How inspiring travel books can change the way you travel forever
When I think about the joy of reading, I remember Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and her vicarious adventures around the globe through the yellowed pages of her library books.
“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
Dahl knew well the simple yet momentous way that books about adventures and explorers and far-flung places could transport the reader into amazing new worlds. Sitting in my little house with a cup of coffee, I’ve ridden on the back of Che Guevara’s motorbike through South America in The Motorcycle Diaries. Run a coffee plantation in Kenya with Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Ritz-ed it up in the bright lights of 1940s New York with Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The cost of many of these round-the-world plane tickets? 50p for a foxmarked tome with a dog-eared cover from my local Oxfam bookshop.
Stay indoors all you like and soak up tales of travels past – I won’t judge you. But if you’re itching to pack a suitcase and follow your heroes and heroines into the exotic new places they wrote about, you’ll discover the other joy of literary travel – how books can help you weave your own stories.
When we travel, we’re writing ourselves a narrative all the time, knitting together our experiences into a story. The wilds of India are mystical and captivating all on their own, but they feel even more magical if you were brought up on the Jungle Book. Havana is hot and heady, but picturing Ernest Hemingway writing The Old Man and the Sea after joining the city’s fishermen to catch marlin adds romance and poignancy to every wander by Havana’s shore. I’m currently reading The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd, and can’t wait to explore the Cairngorm mountains now I’ve seen them through her eyes. Following in the footsteps of your favourite author or their fictional creation can feel like travelling with a well-known, much-loved friend. Even if you’re alone, you’ve got their whole world, their innermost thoughts in a book in your backpack.
And there’s no need to go to far-flung places or even buy an airplane ticket to walk the epic landscapes and discover the secret corners from favourite novels – Britain is full of literary landscapes. My friend Maria spent a wonderful few days wandering around Dorset, happily quoting bits of Far from the Madding Crowd to herself. I love to ramble on Cornish cliffs imagining I’m in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, swashing buckles and deciding which coves were probably once haunted by fictional smugglers. The wild and misty Yorkshire Moors are especially brilliant for stomping under grey skies shouting ‘Heathcliff!’ at the winds in proper Emily Bronte (or Kate Bush) style. The literary world is your oyster.
Don’t feel constrained to weave your journey around the written world, either. Art and music can create magical stories out of a destination. One of the loveliest days I’ve ever spent was wandering around Frida Kahlo’s famous Casa Azul (the Blue House) in Mexico City, now a museum left exactly as when the colourful artist lived behind its cobalt-coloured walls in the 1940s and 1950s. She rarely left this beautiful little house in later years due to illness, and yet it’s a riot of rainbow shades and powerful artwork, plants, sculptures and memories. In the words of Frida: “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Her bright bold view of the world infused everything else I saw in Mexico after that.
Want to add inspiration from poems and prose to your travels? Get a notebook and scribble down all of the places that have taken on a symbolic meaning for you from the pages of novels. Check The Word Travels for ideas – they list everything from Virginia Woolf’s London to Lord Byron’s Greece. The internet is full of useful resources – I found a map, for example, of exactly where Emily Bronte is believed to have set scenes from Wuthering Heights.
Go out and get inspired. You’ll never be alone on the road if your travelling companion is a book.
Top and bottom images from my trip to Hay-On-Wye, Wales, the bookworm’s dream destination.