Literary Destinations Around the World

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Travel Features >> Literary Destinations Around the World

Literary Destinations Around the World

November 25, 2011

Perhaps the most important thing that books do is transport the reader to a place and a thought that is removed from her immediate location. There’s nothing better than a good read to ignore the drip-drip of a grey London or the scorching heat of a Delhi summer. But, amazingly enough while books may be an avenue of escape they are equally great when we’re in quite a happy situation, not looking to escape at all. (For instance, is there any better way to enjoy a Parisian café than with a book?)

Here we pay tribute to some great books that, even while they don’t really tell us about a ‘destination’, certainly tell us more about a place than any travel guide. Four are about journeys and the other two, one about the tales of an Indian jungle and the other set on a Greek island, are located in well-travelled yet off beat places. All of them without exception have one thing in common: they’re all classics of their times.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne – Snæfellsjökull, Iceland
Adventure thriller meets science fiction in Jules Verne’s 1864 classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The book, quite a voluminous tome, takes the reader along on an eventful journey to the centre of the earth with the three adventurers – the eccentric Professor Hardwigg, his nephew and the Icelander Hans, their guide. The point of takeoff in this wild adventure is a volcanic shaft in remote Iceland. While the encounters, the journey and the events are obviously fictional, the place that leads to them is actually not.

Characterised by wild terrain, a coastline that is marked by fjords, Iceland’s cold northwestern ‘dragon’s head’ peninsula is inhabited mainly by seabirds – Arctic tern, gulls, razorbills, cormorants that sweep past stunning cliffs and fill the air with their calls. Of similar atmosphere is the Snæfellsness Peninsula, further south along the western coast from ‘dragon’s head’. The highest point here is the awesome Snæfellsjökull, a glacial strato volcano where Jules Verne situated the entrance to the depths of the Earth in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

The most important town in northwestern peninsula, one with decent tourist facilities, is Ísafjörður. In Snæfellsness there is accommodation at the base of Snæfellsjökull where the sands are black and gold, and at Ólafsvík. A small town perched on the northern shoulder of the Snæfellsjökull, it is ideally situated for hikes up this great glacier.

Learn more on Iceland

A Town like Alice, Neville Shute – Alice Springs, Australia
In 1950 came the Neville Shute novel that of all his others has stood the test of time. A Town like Alice stamped on the English reader’s imagination the horrors of war and brought into public consciousness what has come to be known as the Bataan Death March, but most importantly it made famous a place in the barren wilderness of Australia called Alice Springs.

Since this isn’t a literary critique we’ll leave aside such finer points of debate that a discussion of the novel may give rise to: occidental vs oriental, the romanticising of the ringer’s life, the romanticising of enterprise… At its very basic level the story is one of love. It’s 1942 and the Second World War is still 3 years shy of being over. 19-year-old Jean Paget from Southampton meets Aussie POW Joe Harmon in the Philippines. The Japanese are fighting the Filipino – US coalition here and at this stage are on their way to victory. Captives of the Japanese, Jean is on the 600 mile-long abysmal ‘Death March’ and Joe has been commandeered to drive supply trucks. A chance meeting on the road between Joe and Jean in the Philippines becomes the mainstay of the later section of the novel. 8 years later, the war over, Jean travels all the way to Northern Territory in search of the man who she had met all those years back, who had described his home as “Great red ranges against the blue sky. And in the evenings they go purple and all sorts of colours. And silvery-white in the dry. And after the wet, they're green all over. I guess everybody loves his own place best. And all around the Alice is my place.”

Somewhere between Adelaide and Darwin, in the middle of nowhere for all practical purposes, lies the town of Alice Springs. It took about 62 years - between 1871 (when a repeater station of the telegraph was set up here) and 1933 (when the town was actually established) – for the population to reach 200. Today the population is around 30,000 people. Still small. Still beautiful in its wilderness.

Read on to learn more about Australia

Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling – Bandhavgarh, India
In 1894 Rudyard Kipling, the infamous apologist of the colonial enterprise but nonetheless a man of imagination and rhythm rare wrote the first of his Jungle Books. A year later the Second Jungle Book appeared on bookshelves. Kipling’s books chronicled the adventures of Mowgli the man-child who grows up in the Seeonee Hills in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. Found by a Bageera, a black panther, an abandoned babe in the woods, Mowgli is handed over to the family of wolves because the mother has just littered.

The story of Kaa the snake, Balloo the bear, Tabaqui the scavenging jackal, the Bandarlog (troop of langurs) and Shere Khan the tiger who’s feared by all was inspired by Kipling’s childhood in India. Kipling, the son of a teacher at the Jeejeebhoy School of Art, loved the noise and liveliness of his adopted home and missed it terribly when his parents left him at a foster home in Southsea, England at the age of six. Kipling did return to India in 1882 at the age of 17 to pursue a career in the papers.

Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel for Literature in 1907, the first Englishman to do so. He wrote prolifically but among his more enduring works (thanks in part to Walt Disney) is the children’s classic, Jungle Book. Jungle Book is a delightful tome but perhaps even more delightful is the firsthand experience of its setting.

The forests of The Jungle Book are in the heart of India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Fairly accurately referred to as tiger country, in Madhya Pradesh lie the densely forested grounds of the Bandhavgarh National Park. This is where the white tiger is from, though none roam the wilds anymore. What you will get a chance to see are the Royal Bengal Tiger, deer, the sloth bear, gaur, over 250 bird species, the old fort in the environs of the park, and the famous Indian life that so captured Kipling’s imagination.

For more information on India, click here

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres – Cephalonia, Greece
Louis de Bernieres’ book is almost a modern classic only a few years since it was published. Located in the Second World War, set in the idyllic Greek island of Cephalonia, the book is not simply a war love story, as the movie version would have you believe. It is a finely crafted lyrical novel that tells its many stories at a leisurely pace.
But of Cephalonia there’s plenty. This Greek island with its population of interesting characters, the leftists and the conservatives, the local strong man, the doctor and his daughter, the beautiful Pelagia and her fisherman fiancé who returns from his war experience scarred beyond recognition. The island is all white sands and blue seas, a little town that would charm even the most cynical reader simply because its inhabitants have been etched with the pen of empathetic writer. The book works all the better because it devotes much space to the war too, in the same even pace as it uses for Cephalonia.

Many people are surprised that Cephalonia actually exists. It does and it is a beautiful island. Probably named after the Greek hero Kefalos, Cephalonia had ancient maritime connections with Ithaca and perhaps even the Cyclades. In more modern times, Cephalonia has developed as an important centre for transit trade on the Ionian Sea. In the most recent of times of course, it has come to be sought out by tourists peeking out of whose bags is often a copy of de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

The tourist infrastructure is good. And any time of the year is a good time to be touring Pelagia’s homeland. The climate is Mediterranean, the seas Are blue and while one side of the island is palm-fringed-silver-sands-little-cottages perfection, there’s another side where the water crashes in white waves against craggy cliffs. The 53 nautical miles between Patras, the largest city in the Peloponnese Islands, and Cephalonia can be covered by ferry.

Read on to learn more about Greece

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad – The Democratic Republic of Congo
By the end of the 19th century the continental powers ruled the world. Britain had already amassed an empire large enough for the claim ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ to be a geographically verifiable fact and not jingoist hyperbole. Not as successful as the British but not far behind in the race were France, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Set in these times, in this situation, is the one of the greatest novellas in English literature – ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. When it was first published in 1902 Conrad was already fairly well known. Born in Polish Russia, Conrad lost his parents in the revolution there at a young age. Subsequently, when he was seventeen he arrived at Marseilles, France and became an apprentice at the merchant marine.

Whether ‘Lord Jim’ or ‘Almayer’s Folly’ most of Conrad’s stories were based on sea adventures, seafarers, voyage and discovery. So too Heart of Darkness, which in its brevity and incisiveness is perhaps the best (and most difficult to understand) of Conrad’s works. A principal part of Conrad’s value lies in the fact that while the rest of Europe was writing patronising little ditties about the ‘white man’s burden’ he had the wit to see and the courage to criticise the colonial enterprise, albeit with a focus on how it spoiled the power-drunk coloniser rather than what it did to the colonised.

‘Heart of Darkness’ begins its journey on the Thames. The narrative takes the reader via Brussels, the heart of the Belgian colonial structure, down the length of the River Congo to the very deepest part of what was Belgian Congo then and is the Democratic Republic of Congo now.

Zaire or DROC is certainly not among the easiest travel destinations in the world. But to make a river voyage along the mighty Congo is the travel dream of many a voyager but only the most daring will attempt it. The purpose like that of Marlow, Conrad’s chief protagonist and narrator, would be a journey of discovery. While parts of Africa like Kenya and South Africa are well traversed, there are parts of the continent that are still virgin territory.

Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway – Cuba
In 1954 Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature for a novel that is actually pretty difficult to wade through, the text’s pace pretty accurately matching the dreariness of being at sea just waiting and waiting for a bite. The novel was Old Man and the Sea, and the tale it told was precisely about that. The old man, a fisherman sets out one day in search of the perfect catch. And he finds it, a marlin that defies all reasonable expectations in size and what becomes increasingly important, in spirit. But as the fighting spirit of the marlin comes into play (it drags the old man and his boat through three days and nights of salt spray, unbearable sunshine and little food or drinking water) so does that of the man. In the end, just as it’s beginning to dawn on us that the man and the marlin are equal players of this classic tale of courage, the sea reasserts itself. Because besides these two central characters there are others to that it holds – a shark in the waters consumes the fish just when it’s beginning to show signs of giving up the struggle.

The Cuban fisherman that the old man is thought to have been modelled on was none other than the captain of Hemingway’s boat, Pilar. Hemingway spent 20 years in Cuba, in the village of Cojimar, just across the bay from Havana. He returned to the US only about a year before he ended his life in 1961. Gregorio Fuentes, the ‘old man’, died a really old man at the age of 104 in 2001. He left the Pilar to the Cuban government and the people, people to whom Hemingway is as dear today as he was when he was actually around, drinking his rum at the Zaragozana or supping at the La Terazza. Hemingway left his Cuban home (the whitewashed cottage in Cojimar is called Finca Vigia) in 1959 after Batista’s soldiers gunned down his dog. It was just a few months later that led by Castro and Che Guevara swept through Havana and dethroned the corrupt Batista regime.

While much of Hemingway’s Cuba has changed, there is much that remains. From the 50s American fin-tailed gas guzzling beauties to the many places he patronised. His house remains, in much the same condition as it was in when he lived there. The seas are blue as ever and on some sunny days, ‘the fish are really biting!’

Read on for more information on Cuba and what travelling there involves

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