild.

IMG_1317

Digitalis purpurea, common foxglove

“Oreos” were spoken of frequently. I found out they were tiny barns of granite or shale stone built on mushroom like pedestals. Functioning as storage granaries in rural areas, they are mounted off the ground to deter rodents. Later, when I learned the Galician word was actually “hórreos”, I understood what they had in common with the name of a cookie. Absolutely nothing. But “oreos” is what I remember.

Forewarned about the hilly terrain, I brought hiking sticks, which gave me a long rhythmic stride. So I was often by myself, up ahead, looking for trail markers [the yellow scallop shell or the painted yellow line] and discovering new terrain. After the first day, I realized that hiking alone was going to be my experience on the Camino.

IMG_6690

yellow marks the way across water too

IMG_1332

IMG_6512

romanesque bridge and aqueduct

Everyone goes on a journey for some reason. It’s often initiated during a moment of transition, a need to “walk through” personal issues, let go of the old, let in the new, or to simply break up routines. It might bubble up as a search for healing or forgiveness or a time to give thanks or to mark a special occasion. Perhaps the motivation is to meet new people, hear their stories, see new places, rediscover something forgotten or discover something new. Journeys can be the means for seeking creative inspiration, exercise, harmony with nature, penance, meditation, or delving into the spiritual.

IMG_0263

My own journeys are usually discovery seeking ones. They widen my perspective, feed curiosity, and replenish me with adventure. Those quiet hours in the hills, forests, villages, foxglove fields and countryside of Galicia brought real contentment. I was part of the changes in weather–the down pouring rain, looming storm clouds and sometimes present sun. I was entwined in the topography–the out of breath up-hills, the knee jarring down-hills and the blessed stretches of flat terrain in between. I was lost in thought about the history and natural beauty of this part of the world. It was impossible not to feel connected to and wonder about others who had walked the same trail, taken the same pilgrimage, through millenniums.

IMG_6588

Day 3, last 5k of steep downhill, long negotiation of massive boulders ahead

Evening meals were social bonding time. We were treated to delicious regional cuisine including famous Galician wines. Arroz con calamares [rice with squid], zamburiñas [scallops in shells], and, once, a giant fried prehistoric style fish, which looked ominous but melted in the mouth.

IMG_6575

dining ambience

IMG_6581

happy pilgrims

A uniquely Galician tradition, the queimada ceremony, was performed just for us. Queimada is made from a special Spanish liqueur distilled from grapes, flavored with spices, herbs, sugar, lemon peel and coffee beans. The ingredients are put together into a clay pot, set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. The whole concoction is stirred frequently by lifting a ladle of flaming liquid and pouring it back into the pot. When the flame burns blue, it is ready to serve in ceramic cups.

There is a recitation chanted as the queimada burns–to purify the drink and to share it with the souls of family and friends not present to enjoy it. Special powers are conferred on the queimada and to those drinking it. We didn’t experience anything supernatural, but there was a lot of infectious laughter and animated conversation after a long hiking day. Sound sleep soon followed.

Upon reaching the cliff at the end of the world on Cape Finisterre, we saw blackened remains of burned clothes and shoes on the rocks. It’s a tradition for those who venture all the way. None of us were moved to do the same. We picked up a stone to throw into the sea at journey’s end–giving it the name of something to let go of.

The odd thing was, I couldn’t bring myself to throw my stone away. I kept touching it in my pocket and wondering about the hesitation. My friend Margaret suggested that I wasn’t ready to let go. There was a reason I needed to save that energy for something else. She was perceptive. And right. Three weeks later, in June 2014, this blog was born. I discovered white markings on the stone that looked like a face. I still have it.

IMG_4959

everybody needs a rock

Typically, all pilgrimages have a fixed end point. But they begin wherever you start.

“The going is more memorable than the getting there.”

When you are ready,

Put on your boots

And go…

 

 

[Stars on the Camino offers a new route called the Camino Portugues. It begins in Portugal and ends at Santiago’s Cathedral. I am hiking there in May 2016.]

Some of the photos in this story are courtesy of Nina Cooper or Teresa Goodwin.

IMG_0177

galician coastline, iberian peninsula, spain

IMG_6684

margaret, laurel, nina, sally, carole

IMG_6652

nina, sally, carole, wendy, teresa, laurel