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Sure, Paris is timeless in its way: often you feel you've stepped back centuries. Cafés from the Belle Epoque, monuments from the Middle Ages and recipes from the butter-and-cream days before the Great War-all transport you to a place where time and taste stand still, a "been there, done that" universe.
But here's one paradox of many: few cities have as varied and changing an arts and culture scene as Paris. How many towns can lay claim to hundreds of galleries and foundations, and 150 museums? Alongside their permanent collections, each mounts temporary exhibitions. Some art or history shows run for nearly a year at a time and appear-another paradox-to be permanent fixtures. When they're over you can barely believe it, especially if you didn't find time to see them.
I've lived in Paris for over 25 years and still haven't seen all its galleries, foundations and museums. Every few months they shed their skin of temporary shows. Actually the metaphor isn't accurate: the constant changing of the artistic guard is more a staggered and staggering relay race run over an eerily familiar course.
Try asking those Paris-weary friends of yours whether they've seen the latest Modernist show-meaning the magnificent collection of Gertrude, Leo and Michael Stein: "Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso... The Adventure of the Steins" at the Grand Palais?
What about the bowl-you-over Cézanne retrospective at the Luxembourg?
The good news is Paris' kaleidoscopic, multiple-choice future is playing today not in a theater near you but in the Oberkampf, Ménilmontant and Belleville neighborhoods. That's where Algiers meets Caracas and Istanbul via Zanzibar. Despite occasional intrusions by fanatics, the inhabitants here and in Paris' many other ethnic enclaves seem to get along like traditional French peas in the pod.
Never heard of Oberkampf, Ménilmontant or Belleville? That's not surprising. Outlying, in the north-by-northeastern sector of town, they're not chic. They have no claims to fame other than as the home to Père-Lachaise Cemetery and the birthplace of Edith Piaf, the raucous crooner of "La Vie en Rose" and yesteryear's hits.
For 20 years I rented an office in the Ménilmontant district. My desk now overlooks the Place de la Bastille and Marais. But I'm still a regular to my old haunts: the cemetery is Paris' most atmospheric hideaway, if you ask me. And there's no better place to get a haircut, eat as if you were on the Bosporus, or pick up spiky, smelly, scary specialty foods.
Why the haircut? My barber for years was affable Monsieur David-pronounced Dah-veed-a Moroccan who wore a Star of David and a beret and ate baguette sandwiches filled with many things, from many animals, including the kind that provide ham and bacon.
Nowadays it's Mustafa or Ali who snip at the graying tufts still clinging to my scalp. Like Monsieur Daveed, when Mustafa and Ali work my head over they cut back and forth between French and other languages, their jaws moving like well-oiled scissors.
All three barbers favor Radio Nostalgie and Radio Montmartre, with tunes from Piaf's heyday. Like them she was supremely French: a foundling whose parents and grandparents were immigrants-in Piaf's case they came from the French provinces, Italy and North Africa.
Portofino's horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.
A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera's most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. "Precious" is the operative word.
Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino "you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed."
Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.
But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our "Portofino Perfect" walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.
Outdoors in a panoramic park behind the famous cathedral of Chartres a teenage girl skipped along the concentric pathways of a grassy labyrinth. Other kids shouted and kicked a soccer ball. Young lovers simultaneously pecked at each other and the touchpads of their handheld devices, observed by curious onlookers.
Most such onlookers in Chartres are day-trippers from nearby Paris: The capital is an hour's ride east on a commuter train.
A hundred yards away from the sunny, lively grass labyrinth, silence reigned inside the looming stone cathedral of Chartres. The cool, echoing nave was lit by glowing stained-glass windows and held aloft by flying buttresses. An unusual procession was underway. Spiritual seekers shuffled, slid or crawled along the 850-foot-long, serpentine stone pathway marked out on the floor some 800 years ago. They were following the convolutions of the "real" labyrinth, the one that has made Chartres a pilgrimage site for labyrinth-walkers worldwide.
Chartres is the Queen of European cathedrals, with acres of stained glass. It's among the world's most astonishing ecclesiastical edifices in beauty and historical value. The cathedral also has one of the tallest naves and spires anywhere and the most original, wheel-like buttresses too. Atop a gentle rise overlooking the Eure River, the site where central Chartres spreads is magical: Ancient Druids, the priests of the Gauls, met where the cathedral now stands. Or so claimed Julius Caesar.
Say "Rome" and like Pavlov's dog, millions worldwide will bark "Colosseum," "Forum" or "Vatican."
Ask even an intrepid traveler with an insider's track on the Eternal City and you still probably won't get "Garbatella" in reply.
Yet these days Garbatella is among Rome's hippest, most charming and atmospheric neighborhoods, with one of my favorite authentic, throw-back trattorias anywhere.
First, no tourists: Garbatella is south of the historic sites wrapped by Rome's Seven Hills, south of the Pyramid of Cestius, south even of the Ostiense train station and the daily commuter scrum.
But it's easy to get to: Look for the towering old "gasometro" gas storage facility. Then keep going south another half mile toward the unsung Catacombs of Commodilla. Or take a direct metro to Garbatella and walk southeast five minutes. You've arrived when the streets climb and twist and turn, when sidewalk gardens and trees appear between strange, seemingly postmodern palazzi.
Fred Flintstone would feel right at home: scenic, stone-built Milly Lamartine perches on a hillside a few miles from a famous prehistoric site, the Roche de Solutré, known for its bones, stones and wines.
Owners Sylvie Bouschet and her chef-husband Jack are from Mâcon, 10 miles east of Milly Lamartine. They've never heard of the Flintstones or locavores, either. But eaters of local food worldwide might want to make L'Auberge de Jack the template for their movement: there's no mission statement accompanying the Charolais beef, raised by a family farmer near Charolles, 20 miles away, and served rare with thick-cut, housemade fries, some of the best you'll ever eat. Sylvie and Jack don't trade on common sense: for 30 years they've been buying wholesome, quality products from trustworthy people nearby.
But ask and you'll discover the plump pork sausages simmered in Beaujolais come from Monsieur Girard, the butcher in Pierreclos, another handsome village, down the road a piece. The Beaujolais comes from over the bluff, near Solutré, ten minutes south by corkscrew road. That's where the Burgundy and Beaujolais regions overlap. Excellent, underrated wines come from the eroded, limestone escarpments: Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Moulin à Vent and others.
How many more heavy gold medals can Paris drape around its neck?
Acolytes claim the City of Light is the fashion and cultural capital of Europe, the West's greatest restaurant and food megapolis, a paradise for flaneurs, the mecca of hedonists and shop-till-you-drop materialists, the world's favorite city, period. Now, while the Swiss and Belgians weren't looking, Paris stole their milk cows and became the swaggering global capital of chic chocolate too.
Pundits quip that French president Nicolas Sarkozy set the stage. Elected in 2007, Sarkozy does not drink alcohol. He gobbles chocolat, the very best. His 24/7 excitability – some call it dynamism – are attributed in part to the capital's current choco-manie.
But everyone knows Theobroma cacao – especially the unadulterated dark variety containing at least 60 percent cocoa – is good for the health, the libido, the mind, the morale. It makes people happy, fills them with energy, lifts them out of depression, and cures everything from rabies and rashes to the common cold, without weight gain. Or so some boosters claim, with impressive if unproven scientific "evidence."
What better fuel for France's hyperactive, tea-tottling head of state, a man bent on seducing his rock star wife Carla Bruni and the famously difficult French masses?
The blogosphere, social media and even some normally sober dead-tree publications roar 24/7 about Paris's contemporary food scene. Hyperbole artists daily declare this the globe's greatest restaurant city, rebooted after lengthy decline. Upstarts in New York and London are fini, and eternal Rome is ancient history.
French cuisine is back, again?
One thing's certain: Paris is a favorite of food lovers and peripatetic hedonists. They wing and waddle here for the cosmopolitan dining scene and the peerless patisseries, world-class bakeries, chocolate-makers, specialty food emporiums, wine and cheese and butcher shops, and scores of open markets. Goods and services range from the sublime to the ridiculous. But the overall effect, the sense of epicurean opulence, is mesmerizing.
Paris also happens to host one of the world's great hayseed jamborees, the annual agricultural fair. Earthy, nose-twitching and kitsch, the Salon d'Agriculture transforms the Porte de Versailles into a farmyard feeding frenzy for nine days in late February. The 1,000 exhibitors draw an average 650,000 gawkers. Showcased are the combines, farming techniques, Far Side bovines, and rustic eats that make France the world's number-two agricultural power. Thirty-five countries participated this year. But as always, France was the star. Its roosters crowed louder. And when it came to prize-winning cattle, there was plenty of French bull.
Each year on the third Thursday of November, the world awakens with two words on its parched lips: Beaujolais Nouveau. The next morning it massages its temples and sighs.
In between, 40 million bottles of zingy Beaujolais Nouveau-the quaffable new-wine-are uncorked and spill their purple contents from Anchorage to Zhengzhou. Parties bubble into life, the biggest of them held on the eve of the official launch in the unlikely, homely little French town of Beaujeu, near Lyon. Long the seat of the aristocratic Sires de Beaujeu, it's the mothership that squeezes and sends forth this annual vinous tsunami.
Under a tent the size of a sports stadium, penguin-suited waiters hefting giant wooden buckets pour gallons of Beaujolais Nouveau into the raucous gullets of some 1,500 merrymakers. The grapey, intoxicating scent of carbonic maceration from freshly fermented gamay grape juice fills the air. Performers in silly costumes belly dance or belt out folk songs to the sound of accordions, fiddles, drums and saxophones. As the fête reaches dionysian paroxysms, fledgling members of the Compagnons du Beaujolais-in even sillier suits-are sworn into the bacchic brotherhood of Beaujolais winemakers.
Outside, fireworks and torches, the latter fashioned from grapevine stumps, light up the façades of the town's low stone houses and its hulking medieval church. There's dancing in the narrow main street, and gluttony, guzzling and genteel debauchery behind half-closed doors. The extravaganza-in its 22nd year running-is called the "Sarmentelles de Beaujolais" and it lasts five days, this year from Wednesday, November 17 through Sunday, November 21.
Columbus was a native of Genoa, or so it's claimed. Though he sailed for Spain, he hailed from the capital of the Italian Riviera. The boomerang-shaped region's official name is Liguria. Stretching from Tuscany to Provence, Liguria includes the well-known resort destinations Portofino, the Cinque Terre, and San Remo. Somehow Genoa is not on most Riviera Grand Tours any more. And maybe that's for the best. It's Italy's great insider city, a real place that's been spared mass tourism.
After decades of decline in the late 20th century this atmospheric Mediterranean port has rebounded from rust-belt wreck. Backed by steep, craggy mountains and moated by the Gulf of Genoa, it's one of Italy's most picturesque, appealing and vibrant places to live and visit. But it isn't for everyone: visitors find none of the Italy-for-beginners qualities of Florence, for instance. Genoa still belongs to the Genoese.