carre du palais avignon smallAvignon's Carré du Palais is a lavish showcase to promote the region's Rhône wines and push them into the same league as the more famous ones from Burgundy and Bordeaux.

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It's an ideal spot to sample top local food and wines, and very conveniently located just a few steps from the Palais des Papes and Rocher des Doms.

The opulent building is worth a visit in its own right too. The Carré du Palais is housed in the huge, elegant 18th century Hôtel Calvet de la Palun (formerly the Banque de France), pictured top left. It currently consists of an informal bistro-restaurant, wine bar and shop.

Instead of banknotes and bullion, the former vaults contain an even more precious treasure: no fewer than 10000 bottles of fine Rhône wines. This space doubles as a tasting room, presided over by the sommelier, Michaël Villechenoux.

Yet the prestigious flagship project has suffered multiple delays. The building required very extensive renovation, which took much longer than expected. Then in 2014 a new mayor of Avignon was elected and the concept changed shape again.

carre du palais bistroAnd finally, in an extraordinary and controversial development, covered at length in the French media, it emerged that the couple entrusted with the multi-million €uro contract is being investigated by police.

The charges: fraud and money laundering, among a number of other claims. It even seems that the architect's diploma might be fake!

For all these reasons, the launch of the Carré du Palais was repeatedly postponed. It had a "soft" opening just in time for the 2017 Avignon Theatre Festival with none of the expected fanfare - in fact with virtually no publicity at all.

We went along shortly afterwards to find what seemed still rather like a work in progress. The bistro, with its open-plan, stainless steel kitchen, and wine bar are, to our minds, rather starkly decorated in contemporary style, pictured.

But they do have the massive bonus of overlooking the Palais des Papes. There's a large outdoor terrace too for summer sipping and supping. Pictured: the Carré du Palais and its outdoor terrace, viewed from the steps of the Palais des Papes.

The restaurant offers various set menus based on local produce and devised by the chef Christophe Chiavola: expect Sisteron lamb, Camargue beef, Luberon truffles and/or AOC olive oil from the Alpilles, depending on the season.

carre du palais avignon terraceIt and the wine bar also have a selection of 50 top Rhône wines sold by the glass. Both the menu and the wine list change regularly and the wines in particular are very keenly priced.

Eventually more elements will be added, including shops selling gourmet produce from Provence and an upscale gastronomic restaurant on the first floorr with panoramic views. Wine tours to vineyards in the area are also planned.

Meanwhile a series of special events designed to bring the place alive is already up and running.

The École des Vins d'Inter Rhône wine academy holds twice weekly wine appreciation courses as well as wine-food pairing sessions. Regular themed dinners are also on the programme.

Where: Le Carré du Palais, 1 place du Palais, 84000 Avignon. Tel: (+33) 4 65 00 01 01. Website for the Le Carré du Palais

Photo credits (from top): © Inter Rhône (two images), SJ for Marvellous Provence

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