Travel Clichés: They Go With The Territory

ClichésI’ve recently been dipping into “The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Cliches” by Julia Cresswell, which is a good summer read.

Cresswell really put her nose to the grindstone for this weighty tome, leaving no stone unturned in her quest for the real deal about cliches. We’re informed that “wend your way” dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, with “wend” meaning “to go.” It was on its way out as a word when Sir Walter Scott and other nineteenth century romantic authors breathed new life into it.

Other cliches come from the Bible, like “the four corners of the earth” and “the ends of the earth.” Cresswell writes, “the persistence of an expression once it has become fixed is evident in the way that no one is uncomfortable with these phrases, despite the fact that flat-earthers are few and far between.”

Some phrases are of more recent vintage. “The fast lane” can only be traced back to 1966.

Bad travel writing is filled to the brim with cliches. Terms like “unique” or “hidden” or “authentic” or “off the beaten path” are like nails on a blackboard to my ears. Yet none of these chills me to my marrow more than that most wretched of adjectives: “quaint.”

When I became a travel writer ten years ago I swore upon a stack of Bibles never to use “quaint” in an article. I have stuck to that vow like glue, except when a snake-in-the-grass copy editor stabbed me in the back. I had written an article about British thatched roof houses for a certain magazine that shall remain nameless and titled it simply, “Thatched Roof Houses.” The copy editor stole my thunder by adding the subtitle, “The Story Behind The Quaintness.” This led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes travel cliches can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, especially when they perpetuate stereotypes. Here’s some tongue-in-cheek advice on writing about Africa that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. So, fellow travel writers, I beg you on bended knee, when you put pen to paper and are stuck for the right word, don’t fall back on cliches. Avoid them like the plague.

[Photo courtesy shutterbug Jonas Bengtsson]

St. Brendan: Did An Irish Monk Come To America Before Columbus?

St. BrendanToday is St. Brendan’s feast day. To the Irish, St. Brendan needs no introduction. For those less fortunate in their birth, let me tell you that he may have been Ireland’s first adventure traveler.

Saint Brendan was an Irish holy man who lived from 484 to 577 AD. Little is known about his life, and even his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia is rather short. What we do know about him mostly comes from a strange tale called “the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator,” written down in the ninth century and rewritten with various changes in several later manuscripts.

It’s an account of a seven-year journey he and his followers took across the Atlantic, where they met Judas sitting on a rock, landed on what they thought was an island only to discover it was a sea monster, were tempted by a mermaid, and saw many other strange and wondrous sights. They got into lots of danger, not the least from some pesky devils, but the good Saint Brendan used his holy might to see them through.

They eventually landed on the fabled Isle of the Blessed far to the west of Ireland. This is what has attracted the attention of some historians. Could the fantastic tale hide the truth that the Irish came to America a thousand years before Columbus?

Sadly, there’s no real evidence for that. While several eager researchers with more imagination than methodology have claimed they’ve found ancient Irish script or that places like Mystery Hill are Irish settlements, their claims fall down under scrutiny.

But, as believers like to say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and there are some tantalizing clues that hint the Irish really did journey across the sea in the early Middle Ages. It’s firmly established that Irish monks settled in the Faroe Islands in the sixth century. The Faroes are about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. Viking sagas record that when they first went to settle Iceland in the late ninth century, they found Irish monks there. There are also vague references in the Viking sagas and in medieval archives in Hanover hinting that Irish monks made it to Greenland too.

%Gallery-155425%From Greenland, of course, it’s not much of a jump to North America. The monks wanted to live far away from the evils of the world and were willing to cross the ocean to do so.

How did they sail all that distance? In tough little boats called currachs, made of a wickerwork frame with hides stretched over it. One would think these soft boats with no keel wouldn’t last two minutes in the open ocean, but British adventurer Tim Severin proved it could be done. In 1976, he and his crew sailed a reconstruction of a medieval currach on the very route I’ve described. The boat, christened Brendan, was 36 feet long, had two masts, and was made with tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease and tied together with more than two miles of leather thongs. While Brendan says sailing it was like “skidding across the waves like a tea tray,” the team did make it 4,500 miles across the ocean. His book on the adventure, “The Brendan Voyage,” is a cracking good read.

Although Severin proved the Irish could have made it to America, it doesn’t mean they did. Severin had the advantage of modern nautical charts and sailed confident in the knowledge that there was indeed land where he was headed. So until archaeologists dig up a medieval Irish church in North America, it looks like St. Brendan’s voyage will remain a mystery.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Classic Travel Writing: Jack Kerouac’s ‘Lonesome Traveler’

Jack KerouacWhile blogs take up most of my travel reading these days, every now and then I like to dip into an old classic. So on a recent flight to Washington DC to attend the Gadling bloggers summit, I read “Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac.

This slim volume contains eight stream-of-consciousness essays in the style you’d expect from one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. For example, the author tells a friend:

“Deni the reason I followed the ship all the way 3,200 miles from Staten Island to goddam Pedro is not only because I wanta get on and be seen going around the world and have myself a ball in Port Swettenham and pick up on gangee in Bombay and find the sleepers and the fluteplayers in filthy Karachi and start revolutions of my own in the Cairo Casbah and make it from Marseilles to the other side, but because of you, because, the things we used to do, where, I have a hell of a good time with you Den, there’s no two ways about. . .I never have any money that I admit, I already owe you sixty for the bus fare, but you must admit I try. . .I’m sorry that I don’t have any money ever, but you know I tried with you, that time. . .well gaddam, wa ahoo, shit, I want to get drunk tonight.”

When you have a monologue like that, you know you’re in Kerouac territory. The posts range from his time hanging out with William S. Burroughs in Tangier to his jobs as a fire watcher and on trains and boats.

Sometimes the best travel writing is that which takes you back to a place you love, in my case old New York City before its seedy heart was cleaned up and dulled. Kerouac takes us on a tour of all the crazy Times Square spots where the Beats used to hang out while a cavalcade of oddballs passes by. Through all this blur of activity Kerouac wonders, “Why does Times Square feel like a big room?”

Wow, yeah! Times Square does feel like a big room, even fifty years later when I hung out there. That broad open space enclosed by four walls of skyscrapers with all the people coming and going has a strange homey, interior feel to it. A good travel writer can put into words what you’ve always felt about a place.

And Kerouac is a damned good travel writer. “Lonesome Traveler” is filled with quotable one-liners about booze, sex, solitude, trusting strangers, nature and just about everything else. The one that perhaps best sums up the Beat mentality is actually by Gregory Corso, who in the New York sequence says, “Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power.”

Not a bad summary of the attractions of travel.

Medieval manuscripts in Los Angeles and London

Medieval manuscriptsTwo major exhibitions on opposite sides of the globe are focusing on the art of medieval manuscript illumination.

At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a show has just opened highlighting the burst in creativity and education in what is popularly called the Gothic period. Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 features books from this important period, when educated Europe created a huge demand for illustrated manuscripts.

Looking at these works of art instantly dispels the popular notion that the Middle Ages were a low period in civilization. In fact, it was a time of great artistic creativity and innovation. Even though the Church tried to create an orthodox mode of thinking, science and basic questions of philosophy were able to advance, albeit slowly. Even existentialism had a place. Just read the opening chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions if you don’t believe me.

The exhibition mainly draws on Getty’s impressive permanent collection, including recent prize acquisitions such as the Abbey Bible, one of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever made. Also of interest is the Northumberland Bestiary, a mid-13th century encyclopedia of animals.

In London, the British Library is running Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This collection of 150 manuscripts from the library’s collection date from the 8th to the 16th century and depict royalty through the ages. Some were even owned by kings and queens, such as a psalter with marginal notations by Henry VIII. The exhibition not only covers the royalty about and for whom the books were created, but also the artists who create them. Not all were monks as commonly believed. Many books were made by professional freelance artists who hustled for commissions from the rich and powerful. Not much has changed!

Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 has two installations, one running to 26 February 2012 and the next running from 28 February to 13 May 2012. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs until 13 March 2012.

Photo courtesy British Library.

Hikes near Madrid: a new guidebook shows you the way (in English!)

hikes near Madrid, MadridEvery year, thousands of English speakers visit Madrid on holiday or to teach English. Most never explore the many hikes near Madrid, and that’s a shame. The Sierra de Guadarrama offers some challenging and varied routes, and the lowland areas of the Comunidad de Madrid offer pleasant rambles. One of the best spots is La Pedriza, which can be a tough slog and easy to get lost in.

One of the reasons these hikes go unexplored by visiting Anglos is that there wasn’t an English-language book dedicated to them. That’s changed with the publication of Take a Hike: The Best 50 Routes in the Community of Madrid. The book is the result of two years of research and walking by expat hikers Beau Macksoud and Cynthia Blair Kane, who also founded Madrid’s only English-language hiking group, Hiking in the Community of Madrid.

I’ve been on several hikes with this book and I can say that it’s accurate and clearly written. Unlike the book I used to hike near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, the maps in Take A Hike are professionally done and easy to follow. They look like they were adapted from Spanish government topo maps. I’ve never understood why some hiking guides think they can get away with sketch maps. In Oxfordshire it’s annoying; in Sierra de Guadarrama it would be downright dangerous.

Take a Hike offers a variety of hiking experiences for all skill levels. It also touches on the history and culture of the area you’re walking through, mentions any local festivals, and even gives you a quick Spanish lesson with a list of hiking and sightseeing-related vocabulary in the margins.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, pick up a copy of this, put the tapas and vino to one side for a day, and go Take a Hike!

[Photo courtesy Ediciones La Librería]