{ask me anything about anywhere} “Paris, Berlin, & Rome, with Stops In Between?”

People ask me for travel advice all the time, and sometimes I just don’t get around to blogging about it in advance. Here’s your chance to ask me anything about anywhere! If I have any good intel–I’ll gladly share it with you. This is the question that inspired the start of this new regular feature!

The Question: “Me, my wife, and my 2-year-old son are going to Europe for the month of May.  We fly into Berlin at the start of the month and we fly out of Rome at the end.  We will definitely make our way to Paris in between, but that’s all we have.  I’ve only been to London, Amsterdam and few cities in Spain, so I am completely overwhelmed with the many choices of where else we could go. So, I’m wondering if you know of any easy-to-get-to great locales in between Berlin, Paris and Rome. Also, any train advice you have would be helpful.  I know that flying between the cities would be cheapest, but I’m trying to avoid flying and airports as much as possible.

Let’s start at the beginning–I have no Germany knowledge as I have never been there (although it looks like a trip there might happen this year!) so I can’t tell you what to do in Berlin. If you’re going from Berlin to Paris by train, you’re probably thinking about stopping in Brussels. May I suggest a couple of days in Bruges instead? Brussels is a reasonably pleasant international city, but its charms (in my opinion) don’t merit the deep exploration of truly great world cities like Paris or Rome, so you might instead enjoy a few days of small-town charm in between those two large metropolises. Bruges is a jewel of a Belgian town that will give you an easy, slower-paced taste of Belgium with little hassle. You will probably have to take an overnight train from Berlin to Brussels and change to a short train to Bruges (about 1 hour from Brussels.)

Heading into Paris from Belgium, you can camp out there until your next move. Paris is, of course, fabulous, and it would be hard for me to synthesize my very favorite things to do there–but I’ll try a few.

  • Falafel in Rue Rosiers (pick a line, any long line, all of them are good.)
  • Cafe Josselin in Montparnasse for crowded tables, friendly service, the best buckwheat crepes and strong Bretagne cider.
  • The tasting menu at the excellent Spanish restaurant Fogón. (Babysitter required.)
  • The nearly tourist-free bar scene on Rue Oberkampf.
  • Sauntering through the painters at work in the plaza at the top of Sacre Coeur and scouting out the moulins (windmills) tucked in the neighborhood nearby.
  • The Arabic hammam (communal baths) at L’Institut du Monde Arabe. (Check hours on their website: some days are men only, some days are women only.)
  • The dazzling and delightful market food hall at Le Bon Marché (metro: Sevres-Babylone.)
  • The Sunday flea market at Saint Ouen (metro: Clignancourt.)
  • The view from the top of the Pompidou Centre on a clear day.
  • Shopping in the Marais, in the alleys and on Rue Tiquetonne.
  • Sunny afternoons sitting by Canal St. Martin sipping on a glass of rosé.
  • A stop at the venerable tea shop Le Mariage Freres for tasting, sipping, smelling, and presents.
  • The way Hotel de Ville looks on a dark and stormy night.
  • Meringues from anywhere.

And when in doubt, use the restaurant recommendations from David Lebovitz.

I could go on for days about Paris, but you need to get to Rome! There are a lot of options in between. I’m going to recommend against Venice, although it’s doable, and it’s wonderful, because it’s a bit out of the way and it definitely deserves more than a couple of days. I fear that a stop in one of the northern Italian cities like Milan, Turin, or Genoa will just feel like a slog from one big city to the next, and not really provide you with a respite. Plus, to be honest, none of those places really knocks my socks off. In that case, I think the best thing to do would be to choose a spot in the south of France, along the southern coast. Now the trick is which spot to choose?

I could make a strong argument for Nice. Staying in Nice would be, well, nice. It’s home to one of my favorite restaurants of all time, La Merenda, and it’s a handy jumping-off point for day trips to the hanging-on-a-hilltop hamlet of Eze and other points of interest along the Côte d’Azur. But don’t fool yourself–Nice is a big and bustling city, not a small seaside town. If you opt to stop there, you should either stay in Vieux Nice (Old Nice), a windy warren-like area with old stone streets and alleys, or even better, the tinier town just to the East, Villefranche-sur-Mer. The bayside in Villefranche couldn’t be cuter–in fact, it’s been used in dozens of movies to represent that Cote d’Azur ideal.

You could also opt for a stint in nearby Cannes, which is a bit more removed, and due to the famous film festival offers a bevy of fine hotels and restaurants to choose from. I’ve had my eye on 3-14 Hotel (perhaps partly precipitated by a preoccupation with Pi?) and the elegant Hotel Martinez.

But what about Cassis? From a practical standpoint, it offers the benefit of being a short hop (30 minutes by car) from Marseille, which has a major train station for ease of travel between both Paris and Rome. It’s also lesser known to the international tourist hordes who frequent Nice and surrounds, although still popular with French tourists. Its charm is a bit less tarnished by modernity and a bit more authentic (although I’m loath to use that loaded word.) It offers your best chance to decompress and recharge from Paris before jumping back in to the urban hum in Rome. Perhaps you could make your home in the venerable Hotel Liautaud for a few days?

Cassis is in an area known as Les Calanques (meaning “the inlets”) for its unusual coastal geography on the azure blue Mediterranean. In addition to swimming, Les Calanques offer excellent hiking and climbing. Cassis also has the benefit of being a stone’s throw from the Bandol wine region, a lesser-known appelation in Provence and an excuse for a lazy drive through the picturesque countryside. The homey tasting rooms in Bandol (which can really be just a family’s living room) belie the sophistication of the excellent rosé and red wines they produce.

I’ll recommend that these few days in the south of France is the one place you should splurge for a car rental. You won’t be able to take advantage of the best there is to offer without mobility.

I haven’t been to Rome in quite some time, so I will point you to some fine recommendations from Heidi of 101 Cookbooks for that. I’m also incredibly partial to the New York Times “36 Hours” column… and luckily for you, they have a recent one on Rome!

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