22 Ambassadors Recommend the One Book to Read Before Visiting Their Country

These recommendations come from the Conde Nast Daily Traveler Newsletter:
http://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/22-ambassadors-recommend-the-one-book-to-read-before-visiting-their-country?mbid=nl_062317_Daily&CNDID=23488343&spMailingID=11326928&spUserID=MTY2Mjg1MjkxMDUwS0&spJobID=1182003480&spReportId=MTE4MjAwMzQ4MAS2

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Corsican Literature: V is for Vendetta

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.

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We’ll Always Have Paris

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.
–Ernest Hemingway

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.

No matter how many times we visit the home of the Eiffel Tower, we never run out of activities or books to read.

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Venice Volumes: Love and Death

         “. . . 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.

Doge’s Palace Prison: Casanova Cell

Carnival Masks

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.

Peggy Guggenheim quote on garden bench

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:

https://www.theveniceinsider.com/novels-in-venice/.

https://www.waterstones.com/blog/trip-fiction-books-set-in-venice

https://www.tripsavvy.com/best-venice-books-1548178

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