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Travel is better by the book than by the guidebook

Few travelers are disappointed by the sight of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The Moorish palace and fort is one of the world’s most impressive monuments, from its stunning architecture to its enchanting water features and leafy surrounds.

And while I was captivated by the appearance of the Alhambra, there was one element of my visit that was disappointing. It was the incomplete vision I had of the life of the place, of the people who lived and worked in the court, in the palace and in its harem; all were intriguing, but out of reach due to my incomplete understanding of everyday life at the time.

I wanted to know about the history of the Alhambra in a way a guidebook or tour could communicate.

It was not the first time I had felt that way while traveling. In Turkey, while visiting some of the extraordinary mosques, monasteries and palaces of Istanbul, I suffered from the same sense of having missed out on some essential truths. I was looking on as a true outsider, failing to connect with those who lived or worshiped there.

It was an entirely different situation when I spent a weekend in the village of Eyam in the UK. Before visiting, I had read The Year of Wonders, a book that detailed the impact of the bubonic plague on Eyam’s residents, who isolated themselves to prevent infection from spreading further. The village cemetery had a whole new significance, as did the small, stone buildings and the little main street, after the book had conjured the story of the village and the people who had lived there for me.

Fiction also broadened my understanding of London and its history. While Charles Dickens’ city of poverty and squalor is a far cry from the London of today, the visitor does not need to dig deeply to recognise some of the places of which Dickens wrote. Not far from they city’s bustling high streets are warrens of tiny, tucked away alleyways in the old City of London, and it is not hard to imagine Mr Pickwick or Fagin enjoying a drink in one of the historic taverns.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies exposed another side of London and the UK, from Henry VIII’s hunting grounds to the grandeur of Westminster Abbey and Britain’s stately manors. On visiting, it was not hard to imagine the presence of Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in these settings, after having read Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction.

On visiting Castle Howard, where the film version of Brideshead Revisited was set, I pictured Sebastian, Charles and Julia lounging by the fountain or ambling across the lawns. Meanwhile, I imagined that many of Italy’s monasteries or abbeys could have been the location for The Name of the Rose, giving my visits an additional sense of mystery and drama.

You might question how fiction could expose truths about a place when by its very nature it is untrue; many characters in these books never existed in reality, or the accuracy of the representation of historical figures is hotly debated. Yet, it is undeniable that truths about people and places can be gleaned from fiction. And even the ability of these novels to stimulate the imagination, enabling visitors to develop a picture of a place in their minds, can enrich a traveller’s experience.

Writer Anthony Doerr said it best in his review of a book about time travel:

“…the most potent time-traveling technology we have is also the oldest technology we have: storytelling.

“Read a verse of Homer and you can walk the walls of Troy alongside Hector; fall into a paragraph by Fitzgerald and your Now entangles with Gatsby’s Now; open a 1953 book by Bradbury and go hunting T. rexes with Eckels… The shelves of every library in the world brim with time machines. Step into one, and off you go.”

It is not just the history of a place that literature can help travellers to access. Fiction can provide entry into a physical or social experience of a place that can be difficult to encounter in reality.

Reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines about Indigenous culture in outback Australia, I gained an understanding of aspects of a culture that are usually almost inaccessible to travelers. While Chatwin travelled extensively across the outback, building relationships with Indigenous communities and gaining an understanding of their culture and way of life, few visitors would have the time and commitment to immerse themselves in the same way. However, their own visits can be enriched by Chatwin’s writing.

Tom Wolfe’s book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, provides a similarly insightful depiction of a world that can difficult for the visitor to access.  Reading his account of the excesses of some of New York’s wealthiest residents makes the street view of the apartment building of 5th Avenue all the more fascinating.

And, a favourite of many wide-eyed travelers, Shantaram, offers an intoxicating insight into the life and underworld of Bombay’s slums, which few visitors would have the opportunity to experience.

This exposure and privileged access that fiction makes possible can also bestow a certain beauty and dignity on even the most seemingly desolate or desperate places. In A Fine Balance, the slums were presented in all their horror and glory, highlighting the tenacity and ingenuity of the people who lived there. It is a complex depiction which would not be immediately apparent to the onlooker.

The fact that many books about the places we visit were written by locals further adds to the intimacy and truth of their portrayal in literature. It means that visitors can gain insight into the character and everyday lives of these places that is only otherwise visible to its inhabitants.

Of course, all storytellers’ versions and impressions of places and their communities vary, and depend very much on the experience and perspective of the writer, and occasionally an unreliable narrator. After all, the many faces of Africa can swing widely from The Poisonwood Bible to Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Books are written from the perspective of one person, tainted by their own prejudices and assumptions.

Despite this limitation, fiction has the potential to more fully reveal a place, presenting a picture drawn with the benefit of more time and knowledge than a traveler could possibly gain in one visit. It can open our minds and imagination to the people who live in the places we visit, or whose footprints remain many years later. So forget about guidebooks, a novel may just teach your far more about the place that you are visiting.

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