France is this year’s Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We peeked into some French literary classics and visited their scenes of action: the Paris metro, a famous island prison, a scorching beach and a mountaintop!
Pastries from Illiers
Marcel Proust: In search of lost time
the quote: “And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”
the place: As a child, Marcel Proust spent every Easter holiday with his aunt in Illiers, a village of 3000 souls near Chartres. He immortalized it in his monumental work In Search of Lost Time by giving it the fictitious name “Combray.” On the 100th anniversary of Proust’s birth in 1971, the village officially changed its name to Illiers-Combray.
reason to visit: Aunt Leonie’s house, now a museum. “Most people want to see the kitchen,” says Mireille Naturel, who runs it, “but my favorite thing is actually the magic lantern, an antique projector from the family’s estate.” Madame Naturel recommends the Guilleman bakery as the best place for madeleines. “They say it’s where Aunt Léonie bought hers.” For more Proustean moments, go to Le Pré Catelan park, which served as the model for the fictitious garden belonging to Monsieur Swann, and visit Saint-Jacques, the catholic church Proust called “Saint-Hilaire” in the novel.
Underground adventures in Paris
Raymond Queneau: Zazie in the Metro
the quote: “‘Unkoo,’ she yells, ‘are we going by metro?’ ‘No.’ ‘What d’you mean, no?’ She has come to a full stop. Gabriel likewise halts, puts the suitcase down and starts to iksplain: ‘Well yes: no. Today, can’t be done. Za strike.’ ‘Za strike?’ ‘Well yes: za strike. The metro, that eminently parisian transport, has fallen asleep under the ground, for the employees with their perforating punches have ceased to work.’ ‘Oo the bastards,’ cries Zazie, ‘oo the swine. To do that to me. (…) Blast, bloody hell.’”
the place: Paris. Raymond Queneau’s very French variation on the story of Pippi Longstocking was published in 1959. Zazie, a country girl who loves to curse, embarks on a wild adventure with her cross-dressing uncle in Paris. Not much has changed since then in the French capital: Métro workers still regularly go on strike, and the typical smell that Uncle Gabriel so detested is still part of the authentic Paris experience.
reason to visit: Métro line 14, the newest, fastest and the first line to be fully automatic. Zazie would have loved watching the track from this driverless train and seeing the signs featuring a cartoon rabbit that went up in 1977 to warn passengers not to let the train’s closing doors pinch their fingers.
The prison island near Marseille
Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo
the quote: “On the 24th of February, 1815, the look-out at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the three-master, the Pharaon from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples. As usual, a pilot put off immediately, and rounding the Château d’If, got on board the vessel between Cape Morgiou and Rion island.”
the place: Château d’If, a fortress on an island off the coast of Marseille. Edmont Dantès, a promising young sailor and the hero of the novel, languished there for 14 years. The fortress was used as a prison from the 16th to 19th century.
reason to visit: The opportunity to test your skills as a jailbreaker by taking part in the annual Défi de Monte Cristo, a five-kilometer swimming competition in the Mediterranean from Château d’If to Marseille’s Grand Roucas beach. There’s a ferry every hour from Vieux Port in Marseille to Île d’If.
Cocktails in the flickering heat
Philippe Dijan: Betty Blue
the quote: “We drove slowly up the main street with our windows halfway down. The midday sun was like peanut butter on consecrated bread.”
the place: Broad, dusty expanses of sand with wooden huts built on stilts to resist the vicissitudes of the sea; beyond them, the foothills of the Pyrenees: Gruissan beach was the setting for the craziest cult love story of the 1980s. The village was built in the 19th century as a popular summer resort.
reason to visit: The magic of the place in late summer, when the beaches are emptying but the heat is still enough to addle your brain. Jean-Jacques Beineix captured it beautifully in his movie adaptation. The tequila rapido shots served on the balcony of the Le Grand Soleil, which stood in for the movie’s Motel de la Plage, would be just to Betty’s taste.
The miners’ revolt
Émile Zola: Germinal
the quote: “The Voreux was now emerging from the gloom (…). This pit, piled up in the bottom of a hollow, with its squat brick buildings, raising its chimney like a threatening horn, seemed to him to have the evil air of a gluttonous beast crouching there to devour the earth.”
the place: Zola’s novel highlighting the exploitation of the working class and the consequences of industrialization is based on the actual coalminers’ rebellion in Anzin in 1884.
reason to visit: The 120 000-hectare coalfield with its mineshaft towers, railroad tracks, stations and mining villages along the Franco-Belgian border, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012. Valenciennes tourist office runs a tram tour complete with anecdotes about Zola’s stay and information about Anzin and its surroundings
France’s most famous adulteress
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
the quote: “Yonville-l’Abbaye (…) is a market-town eight leagues from Rouen, between the Abbeville and Beauvais roads, (…) the lazy borough, growing away from the plain, has naturally spread riverwards.”
the place: The village of Ry, where the suicide in 1848 of an adulteress gave rise to one of the most widely read social novels of its time. Flaubert renamed places and protagonists, but his detailed descriptions make them identifiable to this day.
reason to visit: To see where the story unfolded (although Claude Chabrol’s movie adaptation was filmed in a neighboring village). Have a meal at La Mélodie du Bovary.
Showdown in the French Alps
Jean-Christophe Grangé: Blood Red Rivers
in the book: “The Grand Pic de Belledonne towered against the cloudy sky like a monstrous black wave frozen between stone slopes.”
the place: The Freydane glacier in the shadow of the 3000-meter-tall Grand Pic de Belledonne peak, where the showdown takes place. In his thriller, Grangé weaves the atmosphere of the bleak mountain backdrop into his horrifying tale of murders committed to conceal eugenics experiments.
reason to visit: A spectacular panoramic view of the French Alps – if you’re lucky and the air is clear, all the way to Mont Blanc. The ascent to the top of the Grand Pic de Belledonne, undertaken every summer by ambitious alpine climbers, takes roughly five hours.
A nose by any other name
Edmond Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac
the quote: “Above his Toby ruff he carries a nose!–ah, good my lords, what a nose is his! When one sees it one is fain to cry aloud, ‘Nay! ’tis too much! He plays a joke on us!’ Then one laughs, says ‘He will anon take it off.’”
the place: the town of Bergerac. History’s most famous ghostwriter, who is celebrated to this day in numerous plays, operas and films, did not actually hail from Bergerac. Rostand, the author of the orginal play, took inspiration for his famous protagonist from the French novelist, playwright and Parisian libertine Hercule Savinien de Cyrano, who later added the surname Bergerac after a former estate that his family had bought from a family that had moved there from the town of Bergerac. In the 17th century, Cyrano de Bergerac wrote what was probably the first science fiction novel about an imaginary journey to the sun and the moon.
reason to visit: To soak up some Cyrano atmosphere in the pretty town of Bergerac in the Dordogne, a well-known French wine region. Visit the Château de Monbazillac, an architectural jewel famous – and rightly so – for its sweet wines and liqueurs. On a tour of the castle, you can also admire works by German artist Albrecht Dürer, paintings by French caricaturist SEM as well as some contemporary art.