There are many types of travel writing. There are the Berlitz style of travel guide which you pick up in the Airport when you’ve realise you don’t even know how to say ‘hello‘ to the locals in the country that is destined to share your holiday. These guides cover the bare bones of the tourist traps that are the ‘must see‘ of this particular destination; they almost always contain a section on ‘practical information‘ which tell you how to say ‘Sir, I have lost my hat‘ in 16 different dialects. They’re excellent at helping you to orient yourself in a new culture, but let’s face it they can be a bit, well, dull
Then there is the experts guide; 16,000 things you didn’t know about Rome (Venice/Rio/London – pick your own City) that are penned with the traveller from a bygone era in mind; one who is probably travelling first class, staying in the best hotels, drinking the finest champagne and viewing the most exclusive art. These are the guides that make me feel rather like a plebian, not worthy to touch their covers or even glance inside to the content. Often dry and dusty they reflect on the ‘fact‘ the glories of the place you are visiting are in the past, that they disappeared before the streets were lined with fast food restaurants and all the stores stocked the same goods.
One of my favourite travel genres is the lifestyle travel guide. Written in the style of A Year in Provence, they attempt to give the reader an insight into how the writer coped when they were taken out of their comfort zone and plonked in the middle of nowhere, without being able to speak the language. They are earthy and real, but even so they still display a glaring gap between them and me. I often read these books and think ‘if only‘.
Of course, a huge section of the market is dominated by the memoir that takes the reader on a journey alongside the writer as they venture forth. The problem with this type of guide is that they can become a litany of adventures that serve to demonstrate how great the writer is and how vast the distance between them and us; I’m never going to climb Kilimanjaro or venture along the Amazon (unless it’s on a cruise).
However, the biggest disappointment with most travel guides is that they miss the point for me. I’m not the sort of tourist who feels a strong urge to see the next major site on the list. I don’t need to tick them off an invisible list, just to be able to say to friends back home that ‘I’ve been there, done that and got the sunburn to prove it‘. I’m more the sort of tourist who likes to sit outside a cosy coffee shop in the sun wearing a big hat and sunglasses, sipping a cappuccino whilst watching the world pass by. I spend my time observing the comings and goings and listening in on conversations between locals and I certainly don’t want to hear another English voice if I can help it.
I want to soak up the atmosphere; to really ‘feel’ what it might be like to live there. I like the back streets and alleyways – as long as they look safe – because in my world these are the places that small adventures can be found. Like the time a guy flashed at me across the street in Orihuela and all I could do was laugh.
Therefore the travel guide I want to read, need to read, is one that captures my imagination, that is a mix of all the genres and which is written by someone that truly cares about the place that has captured their heart.
For me the best travel writing is one which takes me gently by the hand and leads me through the streets and along the byways that only the locals know. It is like having your own personal advisor who tells you a secret history and imparts treats such as where to find the best food that is sold only to those that speak the language and who can tell the difference between artisan made and mass produced.
I love to read the local legends and myths that allow me to set a place in context. It’s in these seeming trivialities that my interest in piqued and a desire to visit the same place is born. I too want to share a coffee in that little café just off the square to the left of the small church on the corner of the street that meets this road.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of just such a travel guide to a city I’ve never visited, even though I love Italy and have spent many months studying in Rome. The city is Milan and the travel guide was ‘Chique Secret’s of Dolce Amore‘ by Barbara Conelli. In this wonderful little book, Barbara tells me the things that I, with my preference for coffee shop tourism, want to know. She tells me that the best panetonne can be bought only at Marchesi’s and she recommends that I take my first taste on 3rd February (the feast of St Biagio) when it is believed to have magic powers. She describes a city that is a ‘living organism, boiling with energy‘ and tells me that the Milanese Art Nouveau was called Liberty after the London store, Liberty & Co.
Barbara shares the stories of her heart, the stories which resonate with a soul like mine that longs to feel the heart of a city and see the reality of the life that is lived there. Admittedly, she only talks about the positives, but this is a travel guide and to be honest we all know there is an underbelly to everything, do we really need to be told it?
What I want to learn when I read a travel guide is what captured Barbara’s heart when she says “the tunes of the music in my heart resonated within the souls of those who walked along this path with me.” and I want to learn more about the city that birthed the story of Pinocchio. In this book I got both of these things and much more; I am now hatching a plan to visit and of course I’ll pop along to Rome as well.
If you would like to win a PDF copy of Barbara’s book, Chique Secret’s of Dolce Amore, simply leave a comment below and I’ll select one person at random next week.
For other free book excerpts and weekly Italian gifts visit Barbara’s website at barbaraconelli.com. Sign up to follow her blog so you won’t miss any scrumptious travel stops!