Place: Calabria, Italy
Book: Old Calabria by Norman Douglas (NEW Reissued–2010)
I love to time travel with writers from the 19th or early 20th centuries and even earlier. I enjoy seeing a place and its people brought to life in an era before antennas sprouted on top of every mud hut and CNN images reached everywhere. What was their world view before they had automobiles to take them to the next region? What did they enjoy that might be missing in today’s zoom-zoom world?
Actually learning about the traveler can provide as much entertainment as learning about the place traveled to. What are their expectations? Through what lens do they observe?
Palgrave, an imprint of MacMillan, has a great idea. They bring back to life older travel literature in attractive trade paperback editions with lovely covers and readable type. I will be talking about several of their titles.
Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria, first published in 1915, recounts a journey around the southernmost part of Italy, then as now the least visited part of the country. Old Calabria tells us a great deal about Norman Douglas and the aristocratic tradition of European travel in late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, Douglas’ book did little to persuade me to head to this remote land.
Contrary to the worshipful preface and lush back cover notes, I found the book ponderous and unlovable. After attempting to join Douglas on his trip through Calabria,Italy, I have to agree that he is erudite. Almost more an encyclopedia than a travel book, Old Calabria makes me wonder at how large the original reading audience could have been. How many people in Europe in the early 20th century had an education that prepared them to pick up on threads of history at the mere mention of a name (without explanation)? How many could skim through the untranslated phrases in Italian, French and Latin scattered through the book?
Here is a passage near the end of the book.
Calabria is not a land to traverse alone. It is too wistful and stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort. Its charms do not appeal to the eye of romance, and the man who would perambulate Magna Gracecia as he does the Alps would soon regret his choice. One needs something of that ‘human element’ which delighted the genteel photographer of Morano–comrades, in short; if only those sages, like old Nola Molisi who have fallen under the spell of its ancient glories.
When Douglas travels, he carries books. As he goes, he reads what others from Greek or Renaissance travelers wrote and he folds their versions of Calabria into his own.
At last we have discovered something that we can agree upon. Reading about the place you are visiting can enhance the journey. Travel literature is good company for travelers.Unfortunately, Douglas’ erudite spills over into the pedantic, and in my opinion loses its value for the 21st century Internetized reader traveling to Italy.
I thank Palgrave MacMillan for providing me with a review copy of Old Calabria. Unfortunately I started with my least favorite of their series of reisussued travel classics–but I still believe publishing these old travel books is a great idea. If you would like to try Old Calabria, you can buy this attractive reprint from Amazon with the link above. Or you can download an e-book.
(Photos are from Flickr, with Creative Commons License. Guissepe Quattrone took the landscape and Fiore S. Barbato the haunting black & white. As usual, I encourage you to click on the pictures to see more of their work.)
A year ago, I devoted a week to travel classics, writing about Eric Newby, Bill Bryson, V. S. Naipaul, and Bruce Chatwin. Have you ever delved into travel books from the past? What value do they have for you? Perhaps someone reading this post has read Norman Douglas and would like to provide a counter view to my opinion?