In a fight, Madrid beats Barcelona. That’s my take. I’ve been to both Spanish cities twice now — I returned this week from the capital, Madrid — and conclude that Madrid is the real charmer, the metropolis of less sprawl, less dazzle, less tourists. If it has perhaps fewer bucket-list attractions — despite the marvelous Prado and its trove of Goyas and El Grecos, and Picasso’s overwhelming “Guernica” at the Reina Sofía — it compensates in sheer street-level charisma.
Madrid is about its distinct, vibrant, supremely walkable barrios, humming with old-world quirks and character. Tapas, flamenco, doggies, blue-chip ham that’s cured for years, wonderful locals, seductive atmosphere. There’s something more intimate, more personal, more special about Madrid compared to big chest-thumping Barcelona. Both are world-class — I do love my Gaudí — but I could live in Madrid.
On another high note, one of my trip’s tippy-top joys was a two-day jaunt to Bilbao, far north in hilly Basque Country. If you know Bilbao, a bustling bayside city of 350,000, it’s probably because of the famous Guggenheim art museum, which is celebrating 25 years as a ridiculously successful tourist magnet.
The Guggenheim, designed with playful splendor by architect Frank Gehry, is a shimmering shrine for modern art, from Serra and Rothko to Warhol and Bourgeois. It’s a succinctly curated spread of visual greatest hits, a tantalizing survey that’s intelligently to the point. You leave filled, not fatigued.
Naturally the Guggenheim’s star is Gehry’s woozy vessel for the art — all shiny, warped grandeur — which is not only gorgeous, but mind-boggling. How does he conjure such elaborate beauty? (Er, genius.) And how in the world was it actually built — by elves and sorcerers? It’s all so breathtaking, a fun, lavish, almost Escherian modern marvel that vaults gawkers into fits of selfie euphoria.
Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.
(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)
To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.
Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast.
So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.
I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.
Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge.
This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.
And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.
The plane is set to depart Sunday at 2:09 p.m. local time, and by 2:49 p.m. I plan to have a scotch resting on my drop-down tray next to my trusty laptop or a scintillating paperback, my carry-on tucked overhead, seat reclined and the fat, brushing butts and sharp, errant elbows of fellow fussing passengers over and done and in their seats, preferably nowhere near me.
Air travel, the great triathlon, the great grumble-thon. Packing, getting to the airport — in an Uber, no less, with those ubiquitous pine trees dangling from the rearview that reek of urinal cakes — boarding the plane sheep-like, the scrum of seating, and all the fun, head-imploding minutiae in between. (Security — fuck yeah!) As a blanket complaint, it couldn’t be more cliché. Deal.
I’m soaring from the East Coast to a layover in Houston, then off to Buenos Aires for nine days, which seems a little excessive but at this point I’m kind of stuck. (Note to self: check out Montevideo in nearby Uruguay, or ride a horsey with some dusty Argentinian gauchos. Eat steak. Mounds of it. I really don’t know.)
Dress appropriately. This one’s tricky. It will be 90 degrees at my departure and 53 degrees at my arrival in South America, where it is currently winter below the equator. I’ll wear jeans and a t-shirt and carry a mid-weight jacket on the plane. When I arrive in Buenos Aires I’ll figure out what to unpack and put on. A cinch.
I’m the fourth most neurotic traveler on the globe, and so of course I’m bitten with anxiety about what’s in store in a city, a country, a continent, I’ve never been to. Will I be dazzled? Will I have fun? Will my many plans pan out? Will I get robbed and beaten in a taxi cab?
My myriad trips always work out fine or better despite my weak-kneed worries. And of course I’m already scheming the trip after this, my annual late-October journey. I was leaning toward Budapest, where I’ve never been, and Krakow, where I have been and loved. Now I’m considering Madrid, where I’ve been, and Bilbao and San Sebastián in Basque Country, which are new to me.
But first things first. I have Buenos Aires to explore and get lost in yet. Museums and mausoleums; graffiti and galleries; tango and tours; all within sweeping European influence tangled with Latin passion and grandeur. A mad melange.
And before that, the flight. Oh, god, muzzle the chatterboxes, in my row or any row. Or the bewhiskered guy next to me who plays video games for 10 hours straight. Or, heaven forfend, the shrieking infant, diapered spawn of the devil.
I can do this. I always do. Excuse me, flight attendant, I need a tall cocktail of one part gin, two parts exasperation, and a splash of fizzy rage. Gee, thanks. And I wash it all down with one big Xanax. And from there we’ll see how things go.
As I write this, 35,000 feet in the sky on a jet back to the States from nine fine days in Italy, I’m swollen with that cruddy reverse homesickness in which you miss the place you visited instead of your actual home. Rome and Naples were wonderful and I wasn’t ready to leave and I wanna go back. I’ve got the home-bound blues.
Still, my last rueful day in Rome was brilliant, quite literally — balmy mid-60s, cloudless, cerulean skies, sunglass weather. The kind of conditions that make people dress way too skimpily for the actual temperature. I was perfect in jeans, a light jacket and t-shirt. The guy in the short-shorts and tank top, not so much.
Especially if he wanted to get into the Pantheon, the almost 2,000-year-old Roman temple turned Catholic church, where modest dress is a must. Leaders, popes and artists, including Raphael, are buried in the cylindrical building, which is famous for its oculus (or big hole) at the tip of its dome, shooting down a thick beam of sunlight like a celestial Bat-Signal.
Our lovely tour guide in Naples told us he gets chills whenever he enters the shrine. I did not get chills, but I was aptly awed by the ambient beauty and unimaginable feats of engineering. So often in Italy, if you regard your surroundings for just a moment, astonishment floods in and you wonder what hit you. It’s called the sublime.
I didn’t care if I found it or not, but fate planted an unmistakable sign in front of me — a literal street sign — so I ambled over to the vacantly majestic Trevi Fountain, where mugging selfie dolts and preening sun-worshippers congregate on days like this, as if Nicola Salvi’s pompous 1735 fountain is a swimming pool or the beach and not just a glorious repository for Bernini-style sculpture. I do respect this extravagant splash machine, but it’s a brief pitstop, not a gawk spot, despite its iconic role in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a personal favorite.
A local beer, a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich, and a cappuccino later, I headed to the Vatican for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, a riot of artistic riches. Our tour guide barely made it on time, and my mood was starting to curdle. But she materialized at last, a petite Italian who used a plush Woodstock doll dangling from a stick in lieu of the boring old tourist-group flag for us to follow amid the crushing, claustrophobic crowds (many of them terrible teenagers, lolling, laughing and leering).
She gave each of us little radios with ear buds so we could hear her literate narration of highlights in the museum. But the contraptions were on the fritz, all buzz, fizz and crackle — sonic flatulence that drowned out her spiels about each grand piece of art, from writhing statues of men and lions and Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” to the visual commotion of Michelangelo’s peerless Sistine Chapel ceiling. The works spoke for themselves.
As we finished, I asked the guide for the nearest taxi line, and she warned me to be careful with them, that they quote outlandish prices and don’t use the meter. And so it was. I approached a driver and told him my address and he promptly said it would cost 40 euros because of, you know, that zany Tuesday traffic. I scoffed and said, “You’re crazy,” and he responded, “You’re crazy.” Genius.
I hailed a passing cab, got in, and paid 14 euros back to my hotel, where I wound down, went out and ate pasta, sipped wine, and, reflecting on the past nine days, sighed: perfetto. Which in English translates simply as: damn.
Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact).
Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.
Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians.
Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life.
But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.
Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished.
But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more.
He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.
Monday, shaking off a sleepless redeye flight and some wretched jet lag — both cruel and not recommended — I strolled around my hotel neighborhood in Rome, which sits in the shadow of the Colosseum, that 2,000-year-old stadium of sport and slaughter. (I’d tell you about the tour of it I was signed up for, but I was turned away because I wasn’t carrying my Covid vaccination card — since I was expressly told I wouldn’t need it — and that’s a lesson learned. I think I handled it well. I stormed off in a hissy.)
I hit a wine shop and picked out an eight euro bottle of red, then walked some more and stumbled upon two crumbling basilicas of God and grandeur. Naturally they’re festooned with stunning artwork, from grim statuary to crackling frescoes that make the shrines vibrant museums in their own right. Cool and dark, they emanate that dank churchy smell that’s as singular as old books. I wish I could bottle that funky perfume.
My brother came a day later, Tuesday, and we’ve been strategizing for weeks about what to eat in Rome and Naples. The cities are lousy with pasta and we’ve vowed not to settle for only that and the ubiquitous pizza. Our sights, and bellies, are set on fresh seafood, veggies (eggplant parmigiana, thank you), charcuterie, risotto, roasts and more from the Italian smorgasbord. I plan on gaining 75 pounds. Tonight is the cutting-edge Osteria Fernanda — creatively plated, self-consciously contemporary Italian food — and I expect nothing less than the orgasmic …
Several hours and a nine-course tasting menu later, we are sated. And euphoric. It’s the kind of feast where your eyes roll back and superlatives involuntarily pour out at each course, like the “eel with marinated Campari vegetable, acid rice sauce, soia and umeboshi” or the “venison cannelloni with black cardamom and forest wine.” It sounds fussy — I can barely pronounce some of the ingredients — and it is. But sometimes you have to go for it. We did and the rewards were golden.
I’m leaving a lot out — the churches, the museums, the astonishing new Ai Weiwei sculpture, suspiciously inexpensive sushi and a fall-apart sandwich seemingly made half of mayonnaise — but I have a question to ask: Where are all the bars in Rome?
Try as we might — our efforts are bold and valiant — we cannot locate a single bar bar for a simple nightcap. Wine bars are plenty and some touristy eateries offer trendy cocktails, but where do you get a neat Scotch in this burgh? It’s a conundrum we plan to unravel. It’s getting serious.
We finally asked a taxi driver about this and he said, “Rome is a museum. It’s not Milan.” And we laughed knowingly. When we got to our hotel we went to the itty-bitty “bar” there and each ordered a neat Scotch. We still have sleuthing in our plans. We go to Naples on Thursday, then back to Rome, which has some ‘splainin’ to do.
I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.
It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.)
These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time.
I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.
Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.
My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.
The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.
Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.
In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.
The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.
I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.
Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post …
As I’ve mentioned about 32 times, I’m going to Portugal in January, another far-flung journey, a big bite of exoticism and edification, of soul nourishment and reckless indulgence in the name of peripatetic pleasure. I’m absolutely thrilled about it. It’s going to be terrible.
I’m riding the old seesaw of doubt and delight I always teeter on once I’ve bought my ticket and committed to swanning to someplace faraway, a jaunt that could be brilliant or a bust. I’m giddy. I’m aghast.
After a two-week flurry of excited planning for Portugal — I booked neat boutique hotels, cheap tours, acclaimed restaurants and compiled a list of things to do and see — here’s what I wrote in my journal the other day:
“I don’t think Portugal is going to be that great. The giant swell of energy I had for the trip has fizzled. And yet I’m still all about it and I kind of can’t wait.”
Three sentences oscillating with exquisite ambivalence.
The initial bloom of enthusiasm wilts into a kind of premature burnout. I’m two months away from the actual trip and already I’ve invested too much time, energy and money on a mirage. Waiting, I stew.
It’s not about this particular destination. It’s about all destinations, be it Japan, New Orleans or my recent trip to Paris. I get loopy, worried that all my anticipatory energies are for naught. What if it’s disappointing? What if I get in an accident? What if, god forbid, it rains? What am I doing? Refund!
This worry-wart-ism, this privileged angst mixed with delirium, has me up at all hours researching and reserving and sometimes, in fits of bleary-eyed buyer’s remorse, canceling flights only to rebook them the next morning when I’m a mite more sane.
Portugal ain’t Paris, and its comparatively modest offerings — a smattering of churches, a few museums, breath-stealing views, spicy sausage and smoky sardines — distress me. I’m going to the two largest cities, Lisbon and Porto, and both seem a little sleepy, more scenic than interactive, more walk-y than do-y.
Still, I look forward to a long tour of labyrinthine Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest, most atmospheric neighborhood, and hopping classic Tram 28, rattling up city slopes the color of Easter candies (see below).
In Porto I’m doing a fancy port tasting and taking a celebrated food tour. I’ll hear fado in a cavern-esque club. (How much fado singing I can take is a whole other matter.) And Portugal’s famed chocolate chain Chocolataria Equador — I’m there. (I’ll have the Dark Chocolate with Gin, por favor.)
Then there’s the people, always the people. I’m sure I’ll be saying obrigado (thank you) profusely.
The juices flow again just typing those words. I’ll always feel a churn of emotions about each journey — I’m a stubborn realist — so it’s about harnessing the positive and running with it. I have a good feeling about this. I think.
No matter. It’s happening. I’ve done my homework and charted the trip in almost granular detail. Everything’s in place. (I think.)
Now I stand back, sit down, and wait patiently, with or without a hearty supply of Xanax.
The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.
It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet.
I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.
I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.
But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished.
Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic.
As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.
But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary.
Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town.
Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)
Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.
The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.
For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death.
As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.
She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop.
The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right.
So it’s back to Paris I go. After a foolish flirtation with a week-long trip to Ireland, which went as far as booking a flight, hotels and tours, I dithered again and scrapped the whole damn thing.
My fall travel plan was initially for Paris, which I booked early summer. Then I got cold (Covid?) feet and thought: Hm, I’ve been to Paris plenty of times, let’s try something virgin and verdant. Ireland! Odd, as I’ve never had one inkling of an urge to go there. Still, I traded my Paris flight for a Dublin one and away we (almost) go.
And then I dove into my usual rigorous research, combing and poring over books and sites about the land o’ Guinness guzzlers (evidently not a cliché, at all) and after each tepid tourist “gem” (the insanely popular, intensely lame Guinness Storehouse) and middling tour (the Jameson whiskey distillery), my heart began to sink and I was like: shit.
I was even hard pressed to find any restaurants worth a prized reservation in Dublin and Galway, my two destinations. What came up repeatedly and endlessly were pubs and pubs and pubs. And it hit me: I don’t even really like pubs, what with their rowdy regulars, garrulous gulpers and sports super-fandom. Dublin and its kinda interesting cathedrals, fascinating-for-about-14-minutes Book of Kells library and three million pubs fizzled fast. (Let’s not forget Enya.)
Paris suddenly looked magical, marvelous, as it always does. Dublin dumped, I swapped back my flight to Paris, where I’ll spend eight days in mid-October. I’m staying in the chic, foot-trafficky Le Marais, eating fine cuisine at Buvette and beyond and cruising quays and cobblestone to my favorite museums and bone repositories, from the Catacombs to the oceanic Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Just booking the trip was its own journey. Oh, the fun, fickle planning of the neurotic mind. My impulses are famously rash — watch me shop online, and weep — and when I’m bitten by something that seems fantastic, I swoop into action, Visa in hand. That of course leads to the occasional snap judgement. Like Ireland.
With that, you might say I’m depriving myself of a new experience, a land of uncharted wonders and bottomless brown suds. But I argue I’m saving myself from groaning mediocrity, eye-crossing tedium and the deflating effect of the chronically underwhelming. (Here I risk rousing the “ire” in Ireland.)
I’m certain Ireland has its charms and delights. But it’s not for me, not now. Paris is my place, an almost mythical destination — the art! the food! the bookshops! the cinemas! the river! the boulevards! the gardens! — that fairly twinkles.