Sunday, December 11, 2011


As a rule, I am not taken by books where the author gushes about someplace. I always have the feeling that were I to go there, I'd be bored, tired, and only occasionally pleased.But I have to admit that I'm liking Paris to the Past, a book which is simultaneously a political history of France through the centuries and an architectural history of the cathedrals that helped to define it.

A lot of it is her description of how she came to see so much of the country and the architecture. She says that part of the reason that you can still see so many ancient structures is that France tends to keep its older buildings instead of reducing them to rubble; coupled with the spread of the cities, it tends to mean that the growth is on the outskirts, not in the core areas. And since you can get to those core areas by train, she says that she found she could live in Paris - which, of course, she adores - and take both the Metro throughout the city and the RER into the countryside where the cathedrals live, easily and relatively inexpensively. She communicates her enthusiasm gracefully -- I've never seen a travelogue speak so eloquently about how pointed arches in the front of a cathedral instead of rounded ones lead from having a single low entrance in a wall of solid stone to having three, each with its own massive door, or how those arches facilitated soaring roof lines and the propagation of stained glass. She also mentions how you can usually tell direction in any French cathedral, easily, by looking for the New Testament, and why one cathedral has oxen carved on its exterior -- with only occasional bits of too much enthusiasm.

It's not at all bad.

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