Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Armchair Travel

I'm not sure what's more fun - planning a trip or actually being on it. Ever since Peter Mayle left London for the south of France (A Year in Provence), I have been enamoured of traveling through books. I read everything that I can get my hands on before I go, but even more satisfying, is reading about places you've been - recognizing streets, monuments, little restaurants - it doesn't get better.

Since I usually travel on a budget you can imagine my surprise when I opened Sunday's New York Times to find an entire article devoted to the Roman ruins in the south of France. One hotel in particular was named as a place of interest in Arles and it's one that Don and I stayed in on our bike trip. It brought back such vivid pictures for me. Arles was the one town where we were actually going to get a day of rest. How well I remember biking into the town along the river - the end of a 50 km ride - Don wanting to get photos and me whining that, if I got off the bike for a picture, I'd never get back on. Oh, how unprepared we were! Pushing the bikes through the narrow streets, up a small hill to the Hotel d'Arlatan, what an oasis it seemed. Check it out:

In the lobby there was a glass floor through which one could see into the sub-basement to the ruins of Roman baths. As a lover of all things Italian I was able to fall equally in love with France and would be more than happy to retire to either country in the not so distant future.

That brings me to another book I finished while up north. Venice for Lovers is a labor of love, a collaboration between husband and wife team Louis Begley and Anna Muhlstein. Begley was introduced to me many years ago by mentor and friend Pete Smith who was my supervisor when we ran the roads of Lee County on the bookmobile. If you remember the Jack Nicholson movie About Schmidt, then you understand the sensibilities of an author like Begley. Wartime Lies was another one of his important books.

Venice for Lovers is an unusual but lovely combination of genre and style, beginning with an autobiographical piece by Ms. Muhlstein, also a writer, telling of the couple's 30 year love affair with La Serenissima. Can you imagine the joy of returning year after year to the same little tratorrias, being greeted as old friends, establishing a routine, walking in the early morning fog, shopping in the fresh markets, returning home to write all afternoon and into the evening - oh, the life! Begley then follows up his wife's essay with a very Henry Jamesian short story and an essay about the writers who have turned Venice into a major player in their work. All in all this is a must read for anyone who has ever thrilled to their first glimpse of St. Mark's Square and a should read for anyone planning a trip to this mysterious, romantic canal city.
While I'm thinking about it, one of my all time favorites about Venice is Paula Weideger's Venetian Dreaming and please don't overlook anything by the delightful ex-pat Marlena de Blasi, in particular A Thousand Days in Venice.

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