Paris to the Previous: Traveling through French Background by Train


Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train

“I’d rather go to France with Ina Caro than with Henry Adams or Henry James.”—Newsweek


In one of the most inventive travel books in years, Ina Caro invites readers on twenty-five one-day train trips that depart from Paris and transport us back through seven hundred years of French history. Whether taking us to Orléans to evoke the visions of Joan of Arc or to the Place de la Concorde to witness the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Caro animates history with her lush descriptions of architectural splendors and tales of court intrigue. “[An] enchanting travelogue” (Publishers Weekly), Paris to the Past has become one of the classic guidebooks of our time.

“I’d rather go to France with Ina Caro than with Henry Adams or Henry James.”—Newsweek


In one of the most inventive travel books in years, Ina Caro invites readers on twenty-five one-day train trips that depart from Paris and transport us back through seven hundred years of French history. Whether taking us to Orléans to evoke the visions of Joan of Arc or to the Place de la Concorde to witness the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Caro animates history with her lush descriptions of architectural splendors and tales of court intrigue. “[An] enchanting travelogue” (Publishers Weekly), Paris to the Past has become one of the classic guidebooks of our time.

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{ 3 comments }

KW Traveler November 11, 2012 at 2:14 am
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
A France travelers must read, July 30, 2011
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This concise review of French history through the architecture throughout France is a really interesting presentation of what could be very dry. The sights that we’ve seen and want to see come to life through this narrative. It is written in short chapters and provides good detail to get to these locations. Once there, the sites are much more interesting having read the book. If you’re going to France and you like architecture, read this book before you go!

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Anne S. Headley November 11, 2012 at 2:35 am
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars
Slow down and enjoy the trip, July 16, 2011
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Anne S. Headley (University Park, MD United States) –
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I love this book. I’ve been to France several times, and will continue to travel there as often as health and money permit. I don’t know of another book that allows for the traveler who is committed to public transportation. Not all of us want to stress ourselves by renting a car – it is supposed to be a vacation, right? Like Caro, I’m enchanted by St. Denis, and marvel that it is usually ignored by travel guides. Maybe that’s for the best, considering the crowds the author describes at Versailles. You can have hilarious adventures on trains and connecting buses or taxis. I look forward to following Caro’s advice in an upcoming trip in discovering some new places.
My rating of four stars instead of five is due to the lack of pictures. And I’m wary of little sketchy maps such as she includes – they give no idea of distances.
This is not your basic guidebook. This is for you if you already own the basics (Rick Steves or the Lonely Planet) and want to do some unique exploring on your own. No tour guide necessary. Just get a train pass and a carnet of metro tickets and go. Or wait – keep the train pass days for the TGV trips and go with the day rates for nearer destinations – but you already knew that, right?

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M. L. Asselin November 11, 2012 at 2:59 am
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars
Traveling through French History with Your Aunt, September 4, 2011
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M. L. Asselin (Bethesda, MD USA) –
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This review is from: Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train (Kindle Edition)

The recipe Ina Caro followed in writing “Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train,” was simple, if somewhat arbitrary: write a gist of the history of Paris (and so of the kingdom and empire of France) based on extant landmarks. Or, conversely, write a kind of travel guide to historical Paris arranged chronologically. The landmarks, naturally, must be centered about Paris; the means of transportation to get there (or at least in the general vicinity), by train–to include regional rail and subway, the “Metropolitan.” The landmarks, with few exceptions, couldn’t be much more than an hour away from Paris. Focus on the history of the places you’ll go–the idea being to see the development of France through the art and architecture of the places visited in historical progression–but throw into the mix your personal recollections about your actual travel experiences.

The arbitrary elements are clear–travel by train and restrict that travel to about an hour–and not unreasonable. As travel becomes faster and more convenient, one can imagine that one day all of France could be covered under such a recipe. But it works. The first stop, Saint-Denis, for instance, is a relatively short (20 min) Metro ride to a northern suburb; a later destination, Chartres, an easy one-hour shot from Paris. At first, I thought that the choice of locations seemed peculiarly non-Parisian: relatively few destinations covered in the book are in Paris proper. Quickly, though, I came to appreciate the thinking behind the choices. How often in touring a place do we group our visits by location and so get a smattering of different periods, and so varying ideas and styles, all in one confusing blur? Here’s a clever way to sort it out and get a deeper, richer understanding of another culture.

“Paris to the Past” isn’t without quirks. Sometimes, Ina Caro reminds you of a somewhat eccentric if lovable aunt. She takes you along even if you might think better of it. For example, ignoring the advice given in many a travel book about when and how to visit Versailles, not to mention the fact that Versailles is a “must-see” on every tourist’s France itinerary, she ends up tiresomely kvetching about the crowds. She also has a strange way with words, as in this monumental case of blaming the victim: “While looking at this portrait [of Joan of Arc, from the 16th century], I also realized I had to stop being angry with Orléans for having been bombed in 1940 and consequently not having any early-fifteenth-century buildings” (p. 138/loc. 2257). Then there’s the wince-inducing joke: Caro criticizes medieval French persecution of the Jews with this comment about matzoh: “After tasting French bread, I can understand that Christians would find anyone peculiar who preferred matzoh to French baked bread, but even so, no matter how bad matzoh tastes, even if you are French, I don’t think it was grounds for religious persecution” (p. 87/loc. 1447). She can also make anachronistic associations, such as saying that the 18th century architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel built the Musée Rodin (p. 319/loc. 5052), or repeat as fact an old pseudo-historical canard claiming that the Jesuits made “twenty-three attempts” on the life of Henry IV (p. 209/loc. 3372).

Caro’s history lessons take you only so far. Frequently the ravages of time take their toll on French historical sites, and one must make do with partial evidence or reconstructions. Caro has an affinity for models of sites that no longer exist–trust me, she says, you’ll love them, too. She has an aversion to the history of war and violence, which albeit understandable is nonetheless unfortunate given how terrible much of the period covered was. The splendid 18th-century secular art and architecture that she revels in was brought about under excesses of the royal family and aristocracy that later result in the Revolution, but we don’t get a much of a sense of how the Revolution came about and how both monarchy and Revolution went awry.

To be fair, Caro did not set out to write a history, but a historical travelogue. In this she was quite successful; you enjoy accompanying her on her day jaunts, just as she enjoys in turn the company of her husband, Bob (the brilliant biographer Robert Caro). “Paris to the Past” is well worth reading in preparation for your own travel adventures in Paris. Indeed, I could see designing a very interesting sojourn in the French capital region using this book as a guide.

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