As soon as my friend and I planned this summer’s France trip I was excited to get back on it with the City by the Book blogs, and here we are! I thought it’d be easy to find books by authors from the cities we were visiting, or at least set there, but it was much harder than I expected. Especially once I was limited to e-books for the sake baggage allowances.
And then I came across a non-fiction book by Henry James – A Little Tour in France. Well that was exactly what we were doing, so it sounded like a good fit. I knew it reached Toulouse, which was our first stop, but I hadn’t expected our second and third stops, Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence, to come up too. There wasn’t much Aix coverage, but the book was a great companion for Toulouse and Montpellier.
James, it seems, wasn’t overly impressed with Toulouse. I was, but after the rest of the trip, it certainly wasn’t the high point.
“But the city, it must be confessed, is less pictorial than the word, in spite of Place du Capitole, in spite of quay of the Garonne, in spite of the curious cloister of the old museum.” – Henry James, A Little Tour in France.
At present, Toulouse is a city under construction. Undoubtedly, it’s very different from how James saw it, but for me, the city is now irrevocably associated with the sound of drills and piles of scaffolding, all, of course, surrounded by ancient churches and convents. I think I’ll have to return to Toulouse in a few years to see how the development has enhanced the city, rather than making it the dustiest and noisiest part of our trip.
Here’s where James and I agree. For some reason, I had it in my mind that Montpellier was a bit of a British tourist trap — how wrong I was. We could’ve spent all summer there, exploring and eating. We had snails and wandered its little streets — we even became incredibly frustrated when a shop we found one morning disappeared without a trace in the afternoon. It took a treasure hunt before our train left the next morning to find it (it had been hidden down a secret adjacent street the whole time).
“I spent two days there, mostly in the rain, and even under these circumstances I carried away a kindly impression.” – Henry James, A Little Tour in France.
We popped into the museum (Musée Fabre) James loved so much but didn’t explore it with his level of unrestrained detail. It’s a really special city (with excellent seafood) and I don’t doubt I’ll be back for a longer visit at some point in the future.
A Little Tour of France was published in the nineteenth century, but because history is such a key part of any holiday in France nearly everything James mentioned was still there, there was just more around it. It was fun to read his caricatures of the people he encountered in each city of his tour, which really puts the buildings and landscapes you’re visiting into a unique context.
Another City by the Book from this trip will be coming soon!