Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train

Image of Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train
Release Date: 
April 16, 2012
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“If you’ve even the slightest interest in France and her history, you will enjoy this highly innovative book. If you love France, because you’re a committed Francophile, you will swoon over Paris to the Past. As Ina Caro writes in the introduction, ‘I charted a route you could follow.’ And indeed she does.”

What is it about trains that fascinates people so much? Obsessive collectors stockpile toy trains in their basements, singers like Johnny Cash sing longingly of trains rolling by, and writers poeticize long train rides years after they’ve arrived at their destinations.

Charles Dickens wrote of an early train journey from London to Paris, recounting that, as the train rolled further into the French countryside, “. . . I find that all the French people on board begin to grow, and all the English people begin to shrink. The French are nearing home, and shaking off a disadvantage, whereas we are shaking it on.”

Paul Theroux basically built his writing career by riding the rails, beginning with his curmudgeon-infused The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia in 1975. In 2008, Pat Arrigoni produced Whistles, Smoke and Steam: A Train Adventure Guide, an all-encompassing guide to traveling the globe by train. Years later, in France by Train: Hundreds of Great Train Trips and All the Sights Along the Way (1994), Simon Vickers pulled out all the stops worth stopping for in France.

And now along comes Ina Caro with Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train. Like her previous book, The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France, Paris to the Past guides you through French history via stories and anecdotes.

Inspired no doubt by Dickens’s focus on the people he met while traveling, Ms. Caro zeros in on the “memorable characters” who explain “the age in which they lived.” With a deft sense of humor and great storytelling skills, she takes memoirs and letters left by these people and recreates their history. At the same time, she paints a remarkable portrait of the history of France. Best of all, unlike some memoirists and travel writers, she doesn’t belabor her own experience, but instead truly entertains and educates.

Naturally, because after all Paris to the Past is about France, love played a huge role in author Caro’s decision to write this book. She says, “When we [she and her husband, biographer Robert Caro] fell in love with Paris and didn’t want to leave, I suggested that we take trains from Paris and travel chronologically through the history of France.”

And so she did. It all reads like a long newsy letter, just like the ones people used to send when they were abroad.

In Paris to the Past, Ms. Caro provides information on 25 one-day train trips, plus the (mostly) terrific restaurants in the places that she explored. She includes culinary information, because as she says, “It is a terrible thing for a historian to admit, but the quality of my lunch really does influence how I feel about the places I visit.”

Ms. Caro covers 700 years of French history, broken down chronologically by periods: the Middle Ages, beginning with Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis; the Renaissance and Tours after the Hundred Years’ War; The Age of Louis XIV—with a delicious chapter on Maintenon and its wily mistress, Madame de Maintenon; the coming of the French Revolution or Paris in the eighteenth century; and finally the Empire and Restoration or the bourgeois century with Napoleon and his successors.

The chronological pattern lends itself well to architecture, too. For example, she provides an in-depth discussion of the changes that occurred with arches. From the Roman arch with its tendency to crumble gave way to a “squat, rounded arch” and then as the centuries flew by, it “transformed from austerity and simplicity into the elaborate storytelling arch of the eleventh-century Romanesque arch.” And of course, you know that this led to the pointed Gothic arch, alternately simple and complex.

She also names the metros and trains that allow you, the visitor, to return to the comfort of your Parisian hotel room and eat at your favorite bistro every night.

Of course, there’s a story behind the astute placement of these train stations dotting the Parisian landscape.

Napoleon III, the great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, yearned to make Paris the center of the world. Thanks to the expertise of Baron von Haussmann, he created the “time machines” or train stations that enabled Caro and her husband to travel to places embodying French history. These train stations—Gare de l’Est, Gare du Nord, Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare de Lyon, Gare d’Orsay (now a museum), Gare d’Austerlitz, and Gare Montparnasse—cemented Paris’s status as the political and cultural center of France.

Wherever they go, the trains usually stop in the centers of the old medieval city centers, giving passengers a chance to see the suburbs, but eliminating the problems associated with parking in the cramped downtown areas. Ms. Caro also provides detailed information about how to get around in some areas where the trains leave you off a considerable distance from the historic site under discussion.

Take her account of visiting Versailles, a site usually quite high on the list of most tourist must-dos.

Ms. Caro complains about the immense number of tourists milling about in the huge exterior courtyards of Louis XIV’s magnificent palace.

She explains what you are seeing as you straggle into Louis’s palace and what it means and why something happened. She analyzes the gardens designed by André Le Nôtre at Versailles and reminds you that Le Nôtre also created the gardens of Louis XIV’s ill-fated finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, at Vaux-le-Vicomte, the subject of a previous chapter). You learn about the Grand Lever and Grand Coucher, with court as they watched Louis XIV wake up every morning in his bedroom, facing the rising sun.

One of Ms. Caro’s best stories relates how the Hall of Mirrors came to be. An anecdote about some Venetian artisans sets the scene: “Italian secret agents” poisoned them before they could spill the secrets of mirror-making technology to the French, who lacked the ability to manufacture the sparkling mirrors then so prevalent in Venice.

To help you find your way to all these places, Ms. Caro includes a list of maps, making it simple to visualize graphically where the trains go. Refreshingly, Ms. Caro pledges herself to giving honest advice—she never hesitates to say exactly what she thinks about the places she visits and the nearby restaurants where she eats. Every once in a while she throws in the flag and declares that it’s not worth the trouble to visit XYZ. You’ll also find source notes and further reading at the end of the book, essentially a mixture of primary and secondary sources. Each chapter begins with instruction on how to get there from here, here being Paris.

If you’ve even the slightest interest in France and her history, you will enjoy this highly innovative book. If you love France, because you’re a committed Francophile, you will swoon over Paris to the Past. As Ina Caro writes in the introduction, “I charted a route you could follow.” And indeed she does.