One of my favorite classes I took in high school was European History. I found Europe’s long history, filled with the rise and falls of empires, incredibly interesting compared to US History because of how ancient its roots go. Whereas US history doesn’t begin until the rediscovery of the Americas, Europe had a thriving civilization since the fall of the Roman Empire. However interesting it was to learn in a classroom, I found experiencing European history to be infinitely more thrilling.
Tours is well-known for its historical sites, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Even so, I was blown away by the history these châteaux had. During one of our free weekends, I went with several friends to visit the château at Bloise, a nearby town. When I walked in, I was immediately struck by how ancient everything was. The castle had four wings, each of which were built during a different time period. The oldest wing of the castle dates back to the 1600s, and as monarchies rose and fell in France, each French king added his own touches to the castle. The result was a beautiful mix of Classical, Renaissance, Gothic, and Flamboyant architecture.
When compared to the history of the US, it’s not hard to understand how ancient European history really is. When America was still experimenting with fledgling governments, Europe had already been standing for hundreds of years. The thing that struck me most strongly was what the word “ancient” meant in Europe. Seeing these castles from eons ago still standing, it really put things into perspective: it’s easy to understand why France has such a distinctive culture. Many of the places we visited could easily qualify as a protected monument, and yet they were being used for very mundane purposes. A building from the Napoleonic empire might be used as an administrative building, or a church from the 13th century might be used for daily mass. It was mind-blowing enough to simply see these historical sites–I couldn’t image living amongst them and going to church service in a building older than many countries.
Beyond just how much history everything had, I was struck by the variety of their history, and none was more eventful than Chenonceau: during the reign of Catherine de Medici in the 1500s, the castle served as the seat of her power. Later on, it became a gathering place for Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Even more recently, Chenonceau served as the dividing line between free France and occupied France during WWII, and was the site of daring escapes by French resistance forces. It was incredible to be in the same room as so much history–looking out the windows of Catherine de Medici’s study, I could easily imagine French nobility strolling through the gardens or Enlightenment thinkers discussing the latest treaties.
It was truly remarkable, how much history these buildings had lived through. I spent only two weeks in Tours, but those two weeks exposed me to more living history than I had ever seen before. The sense of distance I usually felt when learning about history completely disappeared, leaving me thoroughly awed at the history of where I was. Seeing the sites only reinforced my desire to learn more about European history while in France, how that I can physically relate to the events of centuries ago.