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June 17, 2009

In France, History is Everywhere

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Since World War 2, differences between Europe and the United States have been evaporating at the practical, everyday life level. Time was, you could distinguish European men from Americans by haircut and clothing. Nowadays, one sees European kids wearing jeans, baseball caps and Dallas Cowboys tee shirts while eating at the town's McDonald's . Cars there average a little smaller and motorcycles and motor scooters are more prevalent, but these are differences in degree, not kind.

There is one large difference, however, and that is in what architectural academics like to call the "built environment." You know, man-made structures of all kinds. What you see in Europe is a lot of really old stuff.

This is especially obvious to tourists such as I was a few weeks ago. But it's there for the locals to see as well. In much of the continent apart from postwar suburbs and glitzy resort areas where development pushed aside low-rise dwellings, it's hard to escape seeing buildings erected 200 and more years earlier.

Here in the States, aside from scattered places along the eastern seaboard, buildings older than 150 years are rare or non-existent. It's hard to sense history on a daily basis here, whereas in Europe history in the form of structures is almost inescapable. That might induce a subtle difference in mindset from Americans even for Europeans born after the war (everyone less than age 65) who have grown up in a relatively prosperous, technologically modern environment.

Just for kicks, here are examples of older structures that are right in a Frenchman's face or, failing that, perched atop that hill or over there in the next valley.

For starters, here's a Paris scene not far off the boul' Raspail. At street level are pedestrians, cars and modern shopfronts. Above are buildings built in the late 1800s or early 1900s (though the brick-covered one just might be more recent).

Paris has some really old structures (Notre Dame, Pont Neuf, etc.), but they don't dominate the local scene. That's not the case in some other places.

Carcassonne, for instance. To the left is the new city and brooding above it is the old, walled city whose conical tower tops are part of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's creative resoration.

Another brooder is the chateau in Amboise with some newer, but not new, buildings below. Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years in Amboise, but in another chateau as guest of François Premiere.

Or you might be driving along the Rhone River in Avignon and to the right are the grounds of the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace).

That palace can be hard to avoid when navigating nearby streets and passages.

Many cites have an old town district. Here is a Rouen street leading to its Horloge and, beyond, the cathedral that Monet famously painted at different hours of the day.

Small cities also often have old districts. This is the market place in the touristy Norman port town, Honfleur.

An even older and larger old town is in the Dordogne's Sarlat-la-Canéda.

Even the fois gras geese in the Dordogne can't escape History. That's a castle on the hilltop in the distance. It seems to have been restored into a hotel where those geese might well be served some day.



posted by Donald at June 17, 2009


Dordogne is one of the great forgotten places in France. You really seem to step back in time there. Tourists appear to forego it in favor of Province, Burgundy and Bordeaux. But if you get the chance, go there. The countryside, people and food are just glorious. And it's uncrowded.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 17, 2009 3:31 PM

Dordogne - forgotten? You cannot be serious, man. The Dordogne has been popular with British people, including some tens of thousands who now live there, for about 50 years. Tourists ignore it except for the vast numbers of them that go there.

Posted by: Graham Asher on June 17, 2009 4:30 PM


Is it possible to have a post on "In France, Food is Everywhere?"

Posted by: Pupu on June 17, 2009 9:01 PM

Pupu -- Given that I'm the 12th fussiest eater in the world (yes, my rating slipped seriously ... must work at it harder), I'm not any kind of go-to guy on that topic. Maybe Michael -- he did spend a lot of time in France when he was younger.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 17, 2009 9:13 PM

I've often said, How differently would we view the wealth/living standard of Europeans if their material incomes were exactly the same but if almost none of the older (pre WWI) buildings had survived?

A Europe with nothing but 20th century buildings would seem a heckuva lot poorer even if measured material income were identical. After all, a lot of their newer burbs are uglier than ours.

Posted by: jn on June 17, 2009 10:24 PM

No worries, Donald.

The picture of the fois gras geese alone is good enough for fantasy, with or without the history in the background.

Posted by: Pupu on June 17, 2009 10:27 PM

Talking of history… it's been quite funny, at first glance, to see the first picture above. I've always been living in Paris and, to me, those building are not exactly "history". It is just "present", i.e. modern Paris, the kind of building you don't even notice because there are so recent… (which is sometimes a mistake, are some of them are really good pieces of architecture).

What is definitely "new" is the proliferation of signposts and all sorts of obstacles for the pedestrian. No less than 3 redundant signposts in the left part of your picture: that is rather new, here, and I find it quite oppressing.

Posted by: Philaretes on June 18, 2009 6:06 AM

It's relative. When we were in NZ we met a couple from New England. "Everything here is so young" they said.

Posted by: dearieme on June 18, 2009 3:38 PM

But when you compare to some places in the Middle East, European structures are nearly as recent as the US.

Posted by: jay on June 18, 2009 8:05 PM

Speaking of old, in your last picture from the Dordogne, if you work your way up that valley you'd find caves that were occupied during the Paleolithic

Posted by: Reid Farmer on June 19, 2009 12:19 PM

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