The boundary between fact and fiction in travel writing is not always clear. If you want documentary prose about places in Europe, well-rooted in clearly verifiable facts, then you should probably buy a guidebook — though tight budgets nowadays mean that those facts are often not as meticulously updated as once they were.
In 1760, writing in The Idler, Samuel Johnson commented on various styles of travel writing, noting that most readers will probably want more than merely to be escorted “through wet and dry, over rough and smooth, without incidents, without reflection.” Johnson then remarked that too long a litany “of rocks and streams, of mountains and ruins” can quickly tire even the most devoted reader.
The quest for objectivity is of course illusory. Travel writing has served all manner of interests. The narratives of colonisers and explorers are never objective. And nor are ours. They are, we might venture, conduits for ideas.
In this issue we play with real and imagined territories. For guest contributor Philip Dunshea, who wrote our opening feature, a range of hills is more than merely a topographical blip on the Welsh landscape. Mynydd Hiraethog is a channel for the imagination, a chance for Philip to dive into his own past and that of Wales.
Our journey across Mallorca, also in this issue, has a dose of magic realism about it. As in the Odyssey, the Mediterranean landscapes we discover are full of real places with names you’ll find on real maps. Yet there is something fantastic about them too. Great travel yarns are made of such stuff, which is surely a good deal more interesting than lists of the best hotels and the best beaches.
Elsewhere in this issue, we look at the ghosts of al-Andalus and the DNA that defines some communities in Croatia. We discover the soundscapes of Leipzig and the prayerscapes of Exeter. We look, with a short article on social reformer Jacob Riis, at how the ‘idea’ of a place can be a very potent seed in the mind. A world without imagination would be a dull place. Just as travel writing mired in cold objectivity is dismal. Flights of fancy often make the best journeys.
The Europe we describe in these pages is a wondrous place. The texts that bring it to life are in the main written in-house. But we do benefit considerably from our guest contributors who number three in this issue. They are Rudolf Abraham, Laurence Mitchell and Philip Dunshea. To all three we offer our warmest thanks.
Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries