Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, the imaginative, lyrical work that recently won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has captivated the attention of literary critics and the masses alike. At its core, the novel centers on a blind French girl and a mechanically-inclined German boy whose paths cross during World War II. But although the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and predicaments drive the plot, Doerr is known for his meticulous, scientific descriptions of the physical world, and the three main cities in which the novel takes place— Essen, Germany; Paris, France; and Saint-Malo, France—provide such an evocative backdrop for the events of the novel that it’s impossible to read the book without wanting to get to know these places better.
Fortunately, Doerr’s work of fiction is set in three very real European cities, and traveling to them is well within the realm of possibility. After finishing the novel, many readers have the urge to explore the historic sites firsthand, but with so much to see in each city, you may not be sure where to start. For that reason, the travel experts at Auto Europe have come up with the best things to do and see in Essen, Paris, and Saint-Malo if you’d like to discover these cities through the historical lens of All the Light We Cannot See. After picking up your rental car in Essen, you’ll be able to take in all the sites at your own pace, using this guide as your outline but dedicating as much time to each city as you please.
All the Light We Cannot See Destination 1: Essen, Germany
The first stop on our Doerr-inspired historical tour is Essen, Germany, a small city in northwestern Germany located a short distance from the Dutch border. It is outside of Essen, in the coal-mining town of Zollverein, that a young German orphan, Werner Pfennig, is raised with his sister. Although Werner’s childhood is unquestionably grim, today Essen and Zollverein are historically significant tourist destinations, and both cities boast many worthwhile sites for fans of All the Light We Cannot See.
Standing in the urbanized, modern city today, it is hard to believe that Essen was nearly completely leveled during World War II. A major industrial center since long before the war, Essen was a primary target for Allied bombing, and the Royal Air Force dropped over 35,000 imperial tons of bombs on the city, destroying 90% of the city center and 60% of the suburbs. For much of the 2oth Century, Essen was one of Germany’s most important coal, iron, and steel centers, but today, the economy is much more diversified. Essen still has a number of manufacturing industries, but it’s also known for its strong tertiary sector, and a number of Germany’s largest corporations have their headquarters in Essen. Additionally, Essen is known as one the greenest and most environmentally conscious cities in Germany despite its long industrial history.
There is much to see in and around Essen, but a few places will be of particular interest if you’re a fan of Doerr’s novel. First, you should visit the boroughs of Kettwig and Werden in the south of the city. Due to their distance from the industrial heart of the city and their lack of major manufacturing sites, these boroughs emerged from World War II relatively intact, so they are a great place to experience Essen as it was before the war. There are a great many residences that flaunt the post-and-beam construction that is common in old German homes, and the beautiful half-timbered buildings are sure to take you back to another time. In Kettwig, the tower of the Marktkirche (English: market church) dates back to the 14th Century, and the modest stone church is charming inside and out. Kettwig and Werden are some of the few places in Essen that can reveal to a contemporary visitor how the city might have looked and felt to Werner during his childhood.
You should make sure you visit the Old Synagogue, close to the city center of Essen. The Alte Synagoge was the cultural and social center of the Jewish community in the region before the war, and the architecturally impressive house of worship managed, surprisingly, to survive the war. Today, the building houses a memorial center that displays permanent exhibitions about Jewish history, German-Jewish relations, and Jewish contemporary culture. In addition, the synagogue sometimes hosts events and special collections; make sure you ask if there are any particular activities taking place while you’re in the area. Fortunately, there is a great deal of information provided in English, so take your time and learn as much as you can about the building and its significance in Jewish history and culture.
Finally, a European tour inspired by All the Light We Cannot See would not be complete without a stop in Zollverein, the coal-mining town that Werner calls home in the novel. The mines first opened at the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in 1847 and remained active until 1986. Although most people don’t tend to think of coal mines in this way, Shaft 12, built in the sleek, angular Bauhaus style and opened in 1932, is revered as an architectural and technical masterpiece and has been called the “most beautiful coal mine in the world.” As a small child, Werner himself would have witnessed the construction of reinforced concrete and steel trusses that would become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Today, the coal mine is all aesthetics and no industry, but the site’s historical significance is palpable. Step inside the boiler house to visit the Red Dot Design Museum, or walk out to the miners’ colonies to see the brick buildings in which the workers once lived.
All the Light We Cannot See Destination 2: Paris, France
Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind girl at the heart of All the Light We Cannot See, lives with her widowed father in Paris before the start of the Second World War. Paris is such a beautiful, romantic, and photographed city that most everyone knows it makes a wonderful vacation spot. However, not everybody is aware of the role Paris played during World War II. Paris and the entire country of France were coveted targets for Nazi Germany, and after it fell to the Germans, Paris was occupied for just over four years, though it is worth noting the French Resistance remained active and defiant throughout the occupation. Toward the end of 1944, when it became apparent that Nazi Germany was going to fall and that the German army was losing its grip on Paris, Hitler—despite his supposed enchantment with the city—ordered Paris to be razed to the ground.
However, fate intervened in the form of a defiant German general, and the City of Light was spared from total destruction. Today, there are a number of historical monuments and museums that can teach you more about the events in Doerr’s novel. Before driving in Paris, be sure to read our France Travel Guide to make driving in the city easier and less worrisome. A good place to start the Paris leg of your trip is the Arc de Triomphe. Literally the “Arch of Triumph,” it is situated at the Place de l’Etoile and overlooks the Champs-Elysées boulevard. The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 and is still one of the tallest arches in the world. On Augusto 26, 1944, one day after the liberation of Paris, the French army’s 2nd Armored Division paraded down the Champs-Elysées, and General Charles de Gaulle marched in front of the Arc, where the celebratory spirit of the day was captured in a now-famous photograph.
Next, you should visit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, located near the Notre Dame cathedral. The memorial, dedicated to the “martyrs of deportation,” was built in remembrance of the more than 200,000 people who were deported from Vichy, France, to Nazi concentration camps during the war. The concrete memorial, much of which is a confined subterranean space meant to convey a feeling of claustrophobia, is austere and stark yet moving. Light shines through 200,000 glass crystals inside the dimly lit chamber, and there are inscriptions from a number of French authors, including the last stanza of a poem by Robert Desnos, who was a member of the French Resistance and himself a deportee. The memorial is a quiet place for contemplation, the perfect spot not just to meditate on the heartbreaking circumstances that Doerr so effortlessly conveys in his novel, but also to pay homage to the millions of victims that lost their lives during the Second World War.
If you are interested in learning more about France’s military history, stop by the Musée de l’Armée, or “Army Museum,” to see the impressive collection that spans France’s entire military history. In the museum, located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, you can find weapons, armor, uniforms, and quotidian objects used by soldiers dating from antiquity through the 2oth Century. Be sure to check out the museum’s Contemporary Department, which includes the story of the French armed forces during both World Wars.
Your final stop in Paris on this journey should, of course, be the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, France’s National Museum of Natural History, which is where Marie-Laure’s doting father works in All the Light We Cannot See. Formally founded during the French Revolution, the museum now comprises fourteen sites, and its original location in the Jardin des Plantes in the 5th arrondissement is an architectural beauty both inside and out; many of its interior spaces, particularly the Great Gallery of Evolution, are soaring, expansive rooms filled with light. Although you cannot see the Sea of Flames, the fictitious cursed diamond from Doerr’s novel, there is no shortage of fascinating exhibits inside the museum’s high walls, so be sure you give yourself plenty of time to wander through the institution’s many displays, beautiful gardens, and intriguing menagerie.
All the Light We Cannot See Destination 3: Saint-Malo, France
As the Germans are descending on Paris, Marie-Laure’s father flees with her to the French countryside, leading her through fields and cottages to the coast. Along the drive from Paris to Saint-Malo, you are sure to see the rural beauty that surrounds these characters during their journey. It is in Saint-Malo, France, where Marie-Laure and her father find refuge and where Doerr finally brings Marie-Laure and Werner together. It is not surprising that Doerr chose this beautiful seaside town as the backdrop for such a central moment in the novel’s plot; ten years ago, a visit to Saint-Malo inspired Doerr and allowed him to give more structure to All the Light We Cannot See, which had been, before the trip, nothing more than delicate threads of ideas and whispers of characters in his mind. Writers, in particular, are sure to find a great deal of inspiration in this dreamlike city.
A walled port city on the Brittany coast in northwestern France, Saint-Malo’s inhabitants have historically been fiercely independent, and the town was notorious as a pirate stronghold during the Middle Ages. During World War II, the Allies mistakenly believed Saint-Malo was occupied by thousands of German soldiers. From late August to early September 1944, in an attempt to liberate the city, U.S. shelling and bombing and British naval gunfire came close to leveling the city, an attack that Doerr deftly and delicately describes in his novel. After the war ended, it took twelve years for the indomitable Malouins to slowly rebuild their city.
To start, familiarize yourself with the history of the port city with a stop at the Château de Saint-Malo, which now houses a nautical-themed museum. The castle is regal from the outside, and inside you can check out an assortment of artwork, model ships, and period furniture. If you don’t speak French, pick up an English leaflet at the front desk to help you learn more about the museum’s different exhibits. The real treat at the chateau, without a doubt, is the view from the top of the lookout tower. The stairs may be steep, but the breathtaking view that rewards you at the end is well worth the nerve-wracking climb.
The high, arched ceiling and the delicate light that filters in through the stained-glass window in Saint Vincent’s Cathedral make the church a great place to rest and reflect or maybe pull out Doerr’s novel for a moment to reread your favorite passages. The cathedral was destroyed during World War II, but the Malouins painstakingly restored the cathedral, stone by stone, to its former splendor. The pipe organ is not the original—the previous one was damaged beyond repair during the bombings—but it is impressive nonetheless; the organ has four keyboards and was built by Koenig, a French firm that specializes in rebuilding and restoring pipe organs. Nearby, you can find a simple tomb that holds the remains of Jacques Cartier. Cartier, originally from the small town of Saint-Malo, was the explorer who originally claimed what is now Canada for France during the Age of Discovery.
You can’t stay in Saint-Malo without allotting some time to stop in some of the town’s wonderful restaurants. Surprising for a town its size, Saint-Malo has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants of any city in Europe, and the idyllic seaside location and relaxed pace of the town will encourage you to sit down, enjoy a meal, and sip a glass of wine. The French invented and are still the masters of haute cuisine, so just about any restaurant you decide to try in Saint-Malo should delight your taste buds. However, there are a few that we would like to recommend. At Autour du Beurre, every meal begins with a sampling of eight homemade butter pats with flavors that range from sweet to savory to smoky—and that’s just the beginning. Expect the food to be so sensual that it produces a visceral and likely vocal reaction from you and your dinner companions. L’Entre Deux Verres, tucked away from the more typical tourist areas in an old part of town, is perfect if you’re looking for something a little different from typical French cuisine. While the food is undoubtedly French in style, the plates have delightful local touches and zesty Mediterranean accents. Lastly, the interior at Bouche en Folie is so intimate and cozy you’ll feel as if you’re in a French chef’s personal dining room rather than at a restaurant. The food and drinks are artfully presented without being pretentious, and the freshly prepared food will have you dreaming of crunchy crab croquettes and melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon for days.
At some point during your stay in Saint-Malo, you must retrace the path Doerr took that night in Saint-Malo that sparked his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Wait until night falls, and then walk around town. It will be dark except, perhaps, for the distant glimmer of boat lights on the water. You’ll feel the sea breeze; you’ll see the solid, dependable ramparts and the old granite mansions. Thanks in no small part to Doerr’s novel, you’ll feel the history of the city come alive around you. Take a moment to close your eyes; run your hands over the walls the way Marie-Laure would have done to find her way around the town. Tune out the other noises, and you might hear the faint crackle of the radio that Werner so loved. Eventually, you’ll need to come out of your reverie. But if you’re not ready to leave the historic and beautiful Brittany coast, check out our Brittany road trip itinerary, which begins in Saint-Malo, and take in even more of the fascinating region.
Get Carried Away by All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See is such a beautiful work of fiction that it should inspire us not just in our minds, but in our lives as well. Let the book guide you through a historical tour of Germany and France, and you’re sure to walk away with a better understanding of the novel’s characters and, if it’s possible, an even deeper love of Doerr’s writing.