These recommendations come from the Conde Nast Daily Traveler Newsletter:
Stunningly beautiful and geographically rugged, Corsica has inspired stories that focus on its vendetta tradition. Really. I was taken aback to find so many works that used vendetta as a theme: Balzac’s Vendetta; Guy de Maupassant’s “The Corsican Bandit” and other stories; Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers; Journal of a Tour to Corsica by Boswell (1879), or Columba by Prosper Merimee (author of Carmen). A father casts aside his beloved daughter when she falls in love with the son of an enemy; a son kills 14 family members to avenge his father; and two brothers feud. Even a contemporary thriller, Mazzeri, by Peter Crawley (2013) included retribution for long-held feuds while it also featured a love story and Russian thugs.
The Rose Café, in contrast, by John Hanson Mitchell (2007) is a memoir about sitting out the Vietnam draft working in a café in Corsica. It includes delightful character sketches while also charting the summer love affairs of the patrons and staff.
Travelers to this French island, once dominated by Italy—hence the Genoese towers on nearly every outcropping by the sea—can learn about its history through Dorothy Carrington’s thorough Granite Island (1971), still the most authoritative source. The icon of Corsica, the image of a black Moor with white bandana, derives from the defeat of the Moors in the Middle Ages when an Aragon king added a illustration of four such profiles to his coat of arms. When has a country ever adopted a defeated people as its symbol? Still, the head shows up on its flag, license plates, and ferries.
We watched the ubiquitous ferries enter the historic harbor of Bastia from the terrace of our hotel high up in the Citadel.
From Bastia, a good day trip goes north to Cap Corse. A lot of travelers circumnavigate the cape by car, but an alternative is to go to the end of the road at Matinaggio and then hike the Sentier des Douaniers, the trail used by custom officers to try and catch smugglers. The entire trek takes eight hours, but that can be shortened by any amount of time, either turning back, or catching a boat ride after a couple of hours.
That offers an opportunity to stop for degustation of Corsican wines, cheese, and sausage at the delightful Terra de Catoni; its owner retired from corporate life to re-invigorate the family vineyard.
White wines are particularly good, and the fromage tends to be chevre or sheep cheese. The longur is a smoked pork fillet that reminds me a lot of the hams that my Dad smoked after the fall butchering on our farm in Missouri. Our lunches when traveling tend to be cheese, bread, fruit, and wine, so stocking up on local farm fare is helpful.
On the way back to Bastia, the village of Erbalunga features a distinct Genoese fort overlooking its harbor. Its church was reputed to host some interesting relics, including a piece of clay that formed Adam. I took a lot of delight in reading Gertrude Forde’s account (1880) from her journal of a visit to a grotte (cave) near the village. In fact, if I were to recommend one fun read for visiting Corsica, it might very well be the two volume work of this intrepid woman and her two friends. Frankly, we cringed on driving some of the vertiginous roads of the island, but these 19th century women got about by carriage, and if she ever felt that the driver was “asleep at the wheel” so to speak, she had her umbrella ready to poke him; fortunately, he always seemed to wake up in the nick of time before any precipice. And, believe me, there are definite drop-offs. We crossed the island from Bastia to Porto via the Col Vergio highway, which overlooks two impressive gorges and a summit graced by a Lady of the Mountain sculpture. De Maupassant describes the area around this mountaintop “bandit’s hideaway”: “ ….. “ Wonderful hiking opportunities exist along the route, including the Sentier des Condamnees (trail of prisoners) that was used for logging and the nature trail, Sentier de Sittelle (Nuthatches), which is signed by pictures of the bird.
Serious hikers follow the “Mare to Mare” (sea to sea) or “Mare to Mont” (sea to mountain) trails. All of these are well-signed. Another good way to hike the mountains is to take the “little train” from Bastia to Ajaccio, but stopping along the way at Vizzavona to do an easy hike such as the Cascade d’Anglais (waterfall) and then hopping on a return train.
Porto itself is home to UNESCO-designated sea preserve and calanques. A boat tour or kayak expedition is a good way to see these sites, which may include Girolata, a village that is accessible only by water or a 90 minute walk from the highway. Forde describes in her 19th century narrative why Porto is so impressive: “These rocks are impossible to describe; their grandeur can only be felt. . . They rise almost perpendicularly to their fearful height….” They felt the Porto rocks to be the “most beautiful site in Corsica. . . . It is impossible to imagine anything more sublime than these blood-read precipices—more wonderful, more perpendicular, and more lofty . . .and again falling beneath us in an unfashionable gorge that made one shudder to look into.” When Forde and her party reached, Porto, only five houses existed. The threat of malaria resulted in a chill in tourism. Today, many hotels exist, and bus tours predominate as passengers take one of many boat cruises to the Preserve of Scandola. (Beware meeting tour buses on the narrow roads into the village.)
And, speaking of possible obstacles on the road: who let the hogs out? Some 45,000 feral pigs inhabit the island and may lounge on roadways, along with the occasional cow that displays bovine cognition lower than that of the rooting pig. At a picnic and hiking stop along a mountain road, we found the pigs to be just as demanding as the marmots of some of our national parks, begging for handouts.
It’s a far cry from the days of Gertrude Forde when 9 francs a day would pay for expenses of food and lodging. A bottle of 1769 Vineyard Corsican wine costs more but is still reasonable. That is the year Napoleon was born and Corsica’s independence died. In spite of patriot Paola, Corsica became a part of France, which, ironically, Napoleon countenanced as Emperor.
Forde noted in her preface that “The popularity of Corsica is increasing so rapidly, and information regarding the island is so difficult to obtain, that these sketches may not be unacceptable to intending travelers.” And this was 1880. Corsica is not a well-known destination for USA travelers but definitely one of natural beauty worthy of a trip. And how interesting that a 19th century journal about such travel still inspires.
Note: Historic reads such as de Maupassant and others can usually be downloaded for free via the very helpful Gutenberg.org. This LINK contains a list of dozens of books about Corcsica. Our favorite travel guides include the DK Guide to Corsica and Walk and Eat Corsica, one of a helpful series for hikers.
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
I am the most fortunate of persons: I have traveled to Paris on multiple trips. When I was studying French in college, I didn’t bother to learn the personal pronoun versions (tu, toi) of vous as I was quite sure that I would never know anyone that well in France. Now I find that my halting French at least gets me out of the starting gate. I can order sardines in a markets, like the charming Marche des Enfants Rouges–so named as it inhabits a former orphanage where the children where required to wear red.
In previous posts on Paris and France, I’ve covered several titles. A new one to me is the very popular The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, about a sad man who has mourned a broken love affair for 20 years. I’m grateful to my friend Andy for treating me to this novel. He calls himself a “literary apothecary,” and has an uncanny ability to pair books with readers to help them mend. When he finally reads his lover’s letter after two decades, Monsieur Perdu (appropriately lost in French) cuts loose his boat-based bookstore on the Seine and proceeds by waterway to the south of France to find out what happened to his love.
Along the way, he passes through some of my favorite countryside, the Luberon and coastal village, Cassis. It is a charming, four-hankie kind of read.
I also picked up Hemingway’s nostalgic A Moveable Feast (1961), in which he looks back on his time in Paris.
It was a lovely guidebook to his haunts: walks in the Luxembourg Gardens; drinks and writing at Les Deux Magots; his residences in the 5th arrondissement near Monde L’Arabe and the ancient Roman amphitheater, in Arenes de Lutece (39 rue Descartes and 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine). According to my dissertation advisor, Dr. Dorys C. Grover, the story about a hungry Hemingway hunting pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens and hiding them in the baby carriage is apocryphal. I trust her.
It was a return to a writer whom I’d admired greatly when in junior high through college—perhaps not so much now. The novel The Paris Wife from Hadley’s point of view was enlightening, and I reported on it during an earlier sojourn in the City of Lights. I also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the groundbreaking bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach. She loaned books to Hemingway and other authors. He returned his; apparently Henry Miller did not.
Yet another novel to consider set in this time period is Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Although overpopulated with characters, none of which is sympathetic to the end of the narrative, the book offers insight into alternative lifestyles in Paris pre-World War II and the disastrous circumstances of France’s cooperation with the Nazis. It also includes vignettes of real people such as Josephine Baker and characters that mirror actual people such as Henry Miller.
In addition, I read a couple of American expatriate memoirs—women who had fallen in love and remained in the country. French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort was just okay while the more recent Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard was more satisfying, if also a bit more narcissistic.
Although not fiction, David Leibovitz’s L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, is anticipated, due out this fall. I’m a big fan of his The Sweet Life, essays about moving to Paris.
Having visited Paris before, we now seek the out-of-the-way experience: the Musee des Arts Forains (a delightful 3-hour experience of historic carnival/carousels in the Bercy area); a walk on the Promenade Plantee (think NYC’s Highline Trail); the little known Musee Trente (artwork from the 1930s); biking on the newly-pedestrianized highway by the Seine using the bike-sharing Velib service; an after hours concert in Notre Dame.
“. . . Along with everything glorious and holy, there had to be exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.”
The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith, 2016 (p. 125).
Venice is glorified as the perfect tourist city: no cars, no bikes—only water taxis and pedestrians. Although there are pedestrianized cities around the world, surely no other place like Venice exists? For centuries, tourists have been crossing the Academy Bridge, shopping on the Rialto Bridge, and taking gondola rides. That’s apparently what George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, did when she married a younger man and spent her disastrous honeymoon there. Smith’s novel, The Honeymoon, recounts their story. The plain Eliot, famous for her novels Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, booked rooms at the Hotel Europa along the Grand Canal and set out to visit the famous sites of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, and the Bridge of Sighs.
They also toured neighboring islands of Murano—for its famous Venetian glass—and Torcello—for its early Christian church, Santa Maria Assunta.
She was not the only famous writer to visit Venice. Henry James set Wings of the Dove in Venice. Hemingway hunted duck on the shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon and had it prepared at Cipriani’s on Torcello.
Eliot and her young husband could visit in 1880 numerous art galleries, one of the reasons why the Venice Biennale came into existence in the late 19th century to showcase Italian art. Now an international art show, the expansive venue comprises not only the Arsenal and the Gardens but also sites around the city that would be hard to cover even in the months that the exhibition is in place. At times it was difficult to discern what was art and what was not.
It seems ironic that the Eliot marriage was unsuccessful when Venice is home to one of the most daring lovers of any age, Casanova, who often used Carnivale masks to hide his identity and seduce his lovers. Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy uncovers this legendary Lothario. We can also recommend the films that feature Peter O’Toole as an aging Casanova and Heath Ledger as a younger version. Yet another film depicting that era, Dangerous Beauty, captures the woman’s side of the story: the courtesan. Similar to geisha in being well educated and skilled, courtesans who were successful were registered in a city book, and their “coming out” often took place in churches where potential male admirers might look around at the crowd during particularly boring parts of a sermon. An excellent novel of this era is Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.
Venice oozes history. Other good reads that place Venice in historic time settings include these: The Spy of Venice (#1 in the William Shakespeare Thriller series by Benet Brandreth) and Sylvia Prince’s A Matter of Glass, which concerns the uncontested role of Murano as glassmaker during 17th century through today. Another historical novel is The Lion of Saint Mark: A Story of Venice in the Fourteenth Century by G. A. Henry. The novel The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelliso so inspired my husband that we had to seek out a master craftsman of the oarlock. The one he purchased resembles a Brancusi sculpture.
For mysteries, turn to Donna Leon’s popular contemporary novels that feature Commissario Brunetti, such as Death at Le Fenice.
Art-rich, yes. Atmospheric? Without a doubt. Although visits to museums rich in art is no doubt a requirement—the Academy; the Peggy Guggenheim; and, our personal favorite, the Ca’ Pesaro—we took a lot of pleasure from seeing the fish market and walking the byways, largely unpopulated, away from the main tourist haunts.
On the last day of our visit, we succumbed to the traditional tourist must do—the gondola ride—and as we pulled into our side canal, I saw a plaque, “Robert Browning died in this house,” the Ca’ Rezzonico, also now a museum. We had visited his home in Asolo at the beginning of our trip. His parting words, “Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’” Although we had other venues to visit in Italy—the run of the Mille Miglia vintage car race in Ferrara; Ravenna; and Bologna—for me, it seemed that Venice brought the Italian portion of our trip full circle.
Note: This is a short list of books set in Venice. GoodReads offers 225 titles set in Venice! For more recommendations, see these sites:
“One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what everyplace brings. . . . I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.”
About a 90 minute drive north of Venice lies a plain that fronts the pre-Alps, highlighted by Monte Grappa and the towns beneath it, particularly the enchanting Bassano del Grappa, known for its walled city and medieval wooden bridge.
The TV1 Trail offers a panoramic route from the Grappa. Early on the path, the massive Cima Grappa Ossuary or mausoleum stands out. At the conclusion of the war, the various temporary graves on Mount Grappa were emptied, and the remains interred in this single monumental shrine that contains the remains of almost 23,000 soldiers—20,000 of them unknown. When we hiked the Valle San Liberale, we saw remnants of the war: caves that provided refuge from gas attacks, aqueducts that held water that had to be carted up the steep mountainside by donkey to the soldiers, who held back the Austro-Hungarian soldiers—somewhat.
Bassano is home, unlikely as it may seem, to the Hemingway Museum, and the timing of this visit at the centenary of the Great War seems a good opportunity to revisit his classic A Farewell to Arms, which was reissued recently in a beautiful edition that includes the dozens of draft endings. Most folks know the story of how Hemingway at 18 volunteered as an ambulance driver and served in Italy. He saw the disastrous defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto, in which 40,000 soldiers perished and over 250,000 were taken prisoner by the German army. He was also wounded and fell in love with his nurse, which formed the basis for the narrative in his novel.
Today, the hilltop towns seem calm and serene. Asolo is capped by Rocca, a 13th century stronghold accessed by a steep climb past charming flower-bedecked stone buildings. Off the main square, the homes of actress Eleanor Duse, poet Robert Browning, and travel writer Freya Stark can be found.
Duse was a contemporary of the fabulous Sarah Bernhardt and her rival; the play Ladies of the Camellias, which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival some years ago, speculates that the two leading ladies were playing the role of Camille in competing, adjacent theatres. Robert Browning was so taken with Asolo that he titled one of his poems, Asolando. The amazing travel writer, legendary for outings in the Arabian desert, Freya Stark, died in Asolo at the age of 100 (1893-1993); both she and Duse are buried in the St. Anna cemetery.
We had seen a part of Asolo while on a trip to Florida a few years prior; the historic 18th century theatre of the town had been disassembled and reinstalled in Sarasota in the 1950s in the Ringling Brothers museum complex and today hosts a vibrant repertory schedule.
Books that might provide good reading for this part of Italy include Hemingway, of course, plus Virginia Woolf’s portrait of the Brownings through the eyes of Elizabeth’s dog, Flush. A biography of Stark, Passionate Nomad or Stark’s own volumes of travel, Alexander’s Path or the intriguing Valley of the Assassins, reveals an astounding personality who found a home in Italy thanks to the generosity of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son, Pen, who owned three houses in the rewarding village of Asolo.
I blame 1950s television. When my family acquired a TV in the latter part of the decade, one of the shows we watched was the popular western, Death Valley Days, hosted by the likes of “Old Ranger,” Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, and even for one year—while Reagan ran for governor—a woman, Rosemary DeCamp. Weekly, the 20-Mule Team harnessed up to bring housewives the important Boraxo laundry detergent–the show’s sponsor–to do the hard work of keeping the family clothes clean. Historically, the mule teams pulled two massive wagons of borax plus a third wagon with enough water to supply both animals and drivers for the ten-day, 165-mile grueling trip.
My image of Death Valley was all about alkaline wastelands like Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S.A.
But Death Valley is so much more than salt flats. We found colorful, geologically diverse slot canyons, snow-capped peaks, and the extraordinary Zabriskie Point. Hiking was extraordinary.
When we weren’t on the trail, we hung out at the historic Furnace Creek Lodge, a high-end accommodation with a price that is only justified through its stunning palm-studded gardens and silky water swimming pool.
What to read when in this unique national park? The pickings are, frankly, slim. Let’s start with Badwater (2013). Move over forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins’ amateur detective). Enter forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the product of author Toni Dwiggins’ series. Radioactive waste and terrorism link up to provide some terrifying moments in a narrative that delivers plenty of local color.
Frank Norris’ novel McTeague (1899) features a cruel dentist who eventually kills his wife and then escapes to Death Valley. According to The Writer’s Almanac, “the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it ‘stomach-crunking’ and ‘vulgar.’” Norris is in the family of naturalistic writers. I recall one of my English professors explaining the difference between realism and naturalism: realism is when the author describes the street scene and everyone and everything in it; naturalism is when the author describes what is in the gutter.
Wanderer in the Wasteland (1923) by Zane Grey is the story of a young man, Adam Larey—a real greenhorn—is betrayed by his older brother, Guerd, a gambler. Adam shoots his brother and escapes to a mining town and later the desert—Death Valley—where he grows into a responsible adult, a person respected in the West. He falls for a woman in Death Valley who is married to a despicable husband. Classic Zane Grey. The landscape—magnificent yet hostile–is a featured character.
For the real story of the lowest and hottest point in the United States, check out Death Valley in ’49, the memoir of William Lewis Manly, one of the survivors of a wagon train that thought it could take a short cut. When the travelers were finally rescued, the story is that they looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Other possible books include Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Story of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger; Death Valley Scotty by Mabel; Jack Longstreet: The Last of the Desert Frontiersman; and the more recent Daniel Arnold’s Salt to Summit: A Vagabond’s Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. A poem about Jack Longstreet is on display at the wonderful Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near his cabin, which includes a separate section of the Death Valley National Park.
Andrew Jackson Longstreet
Notched his gun for each man killed
Local sheriffs were not thrilled
Five grooves placed upon that gun
Jack regretted only one
Built a cabin in Ash Meadows
To hide out from the posse fellows
Stones piled high to save his head
From pistols spinning white-hot lead.
This poem is but one treat in the under-rated Ash Meadows.
What looks like scrub desert is punctuated by blue pools of lively, tiny Pupfish, an endemic species that has survived in spite of living in harsh conditions. (Check out
another variety of Pupfish in Salt Creek in Death Valley.)
We were walking along one particularly lovely creek where we found a sign that in the recent past, the wetlands were scheduled to be developed for condos and casinos. Thankfully, a protest saved the area. Edward Abbey put it succinctly in his Desert Solitaire, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
In addition to the geologic wonders of Death Valley, the environs include some funky stops: the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, founded by Marta Becket, a NYC showgirl whose car broke down in the desert in the 60s and who lived and performed here until her recent death in early 2017. (Check out her story and obituary here: http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-marta-becket-20170201-story.html.)
Tecopa features Death Valley Brewing in town and China Date Farm a few miles distant, down a rather awe-inspiring road to the oasis where delicious dates and hiking trails can be found. Seriously, try the date milkshake after returning from a walk in the canyon.
Then there is Goodwell, an open-air museum and sculpture garden in the ghost town of Rhyolite, where one historic home is constructed with bottles. Seriously, Belgian artists have created sculptures of The Last Supper, a mosaic couch, and a larger than life prospect with a penguin(?) in this desert setting. http://goldwellmuseum.org/.
Goodwell is between Death Valley and Pahrump, a gateway to the park with a really decent winery and restaurant.
Death Valley and its environs might be considered a wasteland by some, but it’s a remarkably diverse landscape and a delight for a mid-winter escape.
Coda: En route home, we stopped at Eli at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, where we were treated to a terrific tour by curator Sean Pitts. Overnight at the All Aboard B&B and Cafe was a fitting complement. Not a bad way to spend a Spring Break.
When John Steinbeck and his good buddy marine scientist Ed Ricketts sailed into the bay at Cabo San Lucas in 1941, they found a “sad little town.” Seventy-five years later, some might consider the over-developed, tourist-crowded area still sad. For many others, it’s a paradise where they can whale watch, kayak to the famous arch, or don water-jet propelled boots for an uplifting experience. Or perhaps purchase drugs at discount prices or visit the Tequila Biblioteca.
What to read while relaxing by the pool or on the beach? Steinbeck’s classic Log of the Sea of Cortez certainly comes to mind, and I used a long weekend holiday in February to correct an oversight. I knew Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist from his fictional counterpart in Steinbeck’s Monterey Row, a novel I read some years ago when visiting coastal California for the Concours d’Elegance and vintage car races at Laguna Seca. By the way, the Steinbeck Museum in his hometown of Salinas is memorable—wonderfully showcasing the work that garnered a Nobel Prize in Literature (1962).
Steinbeck, Ricketts, and a host of sailor-collectors sail from Monterey around the southern tip of Baja California and up into the Sea of Cortez to collect fauna for study and preservation. Ricketts’s fame as a tidal pool expert still stands, and his book continues to be required reading for marine biologists. What is surprising about Steinbeck’s chronicle of the collecting voyage is how funny the book is. When they try to obtain a chicken in a Mexican village to vary their fish diet, he notes that the athletic ability of the bird is such that it would merit a collegiate scholarship for a track team. Their misadventures with camera equipment leads them to filming a blurry picture of crew member Shorty’s blue and white underwear. The tongue in cheek humor is a pleasant surprise.
More typical beach fare is a series by Robert Wisehart that features hard-boiled, but sometimes sensitive private detective Ethan Cruickshank. From Cabo, Cabo Revenge, Cabo Sunset, and others, I opted for Cabo Storm, which features the hurricane that hit the area in 2014. Cruickshank is hired to protect difficult to like or manage Rio LeDoux, who is working to make a comeback film, near the spot where Planet of the Apes was filmed. The thriller offers local color and an inside look at resorts that cater to celebrities; it also delves into the seedier side of town, a private sex club, supposedly near the popular bar, Cabo Wabo.
We chose to stay in San Jose del Cabo, a quieter village north of the tourist center, at a hotel adjacent to an estuary, which offered good bird watching. The pathway through the estuary from the sea to the village was missing a large chunk of boardwalk to the hurricane, and the horse corrals nearby were somewhat swamped. Still, it was an oasis away from the hustle of the “sad little town” to the south, where massive cruise ships disgorge passengers for dolphin encounters, camel rides in the outback, and zipline trips in the canyons.
San Jose also offered Thursday night art walks, horseback riding, and authentic cuisine such as the hot rock cooking in a Molcajete,typically used in a mortar and pestle but here used to finish a dish served at the table. It’s possible to find one in the local market, but the added weight to luggage may be prohibitive. The Saturday market, which primarily seems for snowbirds seeking relief from Northern climes, carries beautiful fruits and vegetables.
It’s also a fairly easy walk to Puerto Los Cabos, the entrance marked by a huge sculpture of a fisherman; other large scale sculptures are placed around the marina, which is about an hour away. Public buses–retired school buses–cost about 60 cents for a ride.
Los Cabos may be a bit light on literature, but soaking up the sun and local culture may leave little time for reading.
Postscript: John Steinbeck’s birthday on February 27 occurred shortly after our return, and as usual The Writer’s Almanac did a bang-up job on encapsulating his career:
It’s the birthday of novelist John Steinbeck (books by this author) born in Salinas, California (1902). In the 1930s, his most productive decade, he wrote several novels about his native California, including Tortilla Flat (1935), set in Monterey; In Dubious Battle (1936), about fruit-pickers on strike in a California valley; and Of Mice and Men (1937), set on a ranch in Soledad, southeast of Steinbeck’s birth town.
Of Mice and Men, the story of farmworker Lenny and his friend George, was a big commercial success, and it was also a highly banned book. In fact, it was among the American Library Association’s “most challenged books of the 20th century.” In support of the ban, people accused Steinbeck of having an “antibusiness attitude” and said that his “patriotism” was “questionable.” One person – in the 1990s – wrote that the book should be banned because Steinbeck took “God’s name in vain 15 times” and “[used] Jesus’ name lightly.”
In the 1940s, Steinbeck worked as a journalist – as a war correspondent. He sent dispatches from all around the Mediterranean and from North Africa during World War II. After the war was over, he started taking trips to the Soviet Union, going to Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad, and also many out-of-the-way places in the Soviet republic where Western reporters had not traveled. He tried learning Russian but never really attained fluency. He once wrote home about how he proudly tried to order a breakfast of omelet, toast, and coffee, and was served in response a “tomato salad with onions, a dish of pickles, a big slice of watermelon, and two bottles of cream soda.”
In 1940, after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He always professed to be leery and afraid of literary awards and their effect on writers. He said that after Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, hearing him talk so loftily about “writing” and “the Artist” made him (Steinbeck) want to “leave the profession.”
And then, in 1962, a decade after East of Eden (1952) and shortly after the publication of Travels with Charley (1962), Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” When a reporter at a press conference asked if he thought he deserved it, he said, “Frankly, no.”
But he accepted the prize and gave a lofty acceptance speech, in which he said, “A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Afterward, he was worried about the prize’s effect upon his future writing. He thought about other major prizewinners and confided to a friend: “For one thing I don’t remember anyone doing any work after getting it save maybe Shaw. This last book of Faulkner’s was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I’m being over-optimistic but I wouldn’t have accepted it if I hadn’t thought I could beat the rap.”
As it happens, he was doomed just as he feared – he died six years later, not having published a single novel since winning the prize. The Grapes of Wrath is generally considered his masterpiece. In it, he wrote: “The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. … And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a mysterious new place … a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.”
John Steinbeck said: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
Inka Exercise PlanThe abiding perception of touring Peru’s marvelous Incan sites is steps and more steps. Surely those amazing engineers of sites like Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Saqsayhuaman must have developed calves of steel. While Machu Picchu is the bucket list venue, many, many other sites vie for impressive.
Take the agricultural terraces at Moray, a kind of experiment farm set in a natural bowl at 11,000’ elevation. From a Utah perspective, it reminded us of Spiral Jetty, swirling down the sides of the circular hill, with rock retaining walls into which has been set cantilevered stone steps. To make a terrace, the Incas first built the retaining walls on the hill or mountainside and then filled the areas with small stones, finally covered with dirt and compost for intensive farming or gardening. Excessive rain drained through the stones, continuing to the next lower layer of crops. Leave it to a farmer’s daughter to find this engineering marvel of particular interest.And speaking of farming, Peru is renowned for its 4000+ species of potatoes, some of which look like green peppers while others are purple and knobby. PBS has a terrific website based on Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which features a video clip (#7) of the Pisac Market.
Corn has an equally amazing variety, ranging from sweet purple to gigantic white Incan. Fermentation results in Chica, a kind of beer. In the USA, fewer than 2% of the population farm while Peru has a stunning 43% engaged in farming.
Don’t miss the amazing salt mines where families have owned their own salt ponds for generations; they actually predate the Inkas. Culinary or bath salts can be a good, if heavy, souvenir. Modern Farmer published an excellent story about this salt industry in 2016.
Hiram Bingham, the controversial anthropologist who first publicized Machu Picchu to the world in 1911, and who is said to be the model for Indiana Jones, published his own quite readable version of the discoveries in The Lost City of the Incas. The more popular choice is Mark Adams’ travel book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, published a century after Bingham’s discovery, in which this novice hiker retraced Bingham’s route with the expert help of a tough-as-nails Australian guide. The book takes a frustratingly long time to arrive at Machu Picchu, but the journey is often worth it. Historic and contemporary photographs in the book’s center provide useful context. Adams followed the pathway that Bingham took—along the Urubamba River—where a farmer helped him bushwhack up the mountainside to the ruins. The river trail, which today is also the train route, is the sole way to enter Agua Calientes, the village that lies below the mountaintop citadel. Tourist buses wind their way up a hairpin road—named for Bingham—that is not for the acrophobic. The extensive site itself has drop-offs, and the unwary tourist could quickly be history trying to get the perfect selfie if not careful.
An aside: Our accommodation while visiting Machu Picchu was the Inkaterra Lodge, an eco-resort that featured bird watching–including the stunning national bird of Peru, the Cock of the Rock–and orchid walks. We also visited the Spectacled Bear rescue center. The resort’s developer was driven to protect this beautiful landscape, a former tea and coffee plantation, and looking at the overbuilding in the adjacent village nearby it’s clear that protection was needed.
A guide is essential to understand the site, which housed nobility and priests. The Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor are just two of the important points; many people trek up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, about a 90-minute walk, to see where altitude-challenged hikers enter the city. A few intrepid tourists get permits to hike up the precipitous Mount Machu Picchu and its sister mountain, Huayan Picchu. Another good book for understanding the rather brief reign of the Incan Empire is The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, which chronicles the Spanish conquest and the beginning of colonialism.
For another look at Bingham and his legacy, Kim MacQuarrie offers “The Rise and Fall of Hiram Bingham,” in his excellent Life and Death in the Andes. Bingham’s discovery resulted in the first official support from the National Geographic Society and launched the version of the magazine that readers know today. Professor Bingham parlayed his success as an explorer into a political career, but the ethical issues that began with his removal of artifacts continued with the result that he is one of a few U.S. Senators who has been censured.
Culturally rich in both historic and contemporary ways, Peru offers stunning handicrafts. Particularly high quality textiles can be found in Chinchero, the site of Nilda Callanaupa’s women’s cooperative. These weavers continue ancient patterns in rugs, clothing, and other products for the home. The weaving process, beginning with the wool and continuing through the dying process with natural coloring products, is explained by these self confident women in colorful village costume who demonstrate throughout. Alpaca wool products are omnipresent. Vicuna is rarer and thus more expensive.We were on the verge of buying a table runner when we saw a “mummy blanket for Juanita” that we could not resist. That evening, I turned to MacQuarrie’s chapter on “Ice Maidens, Volcanos, and Incas.” He interweaves the stories of a young Incan girl selected for sacrifice with the story of Nilda and her master weavers plus two young American anthropologists who happen to move to Chinchero and influence Nilda and her life course. The sacrificial girl, wearing beautiful clothes and wrapped in a colorful blanket, was discovered in a volcano in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard. The bus from Puno to Chivay/Arequipa stops at the 15,000′ summit, where the volcano can be viewed. The “ice maiden” was christened Juanita in honor of her discoverer, Johan. Her body was transported to Arequipa, where she can be visited in a museum. Seeing the diminutive mummy was the capstone experience. The synchronicity of purchasing the Juanita mummy blanket and then reading the story behind it reminds me of why I select books for the road. I get goosebumps when touring and reading come together so wonderfully.
MacQuarrie’s goal in Life and Death in the Andes was to begin at its northmost point and travel to the southern tip. Several chapters focus on Peru. He reveals the capture of the leader of Shining Path, which occurs in Lima—a great detective story. (When in Lima, do not miss the Museo Larco, a fabulous collection of pre-Colombian ceramics, including a gallery of erotica. I also resonated to the Casa de la Literature Peru, which includes masterworks by the country’s authors; a large section is devoted to Nobel Prize winning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa.) Pair the chapter about Shining Path with Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel Bel Canto, which fictionalizes the actual event of terrorists overtaking the Japanese Embassy and holding hostages for several months. The president of Peru was supposed to be in attendance but was absent. In Patchett’s deadpan version, the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. The leader of the terrorist group can actually believe that is true as even those in the jungle fret about the fate of “Maria,” the queen of soaps.
Bel Canto’s approach is similar to Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: chapters are devoted to getting inside the lives of several characters. In Wilder’s novel, several interrelated people die when an important bridge collapses into a gorge. In Bel Canto, both terrorists and hostages are analyzed, some of them charmingly, such as the French Ambassador, who true to form, turns to cooking during the long detainment. Both are terrific reads, one set in 1714 Peru and the other in the 20th century. Wilder’s novel has long been a staple of school reading, but it received new attention when Tony Blair, Prime Minister of England, drew from it at a memorial for the British who perished in the 9-11 attack:
“But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left Earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning.”
For those taking the luxury train, the Andean Explorer, from the historic city of Cusco to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, MacQuarrie’s chapter on the boat builder from this area, who assisted with Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra II, will be of interest. Artificial reed islands—Uros–on the lake include rustic residences and hotels. It’s a rather strange feeling to walk on the somewhat squishy reed matting of the islands.
The lake itself at 100 by 50 miles is the highest navigable body of water. We much preferred the real island of Taquile, an UNESCO Heritage site, where men are the knitting kings, producing their first cap at the age of 8.
Finally, it’s important to read authors of the country when traveling, and it was an easy choice: Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. Choosing which of his many novels to read, however, was another task. I settled on The Discreet Hero, another deadpan, tragicomic narrative that moves back and forth between two men who face challenges from extortion and thugs. This one is much more “macho” in its language and tone, yet entertaining. Set in Piura and Lima, eventually the two narratives come together in a happy resolution.
Our high-altitude hotels offered oxygen—either in bursts or actually piped into our rooms. I preferred to breathe in the heady mixture of words and places.