The travel game is a funny one.
I've been surrounded lately by pitches from freelance writers and columnists about Christmas. "Ten great places to shop this holiday season," or "Europe's best Christmas markets." Things like that. It's nice, as we here at the Star have 100-plus travel sections a year and it's nice to have a theme to fall back on every now and then.
Yesterday I was reading a Rick Steves' column about Christmas traditions in Europe. He talked at one point about places in France where they sell "santons," which I believe are the small, ceramic figurines that folks can put around a creche or nativity scene. It immediately reminded me of a trip I took to Paris and the south of France (sorry about that) a couple years ago for the Star's epic series "The Grand Tour." I visited the town of Aix-en-Provence for a couple days in early December and fell in love with the stalls selling tiny, detailed and brightly coloured figures of bakers, butchers and, this being the home of Cezanne, painters.
Paris was absolutely wonderful at Christmas, with the interior of the Galeries Lafayette all done up in remarkable decorations and the Champs Elysees ablaze with coloured lights and a dusting of snow on the ground and collecting around the edges of the Metro subway signs and on the tops of restaurant awnings, including the fabled Les Deux Magots on Blvd. St. Germain.
The first time I saw Paris I was underwhelmed. I liked it but thought it noisy and thought the people impolite. The second time I quite enjoyed it. The third time I loved it. And the Christmas visit was exquisite. Mind you, I stayed at Le Bristol, one of the cities' top hotels. That probably helped. But I also was delighted by a $5 cup of incredible hot chocolate in the Marais district, which is full of great shops and fun shopping streets. And we ate cheaply in a great brasserie with tons of atmosphere in the Canal St. Martin area. I found the people charming for the most part and helpful and I came away with a renewed love for Paris.
So Monday morning and afternoon I have these warm, fuzzy feelings about France and Paris, with visions of snow-covered streets and romantic restaurants and tiny Christmas figures in my head. Monday night I gathered in a bar on Yonge St. and started chatting with a friend. And he said he was in Paris recently.
And HATED it.
"Worst part of my trip," he said.
Mind you, this buddy of mine is Italian and he said he absolutely adored Florence. I basically met my wife in Florence so I have to be careful here, but the last time I was there I wasn't so crazy about it. I liked it fine, but I didn't (and never have) like the art too much (WAY too heavy on the religious imagery for me) and it was impossibly crowded. Very pretty but perhaps a bit overrated in my book.
But the point, and there is one here I think, is that that's why travel is so great. I can go to, say, Birmingham and get an upgrade to a room overlooking the park and have a smashing meal and meet some great locals and come away RAVING about the place. But you could go the next week and get the tiny, cramped room with no heat next to the dumpster and get rained on and wander into a tourist trap restaurant and get waited on by a woman who just broke up with her boyfriend and hates the world and you come back and tell all your friends DO NOT GO TO BIRMINGHAM.
None of us is right. None of us is wrong. So when it comes time to make that trip, talk to your friends. But when they say they hated Paris find out why. Read Trip Advisor. Read the Star's travel stories on Paris. But don't let anyone else rule your plans. It's a big world out there and we're all different and we look at things in varied ways.
You might like classical music and be dying to visit the birthplace in Germany of Richard Wagner, born 200 years ago in 2013. I'm a Beatles guy and would rather see where Richard (Ringo) Starkey grew up in Liverpool.
As my buddy Dave Perkins likes to say, "That's why they have menus in restaurants."
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