France and gorging on food go hand in hand – and for a real foodie trip to paradise, the tiny Roman town of Orange is a surprising gem
If there’s one place in the world you’re going to discover a hidden love for foie gras, it has to be the small, quiet, but utterly food-crazy city of Orange. We arrived with vague notions of a rather unappealing (both in taste and preparation) pâté but were practically frothing at the mouth with the stuff just days later.
This tiny provençal city is a much quieter tourist destination than its neighbouring Avignon, and online comments from some passing visitors will try to convince you just half a day is enough time spent here. But half a day doesn’t leave time to factor in lunch and dinner, and that’s where those visitors’ basic problem lies – by missing dining in Orange, you’re missing the heart and soul of the place.
Reckon you’re a foodie? Spend all your time in the kitchen or obsessing over recipes and specialist food stores? No matter how much of an expert you consider yourself to be, you’re a mere amateur compared to the general man on the street in Orange. Don’t be deceived by the size of the place, as it’s impossible to turn a corner without stumbling across yet another everyday restaurant we’d all be proclaiming as a five-star heaven if it popped up on our high street.
By far the most unique dining experience in this area has to be La Bastide des Princes, a restaurant, hotel and cooking school run by French celebrity chef Pierre Paumel, just a few minutes’ drive out of town. Pierre’s beautiful farmhouse, with gorgeous rustic rooms and idyllic countryside to roam around in, is the perfect retreat, but add to this his intimate restaurant (more like a family dining room off his kitchen), and you’ll never want to leave.
It’s definitely worth sitting in on one of Pierre’s cookery classes too – his passion for food is infectious. The most memorable course at La Bastide des Princes was a sort of crème brulée-d foie gras, which is much, much more delicious than it sounds.
When you’re looking to blow the budget on a special night out, you really have to pay a visit to Le Forum (3 Rue du Mazeau), possibly the best restaurant in Orange (which is quite a claim to make). Make sure you starve yourself for at least a day if you plan to eat here, because the courses can keep on coming for over five hours. As well as the best foie gras in town, Le Forum also concocts the lightest, sweetest île flottant you can imagine, with lavender ice cream.
In between staggering from restaurant to restaurant there’s also a lot more to see in Orange - like the Roman amphitheatre that is one of only two in the world still surviving intact. This is probably the biggest tourist attraction in town and given the standard of the architecture still in place and its central location, it's amazing Orange isn’t a bigger destination for visitors to France.
With stone seats reaching all the way up to the top of the cliff it leans into and hidden corridors still in use, this is an atmospheric venue for the annual opera festival, Choregies d’Orange, which draws in crowds from around the world in July and August. It’s also the reason for Orange’s medieval parade, held on the first Saturday of June, when people in medieval costumes and leading an unusually large number of donkeys walk through the streets to a banquet below the amphitheatre.
Among the many good places to stop for lunch if you’re still hungry is Le Bec Fin (Rue Segond Weber), an upmarket but laidback spot in the centre of town with a tempting lunch menu – although be warned: portions are anything but lunch-sized.
If you’re staying longer than a few days, Orange is perfectly placed for day trips elsewhere, being on an intersection of roads to Nîmes, Montpellier and Marseille. Closer days out include the UNESCO World Heritage Site Pont du Gard, a three-tier aquaduct from 50AD; Beaumes de Venise, where they make the dessert wine of the same name, and home to an oil mill that makes award-winning olive oil, Moulin à Huile La Balméenne; and, of course, the world-famous Chateauneuf du Pape, a 14th-century papal home and vineyard with more opportunities for wine tasting than you could ever need.
Back in Orange, take one last chance to gorge yourself at Le Parvis (55 Cours Pourtoules), a sophisticated place for a leisurely Sunday lunch. Make sure you try the entrée of snails in a miniature burger bun - and it would be a crime to leave without at least attempting their dessert platter of every type of rich, dark gooey chocolate treat you can think of.
One last tip – try to work your flights around Provence’s famous mistral. That kind of turbulence with an overstuffed belly does not make for a happy return flight!
Flybe flies from Southampton to Avignon.