As you might imagine, I have a special place in my heart for lists of 100 anything, but a list of 100 places to visit in France easily floats toward the top of my list of lists. When they are recommended by accomplished travel writer Marcia DeSanctis, I know I will have a list, and a book, bristling with post-it notes and dotted with marginal exclamation points!
This is the guide to read before you pick up that other guidebook–the one with hotels and restaurants in tiny type–and to pack in your suitcase for the pure pleasure of it. Each of its hundred succinct chapters is enhanced with a small emblematic photo or drawing, but the real star is DeSanctis’s text: her warmly personal prose unites a keen knowledge of French lore with a wealth of travel experience and anecdote. She is a confident connoisseur, but never a stuffy one; she readily shares with the reader those occasions when she changed her mind about a sight or revised a preconception.
Her introduction sets the stage with her own history of loving France. It may have been a madeleine for Proust, but for DeSanctis, it was that first bite of croissant–even the American version that came as rolled-up dough in a can–that got her curious about France. Exploration of French books and music finally culminated in her first visit to Paris as a young adult, which sparked a sense of belonging and fit a piece into life’s puzzle for her:
Not just me, but every woman belonged in Paris, and to miss out meant missing out on life itself. France was not just my idea; it was a universal one, a rite of passage, the place we were where we could both escape ourselves and find the power and grace to be ourselves. It was one piffling ocean away, and returning there as soon as possible was the best reason I could think of to squirrel away my paycheck… (p. xvii)
She did save her paycheck, and returned again and again, meeting and marrying her husband, sometimes living there, and sometimes just making another pilgrimage to fulfill a particular longing. As she writes, “In France, we find what we are missing. This book contains 100 of those missing things.” The first 25 places are in Paris, and then she breaks out of the city to explore the rest of France. I will mention a few of the highlights for me, my own brief itinerary through the book.
- Musée Édith Piaf, Paris (chapter 3). DeSanctis writes movingly of Piaf, the tiny woman with the ringing voice and the rolling rs, “an emblem of French identity and genius.” She highlights my favorite Piaf song, “Non, je ne regrette rien.” Somehow when Piaf sings it, in a key tuned to shake the soul, it affirms a human resilience beyond words, beyond the storms that tossed her.
- The Perfect Lingerie, Paris (chapter 7). I don’t think I’ve read a review or a blurb of this book that didn’t take note of this memorable chapter! It encourages women to do something special for themselves, to visit Paris and shop–not extravagantly, but caringly–for themselves. This is only one of many chapters that are about a type of experience to be sought, with no particular address but many enticing suggestions of where to find it.
- Church Music and Concerts, including at Sainte-Chapelle, Paris (chapter 8). Hearing the music of heaven at La Sainte-Chapelle combines experience with location in a perfect marriage. The rainbow-lit environment of the stained glass feeds the eyes as the concerts performed there feed the ears, the mind, and the soul. DeSanctis says it so well: “it is the kind of experience and balance we seek when we travel to Paris, the double sweep of lightness and meaning” (p. 24). I like very much how she broadens this choice to include opportunities to hear sacred music at any of a number of churches and abbeys.
I urge the traveler to experience a celebrated religious monument as more than a museum, and when on the street, to seek out the sounds. … the strains of music can unpack our sorrows or free our joys, cause us to examine the extent of our faith if that’s what surfaces, or just transport us through the force of its simple beauty. (p. 25)
- My Restaurants, Pâtisseries, and Tea Salons, Paris (chapter 9). One can’t imagine travel in France without food being a five-star highlight, even if it is obtained at an unassuming brasserie on a hidden side street or at a little tucked-away tea shop. DeSanctis savors her food experiences and offers luscious descriptions of them throughout the book. In this wise chapter, she urges the woman traveling to keep a food itinerary, noting down for future reference those planned and unplanned stops for food and drink that yielded memorable tastes, sights, smells, and textures. Her idea of a typical diary entry is delightful: “It was here, on the corner of such-and-such, that I lit upon this perfect spot and ordered a café crème and tartes aux cerises and had one of the purest moments in my life” (p. 27). As for myself, I still recall the lobster poached in cream at Chez Albert, and, yes, I wrote about my ecstasy in a little travel journal, thirty-five years ago.
- Héloïse and Abélard, Paris (chapter 13). I loved this blunt opening: “Paris is for lovers. It is also for their graves.” DeSanctis highlights the three cemeteries of Paris, and their famous inhabitants, but Héloïse and Abélard, re-interred (on orders from Empress Josephine) at Père Lachaise, are her primary focus of contemplation in this chapter.
- The Shoah memorials at Paris and Drancy (chapter 17). In this important chapter, DeSanctis describes in detail the Wall of Names and other Shoah memorials in today’s France, which aim to confront the full historical record of the French collaboration during World War II and honor the memories of those who were deported and killed in the Holocaust.
- Highlights of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay (chapters 19 and 20). DeSanctis writes wonderfully about artworks that appreciate women as their subject or were actually created by women (such as the painters Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Berthe Morisot), and she proposes “12 + 1” highlights of painting, sculpture, and other objets d’art at each of these two legendary palaces of art. Get ready to circle and star these for your next visit, or just look for them online until you can see them in person (the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay have excellent websites to browse).
- Lake Annecy (chapter 37). DeSanctis titles this chapter “The Turquoise Waters of the Haute-Savoie.” That really says it all. A few years ago, I had the joy of tagging along to a physics conference held at the Priory in Talloires, on the other end of the lake from the city of Annecy. I brought books with me but the impossibly beautiful view was very distracting. The lake was a boaters’ paradise, and every morning hang gliders sailed off the mountain in the background. Here are two of my photos of the place.
- Vézelay (chapter 73). On that same trip, we rented a car and meandered through Burgundy and Champagne, making a special point to divert our route to Vézelay to see its magnificent basilica atop a hill. When I took the exterior photo, the façade was being cleaned and repaired, hence the scaffolding. Inside, the extraordinary nave with its striped Romanesque arches was flooded with light from the lovely apse, with its fascinating ambulatory chapels honoring Christ, Mary, and various saints.
As DeSanctis describes so well in her chapter, Vézelay was a focal point in the life of 12th-century Europe. With its reputed relics of Sainte Marie-Madeleine (Magdalen) and its pivotal location, it became a gateway to the west and starting point on one of the four pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Campostela in Galicia. It was also the sight at which Bernard de Clairvaux preached one Easter (1146) to an overflow crowd, spilling out from the church onto the hillside. His words roused many in the assembly, including Louis VII and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, to take the cross for the Second Crusade, but this fruitless slaughter left an ambivalent taste on the tongues of historians, faced with evaluating this contradictory saint, the “Mellifluous Doctor” who wrote so eloquently about love of God and man.
Oh, I must stop now and leave readers to discover on their own such wonders as the Bayeux Tapestry (“the greatest storyboard ever made,” she calls it), the beaches of Normandy (to “remember the fallen”), Chamonix (which figures as one setting in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), or Aix-en-Provence (as seen through the eyes and bons mots of M. F. K. Fisher). I will simply conclude with DeSanctis’s own statement of one of her chief aims as a traveler, from her chapter on the glorious cathedral of Amiens:
In travel, I like to seek context–fictional, real or otherwise–for my surroundings. I like to find a memory, even someone else’s, to unearth, as a focus that prevents me from being a mere outsider… (p. 375)
She succeeds admirably in this aim, conjuring for the reader a delectable wealth of associations for each landmark, or landmark experience, she describes. DeSanctis presents a way of traveling through her 100 Places in France that is comforting, enlightening, and refreshing, and I recommend most highly making the reading journey alongside her.
Author Marcia DeSanctis
October 27-November 5, 2014
100 Places in France
Every Woman Should Go
Release date: October 21, 2014
at Travelers’ Tales
Told in a series of stylish, original essays, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go is for the serious Francophile, for the woman dreaming of a trip to Paris, and for those who love crisp stories well-told. Like all great travel writing, this volume goes beyond the guidebook and offers insight not only about where to go but why to go there. Combining advice, memoir and meditations on the glories of traveling through France, this book is the must-have in your carry-on when flying to Paris.
Award-winning writer Marcia DeSanctis draws on years of travels and living in France to lead you through vineyards, architectural treasures, fabled gardens and contemplative hikes from Biarritz to Deauville, Antibes to the French Alps. These 100 entries capture art, history, food, fresh air and style and along the way, she tells the stories of fascinating women who changed the country’s destiny. Ride a white horse in the Camargue, find Paris’ hidden museums, try thalassotherapy in St. Malo, and buy raspberries at Nice’s Cour Saleya market. From sexy to literary, spiritual to simply gorgeous, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go is an indispensable companion for the smart and curious traveler to France. [provided by the author]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marcia DeSanctis is a former television news producer for Barbara Walters, NBC and CBS News.
She has written essays and articles for numerous publications including Vogue, Marie Claire, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, Departures, and The New York Times Magazine.
Her essays have been widely anthologized and she is the recipient of three Lowell Thomas Awards for excellence in travel journalism, as well as a Solas Award for best travel writing.
She holds a degree from Princeton University in Slavic Languages and Literature and a Masters in Foreign Policy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
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