We are all thinking about Paris this week, but I prefer not to let terrorists shape my thoughts about the city. I miss it terribly, so I turned again to Marcia de Sanctis‘s excellent new guide, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.
I say “turned again,” because I had to put it away rather abruptly after she sent it to me last fall. After a quick glance through, I began scribbling notes, picking quarrels, marking passages with stars, brackets, exclamation points, or question marks in the margins. The book is addictive, like crack, and I could see I wasn’t going to get much done unless I hid it somewhere in the midst of my piles of books and papers. And so it waited.
Marcia is a former television news producer for ABC, NBC and CBS News and an accomplished journalist (we’ve also written about her here), and she hardly needed a boost from me: the book quickly hit the New York Times Travel Best Seller list shortly after its release last November. Not bad, considering it was published by a small, off-the-beaten-track house. Coincidentally, the publisher is in Palo Alto – Travelers’ Tales, an imprint of Solas House.
The book abounds with solid advice on where to shop, where to go for a long afternoon walk, where to find the best wines, and where to eat, eat, eat. Typical of her advice on the latter: “Some of the best meals I’ve ever had in France have been haphazard affairs, slapped together with a quick trip to the Marché d’Aligre near the Bastille – ripe Rocamadour cheese and saucisson aux noix, bread, and a salad of mâche trucked in that morning from the Loire Valley. It’s important to dine like this in France … while uncorking a decent Beaujolais from the corner store…
There’s also plenty of amusing, and sometimes poignant, stories about women (including the “Veuve” of Veuve Clicquot in Reims). Here’s one about a teenager who has become an obsession, at least once, in every girl’s childhood – but in this case, Joan of Arc also attracted an adult monomaniac, and a male one at that. Marcia writes:
“Mark Twain‘s inspired book on Joan of Arc stands above the rest. He became fascinated with her when he was a teenager himself in Hannibal, Missouri, after picking up a sheet of paper in the street that turned out to be from a book about Joan of Arc. Many years later, he spent fourteen years researching and writing Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, her life story as told to a fictitious childhood friend who traveled with her as page and secretary. The author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn believed this to be his greatest work. His near-worship for her was boundless – for her magnanimity, convictions, faith in God, intellect and the sheer unbridled strength of body and purpose. ‘There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character,’ he writes in a later essay. ‘She is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.'”
Another girl story: the scandalous and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine (1137 – 1204), wife of England’s Henry II. As queen of France, she had accompanied King Louis VII on the Second Crusade. As the wife of Henry II, she led a rebellion against her husband with three of her sons in 1173 – and lost. Henry imprisoned his 50-year-old wife for fifteen years – more like a house arrest, really. Well, we’ve all seen The Lion in Winter, haven’t we? Marcia continues:
“And then, upon Henry’s death and Richard’s ascension to the English throne, she rose again. The dowager queen defended the kingdom while he was away on the Third Crusade (and imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor), even against her machinating youngest son John, who had been Henry’s favorite. ‘We can learn a lot about perseverance and hope from Eleanor,” says [colleague] Sue Morris. “She started a full second life after seventeen years in prison.’ And she rode until the end of her days, even in her early eighties, seeking wise political matches for her children and grandchildren.
“By then, she was already installed at the convent at Fontevraud. It is believed she had a hand in designing her gisant – the tomb effigy that bears her likeness – and here is where the story of Eleanor ends with a breathtaking statement. Usually the tomb of a queen shows her in sweet repose, the bible laid peacefully upon her chest. Eleanor, however, is actively reading her prayer book. Alive, for eternity.”
For this concluding image of the enormously rich Eleanor, quietly reading a book into the next world, I can forgive Marcia for bringing Dan Brown‘s The Da Vinci Code into her account of Vézelay, and for all the little villages and people I wish she’d mentioned. Isn’t a hundred stories enough?
Tonight, we’ve roamed Auvergne, Languedoc-Roussillon, and the French Pyrénées. Let’s end with Normandy, and Mont-Saint-Michel, which I’ve never ever seen (so far): “It is arrogant, aloof, arrestingly dignified … The abbey might be just a lovely relic if not for the milky expanse of the bay in which it sits. Each can only be understood in relation to the other – the ocean’s perilous strength against the architectural beauty and vice versa.”
“I stopped at the West Terrace, where I looked down and saw the angry sea and clouds like waves of steel wool, Brittany to the west, Normandy to the east. I gazed up at the spire. There was Archangel Michael, brandishing his sword skyward, hip thrust to one side, looking dull in the mist. I walked in near solitude around the colonnades of the cloister, whose boxwood hedges seemed impossibly green. I strolled back down to town on the outside steps and turned back to see the Merveille. Two hundred thirty-five feet of sheer verticality and simple lines, walls thrown up in some fit of ancient genius. I ate dinner at La Mère Poulard, whose pricy omelet was nevertheless perfection. … The rain had ended, the remaining clouds lapped the full moon. I descended the hill to see the abbey from sea level, blazing like a fireball. The delicate spire looked blue, and Michael was gold again. I walked back up to the church to take in those walls that seemed to spring straight up from the rock I stood on.
“I was completely alone. The sound of my boots on the stone path resounded in the night. There was no crowd, the Breton biscuit stands and T-shirt shops, locked up. The air was frosty. ‘One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man, in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed,’ wrote the American writer Henry Adams in 1905 about Mont-Saint-Michel. More than any other cathedral or abbey in France, I get a sense here of what fragile, earthly creatures we are, but also how optimistic, and how unstoppable. If ever I need reminding of the latter, I will make my way there again some rainy winter night.”