Paris and Madrid in the spring: Plenty of great art, food
“Paris and Madrid in the Spring: Plenty of Great Art, Food,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, , May 9, 2015, 1D, 4D., http://www.ithacajournal.com/story/life/2015/05/13/paris-madrid-spring-plenty-great-art-food/27226711/
All photos by Marcia Jacobson
Paris, the Seine
Returning to major cities where you have a history is one of the pleasures of travel.
Over the years, I have been to Paris about a dozen times. My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I try to visit Paris, Rome and London every three years or so, and our favorite time is spring when the weather usually is better than Ithaca. This year, we revisited Madrid, where I had been only twice before during my four prior trips to Spain.
The last time we went to Paris was in spring 2012 and we had warm sun every day. This time during our eight-night visit in late March, we had mostly rainy, cool and overcast weather punctuated by a few sunny but hardly warm days. But as a friend of mine says, what can trump Paris in spring, especially after daylight-saving time (which occurs March 29 in Europe) brings evening sunlight?
The good news: the strong dollar — the euro was worth $1.09, down from the $1.35-to-$1.40 range of recent years — kept costs down.
Paris is a walking city because you learn about a city when you walk it.
In Paris, the most important sites are often the historic, vibrant streets. We rarely take the quite reliable metro (the Paris subway system), although it is available when needed and if your health requires it.
When walking, always read the informative historic signs telling you what happened on each street and who lived where; together, they become a history lesson and enliven your understanding of Paris. Of course, Paris history now includes the massacre of the staff of the satiric weekly Charlie Hebdo and Jews shopping in a kosher market in January, and those events did cast a bit of a shadow over our days in Paris.
Whether you walk the Champs-Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de Concorde, or walk the side streets on the left bank, you will be continually getting a feel for what Paris is now and what it has been, especially if you have visited many times over the years. For me, it is sad to see how the grandeur of the Champs-Elysees has given way to a kind of strip mall commercialism. Some of its former elegance can now be found on the main and some side streets of the left bank and in the Marais.
Because of the weather, we didn't visit Versailles, the luxurious royal palace that was the center of political power until the Revolution, or the elegant Gothic Chartres Cathedral. But these are recommended day trips that we have taken and enjoyed.
On your first visit, you need to visit the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in Paris and the most visited paid tourist site in the world. Nor should you miss another Paris icon, the stunning Gothic church, Notre Dame de Paris, dating to the 12th century with many alterations and additions.
We always visit the Abbey St. Germain-des-Pres, sometimes called the oldest church In Paris but really a Benedictine abbey. I also recommend four other churches: Saint-Suplice, with its magnificent organ, Delacroix wall paintings and eclectic architecture, is the second largest church in Paris and only slightly smaller than Notre-Dame; the elegant late Gothic St. Eustache dating back to the 13th century; Sainte-Chapelle, with its legendary stained glass windows; and the early 20th century Sacre-Coeur at the summit of Montmartre, the highest point in the city.
Do not miss the Tuileries or the Luxembourg Gardens, both of which were beginning to bloom in late March. While in the Luxembourg quarter, we also visited fascinating exhibit about the Tudors — who had a French lineage — at the nearby Musee du Luxembourg.
One of my favorite Left Bank activities is visiting art galleries on Rue de Beune and elsewhere. You can find everything from old master drawings to Tang horses.
Remembering the horrific killing of Jews in Paris in January, we were much moved by a visit to the old Jewish District in Marais neighborhood and an active synagogue there. As a result of the recent terrorism, police are out in force in front of public buildings.
I recommend a full day for each of the major museums, perhaps interrupted for a lunch break at their cafes. Standing in front of paintings and sculptures and then moving around to see them from different angles and distances is quite different from viewing slides.
Despite its crowds, you must not miss the Louvre. You will have a little more breathing room on a sunny weekday than a rainy weekend.
In one day, you will only see a fraction of one of the Louvre's three sections (Sully, Richelieu and Denon). On a rainy Sunday, we spent an entire day in the part named Denon, which features the "Winged Victory of Samothrace" and the "Venus de Milo," as well as Michelangelo's two "Slaves" and the great Italian paintings from the 13th and 14th centuries, including works by Cimabue, Giotto and the Sienese school, through the Renaissance and beyond. We spent some time with Veronese's huge "Wedding at Cana," the largest painting in the Louvre and perhaps my favorite work by that artist.
Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" draws a large crowd, and to get a good view you need be patient. His "Virgin on the Rocks" is the counterpart to an equally famous painting of the same name in London, although in the Paris version the angel lacks wings. I find this painting an interpretive puzzle.
African art at the Louvre, Paris
We also saw wonderful works from Africa, Asia and oceanic that are beautifully displayed in a much less crowded new rooms within the Denon section.
One of the reasons for my visit to Paris was to see newly expanded and refurbished Musee Picasso, since Picasso is one of my scholarly interests. We spent an entire day at this museum. While not every work is a masterwork, there are many terrific ones — for example "La Celestina" (1904) and "The Suppliant" (1937) — that display Picasso's prolific genius. I saw scores if not hundreds of works I had never seen before. Picasso is not only a great genius of Modernism whose evolution over decades is remarkable, but a painter comparable to the great masters of any era.
The Musee d'Orsay has the world's largest impressionist and post-impressionist collection. The d'Orsay's treasures include Manet's "Le Dejeuener sur l'herbe" and "Olympia" as well as one of Van Gogh's greatest self-portraits and his "La Meridienne," as well as major works by Monet ("The Saint-Lazare Station"), Cezanne, Renoir, Degas and Seurat.
Model of Angkor, Guimet Museum, Paris
Another day we visited the Guimet, one of the best Asian museums in world outside Asia and perhaps the most inclusive Asian museum in terms of different countries and cultures. It is exceptionally good on Cambodia and Vietnam, which were French colonies, but its holdings from China, Nepal, Japan and Korea are also impressive. We especially enjoyed Myanmar and Laos works since we had recently visited those countries.
A must-visit is the Musée de l'Orangerie, located in the Tuileries Gardens. This small but lovely museum features Monet's monumental "Water Lilies," which occupies two rooms. It also has a wonderful late 19th and early 20th century collection, including splendid Picassos and Matisses. Other advantages of l'Orangerie is that it opens at 9 a.m. for those who like us prefer an early start, and it is rarely crowded, especially in mornings. The Pompidou is featuring contemporary art because its terrific Modernist collection is closed for several months, but it has announced that it will reopen the Modernist collection in May.
Those who love Monet should not miss the Musee Marmiton Monet with its large Monet collection as well as works by his contemporaries. Not essential for first-time visitors, the museum at Le Petit Palais is free and has a broad array of mostly French paintings and sculpture, including some fine Courbets.
There are many more museums in Paris. Also, keep your eye out for special exhibits. While we were in Paris, there was an exceptional Velasquez at the Grand Palais.
A great dining city
Eating is part of the fun of Paris and often is the evening entertainment. All of our dinners offered special pleasures. We sought out middle-price restaurants rather than pricey Michelin-starred ones. We usually chose bistros that are small restaurants serving traditional food, although some have expanded in cuisine.
We visited Restaurant l'Ardoise (28 Rue de Mont Thabor). It serves 38-euro fixed-price dinners of high quality and value and with many choices, and they are willing to split a dinner if asked. The portions here are more generous than most U.S. restaurants. On our second visit, we had a magnificent sole meuniere that we split rather than order two full dinners as we did on our first visit. I should mention that he tables are so close together than you will inevitably become friends with the people on either side of you.
Equally good if not better is La Regalade (123 Rue Saint Honore). At 36 euros fixed-price, it is a great value and you can order a la carte. Recommended are seafood soup, wild salmon, roast veal with stuffing and mushrooms and the grand marnier soufflé.
A splendid, quite small and somewhat funky restaurant that also features a wine bar is La Robe et le Palais (13 Rue des Lavandieres). We had two entrees: an excellent fillet of duck breast — with a foie gras infusion served with beet root — and chicken with potato gnocchi, pine nuts, lettuce and a little cooked ham.
Le Jalles (14, rue Capuchines) is excellent. Entrees are about 23 euros, and the roast chicken included a glass of wine and a small appetizer for that price. Both the roast chicken with mushrooms and roasted potatoes and the ravioli stuffed with langoustine in a seafood broth were delicious.
Pinxo is an imaginative restaurant in the Renaissance Vendome Hotel. Almost every dish comes in two sizes, one with three servings and a tasting version that is one-third as large. Recommended are a tasting-sized order of sautéed baby squid with ink pasta and two tasting-sized starters, marinated salmon and curdled goat cheese with eggplant (9 Rue Alger).
We also tried L'Absinthe (24 , Place du Marche St. Honore) which we found a little more nouveau cuisine than our palates needed. The sea bream was quite good, but the appetizers seemed over the top if not at times silly. Why put duck and foie gras on a nondescript roll and serve it as a sandwich? Why fry cream puffs?
Most of the restaurants I have mentioned require a reservation, especially Friday and Saturday. Service is included at restaurants, but, if you are pleased, leaving some change is a nice gesture. Some restaurants try to pad bills, so be observant. If there is no bread or cover charge listed on the menu, it should not be added.
A word about lunch: We tend to eat an ample breakfast — included at our hotel — and dinner, but only a light lunch. Our best lunches were often sharing a few croissants and pastries from a patisserie shop, some of which have seats and tables.
We stayed the Renaissance Vendome, near the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre. Service is excellent and much of the staff knows your name. Returning to a hotel where you have had a good experience on an earlier visit can be fun, and this was the case during our stay here.
I also have two hotels to recommend on the Left Bank: the well run K&K and the more elegant Lutetia. The latter, down the street from the K&K on Blvd. Raspail, is currently being remodeled.
Buying a museum pass for two, four or six days is a good investment. It covers national museums and some other tourist venues but does not cover special exhibitions in those museums. It also enables you to go right into the museum without standing in line. If you are someone who spends a whole day at museum, you will not need a pass that gives you admittance to a great many museums and it will probably be less expensive to buy individual tickets.
I should also note that some museums let people over 65 in at a reduced price or free, although technically this is restricted to those in the European community. Also, some museums will let teachers in for free or at a reduced price.
Operas and ballets at the main venues need be booked well in advance of your trip.
Be aware that many museums, including the Louvre, are closed Monday or Tuesday, and many restaurants close Sunday and/or Monday.
Easter Procession, Madrid
I did not visit Madrid until 1994, when dictator Francisco Franco, victor in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, was long gone. But Spain was even then emerging from his shadow. While I enjoyed the major museums, I did not have the rush that I get in the major cities of Europe. Indeed, I was mugged there — such crimes were rampant and the police seemed indifferent.
I returned with my wife in 1996 and spend four or five days there, and while we enjoyed the city, it was surprisingly cool for spring. Truth to tell, we liked Seville and the rest of Andalusia (Cordoba, Grenada, Malaga and Costa del Sol) better, in part because the weather was much nicer.
This time, perhaps because of the sunny weather in 70s, we enjoyed Madrid more than on our last visit. With its history, parks and gardens, museums and interesting architecture, we discovered that it is one of the treasures of Europe.
After a comfortable two-hour flight from Paris, we arrived about 1:30 and took the express bus (5 euros each) that dropped us close to hotel, a better deal than a 30-euro cab to the hotel which we paid when we departed in the early morning.
Detail of Mayor Square, Madrid
Madrid is, like Paris, a great walking city. You need to visit Plaza Mayor, the central plaza of the city built in the early 17th century and one of the great public squares in Europe. It is near another famous plaza, Puerto del Sol. Both of the plazas are touristy but central to the city's residential and cultural life. You can continue your walk to the cathedral and the Royal Palace, which has over 2,400 rooms and is almost 1.5 million square feet, and contains paintings by such major artists as Velasquez, Goya and Caravaggio.
Easter Procession, Madrid
Easter brings colorful processions celebrating the holiday from Holy Thursday through Sunday. You don't need to be a Catholic to appreciate the pageantry. On Good Friday, we enjoyed watching, with a massive crowd, the elaborate Easter procession with floats and religious rituals; there were also processions the following two days. For the Spanish, Catholicism is a living religion more than it is in such Western European countries as France and Italy.
Botanical Garden, Madrid
The public park in the Retiro district (Parque del Retiro) has a man-made lake, special exhibits in its two small palaces, and great walking paths; a visit is a must. Worth a few hours or more is a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens, adjacent to the Prado.
Spanish museums close much later than those in most places. The Prado is open until 8, and we spent many hours there on our arrival day. The museum is less crowded than the world's other major museums featuring Western paintings, and that makes it more pleasant. Its collection specializes in Spanish paintings and has no holdings from the later 19th and 20th centuries. Highlights include many splendors from Velasquez ("Las Meninas"), Goya (including a special exhibit until early June), El Greco and as well as important Raphaels and Titians. I returned a second time to see the extraordinary Rogier van der Weyden special exhibit.
Picasso, Woman in Garden, at the Sofia Museum in Madrid
Another day our focus was the Reina Sophia, in part to see again Picasso's huge, powerful, black-and-white anti-war "Guernica," which is one of the world's must-see paintings. The painting is Picasso's response to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and, in particular, to German and Italian bombing — at Franco's request — of the village of Guernica. The Sophia is Spain's national museum and is devoted to 20th century art, and its focus is on Spanish painters such as Picasso, Dali, Gris, Miro and Gonzalez, but it also has works by other major international artists.
The Thyssen, a private museum with a wide-ranging, world-class collection, shouldn't be missed. Highlights are a splendid Duccio ("Christ and the Samaritan Woman," 1310-11) that any museum in the world would consider a major treasure, and important Titians and El Grecos as well as American paintings (Hopper, Church, Bierstadt) rarely assimilated into major European collections.
For about 20 euros round-trip you can take a fast train to Toledo, which is home to one of Europe's magnificent baroque cathedrals, the Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo. For 8 euros, you get both a ticket and an audio that is one of the most informative audios of a tourist site that you will find.
We spent at least two hours in the cathedral. The art collection in the sacristy — with works by El Greco (including the masterwork, "The Disrobing of Christ"), Velasquez and Goya as well as Titian and Raphael — is worth a visit alone. One can also visit the remnants of Jewish sites, but on the whole they are disappointing and touristy. One place labeled a synagogue is actually a church. Walking through the medieval streets is great fun and a highlight of a Toledo visit. Peeking into an occasional church or museum can punctuate the walk.
Spanish food is interesting if not for me as exciting as French or Italian food. You should try paella, the national dish, with a rice bases as I have on previous visits to Spain.
El Rincon de Esteban (3 Calle de Sta Catalina) serves traditional Spanish food, but we found it less than exciting despite excellent service and huge portions.
Another night we ate at a Basque restaurant, Alkalde (10 Calle Jorge Juan), where we had a giant salad, fine king crab bisque and lamb shoulder.
Restaurants featuring tapas — small portions and sometimes half-portions — are good alternatives, particularly at places where a portion is the size one expects for dinner. Some of these don't close between lunch and dinner, which begins late in Spain; if you wish to be in bed much before midnight, tapas places are good choices.
For tapas, I recommend Cinco Jotas (Place Santa Ana 1). One can spend less on tapas, but this place specializing in delicious ham and fish dishes is excellent.
At the Ritz Hotel where we stayed, we had a wonderful tapas dinner at the bar restaurant: ravioli, hake and onion soup. Another night, we ate in the garden restaurant and ordered from the same menu, but we chose less memorable dishes. Prices here are high.
Busker in Mayor Square, Madrid
Overlooking the Prado, the well-located Ritz where we stayed is an upscale hotel. In the tradition of early 20th century grand hotel, it has elegant public spaces. After a somewhat indifferent check-in, the service was for the most part excellent but not as personal as at our Paris hotel.
I asked to be moved to a larger room because the bathroom of our first room was small and the bed not a king size as we were told it was. The new room was very nice with a separate bath and shower and a nice view. The gym was mediocre at best and hardly in keeping with a five-star hotel.
The included hotel breakfast offered good croissants, fresh juice and, at times, impersonal service. Since the Ritz has many American guests, they could find a way to cook fried eggs over easy and provided edible waffles
While I have no statistical evidence, it seems that there is less English spoken in Spain than in any country in Western Europe and perhaps in all of Europe. My French didn't help as much as it did in earlier visits.
Based on my experience at the Ritz, my advice is never to take the first room you are offered in a European hotel without seeing it and sometimes hold out for the third.
This is a wonderful trip that you can organize yourself for as long or as short as you wish. Even if this is your first trip to Europe, you still don't require a tour that stipulates each day what you do and when. With the dollar so strong, you can arrange your trip to fit your budget. Some people rent apartments and get very good value even if only for a few days. As to safety, I felt completely comfortable.
Airfare varies, but our economy ticket on US Airways from Ithaca to Paris to Madrid and return to Philadelphia was about $1,200. If you fly from New York City or Philadelphia or Newark, it would be less. On the Paris-Madrid flight, we paid $104.
Schwarz has been writing travel articles for over a dozen years. Author of 16 books, he is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. Prior published travel articles can be found at courses.cit.cornell.edu/drs6. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @DanRSchwarz.