Paris to the Past

Paris to the Past

Author Ina Caro’s intriguing idea was “to travel by train through the history of France, taking day trips from central Paris … traveling in chronological order to a different century each day, and returning to Paris each evening.” Dividing the book into the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, 17th-century France, 18th-century Paris, and Napoleon and the Restoration, the author visits from three to ten destinations for each era, devoting a chapter to each trip. The shortest jaunts are a Métro ride away, the longest is to La Rochelle, three hours each way and therefore quite a stretch for a day trip.

Caro, whose previous book, The Road from the Past, describes a driving tour from Provence to Paris, does an excellent job of showing the wealth of historic sites within easy railroad reach of Paris and giving visitors the practical information they need to get to them. While the book’s 24 destinations include such familiar sites as the Louvre, Sainte-Chapelle, Chartres and Versailles, what sets it apart is its inclusion of rarely-visited treasures including the cities of Tours, Laon and Angers, and the châteaux of Maintenon and Compiègne. For each visit the author provides capsule histories and suggestions for making the most of your time in each place.

Recounting episodes from her travels alone or with her husband, Caro describes memorable meals and even, on one occasion, what she was wearing—comparing her own short hair, white shirt and slacks, for instance, to the historical accounts of Joan of Arc, who was censured for wearing “male attire”. Typical of the insights she shares with her readers is this one on the French view of Joan’s apparel: “I had a greater shock when I found out that even though the people of Orléans had celebrated her deliverance of Orléans every year since 1433 by having someone portray Joan of Arc entering the city on horseback…, the person had been a boy until after World War II,  because until the end of that war it was still not considered appropriate for a girl to wear men’s clothing.”

The fact that the trips are arranged chronologically makes it a an interesting read for armchair travelers, while the detailed practical information will appeal to frequent visiters to Paris who’d like to broaden their knowledge of French history, discover some fascinating new sites and, in most cases, still return to the capital in time for dinner.

Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train. By Ina Caro. W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. 381 pages.

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