Ina Caro and her husband, biographer Robert Caro, have lived and traveled in France several months each year for the past 20 years. Caro's moment of inspiration for this book is twofold: first, she decides to visit monuments chronologically, rather than geographically, and she decides to write only about places that can be day trips from Paris by train. By visiting sites chronologically, she is able to observe the historical development of architectural style. By limiting herself to day trips, she is able to choose one place that particularly represents each era.
Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train is divided into five sections ("The Middle Ages: Cathedrals and Fortresses"; "The Age of Louis XIV: Seventeenth-Century France," etc.). Within those sections, chapters focus on a particular place, like Blois or Versailles. Some people are mentioned multiple times across different chapters, especially Louis XIV, because he and his mistresses apparently went everywhere. This is slightly repetitive when reading the book straight through, but helpful when using it chapter by chapter as a travel guide and reference.
Caro has obviously done much research. From document-forging Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis to the transvestite Henry III to fiery Napoléon Bonaparte, Caro provides fascinating insights into the lives and the motivations for creating these glorious monuments. She also gives detailed instructions on which trains to take, while offering pithy (and sometimes downright snarky) opinions on restaurants and tourist attractions. Whether you're reading it as a history book or as a travel guide, you're bound to like Paris to the Past. Especially if you've spent time at a few of these places, it's fun to read about their history and the people who created them. I really wish that I'd had this book with me when I was traveling in France eight years ago!
This review was originally published in slightly shorter form in Shelf Awareness on June 28, 2011.
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