By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
To learn more about France past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
For a good introduction to the French culture and people, Culture Shock: France (Sally Adamson Taylor), French or Foe (Polly Platt), and/or Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow). The latter is a must-read for anyone serious about understanding French culture, contemporary politics, and what makes the French tick.
For a readable history of the country, try The Course of French History (Pierre Goubert). Portraits of France (Robert Daley) is an interesting travelogue that roams from Paris to the Pyrenees. A mix of writers explore French culture in Travelers' Tales: France (edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly).
La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Elaine Sciolino) gives travelers a fun, insightful, and tantalizing peek into how seduction has been used in all aspects of French life — from small villages to the halls of national government.
Many great memoirs take place in Paris. Consider reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Art Buchwald’s I’ll Always Have Paris, and/or Paris to the Moon by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who takes his young son for a carousel ride in Luxembourg Garden.
If you’ll be visiting Provence, pick up Peter Mayle’s memoirs, A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence. Ina Caro’s The Road from the Past is filled with enjoyable essays on her travels through France, with an accent on history. Da Vinci Code fans will enjoy reading the book that inspired that book — Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln) — which takes place mostly in southern France. Labyrinth (Kate Mosse) is an intriguing tale, much of which takes place in medieval southern France during the Cathar crusade.
War buffs may want to read these classics before visiting the D-Day Beaches: The Longest Day (Cornelius Ryan) and Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure (Donald and Petie Kladstrup). Is Paris Burning?, set in the last days of the Nazi occupation, tells the story of the French resistance and how a German general disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy Paris (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre).
If you’ll be enjoying an extended stay in France, consider Living Abroad in France (Terry Link) or Almost French (Sarah Turnbull), a funny take on living as a Parisian native. Many appreciate the Marling Menu-Master for France (William E. Marling) but the most complete (and priciest) menu reader around is A to Z of French Food, a French to English Dictionary of Culinary Terms (G. de Temmerman). Travelers seeking green and vegetarian options in France could consider Traveling Naturally in France (Dorian Yates).
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” begins Charles Dickens’ gripping tale of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. In Les Misérables (Victor Hugo), a Frenchman tries to escape his criminal past, fleeing from a determined police captain and becoming wrapped up in the Revolutionary battles between the rich and the starving. Another recommended book set during this time is City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy.
Ernest Hemingway was a fan of Georges Simenon, a Belgian who wrote mysteries based in Paris, including The Hotel Majestic. Other mysteries using Paris as the backdrop are Murder in Montparnasse (Howard Engel), Murder in the Marais (Cara Black), and Sandman (J. Robert Janes).
A Very Long Engagement (Sebastien Japrisot) is a love story set during the bleak years when World War I raged. Using a similar timeframe, Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) follows a 20-year-old Englishman into France, and into the romance that follows.
Chocolat (Joanne Harris) — a book and a 2000 movie with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche — charms readers with its story of magic and romance.
Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky) plunges readers into the chaos of the evacuation of Paris during World War II, as well as daily life in a small rural town during the ensuing German occupation. The author, a Russian Jew living in France, wrote her account within weeks of the actual events, and died at Auschwitz in 1942.
In The Grand Illusion (1937, directed by Jean Renoir), WWI prisoners of war hatch an escape plan. Considered a masterpiece of French film, the movie was later banned by the Nazis for its anti-fascism message.
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) is a WWI story about the futility and irony of war. François Truffaut, a filmmaker of the French New Wave school, shows the Parisian streets in Jules and Jim (1962). Wander the streets of Paris with a small boy as he chases The Red Balloon (1956).
Jean de Florette (1986), a marvelous tale of greed and intolerance, follows a hunchback as he fights for the property he inherited. Its sequel, Manon of the Spring (1986), continues with his daughter’s story. The hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin and Michael Caine (1988), was filmed on the Riviera. Blue/White/Red (1990s) is a stylish trilogy of films by Krzystof Kieslowski, based on France’s national motto — “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.”
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) is about a homely, romantic poet who woos his love with the help of another, better-looking man. Fans of crime films — and Robert De Niro — will like Ronin (1998), with multiple scenes shot in France. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is Steven Spielberg’s intense and brilliant story of the D-Day landings.
The Gleaners & I (2000), a quiet, meditative film by Agnès Varda, follows a few working-class men and women as they gather sustenance from what’s been thrown away. In Amélie (2001), a charming young waitress in Paris searches for love. If you’ll be heading to Versailles, consider seeing Marie Antoinette (2006), which stars Kirsten Dunst as the infamous French queen (with a California accent). La Vie en Rose (2007) covers the glamorous and turbulent life of the fabled singer Edith Piaf (many scenes shot in Paris). Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) is a sharp comedy that shifts between today’s Paris and the 1920s mecca of Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves' France guidebook.