Dispatch, Provence: Dinner at La Mirande

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Nadine Godwin joined other journalists and travel agents in early June on XL Airways’ inaugural flight from New York to Marseille, France. They journeyed to Avignon and Saint-Tropez, as well. Nadine's first of four dispatches follows.

AVIGNON, France — On a recent afternoon, I walked vigorously around the old walls of Avignon and into the central city. I aimed to revisit the medieval papal palace and other places I had not seen since leading a teenaged nephew through these parts nearly three decades ago.

Provence-XL Airways

The warm weather and late-afternoon light were irresistible — and new digital equipment let me take as many unnecessary photos as I wanted without producing a pain in the pocketbook.

I started my stroll at a little after 4 p.m., only 10 hours after leaving New York on XL Airways’ nonstop service to Marseille. I had joined other travel journalists and a handful of New York-area travel agents on the inaugural flight for the launch of the only nonstop between those two points.

Fire trucks spouting celebratory sprays over the aircraft greeted us, a gesture that is more impressive from outside than inside the plane.

The airline, which offers no equivalent to first or business class, instead offers value-priced services that include comfortable seating and inflight meals one can eat. (After all, the carrier’s full name is XL Airways France, and it is based in Paris.)

For clients headed to the south of France, however, the biggest attraction is the nonstop service. The flights operate twice a week and are seasonal, operating from early June through October. The lowest roundtrip is about $670, with restrictions.

Enough about how I got here.

After we disembarked, hosts provided a short orientation on the airline, the Marseille airport, the city of Marseille and its region.

Provence-Pope palace

Travel promoters, and just about everyone else, are particularly psyched about the fact that Marseille, with participation by some neighboring towns, is Europe’s culture capital this year. It means a lot to a place that nearly 20 years ago laid plans to take a down-and-out city out of the doldrums.

More on that another day.

We were soon transferred to Avignon, a 45-to-60-minute drive.

For our first evening in the small city on the Rhone, we were hosted to dinner at La Mirande Hotel, a one-of-a-kind 27-room property behind the papal palace.

On a pre-dinner inspection, we learned the property was a cardinal’s residence when the popes lived across the street. That was the 14th century.

The building was wrecked during fighting here, but the basement is original and now home to a wonderful old-fashioned kitchen where visitors may take cooking classes or even have dinner. The resident chef and cooking students work with copper pots over a huge wood-burning cook stove. My mother briefly had a cook stove, too, but it didn’t look like this one!

The rebuilt residence has seen changes over the centuries, but the one that really matters to guests was quite recent. Martin Stein, co-owner and general manager, said his family bought and then spent about three years restoring the building before debuting La Mirande in 1990.

Provence-Le Mirande kitchen

The hotel is meant to reflect the style and ambience of an 18th century aristocrat’s home. Of course, it does that with modern amenities, such as the in-room TV, sneakily embedded in the bedroom mirror.

Room rates start at about $470 a night without breakfast and rise during Avignon’s July theater festival. Rozenn Le Goff, the hotel’s sales and marketing manager, said the property gets a lot of business from Virtuoso agencies and expects to become a supplier to the group.

By dinner time, all of us, I think, were happy to collapse into our seats, this for a meal prepared by the hotel’s award-winning chef, Jean-Claude Aubertin.

Food and wine were predictably good, all with emphasis on locally sourced and fresh ingredients. Come to think of it, that could have been true in the days of the Avignon popes, but I’m sure I prefer the 21st century iteration.

In any case, I ate appreciatively, but the best part was those Carpentras strawberries, which come from a town of the same name.

This is what it means to have access to the markets of Provence.

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