Dear fellow travellers
When the celebrated American humorist Robert Benchley visited Venice in the 1930s, he immediately sent a telegram back to his editor at the New Yorker magazine. It read, quite simply: "Streets full of water! Please advise!" Images of place, well-founded or otherwise, powerfully mould our travel horizons. Edam, it turns out, is not full of cheese, just as one might quite easily travel for weeks through Switzerland without seeing a cuckoo clock. There is a Sicily without the mafia and an England without bad plumbing and cooked breakfasts.
Preconceptions of places can be a mixed blessing. We have a friend who adamantly refuses to browse a guidebook before embarking for a foreign land. He returned from Estonia full of naive delight in a country about which he knew not one jot when his plane touched down in Tallinn. He was impressed by the landscape and its people, and seemed happily surprised to find that Estonians speak Estonian. Well most of them, at least!
Rediscovering that naive delight in the peculiarities of place, in the curve of a landscape, or in the lilt of a half understood language is not easy in a world where we have all become too blasé about travel. Google Earth, fine topographic maps and an unprecedented choice of first class guidebooks all conspire to fill the senses even before we have left home. Sadly, it no longer seems very remarkable to find that the streets of Venice are filled with water.
Hav: a novel by Jan Morris
"There can be few people nowadays who do not know the whereabouts of Hav," writes Jan Morris in the preface to her fictional account of a non-existent port city. We have, as it happens, just recently read Jan Morris' newly extended edition of Hav. This is travel writing at its very best, calculated to reinvigorate even the most jaded traveller. It is precisely because Hav does not really exist that we approach the place without the usual preconceptions which colour so many of our travels. In Jan Morris' book, we find a clever intermixing of fact and fiction to create a fabulously multicultural port that reminds us of a thousand places we have never visited, and just a few that we know and love: Çevlik, Cádiz, Constanta and a dozen more.
The book first came out in 1985, but the new edition published last year updates the reader. Sadly the Kretevs no longer live in caves, the twice weekly train from Moscow has long since stopped running, and the much sought after Hav snowberries have been genetically modified to satiate the demands of a mass market. For all its new found modernity, Hav is still remarkable. Utterly, utterly engaging. . . and all the more so because we approach it without the benefit of Google Earth and a mountain of guidebooks. Hav rekindled in us that naive fascination with place that must have been so very much more common before everywhere was reduced to being just a few pages in a guidebook.
Hav is published by Faber and Faber.
To see the table of contents of the March 2007 issue of hidden europe magazine, published today, please click here.