PARIS — Rome and Paris are the two loveliest ladies of all the world’s capitals. Rome has my heart. I’ve lived there twice for nearly five years. But Paris is my mistress. Every so often, I must steal away to the banks of the Seine and have a weekend fling. I’ve been to Paris more than any other world capital. I always return to Rome, but my days in Paris always leave a lusty smile on my face.
Many ask which city I prefer. It’s like asking which Caravaggio I prefer. It’s a valid question. I just can’t decide. So when I went to Paris on assignment last weekend with my true love of my life, photographer Marina Pascucci, I did a comparison.
Every city has strengths. Paris and Rome just have more than others. Every city has weaknesses. Rome has some doozies. When you’re there, just look down. But placed side by side you get a feel for what each city has to offer a person like me.
So read my below lists of the 10 best things Paris and Rome have on each other. Feel free to write me and add your own points or your own rebuttal, preferably not one like the reader in Colorado during my sportswriting days when he wrote, “You suck the great big green one.” I don’t know what meant, but it sounded pretty negative.
10 WAYS PARIS IS BETTER THAN ROME
1. ETHNIC FOOD. France’s colonial empire stretched from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. It makes sense that its restaurants reflect its cultural melting pot. Vietnamese. Togoan. West Indies. Tibetan. Moroccan. You can eat your way around the world just walking through the Latin Quarter. Italy’s colonial empire stretched to, like, one neighborhood in Ethiopia. Immigration has ramped up in recent years but it hasn’t resulted in culinary diversity in Rome. A Roman’s idea of eating ethnic is Sicilian.
2. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. Paris’ subway, the Metro, is fantastic. It costs only 1.80 euro and has 303 stations and 16 lines. It’s clean, efficient and user friendly. The buses all have well-marked routes at the bus stops and are modern, clean and air-conditioned. Even in June, we always had a seat. Rome’s subway, also called Metro, sucks the great big green one. It has only three lines, one of which — recently completed Line C — goes to places I’ve never heard of. The other two lines are packed and a training ground for pickpockets, making the interchange at Termini look like a fire drill for terrorist attacks.
3. CLEANLINESS. For a city the size of Paris that gets more than 20 million tourists a year, the city is really clean. On this trip, Marina and I spotted some garbage that missed the bins but the sidewalks, streets, parks, subway stations and side streets are clean enough for postcards. Meanwhile, a popular website chronicling the filth problem in Rome is called Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks). It’s the dirtiest capital in Europe. Mountains of trash sitting along major thoroughfares make the outskirts of Rome look like rural India. Cigarette butts form baby logjams in gutters. The garbage bins in front of my apartment house are often surrounded by trash from gypsies rifling through them in the morning. The Library of Congress has fewer words than Rome’s graffiti-covered walls.
4. PARKS. Jardin du Luxembourg. Parc de la Villette. Jardin du Tuileries. A Paris map is littered with green spaces. There are few simple pleasures in world travel than a picnic in Parc du Champ de Mars looking up at the Eiffel Tower. Rome has three very good parks in Villa Borghese, Villa Doria Pamphili and the underrated Villa Ada. It just doesn’t have as many as Paris. Few cities do.
5. CAFES. Rome has a coffee culture; Paris has a cafe culture. In every neighborhood I stayed at in Paris, I staked out the local cafe. I went every morning for a cup of coffee and every afternoon for a glass of French wine. By the end of my stay I’d be on friendly terms with the staff. Marina and I do the same at Cafe Lea in the Latin Quarter. Cafes are where the likes of Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald hung out and wrote. I go to my Linari cafe in Rome. But Romans stand for an espresso and leave. In Paris, you learn the word “s’attarder,” French for “linger.”
6. EIFFEL TOWER. I love the Colosseum. I love St. Peter’s. I love Castel Sant’Angelo. But the Eiffel Tower is the most beautiful man-made structure in the world outside the Taj Mahal. It also fits Paris so well. It’s long, perfectly curved and feminine, standing tall in the flat landscape of western Paris. When it comes out at night, no star in the sky is brighter. No monument in the world makes me stand in awe after so many visits.
7. SEINE. Comparing the Seine to Rome’s Tiber is like comparing your hot cousin to your dead aunt. They’re on the same continent but not in the same conversation. The Seine is wide, well lit and lined with Paris’ most famous monuments. A moonlight cruise of the Seine was one of the most Romantic hours of my life — and I went alone. The Tiber is so filthy, people who’ve fallen in have died just from the diseases carried from rat urine.
8. BREAD. In Rome, these are fighting words. Italians love their bread and pooh-pooh the wimpy French version, all soft and squishy and made for butter and weird cheese. It’s just personal preference but I like a warm baguette with butter in the morning. Fill a soft french roll with Brie and you have one of the world’s great sandwiches. Italian bread is harder and made more for mopping up pasta sauce than sandwiches. Great for dinner, bad for picnics. Or you wait four hours, paint it black and use it in a hockey game.
9. NIGHTLIFE. In my 20s, I would’ve listed this higher. But I’m 61. I can no longer go drinking all night. However, in Paris you can if you want. Parisians know how to party more than Romans who can nurse a glass of wine like 16-year-old at her first Cotillion. Rome is a restaurant town. It’s not a bar town. I don’t like music, but Paris is crawling with jazz clubs. Some of them are after hours where long-standing musicians drop in to try new material on unsuspecting but very grateful guests.
10. CYCLING. Paris has 430 miles of bike lanes, all built since the late 1990s. The Velib’ bike share has 1,800 stations with 20-70 bikes each. Parisians ride their bikes to work, to eat, to exercise. Rome’s cobblestone streets, potholed roads and narrow sidewalks are about as conducive to cycling as surfing in Des Moines. Plus, I once rented a bike near my apartment and the shop clerk had no clue how to ride to the beach.
10 WAYS ROME IS BETTER THAN PARIS
1. PIAZZAS. Both cities are immensely walkable. Sure, in Paris you can walk from the 4th arrondissement to the 1st to the 2nd. But no matter which way you go, you’ll eventually walk down a huge boulevard, stopping at street lights and dodging taxis. When the ancient Romans designed Rome, the grid system was a millennium away from being invented. They set up the city around piazzas, with narrow roads pinwheeling off toward their villas in the countryside. Today, that system still exists. Quiet piazzas, void of traffic and noise, are never more than a short walk away. Living in Rome is like living in a big city with a small town right across the street.
2. PIZZA. Let’s face it. It’s mankind’s favorite food. From athletes to diplomats to terrorists, pizza is the ultimate comfort food. It’s Italy’s signature dish. Sure, France has a signature dish but how many people see comfort in snails? With apologies to Da Michele in Naples, no city in Italy makes better pizza than Rome where the thin crust reins supreme. Pizza in Rome is almost like health food.
3. ARCHITECTURE. I’ll give Paris the Eiffel. I’ll take Rome for depth. You don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to stand slack-jawed before St. Peter’s at night. Have a drink across the street from the Colosseum after the tourists have long returned to their hotels. Have an early morning cappuccino in the piazza while staring at the Pantheon. Rome has so many beautiful monuments, so perfectly back lit, no wonder they call it the world’s biggest outdoor museum.
4. LIFESTYLE. It’s why I retired here. The rest of the western world works so much to get ahead while never having enough time to spend the money they make. Even in a capital, Romans put more value in spare time, family and friends, food and wine, travel and relaxation. Yes, they’re in the country’s biggest recession since World War II. But talk to a Roman on his day off and he still sounds on top of the world. They don’t worry about things they can’t control. Besides, there’s a bowl of the world’s greatest pasta waiting for them that night. Paris is Northern Europe. It’s New York with better cheese.
5. PRICES. Rome is cheaper than Paris across the board. Wednesday night Marina and I went to Ferro e Ghisa, a modern restaurant near her home in the northwest neighborhood of Battistini. For one of the best prosciutto and mozzarella pizzas of my life, her big salad and a half a carafe of wine I paid only 22 euros. A meal for two in Paris for 22 euros is almost impossible. Buses are cheaper in Rome. Food in markets is cheaper. Museums are cheaper. Except for rent, Rome is probably the cheapest capital in the old Western Europe.
6. LANGUAGE TOLERANCE. I once asked an Italian bartender why Italians don’t get upset when tourists never bother learning the word “Grazie.” He shrugged and said, “Italian is a little language spoken in only one country.” So you can get away with being a total xenophobe and say “Thank you” without getting yelled at. If you’re conversational as I am, Italians are even nicer. The French have a reputation of putting tourists butchering the language in the Guillotine. I’ve never had a problem with the French. I don’t speak French. However, I try. They understand that. But if you speak French and make mistakes in what the French rightfully believe is the most beautiful language in the world, they’ll let you know. Every time.
7. GELATO. If pizza is mankind’s favorite food, ice cream is a close second. Gelato is the world’s best ice cream. So cold. So creamy. So good. It’s even natural. It has a third fewer calories than typical American ice cream. France has no dessert equivalent. They try with the chocolate crepe. But as a Rome gelateria owner once told me, “When you walk through a dimly lit piazza at night, with a gelato in one hand and your lover in the other, and you lick, and you Lick and you LICK, THAT is love!”
8. SEA. Few know this but Rome has beaches. The neighborhood of Ostia is on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Ostia isn’t Bora Bora but it’s functional, the water is reasonably clean and the beaches get more beautiful the farther south you go. The closest beach to Paris is Normandy. Enough said.
9. WINE. I’m splitting corks here. French wine is superb from the Cote d’Rhones in Provence to the champagne around Troyes in the north. But Rome gets the nod merely because its Lazio region produces very underrated wine and the champagne region 100 miles away is the closest wine region to Paris. Next time in Rome, order a Vermentino or for a picnic, buy a bottle of Frascati, a crisp white wine from the town of the same name. Better yet, you may even get them as house wines at a cheap trattoria.
10. WEATHER. I’m putting this last because I don’t care about weather. It has no effect on my mood. Ever. However, I know 99 percent of the population disagrees with me. Thus, 99 percent of the people will prefer Rome. Average temperature in July is 78 and January it’s 46. In Paris it’s 68 and 41, respectively. However, Rome surprisingly gets more annual rainfall, 33 inches to 25. If nothing else it means I can eat outside on my terrace three months longer than I could in Paris.
OK, who agrees or disagrees and why? Let the debate begin …