By Tom Robotham

The first time I visited Paris, in 1999, I was smitten. Unfortunately, due to financial and time constraints, another 17 years would pass before I was able to return. Since then, I’ve tried to make up for lost time, visiting the city every chance I get. And yet, I’ve always wondered: Is the rest of France as magical as the City of Light? 

Last month, in the company of Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this magazine, I went to find out.

After discussing the possibilities, we settled on a plan: We would visit Lyon, Avignon, Arles, and Aix-en-Provence, before capping off our journey with another five days in Paris. 

Each place had its charms, but the trip overall reminded me of one fundamental truth about travel: You have to enter into the experience with an open mind and an open heart. If you try too hard to make a place live up to your expectations, you’re sure to be disappointed. 

We began our trip in Lyon, having caught a high-speed train there as soon as we landed in Paris. During the taxi ride from the train station, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Much of the metropolitan area consists of modern suburbs and commercial districts. But once we crossed the Rhône River and entered the historic city center, it became more appealing, and when we arrived at our small hotel, and walked into the cozy lobby lined with bookshelves, I breathed a sigh of satisfaction. Since it was only midday, however, our rooms were not yet available, so after leaving our bags in the hands of a friendly young woman at the front desk, we ventured out again in search of a café for a beer or two. This proved to be a challenge. At the first place we checked out, we were told that we couldn’t just order drinks, and since we weren’t hungry yet, we moved on. This was the first red flag. In Paris, I’d grown accustomed to entering virtually any café at any hour and ordering nothing but a Coke or cup of coffee if that’s all I wanted. 

After walking another block, we found ourselves in the midst of throngs of tour groups—something I try to avoid when I travel, since I much prefer spots frequented by locals. Alas, all the other cafés seemed to be packed with tourists, so we had little choice. Our beers arrived swiftly, but I was taken aback when the waiter handed us the check and said, “Pay now.” He seemed anxious for us to move on as quickly as possible, so he could turn over the table—another striking contrast to Paris, where every single place I’ve ever been has a staff who seems happy to let you sit and sip for hours, if you like, until you raise your hand and say, laddition, sil vous plait.

Slightly rankled, we made our way back to our rooms and, after a rest, headed out again. Ironically, the most appealing place was an English pub. I love a good pub, but somehow it didn’t feel right. I wanted something French. As it turned out, though, it was the highlight of my day. Not long after we entered, I struck up a conversation with a guy named Mark, who was born and raised in England but had moved to Lyon some years ago to take a job teaching high-school English. He liked Lyon, he said, because there’s plenty of work there, and it’s a lot more affordable than Paris. 

The next day brightened considerably. The main tourist attraction there is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which sits atop a giant hill. The night before, I’d noticed a staircase that leads all the way to the top but found it way too intimidating. Fortunately, we learned that there’s a cable car that takes people up for just a couple of euros. It turned out to be well worth the visit, not only because of the basilica’s magnificence but also because of the panoramic view from a lovely terrace. After heading back down, moreover, we found ourselves in a different part of the city, which was largely crowd-free and boasted a number of quaint shops and cafés. We also ran into Mark again, by chance, on the street, which made me feel as if we were in a small village, rather than the second most populous metro area in the country. And so, later that evening, we ended up back in the English pub, on trivia night, no less, and teamed up with him. Our performance was less than stellar, but it was a fun night. Still, I’d seen enough of the city. I’m glad I checked it out, but I doubt I’ll go back. 

(Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière gazes over Lyon from its hilltop perch. Photo by Tom Robotham.)


I found Avignon to be more attractive, with its large town square right in front of our hotel. At the front desk, I asked the attendant for dinner recommendations, and without hesitation, she said, “Le Carré du Palais,” which sits on another square in front of the Palais des Papes (Palace of Popes), one of the largest and most significant medieval Gothic buildings in all of Europe and the seat of Western Christianity during part of the 14th Century, when Avignon vied for supremacy over Rome. Earlier in the day, we’d toured the palace—a fortress, really—and were awed by its grandeur, so we were pleased to find that the restaurant’s outdoor seating had a spectacular view of it. The food was good as well, but that was less important to me than the setting. I enjoy good meals, but I’m by no means a “foodie”—I always put more value on atmosphere. And so it was, as well, with a small café adjacent to our hotel—a place called Lou Mistrau—where we stopped for a nightcap and met the owner, who talked about the many celebrities who had stopped there, including Liz Taylor and Richard Burton years ago when they were on their way to Cannes. 

Two days later, we caught a train to Arles—or so we thought. The trains overall were wonderful, and I highly recommend them, but they can be a little confusing. After boarding what we thought was the right train, we realized after it had left the station that it was an express to Marseille. Fortunately, it made one stop at another station just outside the historic center, and we were able to backtrack quickly. 

Arles is best known as the city where van Gogh once lived and was very productive, but other artists, including Picasso, lived there for a time as well. It’s also currently the home of an old friend of mine who used to live in Norfolk, and by a stroke of good luck he happened to be free the day we arrived. After giving us a little walking tour, we had a nice lunch, where I enjoyed a good plate of salmon and grilled vegetables. After lunch, Jeff and I visited the town’s main historic site, a Roman amphitheater, where gladiator contests once took place. 

Arles was a nice stop overall, and based on my friend’s description of his life there—20 minutes outside of town—it sounded like it might be worth further exploration by car someday. Since we didn’t have one, though, we felt that we’d gotten our fill of what was available to us by foot. 

From Arles, we moved on to Aix-en-Provence, which required a train connection in Marseille. Aix is larger and more active than Arles but still seemed very limited compared to Paris. Then again, what isn’t? Nevertheless, we found a great restaurant—La Rotonde, which takes its name from the large circular plaza adjacent to it—where we not only enjoyed good food and first-rate service but met a lovely couple from Canada. It was the man’s birthday, and he told us they’d been at the same restaurant 30 years earlier, to the day. 

That’s always the highlight of travel for me—meeting people, whether they be locals or interesting tourists (as opposed to the obnoxious ones who travel in large, guided groups and seem to have no interest in connecting with the local street culture.) With that in mind, I was anxious to get to Paris, where I always encounter the friendliest and most engaging folks.

It did not disappoint. 

On our first night there, we caught a wonderful jazz show at my favorite Paris club, Sunset Sunside, an intimate room that nevertheless draws great jazz musicians from all over the world. The show that night featured a quartet of local musicians, the Blakettes, three of them women, and fronted by a guitarist in a tribute to the late, great Grant Green. Afterwards, I struck up a conversation with the bassist, a woman named Moira Montier-Dauriac, and told her how much I loved the performance. It was true. I’ve seen many of the top names in jazz over the last 50 years or so, but I can honestly say that this show ranked among my all-time favorites. The musicians were virtuosic and soulful, the band was tight and, man, did they swing. 

The rest of the week was filled with many highlights, including a fabulous meal of poached haddock at another restaurant called La Rotonde (no connection to the one in Aix), which is (French President) Emanuel Macron’s favorite spot, and martinis at the Ritz Hotel, where everyone is treated like royalty, no matter who they are. The experiences that stood out above all the rest, however, were two stops at Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, which I wrote about after my trip to Paris last year. Jeff wrote about it as well, earlier this year. The restaurant is special—truly unique—for a variety of reasons. One is its old-world façade, which is covered with wisteria vines that happened to be in bloom. Another is its location. It sits just two blocks from Notre Dame, and in fact used to be a priest’s residence. And yet, it’s tucked away on a little side street that is quiet and serene, and seems so far from the crush of tourists outside the cathedral that it feels as if it’s in another part of town altogether. 

What makes the place truly light up, though, is the presence of the manager, a supremely charismatic man named Frederico Benani, who favors operatic arias on the outdoor sound system and frequently sings himself, in a rich baritone, when he’s not waiting on you or welcoming strangers as if they were longtime friends. He’s even in the habit of stopping passersby, asking where they’re from, and luring them in for an unplanned drink or meal. And so it was on our two visits this time. One of his “victims” was a guy named Matt, who gave into Frederico’s temptations for “a glass of wine,” and ended up staying for dinner. Matt is British and teaches history at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, so we had a lot in common. Another guest, a doctor at the nearby hospital and owner of an art gallery next door to the restaurant, was also warm and delightful to talk to. But, really, there were too many other charming people to count. One other that I have to mention, though, is a woman I met from New York. When I told her that I grew up there, she asked if I knew Bradley’s. My heart leapt. I responded that not only was it my favorite jazz club in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that it was where my ex-wife and I had our first date. 

“I’m Bradley’s niece,” she said. 

I could scarcely believe the synchronicity of it all. I’ve met many people in New York who don’t remember the club, and here I was 3,600 miles away, meeting a member of the late owner’s family. 

It was also the perfect way to cap off the trip. In spite of my disappointments, here and there, in the other cities we visited, the journey was characterized by friendliness, from start to finish—well, except for that one jerk of a waiter in Lyon. The experiences at Au Vieux also drove home an important realization: France has many places worth visiting, and there’s still so much of it that I haven’t seen. But Paris is in a class by itself. More than any other city—even New York, at this point—it feels like home to me.