In honor of William Shakespeare birthday (thought to be on April 23, 1564), I wanted to take a look at some of this plays. While some were set in England to be historically accurate, many of the plays are set in exotic cities through Europe and the Mediterannean to capture the imagination of the audience. Here are just a few of my favorite locales.
HAMLET – Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark
Will you find the ghost of the King walking the ramparts of Kronborg Castle? (Photo: Kronborg Castle, Agency for Palaces & Cultural Properties, Denmark)
Since Peru is near the top of my “Where next?” Travel List, I’ve started doing some research. I picked up Mark Adam’s “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.” A combination of history and travel narrative, I loved this book and need to speed up my travel planning now.
With the hundredth anniversary of Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of Machu Picchu in 2011, Mark Adams got to thinking about the authenticity this claim and the meaning of the famous ancient Inca site. He embarks on a month long back-country trek to trace Bingham’s first expedition. His team is led by John, an intense and almost larger-than-life actual explorer, and several local Peruvian men who seem unphased by the physical challenges of the journey. While it seems that Mark does not find all the answers he was looking for, the book does a good job analyzing all the historical realities of Machu Piccu – a beautiful piece in the interconnected Inca urban web, a forgotten jewel during the Spanish invasion, a vehicle for fame in the early 20th century and a modern day “bucket list” destination.
The book has an excellent balance of travel narrative and history. Bingham’s background and expedition details are effortless incorporated into Mark’s modern experiences in Peru. The chapter pacing is quick, hopping back and forth between history, anthropology and the dangers of only wearing one pair of socks while hiking. Mark is an engaging writer and story-teller. I immediately sympathized with the challenges he’d take on and identified with his desire to explore both the geography and the past. Learning and seeing the world is at the heart of every trip and every adventure. Whether you’ve climbed the Inca Trail or hope to some day, you’d definitely enjoy reading “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”.
After a trip to Sicily, Amazon kept recommending The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa to me. No matter what else I bought or added to my wish-list, the Leopard did not budge from the number one spot so I figured I might as well give in. What I found was a true gem of a novel with marvelous characters that inhibited a living Sicily.
The Leopard tells the story of the Prince, a noble in mid-19th century Italy, facing an uncertain future threatened by political revolution and economic flux. He is clearly a proud man born and raised with aristocratic tastes and manners. The novel is sympathetic to the out-dated great man but it is interesting to watch as he lets the changing world pass him without even trying to keep up. The book is not driven by plot per say as it only covers a few full days. The beauty lies in the characters who muse about the mundane and fleeting pleasures of their lives – the Prince’s favorite dog, the childish crushes of the Prince’s daughters, the priest’s political and family troubles. It’s both nostalgic and comfortable, like picnicking with friends telling stories.
I think what made these docile characters really work though was the setting. There is a dry heat that permeates the novel and slows the characters making their speech quiet and steps deliberate so as not to kick up too much dust. Their palaces are thick with detail and you can imagine the flies in their summer countryside manor. Maybe it’s not fair because I read this after visiting Sicily, but I could perfectly pictured these people in its arid countryside and echoing stone streets. The Prince has a brilliant monologue at one point about Sicilians claiming that they are a steady, consistent people who having been conquered over and over throughout the centuries and cannot be troubled by anything outside their world. In traveling western Sicily, I found the pace of life slow (even by Italian standards!) and was surprised how rocky and harsh the landscape was. A story of waning power and decline seems well-suited for this environment. I appreciated the rich descriptions of places and people in The Leopard and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book vacation to an often-forgotten, quiet corner of the Mediterranean.
No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey by Scott Huler
One thing I pride myself on is being a nerdy traveler. I like to read local history and art books before I leave to give my destination context. That being said, I’m hoping to go to Greece soon and am really forcing myself to consider the mere possibility of reading an ancient Homeric classic. I’d never read the Iliad (hurray, 1000 pages about war*) and only begrudging got through the Odyssey in high school. (Honestly, what I remember of the plot comes from Duck Tales… which may not exactly be accurate.) Thankfully, I was relieved to find Scott Huler’s No-Man’s Lands which delightfully summarizes the Odyssey as a travel journal and was ironically written because he forced himself to read a classic too.
Having struggled through Joyce’s Ulysses, Huler realizes that it all ultimately goes back to Odysseus – the iconic lost traveler. Getting interested in the original Greek version of the story and facing the birth of his first child, Huler decides to retrace Odysseus’s voyage as a personal pilgrimage. What results is one-part travel journal as he stumbles through Greece, Italy, Tunisia, and Malta, and one-part literary criticism as he discusses the plot of the Odyssey, its history and context. The writing is clever and he’s an entertaining narrator. As a storyteller, Huler is conscious of his journey and keeps it interesting while avoiding the potential for constant whining about being lost and living cheaply. It’s a little confusing in the first chapter or so because he starts the narration from almost the end of his journey (how very Homer), but it picks right up and is a quick read. No-Man’s Lands a good summer read for anyone who wants to take a little mental cruise through the Mediterranean and besides, it a lot more fun than reading the Odyssey!
*Technically the Fagles translation is 704 pages which just sounds fantastically long. That being said, the last Harry Potter book is 784 pages. Guess which one sold more copies last year?