A year ago, I had not yet begun to research my book, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go. In fact, I had a beautifully empty slate, a 4-week residency at Ragdale, a memoir I was itching to write there and a novel I was desperate to revise and get back into the market. Hard to believe, in hindsight, that I hesitated for one second when my friends at Travelers’ Tales asked me if I’d be interested in taking on France. That week of deliberating was a futile exercise in not trusting what fate had in store for me. Now, almost a year later, after I’ve edited and re-edited and re-edited the manuscript, the book is at the printer as I write this. The list is final – at least for this project. In this context as with most obsessions, letting go is tough.
And yet, I am still researching France, ever surprised by the colors of the shutters on whitewashed coastal houses. I still hope to try every cake and local pastry, and I still want to follow France’s great women whose footsteps continue to resound all over the country. In towns like Poitiers where the teenager Joan of Arc was vetted for the almost-king she had come to save (and as the Commander of his army, did) by driving the British out of France.
Mark Twain’s biography of her is sensational – he was obsessed by Joan and after writing this book, so am I. Poitiers is also where Eleanor, the Duchess of Aquitaine, as Queen of France and then of England, still ruled over her vast ancestral lands, entertaining with medieval royal flair from the Palais de Justice that still stands today.
One of France’s less-frequented regions, Poitou-Charentes, is France for women in a perfectly compact microcosm. It extends inland from the Atlantic coast above Aquitaine, is geographically diverse, there are history, wine, and some of the most pristine expanses of sand in Europe. I’ve just returned from a delirious spin around its beaches, islands, and ancient towns of Cognac, Poitiers, and La Rochelle.
Several, not enough, of these places are in the book – it’s kind of the tragic nature of lists that not everything makes it, and by far the hardest part of writing this book. But some things did: the laid-back islands strewn with bike paths, salt flats and painted shacks, and of course Poitiers that stands in the shadows of its great women, Joan and Eleanor.
It’s still astonishes me: how everything coexists so beautifully in a place like this. How we can walk the medieval streets laden with history and buy roses at the market in the morning, drink cognac from the source at lunch, stroll hot beach sands in the afternoon and relax with a plate of oysters in the evening.