The books that inspired my travels


Which comes first, the book or the vacation?

Confused about where to go now that the pandemic is on the wane? Brochures and travel advertisements are full of deals and discount prices.

How do you choose from this plethora of promised delights?

Start with a book!


I once walked into a local travel agency to pick up some brochures and had just left when it occurred to me to ask, “Have you ever done any trips to Botswana? You see, I had just read The #1 Female Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Black-smith and was captivated, not just by Mma Ramotswe, but by the entire landlocked country of South West Africa. When the response was that a group was leaving in two months, I signed up my husband and I on the spot.

Our memories of this “trip of a lifetime” threaten to overshadow all others. Blazing sunsets, vast wild vistas where herds of elephants roam, prides of lions and “tricks” of waltzing giraffes – not to mention the herd of wild dogs I gather are rarer than the teeth of “hens”. Last but not least, there are the kind and beautiful Tswana who deeply love their politically stable country.


A few years ago I read by chance Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon, the first of over 20 novels featuring an Italian state police commissioner. We had never considered visiting Venice, a tourist trap we were assured. Suffice it to say, we’ve now visited this “sewerless city” twice, as the old song goes, and would love to go back again. How much more magical can a place become where you take a boat and not a bus and expect to get lost in these endless calli, campi and fundamental. As for the custom of a glass of Prosecco and a cichetti (small savory snack) around 11am – what’s not to like?


Maybe a “staycation” is more in the cards. Wherever you live, there are hidden treasures of books to help you decide. How about a picnic at the mighty Niagara Falls? Before leaving, consider picking up Too close to Catherine Gildiner Falls for an enchanting look at what it was like growing up near them in the 1950s. Born Naked by Farley Mowat takes you further afield, to Belleville, Ontario and then to Saskatchewan, with anecdotes guaranteed to make you laugh and give you a sense of place.

We had been living in Canada for less than a week when we were invited to stay with a new acquaintance in Clarkson. I had this strange feeling of déjà vu and, turning to our host, noticed that the winding, tree-lined approach reminded me of the white oaks books of Mazo de la Roche.

“Benares is just up the street,” she pointed out. The author was a frequent visitor with the inevitable result that the historic house (now a museum worth visiting) was the inspiration for jalnathe centerpiece of the 16-pound family saga.


Photos, videos and diaries make wonderful vacation memories, but what about that book picked up on a whim at the bookstore a few doors down from your hotel? Or piled up next to the cash register of the cafe where you stopped during your vacation walks.

We thus came across several nuggets that revive our memories long after packing the suitcases. We bought a paperback copy of The Sheltering Desert by Henno Martinpublished in 1923, from a farmer’s stand deep in the desert of Namibia, West Africa. Martin, a German geologist, was supplying water to Namibian farms when the First World War broke out. He and a fellow geologist were forced to spend two years in hiding in this vast desert. Henno recounts how they survived, giving a wonderful insight into this harsh but beautiful environment.


So it stands to reason that while enjoying a “jazz safari” in Cuba, I would feel compelled to pick up a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara and bookmark a postcard from Ernest Hemingway with Fidel Castro.


We haven’t visited Greece yet except for a one day stopover in Corfu where we visited plaques commemorating writers Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) and Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals).


But I just came across a series of six books – and more – of a Cambridge University classic Natalie Haynes, who is also a successful comedian. In Pandora’s Jar and her other five books, she gives an entirely new look at the legendary women of ancient Greece and Rome, whose lives were so often overshadowed by stories about their pious men. Even their names are best known as shorthand for adjectives or notoriety.

So, before deciding on your next well-deserved vacation, take a trip to your local bookstore. You never know where you will end up!

Kate Barlow

Originally from England, she has always enjoyed writing, pursuing a career as a journalist at the Hamilton Spectator and eventually becoming a published author. A founding member of a local book club, Kate is always looking for that person…

Read more by Kate Barlow

July 17, 2022

8:00 a.m.


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