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April 1, 2013

I know about the must-sees, but I must-eat

By some people's definition, I've never been to Paris, even though I've traveled there a half-dozen times. That's because if you handed me a list of the city's must-see attractions and asked me to check off the ones I've been to, I'd be forced to admit that I must not have seen most of them. Or if I did, they were little more than a blur.

Notre Dame, towering over the Ile de la Cite? I couldn't be bothered. The Pompidou Centre? It looks plenty cool from the outside, sure - enough to win the world's most prestigious architecture prize. But not enough for me to break my stride. Sacre Coeur? A friend dragged me up the steps, we took a quick gander, and I dragged her right back down.

Joni Mitchell once sang about wandering the Champs Elysees and "going cafe to cabaret" in that "unfettered and alive" way. But not I. My approach to that grand boulevard, and most of Paris's landmarks, is better described by Dionne Warwick: I walk on by. Quickly.

What's my rush? Why don't I stop and smell the roses - or at least ogle the stained glass? It's not that I'm uninterested in art, architecture, theater, music or other cultural touchstones of a place as rich as the City of Light. Far from it. But my primary interest commands too much of my attention, and I'm trying to pack it all in.

I skip most of the must-sees because I'm headed for the must-eats.

I know Notre Dame primarily as that imposing structure that rises into the sky on the way across the river to my favorite bakery on the Rue de Rennes - the one with the perfect financiers, those gold-brick-shaped almond cakes that I'll take over a madeleine any day of the week, Proust be damned. Pompidou's modern art museum may hold works by the likes of Dali and Kandinsky and Warhol and Calder, but I mostly think of it as eye candy for my walk to the best falafel shop in the city.

One Paris oversight is so egregious that I hesitate even to admit it. But here goes: Every time I've visited, I've been too busy making my way from macaron shop to farmers market, from wine bar to rotisserie, that I've never actually made it all the way into - get ready for this - the Louvre. The Louvre!

 It seems so ridiculous, but the fact is, whenever I've had the choice between lining up to see the Mona Lisa and lining up to bite into a kouign-amann, a fabulous pastry from Brittany that tastes like the love child of a croissant and a sticky bun, well, you know what wins out.

It's the same everywhere I travel, to one degree or another. Over five days in London, you'd think that I could clear an evening for a West End play or two - but not when I want to eat as much Indian food as time will allow. A single theatrical experience might mean one fewer High Street curry house, an equation that just doesn't work for me.

On one visit there many years ago, I came up for air from my chicken tikka masala and rogan josh to visit Covent Garden, but you can probably guess that my destination wasn't the Royal Opera House, magnificently restored and certainly one of the city's most glorious attractions. No, it was little Neal's Yard Dairy for a sampling of exquisite raw-milk cheddar - and Wensleydale, Stilton, Shropshire and other UK cheeses of a quality I had never before experienced.

In Rome, I broke my habit for a little suit shopping and a trip to the Sistine Chapel, but honestly, that's just because a) I got wind of a fabulous little trattoria in the neighborhood, and b) I could get Armani at a third of the price. And the suit would help me fit in at a sleek restaurant I was planning to visit in Milan.

I'm on my most touristy behavior when I have company. When I went to Barcelona several years ago with my sister, I knew that if we didn't manage to soak up some Gaudi, especially the wild and unfinished Sagrada Familia, she would have disowned me. Thankfully, she's also as interested in food as I am, so we returned time and again to La Boqueria, the famed food market.

When we spent a week in Mexico City, she insisted that we devote the better part of a day to the Anthropology Museum, which - don't tell her I said this - I kind of wish we had skipped in favor of another squash-blossom quesadilla or two.

On a two-week trip to Japan, my friend Devra made sure that we took the time - in between meals, naturally - to see some temples, such as the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and the breathtaking Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto. Left to my own devices, I might have skipped them both and hung out for a little longer at Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, where we had sushi for breakfast - and where I wanted to return for lunch.

The truth is, I know that I've learned plenty about every place I've been, even as I've focused on those must-eats over the must-sees. Food, of course, is just as significant a part of a city's culture as art, making a visit to a restaurant or a bakery every bit as valid as one to a museum.

And sometimes the lines between the two blur. One of Devra's best ideas on that Japan trip was that we take a train to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama. The upstairs exhibits taught us how important ramen is to the history of Japan, preparing us for the main attraction downstairs: a theme park set in the year 1958, when the instant version of the noodles were invented. This is where outposts of renowned ramen shops from all over the country serve hot, steaming bowls of broth and noodles representing various regional styles, and we managed to eat at five of them. And then we bought some ramen kitsch at the gift shop. This was history we could taste.

In Paris, the best example might be at the most iconic sight of all: the Eiffel Tower. I hadn't avoided it, but I also hadn't gotten up close and personal - not until my friend Rachel and I made reservations for dinner at Le Jules Verne, which had been a tourist trap until Alain Ducasse's team took it over and created a luxe restaurant where the food (and the price tag, of course) lives up to the view. Why choose between dinner and a trip up the tower when you can have both? Inside the tower, some 400 feet above ground, we wined and dined as the sun set over Paris and the tower lit up.

As I write this, I'm planning my next big trip, to Southeast Asia in the fall. And all this talk about my must-not-sees has made me vow to expand my interests a little bit, to let up on the food obsessions and try to experience a wider view of a culture. As I read guidebooks on Thailand, I'm going to try to design an itinerary that can accommodate, say, a guided tour of Angkor Wat as well as a cooking class or two in Chiang Mai.

If we run short on time, though, I think I know what to skip.

 

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