An Introduction to Literary Travel (+ ideas to get you started)

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There is something magical about opening the first page of a new book, and falling headlong, like Harry Potter into a Pensieve, into a new world the author has created in words. As readers, we draw our blankets a little closer as Lucy finds herself crunching snow underfoot, never having expected to find herself in eternal winter instead of a wardrobe. We hear the ticking of Hook’s crocodile, marking our own remaining time, and can almost taste the liniment in the disastrous vanilla cake that will mortify Anne Shirley for all time.

It is often through the books that we read as children that we are first drawn into these new experiences, but the magic does not end with a transition out of the Junior Fiction section of the library (and let’s be honest, the transition is never permanent – who doesn’t enjoy a return to the old favourites?!). No one could mistake The Kite Runner for a children’s book, but thousands of readers have found themselves imagining kite battles above the roofs of Kabul, and Cathy and Heathcliff’s ill-fated love is as desolate and forlorn as the moors it inhabits.

Not all books are beloved for their sense of place – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, is most striking because of its depiction of the narrator’s inner turmoil – but where the physical setting is key to our passion for the book, we can find ourselves longing to be immersed in that world and to see, with a new, deeper understanding, the locations that inspired our beloved heroes, and their creators. One of Joyce’s other great works – Ulysses – has evoked this desire in its devotees to such an extent that it is brought to life in the streets of Dublin annually, by way of the Bloomsday Festival.

The history of the literary pilgrimage is long, with Greeks and Romans visiting the River Nile in response to reading Herodotus’ Histories, and a key element of the 19th Century rite of passage, the Grand Tour, was to gain a greater understanding of the classical artists, authors, composers and philosophers who had gone before. In and of itself, the Grand Tour produced works of literature worthy of their own pilgrimages. Some of Lord Byron’s greatest poems were composed during his travels around the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written as part of a horror story challenge between Byron, herself, and her husband Percy, from the shores of Lake Geneva.

In more recent times, best sellers such as Harry Potter and Twilight have seen their fans scouring the UK and the US Pacific Northwest, respectively, for traces of their literary loves. With increasingly greater numbers of novels being adapted for film and television, filming locations are also being drawn into the fold, making fantasy worlds like Westeros and Middle Earth accessible to us mere mortals.

There’s something for everyone in the world of literary travel, and to prove this point, here are the stories of five journeys inspired by a love of books. The first one’s mine, but the others have been contributed by bookworm travellers and bloggers. When you get to the end, don’t forget to leave a comment with your own story. Maybe you’ll inspire someone to follow in your footsteps and create the next great literary masterpiece.

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk – Kars, Turkey

There’s not much to see in Kars itself, including, when I visited in summer, any snow. But Pamuk’s novel of politics and Islam had captured my imagination and I wanted to see for myself. I pictured narrow winding streets and canopy-fronted tea houses – a tiny cross between Paris and Jerusalem. What I found was a predominantly Soviet style city with broad, open boulevards and brightly coloured concrete buildings. There were few covered women, and the only thing that reminded me of the terrorist, Blue, was a dog splashed with paint.

Books might give us the chance to create whole worlds in our minds, but travel lets us uncover the realities of them. My trip to Kars showed me that.

A street in Kars, Turkey

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank – Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I was recently inspired to travel to Amsterdam because of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Many of you will have read it and heard about how Anne’s family hid in the annex above her father’s office in Amsterdam for 4 years before they were discovered by Nazis. The book resonated with me because of the young storyteller and its raw honesty. Walking through the same rooms they lived and were then captured in, now bare and empty was truly amazing and sad. It was definitely worth the trip and for anyone interested in Anne’s story I would highly recommend travelling to the beautiful city of Amsterdam to see her house.

Sarah Talty, killedmycactus

Anne Frank House Museum, Amsterdam
Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) / CC BY-SA

Dr Siri Paiboun series, by Colin Cotterill – Laos

Before I was introduced to Laos by Dr Siri Paiboun, it was just another place on the map. After reading the book, however, I knew that I needed to go. During our stay, we visited many of the places in the books – from the palaces and temples of Luang Prabang to the temples of the capital Vientiane. In particular, the books’ mention of the CIA’s secret war in Laos took us to COPE, an organisation that assists those who have been injured by the leftover ordinance. If you ever get the chance to visit Laos then I urge you to take it. Not only is it incredibly beautiful but the people are also very friendly and welcoming.

Karen Duff

Royal Palace, Luang Prabang
Photo credit: Karen Duff, with permission

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami – Tokyo, Japan

It was my first night in Tokyo and I was wandering the quiet back streets of Shibuya. After a few wrong turns, I found what I was looking for: the Shibuya branch of Denny’s.

I have always loved how Haruki Murakami whisks me into other worlds, and his novel After Dark is no different. The entire book takes place on the late night streets of Tokyo, but it begins with a main character staying up all night reading a book in this very Denny’s. I ordered my coffee, cracked open my copy of After Dark, and felt like, finally, I was mentally and physically in the same place. Thank you, Tokyo and Murakami, for creating such a magical memory.

Cari Clark, seoulmellow

Denny's receipt and book. Shibya, Tokyo
Photo credit: Cari Clark, with permission

Inferno, Dan Brown – Florence, Italy

After reading and enjoying Dan Brown’s Inferno, I, and five others, decided to follow in the footsteps of Robert Langdon to Florence. My husband and I had previously also visited Istanbul, for its role in the book.

We had a fantastic long weekend hunting out the various locations, starting with tracking down Dante’s Death Mask, through to the Palazzo Vechio (which is pivotal to the story). We spent a day exploring the Pitti Palace and, as it was lovely and warm for October, we walked around the vast Boboli Gardens, remembering the numerous locations from the book.

A great time was had by all, and now to find our next holiday location!

Karen Collier

Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy
Photo credit: Karen Collier with permission

Don’t let the storytelling end here! Head to the comments section below and let me know about your favourite literary adventure, past or future. I’d love to hear your stories.

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14 thoughts on “An Introduction to Literary Travel (+ ideas to get you started)

  1. “Books might give us the chance to create whole worlds in our minds, but travel lets us uncover the realities of them.” Perfect statement and sentiment for how I feel about books and travel. Love this!

    Thank you for sharing a few of your adventures with us. Can’t wait to see what’s coming up next!

    • Thanks Alicia. I really love the symbiotic relationship between books and travel. They both have such huge lessons to teach, and they work together so well to do that.

  2. Evocative writing Jo. My most treasured book is The Prophet by Khalil Gibran even though he was talking about matters of the heart and timeless truths that are eternal I wonder if he had a particular city or place in mind when he wrote it? You’ve inspired me to do a bit of digging.

    • Hi Zoe,
      I didn’t know the answer to your question, so I went and did a bit of digging myself. I really didn’t know much about Khalil Gibran at all when I started reading, but he’s quite a fascinating person. It seems that Orphalese wasn’t directly inspired by any one place; however, he was writing about a return home from 12 years of exile while living as a Lebanese man in New York for the same amount of time. He showed a strong connection to Lebanon, leaving the royalties from his works to his home town, Bsharri, and so it is possible that his own situation played a role in his thinking as he wrote The Prophet.
      Thanks for the question – it’s been fun trying to go in search of an answer 🙂

  3. I love reading books before I go somewhere. Recently I travelled to Savannah (GA) and I read Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil before I went. It definitely changed the way I saw the city.

    If you ever had to Savannah, check it out before you go!

  4. You’ve inspired me to pay a bit more attention to the literary works connected to particular places. With traveling throughout NAmerica we’ve made a few connections (Anne of Green Gables, Wildwood in Portland, Explosion in Halifax Harbour, The Real Winnie: A One-Of-A-Kind Bear, Brighty of the Grand Canyon) but there’s so many more connections to make.

    • Be careful – once you go down that rabbit hole there are an awful lot of tunnels to go exploring! I’m definitely not saying don’t do it though. I think it’s a fascinating way to really dig into history and geography and the interconnections between places, people and stories. I’m glad you’ve been inspired to go looking for more! Let me know how you get on!

  5. Yaaaasss. I’m presently obsessing over the Outlander series – nearly done the first book, and well. I verra much want to visit some parts of Scotland mentioned in the book, ye ken? 😉

  6. Such a neat post. I always try to read a few books about the places I visit as well and your Dan Brown inspired trip looked like so much fun!

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