Who’s in for some time travel?

For the last three years I’ve lived in an underrated French city and I love it!

Those among you who have visited Tours, Loire Valley, will enjoy seeing the city in this vintage illustration. If you haven’t yet, follow the tour guide as I take you back in time.

Vintage Tours

This is 1854, the start of the Second Empire. Napoleon III rules France.

We can see a lot has changed and a lot has remained the same.

St Gatien cathedral dominates the original historic heart of town.

All the way to the right in the second historic center (“le Vieux Tours”) the two surviving towers of the medieval basilica dedicated to Saint Martin stand proudly. The rest of the massive building that welcomed pilgrims for centuries in the heart of the “Martinopolis” was taken down in the early 1800’s. In the process Saint Martin’s tomb was lost (!) It will be found again in 1860 during archeological excavations.

Construction of the striking contemporary basilica where the Saint rests today will only start a few years later.

With the advent of steamboats and the inauguration of the first train station in 1846, Loire river mariners are about to become obsolete. Gradually busy ports along the riverbanks and hundreds of flat-bottomed boats will disappear.

I spot the chimney of MAME industries, a local industrial success story. The facilities won’t survive WWII.

“Le Pont de Pierre” inaugurated in the 1770s has not yet been renamed “Pont Wilson” as a tribute to Woodrow Wilson post WWI. There’s a good story to be told there! In the 1850’s the bridge is a favorite place to stroll for the elegant crowd. Most importantly it provides a grand entrance into the city for travelers arriving from Paris like Honoré de Balzac whenever he misses his native Touraine.

At the end of the bridge stately neo-classical buildings welcome visitors at the entrance of the former “rue Royale” (today “rue Nationale.”) They include the School of Fine Arts and the Hotel de Ville.

Up river “le Pont de Fil” (Passerelle St Symphorien) has been rebuilt and replaces an old medieval bridge.

Two years later (1856) Napoleon III will visit Tours. Following one of the most devastating floods in the region’s history, the Emperor tours the streets in a boat!

Fast forward to June 1940. France has fallen. Tours is a strategic location for German troops.

Once they have made their way across the bridge after launching incendiary bombs for several days and nights, 2/3 of “la rue Nationale,” outlying streets and historic buildings have been turned to rubble. The Fine Arts and the Library (it replaced the Hotel de Ville in the late 19th century) are gone.

Le “Pont de Fil” is down.

Reconstruction will start in the 1950s and sadly won’t be undertaken “à l’identique.” Let’s be fair: Reconstruction architecture hasn’t always aged well. In 2024 Tours still wears the scars of the war years.

Today, the area around the top of rue Nationale is one of the most controversial in town. No road travelers enter the city from the Wilson bridge anymore (For over a decade, it’s been reserved for the tram, pedestrians and cyclists.) “Just as well” seems to be the locals’ motto. No one is too fond of modern construction including two struggling Hilton Hotels and chainstores that have replaced the once elegant buildings erected in the late 18th century.

Bienvenue à Tours. I like her just as she is.

I bet you’ll like Tours too! Reach out next time you are in town and book a private tour with Véro.

Let’s take a walk together.

Véronique - France with Véro
Véronique of France with Véro

Véronique of France with Véro

Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.

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