Paris or Rome?

A reader asks:

I have been reading your blogs after doing a search for travel advice.  They are definitely interesting and it sounds like a good time.  I’m traveling to Finland for business the last week of October but want to layover in either Rome or Paris for two days to check out the sights of one of these historic cities before I head back to the States.  Any recommendation as to which is the better city to visit for just two days.  I’m sure it’s a personal preference thing, but I’m curious what your opinion is if you have the time.

It’s a tough choice — both are world class cities. It depends on your interests. I would say Rome, since in a couple days you can hit some major sites (Vatican, Coliseum, etc) and taste some excellent food. I feel like Paris is less favorable to a quick drop in — it’s more a city where you settle in for a week and experience Parisian culture.

The City of Lights — Paris, France

Meinfronteffil_1 On Monday I had one of those beautiful moments of meeting a previously anonymous blog reader who reached out me to a few weeks ago and offered his home and local expertise to me while in Paris.

Before meeting Pierre in a cafe near the Arc de Triomphe, I lunched with Eric Grabli, a private equity guy who Seth Levine introduced me to. Eric shed good light on France and European business culture. His thoughts — delivered in a slow, deliberate manner — were consistent with what I’ve heard from others (and which I’ll summarize later). We gorged ourself on sushi and water.

I then hooked up with Pierre, the blog reader and friend and host, and we drove back to his house 30 mins north of Paris. I’ve spent a lot of time in European capitals so staying in the countryside where it’s quiet was a refreshing change. After taking a nap and cruising on wi-fi, we went to a free one hour concert at a church. It was quasi-opera, quasi-drama. Apparently something uniquely French. A handful of opera singers sang different numbers but in quite a dramatic, acting style. It was fun and entertaining.Bridge_1

Pierre and I went to a local creprery for dinner where I had my first two authentic French crepes. Back in San Francisco I am a frequent customer at Crepes on Cole, a "creperey" run by Middle Eastern dudes who serve excellent Americanized crepes…which means a crepe stuffed to the brim with meat, lettuce, cheese, and the like. Predictably, French crepes are smaller but more eloquent. We had a dinner crepe and desert crepe and alcoholic cider to wash it down. We talked globalization, France, travel, America, and business. A good conversation.

The next morning we set off early in the morning for Paris. I spent the day by myself exploring. I started at the Arc de Triomphe, took a few pictures, and then sped over to the Eiffel Tower. By arriving before 10 AM, I beat the long queue, and took the elevator up to the very top. I must admit that seeing the Eiffel Tower on my "Paris By Night" car tour a couple days before gave the same feeling as when I saw the Roman collisieum or David by Michaelangelo: "Oh shit, there it is!" You see it in endless photos, you know exactly what it’s going to look like, but then when you see it in person, it overwhelms. The view from the second level of the Eiffel Tower is arguably better than the very top because it’s open air. At the top you’re enclosed top to bottom in protective glass, and the view is only slightly better. After going to the top, I just hung out near the grass field under the Tower. I gazed up at the massive structure and when my neck hurt I looked at tourists try to take the perfect picture in front of it, a difficult task given the size imbalance between both subjects of the photo!Effile

I walked around Paris the rest of the day. I walked from the west side of the City (Eiffel Tower) to the East Side near Gare de Lyon train station. I stopped at a cafe for lunch but otherwise it was walk, walk, walk. I made a decision not to visit The Louvre while in Paris. I’ve seen a number of rock star museuems and since I have so little time I didn’t want the queue to eat up 1/2 or 3/4 of my day. The musueum itself is huge, too, and could easily take three full days to visit all the art. Without the Louvre on my agenda, I could walk slower, get lost, and take better photos.

I met Pierre at a cafe in the evening and we came home and had dinner with his family. We had a traditional French meal on their table outside. The air was still and you really felt like you were cozily ensconced from any of a busy city’s stresses.Img_1536

Wednesday morning I went for a one hour run in the woods and corn fields of Northern France. When I popped out of the woods and into endless corn fields, I felt like I had just walked into Field of Dreams. Awesome sceneary and true tranquility. The only noise on earth was my breathing and feet hitting the gravel. I went into Paris in the afternoon and visited the Musee D’Orse, home to many famous modern paintings. Van Gough’s self-portrait highlighted his room, and many Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others abound. D’Orse is a great place to visit in Paris not only because of its outstanding art but given its proximity to the Louvre the queue is compartively short.

I met up with Pierre and we went to the Palace de Tokyo, described here.

We had dinner at a Lebonanse restuarant — interesting timing, I know! — which was excellent. I love Middle Eastern food. More good conversation. A Ben stuffed with food and 4 liters of water from the day (yes, it’s been *very* hot in Paris, thus lots of water consumption) wobbled into the car and we cruised back to the house in thunderstorms and lighting.

Paris is without question a world-class city. Everyone must visit Paris. Would I want to live or work there? No. I will explain why when I summarize and analyze my findings of French culture on my main blog.

A giant thank you to Pierre and his family for being wonderful and generous hosts!

Pierreandme


Palais de Tokyo in Paris

One of the highlights of my meanderings around Paris was a visit to the Palais de Tokyo, a futuristic / modernist "museum" that has nothing to do with Tokyo but everything to do with technology, art, urbanism, and the environment. It claims it’s the "only museum open from noon to midnight". That should give you a sense of the attitude of the place.

This summer the set is "Tropico-Vegetal Program": "Lying at the point where global exoticism, ecological concerns, summertime tourism and paradisial utopias meet, the different shows and projects that finger in Topico-Vegetal Program constitue an invitation to an artistic conquest and lucid stroll through a world filled with paradoxes and ambiguities, between an idyllic imagination and politically committed questioning, historical perspectives and political and ecological analyses."

Tokyo

In sum, it’s all very bizarre and confusing (I have no idea what that description means!) but it’s well worth a visit. In the current exhibition there are five different areas. The first one appears to be about nature, as there are big green sitting cushions, fake forestry apparatus hanging from the ceiling, TV screens and pictures of water lilies, and the color green everywhere. But upon examination, the phrases and fragments written on the wall are all anti-globalization. At first they seem innocuous — just factual statements about business and capital. But as the wall stretches to the right they gain complexity: "The neoliberalism vision has screwed tons of people" one essentially says. Ah, France! On the other side of the room there is a crocodile and herein lies the nut of the exhibit: it’s about what happens when "Crocodile mentality" (a real cognitive process) drives actions.

The next exhibition is a 2D topographic display of what happened in Puerto Rico after the U.S. conducted bombing exercises on one of their islands. How lovely!

No, it’s not all anti-capitalism or anti-American. The next few exhibits focus more on nature, rainforests, architecture. It’s a fascinating and massively confusing place. Trying to discern meaning out of everything is tough; just soak up the strange setting you find yourself in. The bookstore is also excellent: tons of books on urbanism, design, art, the future, and culture.

My understanding is that the Palais de Tokyo changes its exhibitions regularly but it’s well worth a visit any time of the year.

Day 47: Versailles, France

I spent a night in Versailles where I checked out Palace of Versailles and had a great, 3.5 hour dinner by the water and then a Paris by Night car tour. Had some great convos with the former President of Vivendi International – Games, whose house and family I stayed with, which I will summarize on my main blog.

The Versailles hood is upscale and a 10 minute drive / 15 minute train from Paris. A lot of wealthy families seem to settle slightly outside Paris to avoid the hustle bustle and then make the easy commute.

The Palace of Versailles is nice but frankly was a bit of a letdown. Maybe this was because some parts were under construction. Maybe because I had to pay 10 euros to get in because I look old and couldn’t get in as an under-18 year old person (I want to support cultural instituations anyway). The ornate architecture and gold was nice but inferior to Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum. The park was beuatiful — set up like Washington Monument in D.C. — but still only about equal to other spectacular European parks. I’m sure if I visited Palace of Versailles by itself I would have been more impressed, but since I’ve seen now virtually every major site in Western Europe, it pales in comparison.Img_1506

We had a great dinner by the water in Paris. Politics, business, you name it. For the second night in the row the oven broke — this time in a restaurant. Come on, can’t the French get the cooking right?! We wrapped up at 11:30 PM and then did a 45 minute Paris by Night tour, which was great, but getting home at 1:30 AM killed me (as did getting up early to go for a run and then catch my train).

Summation: Versailles can make a good day trip from Paris, but spend as much time outside lying in the park as you do inside. And try to avoid long queues!
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Tour de France from the Sidelines

Of course the day I just happen to arrive in Versailles is the day the Tour de France just happens to end and just happens to roll right through the little town I was staying in. We walked down to the side of the street and waited for two hours for the cyclists — and eventual winner the American Floyd Loomis (sp) — to whiz by. The first hour was all sponsor cars. Trucks, vans, SUVs, cars, all wrapped head to tow in advertising throwing out free samples to fans along the side of the rode. Our wait ended when a bunch of official vehicles and police slowly drove by and in the next 20 seconds all 100 cyclists rode by. It was over so quickly! I took a few pictures, and then it was gone. The only thing worthwhile I noticed was how relaxed all the bikers seemed. They were talking to each other, eating an energy bar, casually drinking water. Perhaps because it was the last day and they all let Floyd ride at the front, or perhaps it’s because when you bike for that long you get friendly with your competitors. In any case, I’m glad to have caught live action of a major sporting event, and that I could cheer on the American winner in style!
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Bonjour – Loire Valley, France

After flying Lisbon to Paris I embarked on a bus, train, and taxi to get to Insead Business School to catch the tail end of Pascal’s presentation on French-US differences. I missed the 2:47 PM train by three minutes, forcing me to take a train an hour later. In the airport during my waiting period I saw three exhausted French women get off a train with tons of luggage and tons of San Francisco tourist paraphernalia.  After arriving in Fontiebleau-Avon I had to find a taxi. None was waiting in the “taxi” area even though there were several people waiting. The first one that came only picked up some old French women who had called for it. The other Indian people waiting for a cab decided to go in and call for one. Figuring I had no choice but to call the company as well, so I could claim an equal right to the next taxi which arrived, I went inside the station and purchased a phone card (first of the trip). I then went to the pay phone and fought the damn thing for a minute. As I tried to dial numbers, lo and behold, a taxi pulled up. The Indian threesome and another American couple were arguing over who should get in. While they were arguing, I hung up the phone, ran to the cab, and opened the door. The American couple yelled out, “Hey – we called for that cab!” “So did I!” I yelled back, a half-lie. “You’ve got to be kidding me” they yelled out. We sped away. You got to be ruthless sometimes, you know?

Bettervrivereraseother After Insead, Pascal and I headed back to his castle. It’s a real château – it’s even on the city map. Great setup. First, it’s a bona fide castle. Second, the interior is gorgeous and filled with art and furniture which look like they came out of the Renaissance. And the yard, pool, garden, are all spectacular. My room in the castle was at the top. I climbed a windy, narrow staircase, before arriving in my wing of this spectacle. We had dinner at 10:15 PM – Pascal had a conference call at 10:30, Friday night. His wife Natalie had prepared “just a quick something, nothing too big.” Of course, it was some of the best pasta and salad I’ve ever had. Natalie used to run a big time French catering service in Los Angeles. The setting wasn’t too bad, either: in a greenhouse-esque wing of a castle overlooking a grass field and endless vineyards, with candles adorning the room and paintings hanging all around.

On Saturday Pascal and I explored the Loire Valley area. We first visited the Chateau Royal D’Amboise, an impressive sight which housed French kings in the mid 15th to mid 16th centuries. The French Gothic style overwhelms you with perfect perspective and volume: every ceiling seems like just the right height and the width of each hallway is cozy and inviting.  Fantastic views from the top of the Loire river and the adjacent towns. After the Amboise we sat in an outdoor café where we both had kiesh, apple juice made from local fresh apples, and a pastry. Pascal was salivating over his eclaire. My moist strawberry-danish pastry finished off a nice, “classic French” lunch. I like the outdoor café set-up, even though it’s cramped.Melookingout

Next we headed to Leonardo da Vinci’s house near Amboise. Leonardo spent the final years of his life there. During his move to his house, he carried three paintings – including the Mona Lisa – in his arms as he walked over the alps from Italy to France. Holy catfish. His property is amazing. A zen-like tranquility underwrites the house and gardens / yards / rivers. I’m a big believer that the environment you find yourself in affects your creative spark. Leonardo’s setup certainly helped me conjure some an incredible array of inventions (on paper – they were actually built later). Walking around the gardens and mini-forest brought images of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco combined with the canals in Venice and expansiveness of Golden Gate Park. I would love to rent out this place for a weekend and hold a retreat!
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In the later afternoon I swam in Pascal’s pool, worked online, enjoyed h’dourvs and a sweet, local French dessert wine, and then this amazing cheese thing Natalie made. It was a ball of cheese, baked in some way, wrapped in peppers all doused with garlic and butter. Green beans, meat from the butcher, five different kind of cheeses with 6 pieces of bread, vanilla ice cream with three kinds of berries topped on it, and tons of Evian water to wash it all down. Did I mention that Natalie catered expensive LA parties? Oh, one hiccup: the oven messed up and the meat was overdone. They were apologetic and moping about the food, while I, the dumb American with no culinary sense, thought it was delicious. French culinary standards are quite high!

After dessert I played chess against Pascal. While in the States he achieved the level of Master (2200 rating) and played one game which was written up all over the world (mate in 14 moves). In short, at his prime he was a meaningful participant in the upper echelons of the international chess world. He kicked my ass. He then showed me his famous game, move by move. I would love to spend time reading chess books and internalizing even just a handful of variations…Chess

On my main blog I will discuss the best part of my stay with Pascal and Natallie, and that was our conversations. Some of the most acute cultural discussions I’ve had this whole trip.

Loire Valley is a beautiful place with loads of history. A good warm-up to Versailles, if you’re in to chateaus, or even if you just like wine, small towns, and a local culture.

Written on a 300 MPH bullet train from Fonteblieu to Paris