Montenegro

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Bay of Kotor–Historically Important Naval Base

Every once in a while, a title pops up in the search for Road Works Books that fits the bill exactly. Starling Lawrence’s Montenegro (1997) is that book for travel in the country just south of Croatia. As with Croatia, Montenegro had been part of Tito’s Yugoslavia; in 1992 during the dissolution, Montenegro remained within Yugoslavia, along with the Republic of Serbia. In 2006, Montenegro split from this alliance and became an independent state. Montenegro is so named for its very dark forests that cover its mountains. Its history is also dark with contested borders that came about with conquests around it: Ottomans, Venetians, Austrians, French.

The complicated relationships among these Slavic areas (Yugoslavia means south Slav) is illuminated through Lawrence’s novel, which focuses on one family and takes place prior to World War I in 1908. But the narrative begins in Connecticut in 1988 as Toma/Thomas lies dying, recalling how events conspired to bring him to America through his mother’s vision of removing him from a life of sectarian conflict and probable early death.

Toma is the only surviving son of the Pekocevic family, headed by the war hero Danilo. The patriarch has engaged in many battles with the Turks and displays the heads of his enemies on pikes in the outer reaches of the family compound to demonstrate his prowess—and to cow future adversaries. A Romeo and Juliet style romance is the undoing of Toma’s family. (Montenegro is largely Orthodox while Croatia is Roman Catholic, and Bosnia is primarily Muslim.)

IMG_1738Into this mix, rides Auberon Harwell, a young English gentleman sent on a mission to assess the area’s political situation while posing as a botanist. He arrives in Cattaro (the present day Kotor, and there begins his rather naïve journey to the mountain valley where the Montenegrins live on the border with the Turks. The two dozen hairpin turns that Harwell must navigate are still visible above Kotor. I counted these while sitting on a park bench eating the very fine local olives and strawberries from the market. A side note, given the earlier visit to Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia: Harwell passes through Dukle/Doclea, the purported birthplace of the Emperor Diocletian.

What is helpful to the modern reader who has difficulty understanding the strife among these countries is the “Idea of the Great Serbia,” a kingdom that brings together all Slavic areas, with Montenegro as its heart. Harwell notes that this glorious idea lies in a previous state that is more than 500 years old but seems as though it were yesterday for the Serbs. This deep-seated belief in a united state explains much about why these countries have engaged in conflict, most recently in 1991-1995 in the “homeland” wars. The quest to be members in the European Union (EU) means that on the surface, the governments are to lay aside past conflicts and be friendly. For some, it is difficult to forget.

IMG_1706IMG_1730The family farm compound where we enjoyed a Dalmatian platter of prosciutto (aged at least 18 months in the smokehouse), cheese, and wine featured framed photographs of the buildings with their roofs destroyed by Montenegrin bombs. The walk we took along the Herceg Novi promenade featured a spray painted sign “Kosovo is Serbia.” Kosovo

The novel Montenegro is one of those books that I would never have picked up casually, if not for a visit to the country itself. That would have been a loss as it is an intriguing story–if at times difficult for its tragic turns–that is written with style and grace.

 

 

A Taste of Croatia

fishI often purchase a cookbook following a trip as recipes truly give a flavor of the country. A Taste of Croatia (2007) is an exceptional example, as author Karen Evenden provides not only recipes but also narrative about their three-year residence along the Dalmatian Coast in their sailboat. These charming stories enliven the cookbook and evoke memories of my own much shorter-term sailing journey.

Reviewing the cookbook also gives me an opportunity to sing the praises of the Croatian’s dedication to impeccably fresh fish. The selection is served whole so that diners can look the fish in the eye, literally, and ensure that it has been caught that day. Expect to have a platter of fish brought to the table for the selection. On Korcula Island, when I reserved mid-afternoon for that evening, the waitress asked what we wanted: mussels for one and grilled fish for three, I replied. “What do you have?” She didn’t know as the boat was just coming in. The owner’s purchase of the catch of the day was dictated in part on our request. We were not disappointed.

veggiesFish markets are common on the coast. The one in Split is in an ideal location, adjacent to a therapy hospital that features sulfur springs; the aroma keeps flies away. By noon, the fish markets generally have closed, so it’s best to be there early. The same is true for fruit and vegetable markets, and we found wonderful produce in every town we visited.

 

Wine & Olive Press - Diocletian's Palace

Wine & Olive Press – Diocletian’s Palace

In addition to excellent fish, Croatia is also known for its olive oil and wine. In both instances, families produce sufficient quantities for their own use—and then may sell what is left over. There is not a vibrant commercialization of either.

wine

Courtyard restaurant

Courtyard restaurant

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although we didn’t see any porkers in the fields, the presence of prsut–what we’d term prosciutto–and other cured meats was ubiquitous. A fabulous meal could be made on these smoked cold cuts, local cheese, and olives—along with hearth made bread.

smorgasbord plattersbreadA Taste of Croatia provides a good read–even if we won’t have access to such fresh fish when back at home.

 

Diocletian’s Palace

Diocletian’s Palace

IMG_1550Diocletian was infamous for his persecution of Christians but famous for retiring successfully as an Emperor–as opposed to dying in office or being assassinated. His retirement home and mausoleum, built in only ten years, is the highlight of a visit to Split, Croatia, a coastal town. The Palace is a living antiquity as locals took over the place with the fall of the Empire some time after Diocletian’s death. Ironically, his private apartments house churches.

Although an amazing historical site, it’s rather surprising that more fiction has not been set in its confines. My initial search yielded a satiric piece in Apocryphal Stories by Karel Capek (translated by Dora Round) and an epic poem, Diocletian’s Palace, by Neda Miranda Blazevic-Krietzman (2008, 147 pages, PB). It’s also included in Rebecca West’s wonderful Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, her description of a trip around Yugoslavia in 1937; the first part focuses on Croatia, and thankfully, much of it can be accessed through Atlantic Monthly, which serialized parts relevant to a Croatian voyage.

An aside: A Traveler’s History of Croatia is often recommended as preparatory reading, but I much preferred Rebecca West’s history. G. B. Shaw termed her one of the best writers of the 20th century, and Starling Lawrence (author of Montenegro and an editor at Norton) concurs in his armchair traveler recommendations.

IMG_1548Although mature readers might not turn to fiction written for young adults, the novel that truly embraces Diocletian’s Palace is The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus series, Book 4), by Rick Riordan (2013). The young heroes—half mortal, half god—face adventure and potential harm in its pages. The bust of Diocletian that the boys accidentally break can be seen in the lower floors of the palace.

At noon daily, the “emperor,” his wife, and the guard make an appearance and “welcome” visitors. Diocletian has the right note of disdain. A cappella choirs of men entertain the choirs with more modern greetings, called klapa music.

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A word about Split. My desire to visit Croatia centered on seeing the famed walled city of Dubrovnik, picture postcard perfect. George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to see heaven on Earth, visit Dubrovnik.” It truly is beautiful; however, it is rapidly becoming a museum city, filled with restaurants and souvenir shops and as many as 15,000 visitors per day. The tourism industry in Croatia believes that 8,000 visitors is sustainable, but mega-cruise ships dump passengers within the city walls for shoulder-to-shoulder tours, particularly crowded in “the season,” which begins mid-June and extends through the very hot months of July and August. Ghastly.

IMG_1559Fewer people know about Split, which has residents who live and work in the ancient town. Walking its narrow, cobblestone-paved byways is a treat. If a stream of water comes from above and lands in a receptacle in the middle of a square, look up to see a provocative sculpture—what might be termed the Mannequin Pis of Split.

Fish Market

Fish Market

 

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IMG_1604For even less crowded venues, Trogir provides relief. Hvar Island, named one of the ten most beautiful islands of the world, can be congested on one side but quiet on the opposite. Island hopping by ferry or other boats can be a relaxing experience, certainly true in the three-masted ship that housed 25 other passengers in a Road Scholar tour that I took.

IMG_1609The Dalmatian Coast is stunningly beautiful. I recommend viewing it from an Adriatic Sea perspective—on the deck of a small ship.

 

 

 

Road Works Books: Croatian Literature for Travel:

RoadWorkBooks: Croatian Literature for Travel:

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The armchair traveler stays at home and travels vicariously, following Emily Dickinson’s observation, “There is no frigate like a book.” That’s a fabulous way to expand knowledge about distant places and cultures. Even better is to actually go.

My philosophy for choosing literature for travel is based, in part, in anticipating the trip in advance and gaining pleasure from the research. When I choose titles, I compile a list, such as the one that follows, and then winnow to the titles that I truly will read. For some countries, there is a fulsome list—as in Croatia—while others may feature slim pickings (e.g., Honduras).

 

Croatia presented challenges typical to many such lists: an emphasis on themes of conflict, particularly the homeland wars of the 1990s. While these can be very good reads, they may not be particularly wonderful ways to relax during the trip. As a result, I tend to choose lighter fare, although rarely fluff. Increasingly, I look for e-books that will not add to baggage weight. I’ve also had very good luck in finding free electronic versions via Project Gutenberg. I do take care with books that have not been through a review process with a reputable publisher. I’m supportive of writers getting their words out to a wider audience, but the results may not be disappointing.

Travelers may not be very familiar with Croatia; I certainly wasn’t except for the fact that I very much wanted to visit its wonderful walled city, Dubrovnik. But here are a few tidbits about the country.

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  • Croatia has 1246 islands.
  • The White House was built of marble brought from the island of Brac.
  • Marco Polo purportedly was born on Korcula Island in the 13th century.
  • It’s the home of the necktie, which began as the kravata (cravat to the French), the famous tie worn by Croatian soldiers in the 17th century.
  • Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who advanced the theory of alternating current and wireless communication, is Croatian.
  • Slavoljub Penkala (1871-1922) invented the first mechanical pencil as well as the fountain pen.
  • James Joyce taught English in northern Croatia—Pula—in 1904-1905. Word has it that he taught badly.
  • Agatha Christie spent the honeymoon of her second marriage in Dubrovnik and Split. She set Murder on the Orient Express on the segment from Zagreb to Istanbul.

Here’s the list of literature I selected for a trip along the coast of Croatia that began in Split and extended through several island stops to the justly famous Dubrovnik. (Recommendation: do not travel in Croatia in high summer when the crowds are dense and the temperatures soar. Prefer May, September, or October.)

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Croatia Literature

* indicates the titles I chose to read.
*The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (paperback) – winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature; historical fiction covers generations from late 16th century to beginning of WWI. But, the Drina River is set in Bosnia. Although Andric lived some time in Crotia, this title is notable for its author’s Nobel Prize.
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht – (2011, pb, Kindle): Named one of best books of the year: “Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living in an unnamed country that’s a ringer for Obreht’s native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman.”

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (2007, PB, Kindle)—Forna won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for an earlier novel. In this one, an Englishwoman with her two teen children work with a local man to rehabilitate a dilapidated cottage in a village. Secrets of the past revealed.

 

The Sound of Blue by Holly Payne (2004 PB): American goes to Hungary to teach English; gets wrapped up with Croatian refugees. In a journey that takes her to Dubrovnik, a magnificent stone city on the Croatian Riviera, Sara contemplates her own identity. (Most likely a “romance.”)

 

Zagreb, Exit South by Edo Popovic (2005, pb): illuminates lives of diverse but colorful characters adrift in postwar Croatia.

 

The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic (2013, PB, Kindle): Magdalena’s search for her missing sister reveals darks secrets of a family caught up in Croatia’s brutal history; begins in Croatia but moves to NYC.

 

April Fool’s Day by Josip Novakovich (2009, pb and Kindle): dark humor, political satire. The protagonist is born in 1948 on April 1. [Also authored Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust—2009, Kindle.]

 

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (2009, pb, Kindle): Having fled the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Tania Lucic is a professor of literature at the University of Amsterdam. “Relentlessly bleak.”

 

The Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien, 800 pages (Kindle and paperback)

 

The Dealer and the Dead by Gerald Seymour (2014, PB, Kindle), spy thriller that begins in 1992 in a small Croatian village with an arms shipment that goes awry; picks up in 2000.

 

Ruta Tannenbaum, by Miljenko Jergovic, (2011, PB): Set in Zagreb, between world wars, the protagonist is inspired by real-life figure of the “Shirley Temple of Yugoslavia,” murdered in Holocaust.

 

Two Tickets to Dubrovnik by Angus Kennedy (2012, self-published novella, pb, Kindle); locales in Croatia and Australia.

 

Jester’s Fortune by Dewey Lambdin (pb, Kindle) is an 18th century naval adventure in Adriatic Sea for Patrick O’Brien type fans.

 

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (2013, PB, Kindle); covers four countries in war; gets to Dubrovnik eventually.

 

Steffie (Croatian Bridget Jones), a post-modern novel ***

Dancing with Spies by Michael Hillier (Kindle)—self-published thriller

Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (2012, pb, Kindle) romance.

A House in Istria by Richard Swartz (trans 2002, pb) comic novel set in Istria (northern Croatia).

Note: Illyria is an ancient region in modern-day Croatia, and is the setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Diocletian’s Palace

*The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, Book 4), by Rick Riordan (2013, PB & Kindle): this popular young adult literature series, which features Percy Jackson, actually places some of its action in Diocletian’s Palace.

Diocletian’s Palace is an epic poem by Neda Miranda Blazevic-Krietzman (2008, 147 pages, PB)

“The Emperor Diocletian” by Dora Round, Harper’s August 1998.

*Apocryphal Stories by Karel Capek (translated by Dora Round) includes one piece on The Emperor Diocletian.

Travelogues:

*Black Lamb and Gray Falcon – (pb, Kindle) Rebecca West’s description of a trip around Yugoslavia in 1937; the first part focuses on Croatia.

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History by Robert D. Kaplan (1993, a NY Times Best Book)—Croatia appears in chapter 1.

Croatia (Through Writer’s Eyes) by Peter Frankopan and Francis Gooding (2007, pricey)

*A Traveller’s History of Croatia, Benjamin Curtis (2013, pb). This is a series in which, typically, history profs are contracted to write a readable history. (After reading both, I preferred Rebecca West’s account although it necessarily ends in WWII era.)

Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We came From, and What Really Matters, by Jennifer Wilson (2011, pb, Kindle); won Best nonfiction award for its story of Iowa family that uproots and moves to Croatia.

Croatia: Travels in an Undiscovered Country by Tony Fabijancic (1999 pb, Kindle); author’s father is Croatian.

Montenegro Literature

*Montenegro: A Novel by Starling Lawrence (2006, PB); Lawrence was Patrick O’Brien’s editor at Norton. This historical novel set in 1908 gets good reviews.

 

Anticipating Travel: Literature for Scotland

“Actively anticipating a vacation can deliver doses of pleasure before the trip,” according to an article in the NY Times, “What a Great Trip and I’m Not Even There Yet.” WritersMuseum(http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/travel/what-a-great-trip-and-im-not-even-there-yet.html?_r=0). That is a prime reason why I collect titles set in the places where I’m to visit. Harry Potter fans, for instance, will revel in tracing the places where J.K. Rowling wrote her wildly popular novels, like The Elephant House, a tea and coffee house. Close by is Greyfriars Cemetery, popular in the past for its statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful dog that stayed with his master even after he died, but now a pilgrimage site for Potter-related names such as the tombstone of Thomas Riddle. Visitors to Edinburgh can sign up for a Book Lovers’ Tour, featuring several from the prolific Bookloverstournumber of authors that Edinburgh boasts. Sure, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson are the featured authors in the Writer’s Museum, but there are also the inexhaustible Alexander McCall Smith (e.g., local series including Sunday Philosophy Club; 44 Scotland Street), Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson, plus John Buchan (the ever popular The 39 Steps) and Arthur Conan Doyle. ScottMemorialScotland features a wealth of good writers. Lists can be found at several websites including these: http://www.scotland.org/creative-scotland/literature/ and http://www.booksfromscotland.com/Authors. “Top” lists of books include the classic Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon although I’d advise skipping the first section, which is a dense history with dialect to get to the good stuff, the story of a young woman and the family farm. The dialect issue is also problematic for Trainspotting, a novel about heroin junkies. Skip the film version and watch instead Local Hero, a charming film about the possibility of oil development on the west Scottish coast, or another of Bill Forsyth’s films, Gregory’s Girl, both from the early 1980s.

George Bruce medieval merchant  "palace" in Culross

George Bruce medieval merchant “palace” in Culross

Culross, a village that time forgot, just north of Edinburgh, features the stunning George Bruce Palace, and the medieval streets have provided the setting for the TV series based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel romances, the Outlander series.

Trail at Duncan Clan Center

Trail at Duncan Clan Center

The Aldo Leopold of Scotland, John Lister-Kaye, offers a lovely

Sheep along the trail on Skye.

Sheep along the trail on Skye.

natural history of the place in northern Scotland that became his field studies centre in Song of the Rolling Earth. Read it when touring northern Scotland. A beloved novel is Ring of Bright Water, set on Skye. See the otters near the Skye bridge via glass-bottomed boat. When I was at Isle of Skye, I chose to re-read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse as I thought my reaction to its introspective narrative might improve as a mature reader, in contrast to my undergraduate days. It did not. Travel companions recommended Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole, a romance that spans two world wars and features a correspondence between a Scottish poet and an American fan. Skye is truly a beautiful place, accessible by ferry.

Cloister at Iona Monastery

Cloister at Iona Monastery

The Book of Kells by R. A. MacAvoy, which I read for a trip to Dublin in 1986, is actually much more appropriate to Iona Isle, home of the monastery where the book was written. A mix of fantasy and Celtic historical fiction, The Book of Kells gives insight into the plight of the monks who had to fend off Viking plunderers. The atmospheric, if small, island is well worth to see the origin of Kells and well followed by a visit to see the book itself. Scotland offers a long history of good writing, surely something for everyone and everyplace. N.B. This RoadWorksBook travel occurred as a Roads Scholar trip.

Edinburgh: Water of Leith Walk

Stairs Accessing Walk

Stairs Accessing Walk

In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the schoolgirls comes across a man on the Leith Waterway walk who is “joyfully exposing himself.” Thankfully, that didn’t occur on the wonderful walk I took. The Leith Waterway path is 12 miles in total and ends at the sea.

(See http://www.edinburghguide.com/parks/waterofleith.)

A friend, Jeannine, recommended that we investigate the path, particularly the area around Stockbridge and Dean Village. The former is where the precious Bertie of 44 Scotland Street is enrolled in Bendy Fun for Tots, a yoga class. The latter is the humorous scene where another character, Bruce, inspects an apartment but in a superficial way. The Royal Botanic Gardens is a lovely stop near Stockbridge.

Directional Signs on the Path

Directional Signs on the Path

I highly recommend a walk on the pathway to enjoy the scenery. A suggested pathway begins below Queen’s Park (go by way of the Robert Louise Stevenson childhood home at 17 Heriot, easy to spot for its red door). Just past India Street is a “close,” with delightful former garages of town homes remodeled for single-family dwellings. At the lowest point of the sloping hill is the Leith. Access to the pathway can be found in several locations. Suddenly, the traveler is no longer in a city but in a tranquil  valley where Mallards are tails up searching for food, birdsong trills, and flowers and trees blanket the slopes.

Bridge over the Path

Bridge over the Path

The pathway goes under the Dean Bridge and passes along historic half-timbered buildings, crossing the stream a few times on pedestrian bridges. Where to end the walk? I recommend the Museum of Modern Art, marked by an easy-to-spot arch. The museum itself is two buildings and a good place to rest for a coffee or tea in its cafe, particularly if it`s a rare sunny day to sit in the sculpture garden. Then, hop the free bus to the National Gallery of Scotland in central Edinburgh. The terrific cafe features menu items from Scottish sources. The gallery itself features the iconic painting of the buttoned-up cleric on ice skates, just one in an excellent collection. The museum shop is also a worthwhile stop. All in all, a grand day out.LeithHalfTimber

Entrance to Museum of Modern Art

Entrance to Museum of Modern Art

Robert Louis Stevenson–Ultimate RoadWorksBooks Author

“Out of my country and myself I go.”

Is there a place where Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t travel? St. Helena, California;

RLS Childhood Home

RLS Childhood Home

Saranac Lake, New York; Samoa; Davos, Switzerland. Given his unstable health both as child and adult (respiratory problems followed by TB), it’s amazing that he ever went much farther than a few streets distant from 17 Heriot in Edinburgh. It was, after all, just across the street in Queen’s Park that his beloved nurse, “Cummy” introduced him to “Treasure Island” of the duck pond. Today, residents pay an annual fee of 300 pounds for access to the private park.

Holyrood Castle

Holyrood Castle

To get a sense of Edinburgh in Stevenson’s day, read his Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, available for free download at Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/382. He shares tales and lore of the city. There is the piper who tried to find the secret tunnel beneath the streets of the city that linked the castle with Holyrood, but never returned. Tourists are advised to listen for the strains of bagpipe music beneath the ancient cobblestones.

 

Deacon Brodie Tavern

Deacon Brodie Tavern

Or the story of Deacon Brodie, the respected furniture maker by day, the burglar by night. Could such a person who exhibits both good and bad personality traits be the inspiration for RLS’s infamous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Stop in at the Deacon Brodie tavern and contemplate the connection.

 

Kidnapped offers a more mature view of Stevenson’s writing and plenty of Highlands scenery, but for his earliest stories, Pavilion on the Links (1880) provides a thrilling, if sentimental, mystery with a damsel in distress and even Italian mafia set along the German Sea (renamed North Sea after the first world war). Links is the Scottish “name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf.”

Ruins of Bishop's Palace, St. Andrews

Ruins of Bishop’s Palace, St. Andrews

 

To get a better sense of RLS as a person, though, a 2014 novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan (author of Loving Frank, 2007) gives an in-depth portrait of him as well as his flamboyant and creative, if under-appreciated American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne.  Selecting literature for travel always features moments of insight. For me, it was especially keen when I read the description of John Singer Sargent painting Louis and Fanny, a work that she disliked, featured only in part near the edge of the painting while he is center stage, pacing nervously. The next morning at the Writer’s Museum, the facsimile of the painting provided the visual information of how demeaning that picture would have been to a woman who counted her own creativity on a par with her husband’s. (See http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/robert_louis_stevenson_and_his_wife.htm.) It is that kind of juicy detail that makes a small collection like the Writer’s Museum, located at Lady Stair Close near the Edinburgh Castle entrance. Seeing the black and white photographs (taken by Fanny’s son by a previous marriage) of the Stevenson clan at their last home in Samoa was ever so more interesting because of my reading.

Stevenson was near death many times during his life. During one such moment on a transcontinental rail journey to reunite with his beloved Fanny, he penned these lines.

Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

Ad I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 When I was dining with travel companions one evening and talking about the Horan novel, as soon as I mentioned its title, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, one of them recited from memory this poem. It was a particular moment when the power of literature was so every evident.

 

A Different Macbeth

The Croft Inn

The Croft Inn

Not necessarily interested in reading or rereading Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” while touring Scotland? Consider a 21st century version: Hamish Macbeth, a wonderfully cozy village whodunit set in northwestern part of the country, written by the prolific M. C. Beaton (see her series on Agatha Raisin). Death of a Gossip (1985) kicks off the run of mysteries in the fictional village of Lochdubh (black water in Gaelic) and introduces readers to the lazy and somewhat lanky Hamish, the one and only local bobby in the village, who is fond of mooching a coffee from the local hotel when feasible and who is devoted to his faithful dog but who also raises chickens for the egg money he can send to his crofter (subsistence farming) parents.

Stream near Glencoe

Stream near Glencoe

A Columbo/Peter Falk-like character, Macbeth’s powers of investigation can be seriously underestimated as when a shrill and entirely unlikeable character enrolled at a local fishing school is found bound with her own line in a darned good pool, annoying the fishers who must wait until the crime scene is cleared. His nemesis, Inspector Blair, is particularly apt to put Hamish in his place.

Thirty titles about Hamish and his dry wit and longing for the out-of-reach patrician Patricia Halburton-Smythe will keep the reader stocked for touring. The unfortunate TV series version—according to Beaton—featured the rather short actor Robert Carlyle; the setting is Plockton. Other real towns include Dingwall and Cromarty—the latter the seaside town where Hamish’s parents live. (Try Tulloch Castle in the former for an overnight stay and good meal. Ask for the ghost tour.)

A gloomy Cawdor Castle

A gloomy Cawdor Castle

But Cawdor Castle, the supposed site of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not too distant although truly as a 14th century castle it could exist in the Bard’s mind as a likely place for the unfortunate Thane but not in reality as the gory drama takes place well before the 1300s. Travelers may prefer the more comfortable gore of the Hamish Macbeth stories.

 

 

 

 

Tartan Noir

Remember the great film noir experiences–The Maltese Falcon; Farewell, My Lovely–that grew out of the hardboiled crime fiction by such authors as Raymond Chandler? Scotland offers a fairly new version in its appropriately named tartan noir. Ian Rankin is credited with starting the trend, but he acknowledges William McIlvanney as being the true godfather of the genre.

Lindsay Gordon tartans

Lindsay and Gordon tartans

Valerie McDermid is one of a growing number of authors who offer good reads for the traveler. In general, these titles will be set in urban landscapes as opposed to the country cosy mysteries of M.C. Beaton whose mysteries are set in a village in northwest Scotland. The protagonist of McDermid’s amateur detective novels is Lindsay Gordon, ever so appropriate to the country, drawing on two well known clans–and thus two tartan patterns.

Report for Murder is typical Lindsay Gordon, a feminist lesbian journalist who scrapes by on part-time work due to the decreasing number of print journalists. She gratefully accepts a weekend job at a girls school to manage the public relations of a fund raiser to save the playing fields from a greedy developer. A couple of the “old girls” who have become celebrities–a cellist and a TV personality–join in to help the cause, but the former has a legion of enemies, so it is not surprising that she is found garroted by her own cello string in a locked practice room. Lindsay must get the scoop but also solve the murder. In the process, she also falls for the TV personality, who herself is a suspect.

This is Gordon’s first outing, but although attacked by the murderer, she lives to solve other crimes in the continuing series.

Other noir writers include Gordon Ferris and his Pilgrim Soul as well as Stuart MacBride, the author of A Song for the Dying.

Initially, Glasgow can seem dark and foreboding, and, in fact, Lindsay Gordon is touchy about this kind of attitude among those who don’t know “her” Glasgow; however, the trick is to take advantage of the many wonderful Charles Rennie MacIntosh/Margaret McDonald architectural sites: the Art School (get a tour from a current student); their home on the University campus; the Willow Tea Room (take a cup in the afternoon or tune in for lunch), and even the school on Shakespeare Street. Not far from town is “House for an Art Lover,” a plan not actually built until the 1990s, and in Helensbrough, is Hill House. Those who don’t know MacIntosh, will think “this is the Scottish Frank Lloyd Wright.” Truly marvelous.

When in Edinburgh, consider checking out the Oxford Bar at #8 Young Street (more alley than street) near Charlotte Square as this is the hangout of Ian Rankin’s Rebus.

 

Tikal and Guatemala

Jaguar Highway SignArguably, Tikal is the premiere Mayan site of Mesoamerica, due to the sheer numbers of monumental buildings. It, frankly, trumps every other site, including Copan, which we visited in 2012 and reported on for RoadWorks. A lengthy history from at least 500 BCE to 1200 CE is largely responsible for Tikal’s staying power. (It might have lasted longer if they had adopted a one-child policy.)

turkeys   The approach to the national park is fairly long, dotted with pictograph warning signs along the route: Jaguar, serpents, Pixote (aka Coatamundi), turkeys. Seriously. And at the entrance, an Ocellated turkey did make an appearance.

Further on the entrance road, traveled by foot, the cohunes tree (also known as horse balls tree for obviCohones Treeous reasons) was populated by Spider Monkeys having a snack. Keep your hats on! These cheeky devils are known for throwing dead limbs and fruit at passersby.

The actual temples and palaces are breathtaking, rising out of the jungle unexpectedly. About 200 steps take tourists to the upper reaches of Temple Four. Equally interesting is the varied bird life: Copper-colored woodpeckers; Crested Guan; Slatey Teal Trogon.

temple TikalWould Stairs to top of Temple IVthat the books available about Tikal were so interesting. Michael Coe, an anthropologist at Yale, has published without doubt the most about the Maya, including the very readable The Maya (8th edition) and Breaking the Maya Code, the detective story of how the glyphs were finally figured out. Popol Vuh, a series of Mayan stories, is the original literature of Guatemala and one of the most significant works in all of the Americas.

For fiction, there really is only Daniel Peters’ lengthy 1983 novel, Tikal. The author of Incas and The Luck of Huemac explores the last days of the Maya when it becomes exceedingly clear that they can no longer live in Tikal, where people have denuded the jungle through overpopulations. It is the only game in town, really, in terms of fiction that has been through an editorial process, and by that I mean, other works that are self-published. The upside is that this historical fiction should take travelers through the complete trip due to its 422 pages. Unfortunately, it has to be lugged, as there does not appear to be an e-book version.

Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1984) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967, and his Men of Maize (1949) functions as the best read for those on the Mayan trail. This epic focuses on the European takeover and conquest but contains elements of magical realism in which characters assume folk legend status when killed or taken on the form of their animal guardian spirit. It is not a light read. It has a bimodal distribution on GoodReads: readers either love it for its poetic, dreamlike quality or are confounded as they cannot figure out what is going on. For those interested in more contemporary politics, Asturias’ The President (El Señor Presidente), written in 1946, is said to be a better read in its original language.

Short story writer Augusto Monterosso (1921-2003) does have work in e-book format, The Black Sheep and Other Fables; his work has been compared to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain for its humor and satire. The fables can be dramatically short, just a few lines, paragraphs, or pages. Some reviewers find them exquisite, remarkable in their economy. Although it doesn’t focus on the local landscape, it can be a fun, if brief, read for travelers.