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****The Road from the Past

Traveling through History in France

by Ina Caro

Reviewed March 29, 2003.
A Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace & Company, San Diego, 1994.  339 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (914.4048 CAR).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  #3, Cross-Cultural Nonfiction

I know that France is not high in favor with most Americans these days, but my husband and I had been planning to vacation in France this Spring, and don’t want to give up the idea.  In preparation, I checked out this book, and I’ve been completely captivated.

The Road from the Past is a combination history book, travel book and travel memoir.  Ina Caro takes the reader on a trip through France, starting in Provence and moving north toward Paris.  The trip also starts in the time of the Roman empire and moves forward in history to the Golden Age of King Louis XIV.

Ina Caro advocates traveling chronologically through a country.  It seems a wonderful idea, if you only know in what order things were built.  With this book, you can!  Her strategy is summarized in this paragraph:  “Before leaving for this trip, I had assured Bob that it would be possible to travel through almost two thousand years of French history on a summer vacation while driving northwest from Provence to Paris.  I had mapped out the trip down to finding centrally located hotels with swimming pools and tennis courts where we could stay while visiting the different ages of France--provincial Rome in Provence, medieval France and the Age of Faith in Languedoc, the beginning of the Hundred Years War in the Dordogne Valley, the rise of the middle class and cathedrals in Bourges, the end of the Hundred Years War and the evolution of the French king from an elected first among equals to an absolute monarch in the Loire Valley.  Although my plan of following history in a rented car had seemed like a great idea, I hadn’t been quite as certain that the vacation itself would be enjoyable, and that, as we traveled, we would really feel the passage of the centuries.  But to my amazement, so far it had worked:  the first sixteen hundred years of the vacation had been magical, and the only day of boredom was spent at a Peugeot repair shop waiting for our time machine to have its air conditioner fixed.”

Obviously, my family can’t duplicate her journey across France in one week.  However, I was so taken with the book that I ordered a copy for myself (despite the library’s perfectly good copy), so that I can bring it on this vacation to part of the Loire Valley and, I hope, on future vacations to other parts of France.

With a master’s degree in medieval history, Ina Caro makes the history of France come alive.  She points out specific signs of the past that still exist today, while explaining the stories behind them.  Even if you never get a chance to visit France, this book makes French history much easier to grasp, with vivid descriptions of the places and people involved.  Now, when we go to the Loire Valley, I won’t just see a bunch of castles.  Instead, I’ll see reminders of fascinating people who lived in a time when the French king was consolidating his power.

The one thing I’d change about this book is that I’d love to see it lavishly illustrated, preferably with photos.  Now there are drawings at the beginning of each section, but it would be so nice to see pictures of the structures she describes.  As it is, I guess I’ll have to go to France and see for myself. 

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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