If I were going to Europe this summer, I would go to Paris and, on the Left Bank, right across the Seine from Notre Dame, find Shakespeare & Company, the funkiest old bookstore in existence, where you can browse through the must for hours. Then—you can see it from the bookstore’s front stoop—proceed to the Hôtel Colbert on a tiny street, containing in its small, beamed restaurant one of the treasures of the most beautiful city on earth. Eat.
If I were going to Europe this summer, I would find my way through France to the foothills of the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. This is where Hannibal, around 218 BC, crossed the mountain range with his elephants on the way to the Alps and Italy. Up in the hills is the Auberge Peyrepetuse, with only four tables. Order the wild boar stew.
If I were going to Europe this summer, I would find a seaside town outside Perpignan called Colliourg. Overlooking the Mediterranean is a sidewalk café called Les Templiers. The anchovies fresh from the sea will change forever your view of that maligned little treasure.
If I were going to Europe this summer, I would speed along the Côte d’Azur, still one of the more spectacular drives on earth with its mountain swoops and tunnels, avoiding Cannes and Nice (gravel beaches!), and settle into a peninsula between, at Antibes. There is the Hôtel Royal, on the harbor, nothing special, some jazz, but safe, and reasonable.
Yes, I would drop into Monaco, but only for lunch, at the Saint-Benoît, a wonderful view of an unsurpassed harbor.
If I were going that way this summer, I would head up to the much-neglected lake country in northern Italy where the Alps melt into the rich plains of the Po River. On Lake Garda, there is Sirmione, a narrow twomile finger of a peninsula that stabs into the peaceful waters. At the tip are the remains of a Roman villa that belonged to the poet Catullus. If you have a reservation, you can take your car (barely) through the tunnelled entrance to the town. The Flaminia Hotel,
with a deck out over the blissful waters, is a model of that rare thing called good service.
If I were going to Venice, I would not go near a gondolier, unless you have a craving for bankruptcy. Stay away from Harry’s Bar, despite your fondness for Hemingway, for the same reason. I would spend my money instead on the Romanian violinist who leads the band late at night on the Piazza San Marco.
If I were going to Europe, I would not ignore Bologna, the most-ignored Italian city despite the fact it is the gastronomic capital of the country. Beside the cathedral, beside one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, is Ristorante Notai, with the best food in the city that offers the best food in a nation that loves food. There is a salad that comes smothered in a small mountain of carpaccio, hiding balls of melon and other delights that are better to be imagined than described. To die.
KI were going to Florence—one-way city—
I would never try to drive. Forget it. Park it and walk. Cross, since you are walking, the Ponte Vecchio and walk past the ugly Pitti Palace, turn right down an alley or two and ask for the café where the artisans and wood framers eat. It was one of the great finds of a scribe’s stomach until some dumb guidebook operator gave the secret away. Get there early before the tourists arrive. Osso bucco.
If I were going to Europe this summer, the one town I would never miss is San Gimignano, the Manhattan of Tuscany, about halfway between Florence and Siena. There are remaining just 13 of the 72 narrow brick medieval towers that stretch to 12 storeys, and its hilltop site viewed from afar resembles the New York City skyline. They were built, not for defence, but because in the Middle Ages it was an important textile centre that guarded the secret of yellow saffron dye. The length determined the value of the precious cloth and the craftsmen, to shield it from sun and dust, built the towers as they had no room to spread it out on the narrow hilltop. There is no finer sight, in Europe, than rounding a green Tuscan hill and spying this startling scene on the horizon.
If I were in that direction, I would never skip Siena, with its delightful sloping square, where every year each canton sponsors a horse in the universe’s wildest race, around the cobblestones, the bareback jockeys whipping one another, and punters who have bet the mortgage away attempt to yank the riders from their mounts. Ascot it ain’t.
If I were going to Italy, I would always, always drive in the right lane. There is no more frightening sight on earth than the sudden appearance, in a rearview mirror, of an Italian male—freaked out on testosterone—so close to your bumper he could kiss it. This is a sexual challenge. Surrender quickly.
If I were going to Rome, I would go to the famed, and fabulously expensive, Hotel Hassler, at the top of the Spanish Steps, for a drink in its rooftop restaurant, but only for a view over the Seven Hills of Rome, and not for a meal, since the service is atrocious. There is a certain downside to the handy European practice of service compris: they don’t have to give a damn. Rome, since it has banned cars from its central (i.e. shopping) area, has now almost the same attraction as London to a North American—who wouldn’t normally walk to a parking lot, but who is now induced to walk for miles and miles while seeking lunch.
If I were going to Europe this summer, I wouldn’t go near it in July or August.
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