10 of the best France travel books

Loire Valley, Bridge in France

France Travel Books- some suggestions.

It has been said that ‘no other nation on the planet approaches France in its subtle and seamless blend of the old and the new; the industrial and the pastoral’. France is the largest country in Western Europe. It covers an area of 543,965 square kilometres – bigger than Spain or Germany – and has a population of approximately 65 million. Small group tours are the perfect way to explore France’s varied scenery and learn about its rich history and culture. With rugged coastline, rolling vineyards and the dramatic French alps, a tour to France is guaranteed to take your breath away. Our hope is that travellers have deeply memorable experiences, and return home with a better understanding of the people, their heritage and the reasons for their ability to blend the customs and ways of traditional village life with the challenges of one of the world’s more advanced urban economies. And perhaps, a few words of French too!

Discovering France through literature

For mature and senior travellers who are planning a trip to explore France. Whether on an Odyssey tour or as independent travellers, this collection  of France travel books is intended to help you develop a sense of place before your journey commences. For all Odyssey tours, we actively encourage travellers to read all or some or one of these France travel books  from this list before joining one of our small group tours.
This is Odyssey’s list of ten great France travel books. Please feel welcome to contribute to the comments section at the bottom of page. We appreciate any feedback on books listed, or further suggestions that will help travellers prepare for their tour of France.

1. The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography

by Graham Robb

A narrative of exploration―full of strange landscapes and even stranger inhabitants―that considers the enduring fascination of France. While Gustave Eiffel was changing the skyline of Paris, large parts of France were still terra incognita. Even in the age of railways and newspapers, France was a land of ancient tribal divisions, prehistoric communication networks, and pre-Christian beliefs. French itself was a minority language.

Graham Robb describes that unknown world in arresting narrative detail. He recounts the epic journeys of mapmakers, scientists, soldiers, administrators, and intrepid tourists, of itinerant workers, pilgrims, and herdsmen with their millions of migratory domestic animals. We learn how France was explored, charted, and colonized, and how the imperial influence of Paris was gradually extended throughout a kingdom of isolated towns and villages.

The Discovery of France explains how the modern nation came to be and how poorly understood that nation still is today. Above all, it shows how much of France―past and present―remains to be discovered.

New York Times Notable Book, Publishers Weekly Best Book, Slate Best Book, and Booklist Editor’s Choice.

The New York Times reviews this impressive book here.

2. A Year in Provence

by Peter Mayle

Enjoy an irresistible feast of humour and discover the joys of French rural living with Peter Mayle’s bestselling, much-loved account of ‘A Year In Provence’.

Peter Mayle and his wife did what most of us only imagine doing when they made their long-cherished dream of a life abroad a reality: throwing caution to the wind, they bought a glorious two hundred year-old farmhouse in the Lubéron Valley and began a new life. In a year that begins with a marathon lunch and continues with a host of gastronomic delights, they also survive the unexpected and often hilarious curiosities of rural life. From mastering the local accent and enduring invasion by bumbling builders, to discovering the finer points of boules and goat-racing, all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life are conjured up in this enchanting portrait.

Reviewer John Crace reflects on the memoir, and how it spawned of a new kind of travel writing, here.

3. How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People

by Sudhir Hazareesingh
Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think is a warm yet incisive exploration of the French intellectual tradition, and its exceptional place in a nation’s identity and lifestyle. Why are the French an exceptional nation? Why do they think they are so exceptional? An important reason is that in France intellectual activity is regarded not just as the preserve of the thinking elite but for almost everyone. French thought can sometimes be austere and often opaque, yet it is undeniably bold and innovative, and driven by a relentless quest for the regeneration of humanity. Sudhir Hazareesingh traces its tumultuous history in an enormously enjoyable and highly original manner, showing how the French ways of thought and life connect. This will be one of the most revealing books written about them – or any other European country – for years.
Sudhir Hazareesingh was born in Mauritius. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and has been a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, since 1990. Among his books are The Legend of Napoleon (Granta, 2004) and Le MytheGaullien (Gallimard, 2010). He won the Prix du Memorial d’Ajaccio and the Prix de la Fondation Napoleon for the first of these, and a Prix d’Histoire du Senat for the second.

4. Cambridge Illustrated History of France

by Colin Jones
In this tour de force book, Colin Jones gives a gripping, superbly and intelligently illustrated account of the political, social and cultural history of France, placing an innovatory emphasis on the impact of regionalism, class, gender and race in French heritage. Ranging from prehistoric menhirs to the Pompidou Centre, from Louis XIV’s Versailles to twentieth-century highrises, from Marie Antoinette to Marie Claire, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France is host to lively and penetrating new insights that take us through the shaping of France from the earliest times to the brink of a new millennium. Combining superb illustration with outstanding scholarship, the diversity of the French heritage–scientific and artistic, national and regional–is explored with an engrossing and accessible style. Special features on places, people and events, a glossary, and a further reading section enhance this engaging book that will appeal to history buffs and students of French history and culture. Colin Jones is also the author of the Longman Companion to the French Revolution and The Cultural Atlas of France.

5. The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery

Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society’s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this façade lies the real Renée: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.

This French phenomenon is reviewed in the New York Times here, where Caryn James reflects on the novel’s international appeal.

Odyssey Traveller offers regular escorted small group tours to France each year. This link take you to the Tours of France page. Odyssey has produced a “Country Spotlight” article on France. A more detailed focus on the highlights of France can be found here, with  further information for mature and senior travellers interested in French history and culture. We have also written on discovering Paris by rail. Check out the official tourism website for France for more inspiration. And to keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

6. Lower Normandy: French Impressions

by George East
The sixth in the popular French Impressions series, taking the form of a personal travel narrative exploring the three departéments of Lower Normandy. As well as reviewing more than a hundred towns and villages and tourist attractions, the book looks at the historical events and peoples which helped form the unique character of this part of France. The book also features the recipes and background to many traditional and unusual Norman dishes. In all, a complete celebration of one of Frances most beautiful and fascinating areas. From the D-Day Beaches to the birthplace of William the Conqueror, George East’s unique style paints a gloriously coloured picture of some of the most visited and intriguing parts of Normandy. Learn about where your favourite cheeses come from, along with recipes for exciting and traditional dishes. Extract: ‘Visitors from across the Channel often say how very much like the rural England of long ago it all looks, though I suspect the locals think it is quite French. But I know what the visitors mean. Increasingly, the British countryside has been riven with roads, and our villages become drive-through reminders of how things were. Across the country it has not been possible to escape the cost of so many people occupying such a small area. It does no good to complain about the inevitable, but here in this peaceful place is a poignant reminder of what we had and what we have lost’. ‘As we near the border with Calvados, the columbage and thatched roof count rises rapidly. Fresh flowers are knotted into the ridge of some of the thatches, which is an old Norman tradition. It is said the practice dates back to Pagan times and was an offering to the gods of nature to ensure there would always be food and drink in the home’. In living memory, the greatest armada the world will ever see brought British and Allied troops to the shores of Calvados to fight on and win the beaches and beyond. Further along the coast from the D-Day beaches are the iconic resorts which were the playground of the rich and idle in the years between the wars. Inland is an eye-pleasingly variety of crags, hills and valleys, sweet winding rivers and the vast central cereal-growing prairies dotted with villages which sing of the past.

7. My Life in France

by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme

The bestselling story of Julia’s years in France—and the basis for Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams—in her own words.
Although she would later singlehandedly create a new approach to American cuisine with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, Julia Child was not always a master chef. Indeed, when she first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband, Paul, who was to work for the USIS, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching. Julia’s unforgettable story—struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, rejections from publishers to whom she sent her now-famous cookbook, a wonderful, nearly fifty-year long marriage that took the Childs across the globe—unfolds with the spirit so key to Julia’s success as a chef and a writer, brilliantly capturing one of America’s most endearing personalities.

 A New York Times review can be found here, where the reviewer wittily warns “READ no further if you dislike France, consider the French irritating, find French cooking pretentious and the French art de vivre overrated — because Julia Child liked everything about France. And her memoir, “My Life in France,” is an affectionate merci for all that France gave her”.

8. The History of Modern France: From the Revolution to the War on Terror

by Jonathan Fenby
With the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, the next two centuries for France would be tumultuous. Bestselling historian and political commentator Jonathan Fenby provides an expert and riveting journey through this period as he recounts and analyses the extraordinary sequence of events of this period from the end of the First Revolution through two others, a return of Empire, three catastrophic wars with Germany, periods of stability and hope interspersed with years of uncertainty and high tensions. As her cross-Channel neighbour Great Britain would equally suffer, France was to undergo the wrenching loss of colonies in the post-Second World War as the new modern world we know today took shape. Her attempts to become the leader of the European union is a constant struggle, as was her lack of support for America in the two Gulf Wars of the past twenty years. Alongside this came huge social changes and cultural landmarks but also fundamental questioning of what this nation, which considers itself exceptional, really stood – and stands – for. That saga and those questions permeate the France of today, now with an implacable enemy to face in the form of Islamic extremism which so bloodily announced itself this year in Paris. Fenby will detail every event, every struggle and every outcome across this expanse of 200 years. It will prove to be the definitive guide to understanding France.
by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow
The French drink, smoke and eat more fat than anyone in the world, yet they live longer and have fewer heart problems than the English and the Americans. They work 35-hour weeks and take seven weeks’ paid holiday each year, yet they are the world’s fourth-biggest economic power. So how do they do it? From a distance modern France looks like a riddle. It is both rigidly authoritarian, yet incredibly inventive; traditional (even archaic) yet modern; lacking clout on the international stage yet still hugely influential. But with the observations, anecdotes and analysis of the authors, who spent nearly three years living in France, it begins to makes sense. ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’ is a journey into the French heart, mind and soul. This book reveals French ideas about land, food, privacy and language and weaves together the threads of French society, uncovering the essence of life in France and giving, for the first time, a complete picture of the French.

10. Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo
Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.

Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.

Odyssey Traveller offers regular escorted small group tours to France each year. This link take you to the Tours of France page. Odyssey has produced a “Country Spotlight” article on France. A more detailed focus on the highlights of France can be found here, with  further information for mature and senior travellers interested in French history and culture. We have also written on discovering Paris by rail. Check out the official tourism website for France for more inspiration. And to keep in touch with Odyssey Traveller and receive information on our upcoming tours, please call or send an email. We’d love to hear from you!

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