Europe in Spring : Paris, Florence, and Rome

"Europe in Spring: Paris, Florence, and Rome," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, June 3, 2012, 14-15.

Fifty years ago in March, during spring break when I was on a junior year abroad in Edinburgh, I bought a small car—a Renault Dauphine—which I picked up in Paris and, after staying there for some days, drove to Italy, visiting, among other Italian cities, Florence and Rome.   The trip was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with these cities. What follows focuses on the trip that my wife, Marcia Jacobson and I took this March but includes suggestions from recent prior trips to these cities.

Paris: Our first stop was  Paris.  Our hotel was on the Right Bank in the Place Vendome area near the Tuileries Gardens. Being near the Tuileries, with its bulbs bursting into bloom, was a plus. The Tuileries first became a public park after the French Revolution; it now plays a role similar to Central Park in Manhattan for Parisians who live in the area.
Street art in Paris Urban art in Paris

Paris is a great walking city. To experience it you should, if possible, walk to your destinations, although when it is not possible, the metro (subway) is excellent. To walk the streets of Paris is to feel the pulse of history, from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period and, later, Baron Hauptmann’s construction of modern Paris, to the Two World Wars, including France’s collaboration with the Nazis, and the ensuing post-War recovery.

Our activities on our arrival day included reacquainting ourselves with Paris with a long walk along the Seine to Notre Dame de Paris, one of Europe’s most beautiful churches, and visiting the Holocaust Deportation Memorial behind Notre Dame.
Holocaust memorial behind Notre Dame
 Highlights of our five night visit included the D’Orsay, across the river from our hotel, featuring nineteenth century painting and sculpture, with a strong focus on impressionism and post-impressionism. Highlights are Manet’s Olympia and Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe as well as major works by Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.  A temporary exhibit. “Degas and the Nude,” was excellent. While we were on the Left Bank, we also visited the area where we usually stay in the 7th arrondissement and stopped at the spare and dignified St. German-des-Pres, the oldest church in Paris.

At the Louvre, very close to our hotel, we spent several hours at the collection of wonderful Italian Renaissance paintings, most notably Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but also masterworks by Raphael as well as earlier works by Cimabue, Giotto, and Fran Angelico. Among the Flemish paintings we saw notable works by Van Eyck and Rembrandt and among Spanish painters Goya and a lone work on display by Velasquez.  Nor should you miss the Winged Victory and the informatively presented excerpts from Hammurabi’s Code of laws dating back to over 1000 years B.C.

Visitors should not miss the Pompidou museum with its stress on the Twentieth Century and recent art.  We spent time not only with the magnificent Modern, Post-Modern, and Contemporary collections, but also with two splendid special exhibits, one on Matisse and one on dance and its relationship to the visual arts. 

Seine The Seine on a warm day
If you are staying on the Right Bank of the Seine as we were, you should include a walk to Place Vendome, Place de La Concorde--the huge public square dominated by an obelisk that was transplanted from Egypt in 1833--and L’Opera, the square dominated Paris’s major opera house.  On a first visit you should not miss the Eiffel Tower. For Southeast Asian art, the Guimet Museum is quite wonderful.  For medieval art, The Cluny Museum is world class. Other great walking areas are the gentrified Marais area and Montmartre.

I also recommended the Musee de Orangerie in the Tuileries. Here are wonderful Monets as well as other Impressionists and Post-impressionists. We saw an eye-opening exhibit relating Debussy to the visual arts. The Picasso Museum is closed for renovation, but usually I spend considerable time there. Such churches as Saint-Chapelle (no longer a church but now a museum), the Madelaine, and Sacred Coeur should not be missed, but be aware that while Saint-Chapelle’s stained glass windows are worth seeing, that you don’t see that much for 8.50 Euros (The Euro, as I write is about 1.33 to the dollar).

The Shoah Memorial museum is excellent and free, and opens doors and windows into French history and the place of Jews in France, dating back to the medieval period.  It speaks with honesty about the amnesia that dominated France for decades after the collaborating Vichy government was defeated along with its Nazi partners.  Also recommended is the Holocaust memorial in back of Notre-Dame. The Jeu de Paume, also in the Tulieries, features contemporary exhibits; the twentieth century photographer Berenice Abbott was featured while we were in Paris.
In the past, I have been to the French Open at Roland Garros, the Paris Opera, and sampled the City of Lights at night.

Paris Dining: One of the pleasures of Paris is French cuisine. Crusty French bread is wonderful and so, usually, are desserts.

In each city, we sought out middle price restaurants, costing between 40 to about 65 Euros for two without wine.  We had two excellent prix-fixe dinners at Restaurant l’Ardoise  (28 rue de Mont Thabor). Graciously, the waitress let us split one entry of sautéed beef—we asked because we noticed immense portions at neighboring tables--and the ravioli with foie gras and wild mushrooms was wonderful. Another night we split a huge portion of mussels followed by sea bass with ham and cheese ravioli along with a generous portion of spinach. The lemon tart is terrific.  Iconic French bread with a bouche of sardine pate only added to our pleasure.

I should mention two restaurants that have a following. In the 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank, we had dinner near St. Germain-des-Pres at Le Relais de l’Entrecote (20 rue Saint Benoit) on the Left Bank which, like the others in the five restaurant mini chain serves only one meal: steak, fries, salad, with an optional dessert).  My verdict: adequate but not exciting. Another night we had dinner at Le  Souffle (36 rue du Mont-Thabor); while serving other dishes, it focuses on a prix fixe three-course soufflé dinner. The Grand Marnier dessert soufflé was superb but eating only soufflés for a dinner is surely a once in while experience.

We also dined at Chez Flottoes (2 Rue Cambon) where the onion soup was excellent, the osso bucco serviceable, and the crepes nowhere as good as at the little outdoor places along Rue Rivoli—and the bill was padded with small inexplicable charges which were removed on protest. I had the sense that this was not a one-time occurrence, and I would avoid this establishment.
The best way to eat lunch on a nice day is to buy a sandwich and a pastry at one of the many patisseries and have a picnic. But the museums have decent and fairly priced sandwiches and pastries, too, although a bit more expensive and maybe not quite as good as the local patisseries.

Paris Hotels: While the Renaissance Vendome (the Renaissance brand is part of the Marriott hotel chain) is rated five stars, I would give it four on the basis of our experience. We had a nice comfortable but smallish room overlooking the courtyard, with a king bed, a chair, and a small desk. The breakfast was included because we are Marriott Gold, and it was respectable but not over the top. At a five star hotel you expect fresh juice and an egg chef but this was not to be the case. The breads and pastries would have been good in most cities, but not what they could be in Paris. On occasion service was spotty, albeit friendly. Walking all day, I never used the gym.  Our prior two visits we had been pleased with our stay at the K&K  Hotel Cayre on Boulevard Respail.

Florence: After Paris, we flew to Florence, one of my favorite cities, where we stayed for three nights.  Florence is rich in history and culture, and the small size of the old city emphasizes this, even though the main activity along the winding narrow streets-- especially near the main tourist attractions-- sometimes seems to be tourism. Piazza della Signorai and Palazzo Vecchio have for centuries has been the center of Florence’s political and social life. Florence was alive one not so warm night with a jazz violinist playing in a central square and local couples who seemed to know him dancing.

No matter how many times I visit Florence, I marvel at the beauty of the Duomo, one of my favorite churches in Europe, begun in 1296-1436 and highlighted by the brilliantly engineered dome by Brunelleschi.   Next to it is the Baptistery of St. John, built in the 11th century, and containing the famous early fifteenth century gilded bronze Ghiberti gates, although in fact what visitors see since 1990 is a copy.

With one of the finest collection of Italian pre-Renaissance and Renaissance paintings in the world, the Uffizi Museum is worth an entire day. To partly circumvent crowds if not chaos, it is best to purchase advance tickets on line or ask your hotel to do it. In the very first room, you stand amidst phenomenal paintings by Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio, and you continue from highlight to highlight with great Raphaels and works by Michelangelo and Leonardo as well as Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi, and del Sarto. A new area is devoted to non-Italian painting, including some magical Rembrandts.

Save at least a few hours for the Pitti Palace’s Renaissance collection in its Palatine Gallery with its world-class collection, including Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair The Palace also contains the splendid Boboli Gardens. Another must is the Academia, which holds Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring David.

Synagogue in Florence Synagogue in Florence

The Florence synagogue is one of the most elegant in Europe and, while the destructive 1966 Florence flood did considerable damage not only to its structure but also to its Torah collection, it has been restored to much of its full splendor. Jews and non-Jews will be fascinated by the accompanying museum.


A must see is the Basilica of Santa Croce, a church begun in the late 13th century, with its wonderful Donatello and della Robbia sculptures as well as frescoes by Giotto and Taddeo Daddi and a cross by Cimabue that was badly damaged in the aforementioned flood. With the graves of Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo, Santa Croce is as much a mausoleum honoring the dead as it is a church.  Strongly recommended, too, Santa Mario Novella, with its fresco of the Trinity by Masaccio, and, if time permits, a drive around Tuscany.

Dining in Florence: Gelato shops are everywhere, although the delicious gelato is a tad pricy in the central tourist area. Florentine bread has no salt, unlike most Italian bread, but I like it.   Steak Florentine is the most expensive item on the menus, but we prefer to be more adventuresome in choosing dishes.

Gelato in Florence

One of the best restaurants in Florence is L’Osteria di Giovanni (Via Del Moro 22) where Giovanni himself hospitably presides over a wonderful kitchen that produces tomato bread soup; black squid ink pasta with calamari, clams, shrimp, and crayfish; ravioli filled with pear and pecorino cheese in a cream sauce topped with sliced almonds and sliced leeks; grilled artichokes; and wonderful panna cotta.

Less expensive: Vini e Vecchi Sapori (Via de Magazzini, 3R) has excellent simple home cooked food served without style. We had a fine tomato caprice salad, and excellent spaghetti with artichokes, but uninspired tiramisu.

Our dinner at one of our favorite Florence restaurants, Quattro Leoni (Via Vellutini 1/R), was not as good or congenially served as I remembered it. But the ricotta cheesecake is fabulous.

Arno in Florence The Arno at twilight

Florence Hotels: In Florence, we usually stay at the quaint modest three star Hotel Hermitage, perfectly located overlooking the Arno at Pont de Vecchio (Vicolo Marzio, 1 Piazza del Pesce).  A welcoming bottle of Chianti awaits returning guests. The upscale and elegant Westin—another Marriott brand-- is quite wonderful for a splurge, and we did just that in 2009.

Rome: At 45 Euros per person, the Eurostar train from Florence to Rome, where we spent our last five nights, is not inexpensive, but it is efficient, taking 80 minutes. Indeed, train travel is an excellent way to journey from city to city in Europe, especially in Italy.

Like Paris, Rome is a great walking city, and walking encompasses its history from the Roman Empire to the present. We have found March a great time to visit, with warm spring weather and shorter lines than in high season; in our experience even late April and early May are much busier.
I recommend one entire day for St. Peter’s Basilica and the nearby Vatican Museum that includes Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment and the tapestries designed by Raphael, both of which are in the Sistine Chapel..  Tickets can be reserved online but we found no lines at the Vatican Museum in the afternoon. With the largest interior of any Christian church, St. Peter’s is stunningly elegant, although teeming with visitors. Michelangelo’s Pieta is a major feature. St. Peter is believed to be buried in the church. 

Michelangelo's Pieta Michelangelo's Pieta at the Vatican

I have been at the Vatican on Easter when the Pope appears to bless an immense crowd; you can also get tickets for other “audiences” free online. I might mention that the less visited and beautiful Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome; it is definitely worth a visit. You might include it on the day you visit the Vatican, since St. John Lateran is not far from there.

The Borghese Gallery is a must. The Gallery severely limits the number of visitors as well as limiting your time to two hours, and a reserved ticket (13.50 Euros) is usually essential. The Borghese Gallery features Raphael’s Deposition, great works by Bernini and Caravaggio as well as other painters of the later Renaissance. The Borghese Gardens are where Rome’s citizens can enjoy leisure time.  We took a rest from fine art and enjoyed the zoo.

Lovers of late Renaissance painting need also should visit the gallery of Barbarini Palace, featuring Renaissance Paintings through Mannerism, including Pietro da Cortona’s magnificent baroque ceiling The Triumph of Divine Providence, and a special exhibit--with a separate fee-- on Guercino.

Coliseum The Coliseum in Rome
One day must be left for walking Roman Rome: the Coliseum, the Palatine Hill, the Forum—one ticket, 12 Euro—as well as a visit to the classical sculptures at the Capitoline Museum adjacent to Victor Emmanuel. Archeology continues to unearth new treasures and revises our understanding of the past.

Other essential sights on a first visit (and ones I never miss on returns): Piazza Navona with the stunning Bernini fountain sculpture of four great rivers; the Trevi Fountain made famous to Americans by the film “Three Coins in the Fountain”; Saint Ignazio di Loyola church, the quintessence of Baroque; Piazza de Popolo, especially the wonderful two Caravaggios in Santa Maria dei Popolo; the Spanish Steps where young people have gathered for generations; and of course the ancient Roman walls. I should not omit the imposing Pantheon, the oldest fully preserved building in Rome; while dating back to Roman times, it was turned into a church centuries ago. Walking into virtually any church yields pleasant architectural and decorative surprises.

Dining in Rome: Ai Fienaroli (Via Sardegna, 137) offers excellent and creative pasta dishes at moderate prices.

Especially innovative is Lo Stil Novo (Via Sicilia 66/B) featuring nouveau cuisine as well as traditional Roman fare, such as Osso Bucco. 40-50 Euros for two without wine
Dal Bolognese off Piazza del Popolo, a somewhat pricier chic/buzz restaurant than my other recommendations and where you will see politicians and media figures as well as models, specializes in bolito mista (several kinds of boiled beef simmered together and served with sauces and vegetables), a delicious dish for carnivores that is more elegant than it sounds.

Rome Hotels: We stayed at the four star Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, a comfortable well-located hotel on the Via Vittoria Veneto—a very nice area-- and we had a splendid room with a fine view overlooking the Borghese Gardens.  With a more welcoming and helpful staff, I thought it was better than the five star Renaissance Vendome in Paris.   I should also mention the excellent hotel restaurant, Cabiria, where we had gnocchi and salmon, before concluding with a delicious sponge cake with lemon sauce.  With its generous breakfast on the roof with great view overlooking the city, its impeccably attentive staff, it is an excellent place to stay. On other trips have also enjoyed two somewhat more moderately priced and less fancy four star hotels: the somewhat better located Valadier on Via Corso and La Residenzia on Via Emilia, which is in the same neighborhood as the Marriott Grand Hotel Flora.

Keep in Mind:  You can buy online tickets that cover multiple museums in each city, or your hotel can order convenient advance tickets for individual museums. In Both Italy and France more English is spoken than in past visits of even a few years ago and many more of the museum descriptions are now in English. Beware of restaurants adding a handful of Euros for cover or bread that they wouldn’t add for Europeans, or simply adding a few Euros to the menu price one or two items, This tends to happen at restaurants serving plenty of Americans. Also, some Italian and French restaurants put all the tourists in one room, often in the back or downstairs, unless you say something. Taxi drivers need be watched; you might get offers for a fixed price to your hotel at three times the metered rate.

In most middle price restaurants you will be sitting cheek to jowl with your neighbors because  the tables are so close.   Thus you basically dine with your neighbors on each side whether you wish to or not, but usually that adds to the fun.

Don’t take the first room you are offered in European hotels. Often, particularly in hotels reconfigured from former palaces and grand houses, the first rooms you are shown can be small and/or lack views and these are the room they want to slough off on inexperienced travelers or those fatigued from jet travel.

Airfares vary greatly with the season, but our economy ticket on USAIR from Ithaca to Paris to Florence and return from Rome was about $1150. If you fly from NYC or Philadelphia or Newark, it would be less.

This is a glorious trip that you can organize yourself or with a travel agent. You don’t require a tour which stipulates each day what you do and when.