Before uprooting my life and moving to France three years ago, I dreamed of strolling along the cobble stone streets of Paris, gazing up at the elegant Haussmanian style architecture and discovering monuments hidden behind every corner. I longed to walk along the Seine at night, using the glow from the Eiffel Tower as my North Star. Before I could make this dream a reality, I visited France through scenes in films, brush strokes in paintings, and pages of books.
As studied more about France, I became aware of the different regions and that there are so many other interesting places besides Paris! With each new region of France I visit or live in, I discover unique cultures and landscapes that leave me daydreaming of my next voyage. However, sometimes life can get in the way of travel plans – not everyone can afford to just pack up and fly over to the French Rivera. I’ll admit traveling is a lot cheaper when you travel close to home and since I’m fortunate to call France my home, I can more easily visit the regions of l’hexagonne than I could if I were still living stateside. Other times, there is a global crisis like a pandemic causing borders to close and obligating people to stay at home. Luckily for us there are still books, which don’t have to be expensive (think of secondhand books and the library) and don’t involve much traveling ( if you can’t go to a bookstore right now, you can order books online or buy e-books).
To help quell the travel bug with in us all, I’ve compiled a list of books I’ve loved and books I’m adding to my own reading list that will allow you to explore the dreamy regions of France from Paris to Provence without stepping outside your door.
Across the English channel are the Northwest regions of France, Normandy and Brittany. When US Americans think of Normandy, they probably think of WWII’s D-Day. This region has a longer history however, with tales of Celts and Romans, vikings, kings and queens, battles with the English, and much more. Today the region is known for its granite and limestone cliffs that overlook the Atlantic Ocean and beautiful countryside admired by artists like Claude Monet. You won’t find vineyards here, but local gastronomy includes hard apple cider, brioche, and soft cheeses like Camembert. Although they share a similar history, the Bretons will probably argue with the Normands about who really invented cider! This region has it’s own language and culture and is known as the birthplace of crepes!
1. Une Vie
Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant is a 19th century coming of age novel about a privileged young woman named Jeanne. When she gets married, her life quickly turns upside down and she must face the reality of her disillusionment. Although not the happiest tale, this realist novel is a fascinating take on the lives of characters from a variety of social classes in the French countryside. If you like Madame Bovary, this book has a similar feel.
The Asterix comic book series is beloved in France. The story takes place in Amorica (ancient Britany) and centers around a pair of Gaul warriors, Asterix and Obelix (plus their cute dog Idéfix) and their adventures fighting the Romans of Julius Cesar’s empire. There’s magic, mischief, and and lots of laughs in this timeless “bande-déssinée.”
Oh, Paris! Does it even need an introduction?
3. A Moveable Feast
This Hemingway classic is not a novel, but a memoir about his life living in the French capital during the 1920s. If you’ve ever wondered what the life of a starving writer in Paris was like, this book will give you an idea. Most of the story takes place where he lives in the Latin Quarter, a charming neighborhood where I was a student last year. It’s fun recognizing the streets and cafés he mentions and reading the stories about his encounters with other writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. Hemingway states that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” It’s often said this quote refers to religious holidays like Easter, which don’t have a fixed time and that Paris also doesn’t have a fixed time. After living there, maybe even for just a short amount of time, you still keep the memories and spirit of the city with you.
4. Notre-Dame de Paris
You probably know the story of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Disney movie about the genetically deformed outcast who falls in love with a beautiful Gypsy woman and attempts to save her from a morally corrupt archdeacon in medieval Paris. But did you know that this animated film is actually based on a Gothic novel by the father of French Romantic literature, Victor Hugo? That explains the mature themes for a supposed kid’s movie! Despite the intriguing plot and colorful characters, Notre-Dame de Paris was actually written as an homage to the cathedral of the same name which was not in good shape at the time of the novel’s conception. Thanks to Hugo’s literary plea and beautiful descriptions of the building, the cathedral was restored in mid 19th century under the supervision of master architect Viollet-le-Duc. If it hadn’t been for this revolutionary text, perhaps the church would not be the same iconic monument as we know today.
In addition to Paris, France is equally known for its wine producing regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Languedoc-Roussillon just to name a few. As one of the top wine making countries in the world, France produces between 7 and 8 billon bottles per year! Have you ever wondered what the story is behind the wine bottle sitting in your wine rack? Delve in to these next few books to find out!
Burgundy: 5. My Grape Year
I discovered this delightful read last summer when I was back in the US feeling nostalgic for France after just having finished my year abroad. Laura Bradbury’s My Grape Year is the story of a young Canadian woman’s experience during her exchange year in the Burgundy region of France. During her time in a small French village she discovers a new way of life, one cultural misunderstanding and exchange at a time. As a young adult abroad, she grapples with her identity as a perfect exchange student who follows every rule and as girl who wants to make the most of her experience and explore the budding romance with a local French boy.
6. Land and Wine: The French Terroir
Ever wonder about the science of wine? Why is one region better for growing a certain kind of cépage than another? How can climate affect taste? Geologist Charles Frankel can answer these questions in his guide to the French terroir. In addition to scientific explanations, he also shares anecdotes and gives travel tips about France’s different wine producing regions. During my summer at Middlebury College’s French Program, I heard Frankel give a talk all about Rosé, which sparked my curiosity about wine and lead me to discover his book!
Once a part of Germany, the Alsace region is has a unique blend of culture and languages. It’s capital, Strasbourg is known for its towering sandstone cathedral and incomparable Christmas Market. Smaller towns like Colmar are sure to capture your heart with their timber framed houses and quaint canals. Munch on a bretzel or some choucroute and sip a riesling as you read about this delightful region.
7. Chasse aux monstres en Alsace
No this is not an Alsacian version of Frankenstein, but a cute Where’s Waldo type picture book! Instead of a man in a striped shirt with glasses, you’ll be searching for 10 cute little monsters. Sophie Hérout’s illustrations will take you through 13 iconic places in Alsace including Colmar, the Strasbourg Cathedral, the Alsace wine route, a Christmas market and more. This book is perfect for entertaining kids and introducing them to France or for anyone who just wants to have some fun and enjoys artwork of French cities.
In central France is where you’ll find more beautiful countryside, magnificent castles, history of royalty and epic battles. Originally from the US, I am in awe every time I gaze upon a château! My country is a baby compared to France and it’s always exciting to learn about the lives of the people who lived inside the walls of these elegant fortresses.
8. Les jardins des Châteaux de la Loire
Admire the stunning photos of the gardens of the Châteaux de la Loire and read about their history in Herve Lenain and Barbara de Nicolay’s magical book. Discover aerial shots of famous châteaux like Villandry and Chambord as well as more lesser known marvels. If you love architecture and landscaping, you’ll be sure to find joy flipping through this guide.
The South of France
Dreamy lavender fields, picturesque villages, and the Côte d’azur all come to mind when you think of the South of France. The way of life here is slower, the people are friendlier, and scenery is simply beautiful. Bury yourself in the chapters of these last few books to discover why artists migrate here, city folk retire here, and celebrities vacation here.
Provence: 9. The Marseille Trilogy
Escape to the sunny seaside of the Mediterranean with Marcel Pagnol’s three plays Marius, Fanny, and César. Fall in love with the starcrossed lovers Marius and Fanny, their families, and other quirky characters as they navigate life in the port city of Marseille. Will Marius be tempted by the call of the sea and join a parting ship’s crew? Or will he stay working in the family café to be with Fanny, the kind and beautiful girl next door? Craving more Provence? Check out Pagnol’s other books like his autobiographical novel Le gloire de mon père and the two-part fiction L’eau des Collines with tales of deceit and vengeance.
Pays Catalan: 10. Ma cuisine catalane : Au fil des saisons
What would be a list of French-related books without a cookbook? France is known as one of the culinary capitals of the world and its cuisine is even recognized on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list! Instead of a traditional French cookbook, I thought I would share some recipes from the part of France where I live now: Perpignan, a eclectic little city nestled in between the Western Pyrenees and the Mediterranean sea in the heart of French Catalonia. There’s something so fresh yet comforting about Mediterranean cuisine and the Catalans know it. Discover classic French foods with a Catalan twist in Eliane Thibaut-Comelade’s livre de recettes, illustrated by Cécile Colombo.
Thanks for reading along! I have so much fun writing these blog posts and sharing them with the world. Which book would you pick up first? Are there any other books or regions you would add to the list?
À la prochaine,
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