A lot of us feel we are pretty competent at travel, particularly in places we cherish. But even a diligent prep for our journeys can leave us later patching together fragments collected in the random order ruled by chance, whim, companions. A historian, though, may seek to make a more coherent story out of the material, and Ina Caro is a historian of medieval France.
“Paris to the Past”
W.W. Norton, $27.95
For decades she and her husband, the biographer Robert Caro, have traveled France intently, joyously: After a week in Paris they’d take a lengthy car journey through some part of the country. Deeply familiar with France’s art, politics, and social history, they were buoyed as well by enormous curiosity — and appetite — for that land of plenty.
France is a concentrated capsule of Western history and, as Ms. Caro notes in her new book, “Paris to the Past,” more than most nations it is very good at, and interested in, preserving the past. Ms. Caro came increasingly to feel that the visible evidence all about the land could yield a more coherent narrative.
She had an engaging idea: She set a grid of history over the map of France and proceeded to plot their travels along that timeline — of shifts in power, technology, art, society. For several years, then, as the Caros drove about the land — bottom to top and sideways — their chronological travels followed France’s story as it entered, made, and came to embody the history of our Western world.
Ms. Caro’s earlier book, “The Road From the Past,” described that project, and the (tax-free) added value — the pleasure — of a rational sequence laid onto the nearly irrational profusion of that country. That this historian organized the story for us travelers was already bounty enough; but now Ms. Caro has hit on a further idea — ingenious, useful, even hip.
Eager to go on roaming the country, but increasingly loath to quit Paris — and a great rental flat — to do so, Ms. Caro realized that one of France’s paradigmatic accomplishments, its great rail system, put historic sites all over the country within quick and easy reach. Using the Metro, the RER suburban-line trainlets, the older intercity trains, and now the high-speed TGV, the Caros would continue their forays in chronologic tourism with day trips near and far and be back in Paris in time for dinner and a stroll past the flying flanges of Notre Dame.
“Paris to the Past” sets out 25 such journeys in and from the capital: It takes 15 minutes by subway to the edge of Paris to reach the intact 14th-century Chateau de Vincennes, with its keep, moat, and wooden drawbridge (the same architectural period as restored Carcassonne 800 kilometers away in the southwest); an hour by train to the uncanny 12th-century emanation of Chartres Cathedral in its tranquil setting, or to Joan of Arc’s stake-marker at Rouen; not much longer by TGV to the early medieval chateau-fortress at Angers. A two-hour train ride southwestward puts you down amid the entrancing early Renaissance castles (Chenonceau, Blois, Amboise, and so on) in the Loire Valley from where so many kings ruled France, or eastward to the Gothic mass of Reims Cathedral, where most of them were crowned.
Ms. Caro’s accounts of the day trips range from architectural and military notes to her absorbing discussions of the art in each locale — the stories in frescoes, tapestries, stained glass — and she often exults in the extra time an easy return trip by train affords to look in on a collection or library, a neighborhood or market left unexplored on some earlier visit. And, alone or with her husband, a good meal is a signal piece of the day’s plan — the food and the setting described with gusto and precision.
And as lagniappe, another classic French experience: The glorious 19th-century railway stations, those temples to high travel, drop their passengers at the very center of the great old cities. These excursions need not get tangled in the twaddle of today’s urban and suburban sprawl. From the center of Paris to the center of Tours, of Rouen, of La Rochelle — usually with some notable restaurant nearby, to gratify that appetite as well.
So: no car, no traffic, no hotels, no fuss. The trains carry travelers quick as the seven-league boots in a Perrault fairy tale; they head direct for the heart of things, the way a farmer’s cart headed into the medieval market towns.
The book is a practical-minded directory to managing such deft journeys; it is also studded with exhilarating notes — illuminating connections, a quick sketch providing context, a concise disquisition on craft or art, a comment that characterizes a social world or an economic situation:
On the prosperity of early Gallo-Roman settlements like Narbonne and Tours, through roads and canals, commerce and literacy. Those towns crashed in the seventh century with the invasion of barbarians from the north, who were illiterate and unversed in administration, especially taxation, needed to keep things going.
On the singular importance of land “in the moneyless, tradeless” early Middle Ages — a neatly formulated reminder of the state of things.
On the sexual succession of the kings’ girlfriends, amusing soap-opera notes suggest their effect on royal power displays.
On the rise of the Protestant — and capitalist — port city of La Rochelle and its influence abroad through trade, money, and the eventual Huguenot diaspora throughout the world.
On the observation that 18th-century Paris lofted to championship in elegance and desire even as the nation lost the Seven Years’ War — and with it much of her colonial holdings. A provocative association. . . .
On the role of craftworkers and early technology in the rebirth of towns in the 14th and 15th centuries: To stem the flight of currency abroad for such luxury imports as silk, Louis XI established a silk industry in Tours, and by the year 1500 fully a third of the population worked in the industry. And: Henry IV established the Place des Vosges in the Marais to house workers and work space for his newly mandated silk industry; he ordered the use of parks and private lands to grow the white mulberry trees to feed the worms.
On the shenanigans surrounding Louis IX’s acquisition (nearly a confiscation) of the Christly relics he wanted for his great Sainte Chapelle: Their installation contributed to a popular sentiment that Paris as their repository, and this king as their sponsor, had some sacred aura — a step toward the notion of the divine right of kings, Ms. Caro suggests.
This is a fine guidebook, and what’s more, it’s good popular history, responsible and entertaining, with its useful glances at motive, at long-term effects, at rumor and gossip as essential elements in the truth of the story. Ms. Caro has a gratifying interest in persons, in the influence of character and context, in long consequences.
Rich in detail but never garrulous, “Paris to the Past” brightens historical context with the personal — the personalities whose intrigues of sex and love and enmity made that history, and the personal responses and reflections of Ina Caro and her boon companion, Bob, these two cultivated minds with the appetite, curiosity, and discipline to enrich a chronology of historical France.
Ina Caro has a house in East Hampton.
Linda Asher is a translator and editor. She lives part time in Sagaponack.