Writers, readers and book-lovers: the summer is slowly approaching.
Those of you more organized than myself might have started wistfully browsing vacation deals and flight times — some of you might even have booked time off work (unless you’re lucky enough to write full-time).
But hold up — rather than the same old all-inclusive, why not embark on a literary pilgrimage?
Nations, cities, places and landscapes have inspired writers throughout history, and sometimes place will have played a vital role in the creation of a writer’s masterpiece.
I’ve selected five literary pilgrimages to consider this summer, and have tried to avoid big capital cities. Yes, we know Paris, London, and Dublin once played host to Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Dickens, Orwell, Keats, etc.
I want to give the smaller places a chance. For that reason, no New York City either, I’m afraid.
Looking to embark on a literary pilgrimage? Look no further than these five destinations.
1. Ben Bulben, County Sligo, Ireland
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
These immortal lines mark the ending of “Under Ben Bulben,” one of William Butler Yeats’ final and best-loved poems.
“Who’s Ben Bulben?” I hear you ask.
He is a huge, flat-topped rock formation in the Dartry Mountains in County Sligo. Yeats never actually lived in Sligo, but he spent his childhood summers there with his grandfather, and the place had a profound effect on him and his poetry.
Yeats would spend his entire career returning to County Sligo in his poems, and Ben Bulben stands as the great monolith at the mythology’s centre. Yeats is buried only a few miles from Ben Bulben in the village of Drumcliffe, where the passage quoted above is carved into his headstone.
Of course, if you’re visiting Sligo then you may as well visit Dublin and track Joyce’s ghost along the Liffey — it’s not far.
Plus, for extra Yeats points, you can visit the The Winding Stair, a lovely restaurant and bookshop named after Yeats’ 1933 collection.
2. Château de Chillon, Montreux, Switzerland
Few books have captured the public imagination like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and few literary movements have been as all-consumingly influential as English Romanticism.
The enduring image of the poet as some lyrical fop prancing around among daffodils comes straight from Shelley, Wordsworth and their friends.
But where did Shelley find the inspiration for her gothic tale of man’s twisted ambition? Well, in 1816, Mary (then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) and Percy Shelley met Lord Byron and his entourage of courtiers and zoo animals (he was travelling with a monkey and a peacock) on the shore of Lake Geneva.
Byron was inspired by the incredible beauty of the island castle, and would that summer write “The Prisoner of Chillon” after carving his name into one of the castle’s pillars (it’s still there!). Meanwhile, Mary wrote Frankenstein (though it wouldn’t be published for another two years).
Even without the literary history, the Château de Chillon and Lake Geneva look absolutely beautiful.
No wonder these great writers found inspiration there.
3. Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, USA
For a town that, as of 2010, had a population of 17,668, Concord sure boasts an impressive literary history.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, celebrated author of The Scarlet Letter, rented the Old Manse in Concord in 1842 for $100 a year, and famed transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson lived at 18 Cambridge Turnpike (the house is now a museum).
Walden Pond, a kettle lake in Concord’s woods, is best known for hosting the hermetic Henry David Thoreau for two years in the 19th century, an experience he wrote about in his landmark text Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
Concord then is the birthplace of American transcendentalism, one of the most influential and important movements in American thinking.
Concord today has been quick to capitalize on its history — you can walk the “Transcendentalist Trail” and even visit Thoreau’s carefully maintained cabin on the lakeside.
4. Edinburgh, Scotland
With the recent theatrical release of Trainspotting 2 (adapted from Irvine Welsh’s Porno), the whole Trainspotting mania has risen anew.
Celebrate your love for the franchise’s unique brand of poverty- and drug-fuelled violence by following Sick Boy, Begbie, Renton and Spud down Leith Walk and across to Port Sunshine, the infamous Trainspotting pub. Hopefully Begbie won’t be pulling pints.
Once you’re done spotting trains, you can go in hunt of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mr Sherlock Holmes. Doyle grew up in Edinburgh before moving to London, and the city still bears his mark. You can find the grave of Dr Bell, the real-life inspiration for Holmes, at Dean Cemetery, and you can see Doyle’s childhood home (marked now by a great bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes) in Picardy Place.
5. St. Petersburg, Russia
Those of you who’ve read Dostoyevsky’s accounts of St. Petersburg might be shaking your heads at this suggestion, but rest assured the city has come a long way since Dostoyevsky’s day.
Things are cleaner, there’s less poverty, fewer suicides and fewer miserable students murdering pawnbrokers.
A visit to the gorgeous St. Petersburg wouldn’t be the same without a trip to Dostoyevsky’s various homes around the city, from his first, an apartment on Vladimirsky Prospect, to his last on Kuznechny Pereulok, which is now a museum.
For more fun, bring Crime and Punishment and re-tread the characters’ steps. Can you find Raskolnikov’s buried loot beneath Voznesensky Prospect? Or maybe you could visit Voznesensky Bridge, from which Raskolnikov considered throwing himself. Best of all, head to 104 Griboyedov Canal and find the doomed pawnbroker’s apartment.
For total authenticity, get the next train to Siberia and stay for eight years.
Making this list was a real exercise in restraint — there are so many literary pilgrimages and retreats.
You could go and track Alan Ginsberg in San Francisco, William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, Franz Kafka in Prague, Sylvia Plath in Devon, Langston Hughes in New York, Virginia Woolf in Cornwall, Willa Cather in Nebraska…
I’ll never go on a regular holiday again!
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