Our week-long double date road trip in Provence with D&G went smashingly. Though we saw the most adventure on our first day, my favorite moments from the trip took place at a dining table (as always).
On Day 1, my G and I arrived first at the Avignon train station. We found a grassy patch outside, spread out my sarong (now in daily use as a picnic blanket), sank our teeth into hot sandwiches, and happily waited for D&G to get in. When they did, they looked fresh as daisies and bore no signs of the long flight they had just taken from Singapore to Paris, followed by a delayed train ride. The quartet complete, the men were dispatched to pick up the rental car while the women continued to soak up the brilliant Provencal sun.
When D pulled up and honked I was pleased to find the car was an Opel, a roomier vehicle than the Fiat Panda, Europe’s cheapest rental car. The Opel was still compact, but at least there was trunk space for the collective luggage. We set up the Tom Tom GPS device and were off to see the ancient Roman aqueducts, the Pont du Gard.
The drive was easy, enabled by the soothing voice of the GPS lady. The highways of Provence reminded me more of Florida than of France – sprawling depot stores (Ikea, Carrefour), abundant McDo’s, and “Formule1” motels. But interspersed with these drab, geographically indistinct roadside features were patches of deep violet (lavender fields) and profound green (grape vines and olive plants). These colorful splashes on the landscape and their aromatic emanations made it clear that we were in fact in Provence.
At any moment we expected to see our final destination rise out of the horizon, perhaps a pile of yellowing stones, a piece of old Italy in modern France. But the GPS announced in elegant British English, “You have arrived at your destination,” in front of a large medical complex. The Polyclinique du Grand Sud looked like an abode for the elderly, with not a Roman waterway in sight. We realized we must’ve made a mistake when plugging in the coordinates for the aqueducts and couldn’t blame the innocent Tom Tom for dutifully bringing us here.
Some fiddling with the GPS device, a quick change of drivers, and we were on our way, determined to find the Pont du Gard. We arrived twenty minutes later and bounded out of the car, our excitement compounded by the earlier disappointment. The parking lot of the aqueduct, set in the middle of a large forested park, was no place for modesty. Each of us deftly changed into swimming gear behind the doors of the Opel. We grabbed the bottle of wine G and I had brought from Paris and set off for the main attraction.
The Pont (“bridge”) stood majestically high and wide in the middle of a deep valley. It was a singular flat pane of ancient stones and archways – imagine if you unwound the circular Coliseum and laid it across a rapid river. Delighted, we ran towards the shallow banks of the river where canopied four-poster tanning beds lay waiting. A quick swig of red wine and we were down by the water in no time.
The water was divine, the best swim I’ve ever had. When we dipped our toes we found it chilled and crisp, too cold to swim in. But as we waded deeper and saw the other visitors completely submerged in almost-frigid waters, we decided to brave it. The ensuing submersions were hilarious. We each stuck to our preferred method: my G liked to dunk without hesitation, the girls favored a long exposition of nervous giggles and an anxious countdown, and D had to be dragged in. Despite the cold, once we were in the water it was heavenly and refreshing. I wouldn’t have gotten out till nightfall if not for the grey clouds that suddenly drifted our way. Raindrops turned to heavy rainfall, which then developed into an immense hailstorm.
We made it to the car before the hail hit but the drive to our hotel was hair-raising. The windshield wipers worked overtime but, still, we could hardly see. Most of the cars on the road pulled over to wait out the storm, but we forged on, eager to settle into cozy rooms and dry clothes. The final mile was especially stressful as we were in the historical center of Avignon. These medieval alleys were not built to accommodate cars and at every turn we wondered if we would have to get out and heave the vehicle onto our shoulders to be carried out. If we took a wrong turn, we would’ve had to choose between calling a forklift to the rescue or to mercilessly scraping the paint off the sides of the car.
But we managed to get there, and cleaned ourselves up, and set out on foot to find dinner. We passed by some restaurants advertising exotic fare like lapin (rabbit) and loup (which we decided was wolf and not fox, remembering the French title of the movie “Dances with the Wolves”). After a day of incessant snacking we were in the mood for a light dinner, so we agreed to save the loup for another day.
The opportunity to eat loup presented itself after we left Avignon and arrived in Arles. We had endured another frightening drive through even narrower alleys and our appetites were sufficiently worked up by the time we sat down at Le Galoubet, a restaurant G had researched before hand.
The vine-canopied terrace was fully booked so we sat down in the air-conditioned interior. Our corner table was flanked by one wall decorated with a large painting of a wolf striding along and another wall covered with bronze sculptures of heads of bull. This seemed to hint that gamey meats were part of the menu here and, sure enough, midway down the page we saw oven-roasted “loup” seasoned with some kind of special salt none of us recognized.
D, in an especially adventurous food mood, ordered the loup. I noticed the waitress didn’t ask “Quelle cuisson?” (“how would you like it cooked?”). Maybe loup was such an exotic meat that the average diner can’t be trusted to decide on its rareness?
All through the appetizers we discussed the loup. How it might be presented, what kind of seasoning and preparation, and whether it would taste like boar or beef. We rubbed our palms in anticipation when the main courses were brought out. Here was a roast vegetable salad, a pappardelle mixed with shreds of duck meat, a roasted chicken leg, and in front of D, the waitress set down the most awaited platter.
But the bright white ceramic vessel held at its center a slab of fish. It was a beautiful slab of fish, perfectly deboned down the center and the two halves artfully arranged upon a bedding of crisply roasted skin, yet this was no wolf!
Gingerly, I asked the waitress, “Ca, c’est le loup”?
“Oui, c’est le loup.” Affirmative, this is the “loup.”
“Mais, c’est une poisson.” I protested that this was fish, not mammal.
“Oui, le loup est c’est du poisson.”
What? Of all the non-sensical double entendres in foreign languages I had never before encountered one word that described two animals as distinct as fish and wolf.
Not wanting to accept the reality of this dish, I pointed to the painting on the wall and asked, “Mais le loup, c’est comme ca.”
Here she laughed and understood the confusion. “Ah, oui, c’est aussi le loup mais on ne mange jamais le loup comme ca.”
And there we had it, a real culinary coup de quirk. In the land where snails are salted and doused in pesto, where ducks are forced fed so their over-nourished livers can be fried, and where the smellier and moldier the better the cheese, our waitress was laughing at our ludicrous notion that a restaurant would ever serve wolf!