Wrapped in an idyllic sun-dappled courtyard, sipping wine and exchanging smug,
aren't-we-so-smart smiles with the lucky few sitting nearby.
It was one of those perfect little moments you dream about in Provence.
Except that it wasn't Provence.
Here's how it started.
We were on a special two-week leg of our trip.
Our mission, our destiny -- Enjoy a little taste of the good life in Provence.
Absorbing la vie en rose in Avignon was non-stop terrific.
We were hell-bent to soak up every
microscopic detail of the Pope's legacy in Provence.
We already knew a bit of the history.
In 1309, Pope Clement V moved out of the Vatican lock stock & barrel
into new digs in Avignon, a period of time known as The Avignon Papacy.
Before long, the papal court outgrew the castle and began the expansion
across the Rhone to a more graceful, quieter community, a reward
granted to the privileged, hard working cardinals and church lieutenants.
A fitting bonus for Loyal Friends of the Pope.
So that's exactly where we found ourselves, mid-dream, leaving Provence
for the day and broadening our experience with Avignon's next-door-neighbor.
Much like the medieval Pope posse, we crossed the Rhone River
from our vibrant city digs in Avignon to the kinder, gentler
sister-in-pope-lore village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon.
Just like that, from Provence to Languedoc.
And what a good decision that was.
Our whirlwind tour of the historic, commercial and
lively hub of Avignon had left us a bit breathless.
It was time to slow down and take a slow
meander through wine-soaked Languedoc.
True, there's no such thing as too much Provence.
But in our case, we had climbed, poked and eaten our way through
bustling Avignon, by now having exhausted most of our reserves.
Our appetite for big crowds, city noise and
bursting-at-the-seams restaurants was beginning to contract.
So the thought of a little hilltop fortress on the other side of
the river sounded like a good plan.
After all, hadn't the Pontiff come to the same conclusion when
he moved his band of brothers to Villeneuve-les-Avignon?
Villeneuve -- meaning new city -- was a good idea.
Quiet. No crowds. Historic.
Located in one of our favorite regions, the legendary Languedoc.
One step into V-les-A and you'll feel like you're in a time warp.
Shady squares, a hilltop fort & abbey, an unforgettable monastery,
it's the perfect setting for anyone who searches out little-known
places -- with the bonus of medieval ambiance and fresh air to spare.
After a fairly short walk uphill from the bus stop to Fort Saint-André,
we discovered a 14th century fortress that offers perfect views
of Avignon across the beautiful Rhone.
Powerful defensive walls and towers remind you of those perilous times,
an age when The Black Death was the only scourge
able to penetrate a fortification built with Church muscle.
The abbey and adjoining gardens are splendid beyond words.
A haven, a refuge, an escape from the world .... just what we were looking for.
Those medieval monks must have been thrilled
to escape the cramped papal city across the way.
Stopping along the way to admire local homes of character
and flower-filled bed & breakfast escapes, we set our sights on
the stunning Chartreuse Notre-Dame-du-val-de-Bénédiction.
Still no traffic, no crowds, just blue skies giving birth to a light so divine,
surely it's the same luster that influenced the painters we all know by name.
La Chartreuse du Val-de-Bénédiction is a 14th century monastery founded by
Pope Innocent VI, whose own tomb has survived the sands of time and revolution.
It boasts three cloisters, forty cells and a chapel enveloped in
frescoes by Matteo Giovannetti,
the same artist who gorgeously colored the Palace of the Popes in Avignon.
The sum of its parts is breathtaking.
If that's not enough, the estate also serves as a civic arts center, playing
host to a myriad of artistic ventures such as local theater and writing workshops.
A slow walk around the huge estate provides a snapshot
into the simplicity of life among the Carthusian monks
who called this fabulous place home.
Little nooks & crannies sprinkled high & low keep you enthralled while
you inhale the perfume and absorb the tranquility of the flourishing gardens.
The real reason for our visit to Villeneuve-les-Avignon:
After spending a few hours immersed in the fascinating history of
this remarkable town, we were ready for some down time.
We practically fell into the waiting arms of the first bistro we passed.
Le Bistrot du Moulin appealed to all five of our senses
the moment we entered its pretty courtyard.
We knew we were in good hands.
Sitting outside for a long french lunch is the real reason
we come to France year after year.
And I promise you, it's not all about the food and wine.
It's about eating in theater -- as I call it --- The French Way.
A flower-filled terrace with just a touch of sun.
Beautiful table settings.
A classic menu with a few inventive touches.
Fresh ingredients and knowledgeable wait staff.
And more wine.
Slowly we savored the moment, bite by bite, sip by sip.
Bistrot du Moulin did not disappoint.
Classy but not pretentious, it offered a casually elegant lunch
in a gorgeous garden setting.
Olives trees, fresh flowers and a huge dessert table.
And did I mention wine?
After satisfying our basic instincts, we checked out their on-site gift shop.
Moulin a Huile de la Chartreuse specializes in locally produced olive oil
and a nice assortment of specialties like vinegar, tapendade, and soaps.
Delightful stop, energy restored.
It was a good reminder, too.
When the wanderer in you runs out of gas, it's time to find relief.
Don't waste your time playing shoulda coulda woulda.
Villeneuve-les-Avignon wasn't better than its princely cousin across the river.
It was just different.
A testament to the pause button,
a stop to smell the roses .... and the olive oil ..... and the wine ....
No need for regrets, we had found one more reason to return
to this blessed (by the Pope no less) land of good and plenty.
Whether you journey to Provence, Languedoc or any other storybook
region in beautiful France, you're sure to find your Happy Place.
Match exhilaration with well-being and you've got it made.