Travel with books – Lisbon

To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.

Over 6 months after my trip to Lisbon, I am finally ready to tell you about what the city and the books held for me. As with Vienna, Lisbon is not a once-in-a-lifetime destination for me, and you may notice that my take on this post is a little different from previous ones: this time I took the books as suggestions of what to go and discover in Lisbon. Because of that, this post also fits Libby‘s new event, the Book Pilgrimage.

It is hard to keep my eyes fresh after visiting a place so many time, but books do help to discover new facets even of the best-known town.

The Christ the King statue is not mentioned in any of the books I read, but on this trip I had the chance to see it up close

My reading list (links are to my thoughts):

The ferry was the only way to cross the Tagus before this bridge was built in 1966

First, following the example of Gregorius in Night Train to Lisbon, I intended to take a ferry to cross the Tagus — except, I was sidetracked, because I found a convenient river cruise leaving from the same terminal! It clearly does not have the same feeling, but I appreciated the experience.

The Belem Tower, looking like a ship ready to sail

The good thing about the cruise is that we managed to reach and see the Belem Tower, which wold not fit our earlier programs. When you visit the tower (which we did on a previous occasion), you see a nosy sculpture and you learn about the first rhinoceros to be brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers in early 16th century. You can read the full story here on Atlas Obscura. It was interesting to recall it because in The Indies Enterprise Orsenna gives a good fictionalized account of the rhino’s arrival and of the reaction of people in Lisbon. Unfortunately I cannot share the scene with you because I only have the French version of this book, but if you happen to have the English translation, I’d be grateful if you shared the quote in the comments!

The Lisbon castle, as seen from Praça do Comercio

The best part of the day, though, was following the indications given by Saramago and retrace Raimundo Silva’s steps on what was once the Moorish line of fortifications around the city. I have to admit I never felt the charm of this part of Lisbon as strong as on that day. (Following quotes are from the English translation by Giovanni Pontiero, taken from Google Books.)

The idea, which came to him as he watched the roof-tops descending like steps as far as the river, is to follow the lay-out of the Moorish fortifications according to the scant and rather dubious information provided by the historian, as he himself had the good grace to acknowledge.

Lisbon rooftops. The many cruise ships detracted a bit from our 12th-century experience

Raimundo Silva will peruse more slowly whatever remains to be inspected, another section of the wall in the Pátio do Senhor da Murça, the Rua da Adiça, where the wall rose up, and that of Norberto de Araújo, as the street was recently baptised, at the summit an imposing stretch of wall, eroded at the base, these are truly living stones, they have been here for nine centuries, if not longer, from the time of the barbarians, and they survive, they intrepidly support the bell-tower of the church of St Lucy or St Brás, it makes no difference, at this spot, ladies and gentlemen, opened the ancient Portas do Sol, facing eastward, the first to receive the rosy breath of dawn, now all that remains is the square which took its name from this landmark…

Original Moorish wall: I had no idea there was some of it still preserved!

Actually, the plaque says the original wall predated Moorish time and dates back to the Visigots, even!

But here, right before Raimundo Silva’s eyes is a fragment, if not of the indestructible rampart itself, at least of a wall occupying the same space where the other stood, and descending all the way down the steps beneath a row of broad windows surmounted by tall gables.

Not the same segment mentioned in the text, but according to our guide this too was original Moorish wall, and it now houses a café called “Moorish walls”

As usual, here’s a list of more books set in Lisbon I wish to read sometime soon:

  • Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains
  • Antonio Tabucchi, Requiem: A Hallucination
  • José Saramago, Journey to Portugal
  • José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
  • Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon
  • José Rodrigues dos Santos, The Einstein Enigma
  • Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Have you read any of these? Any title that you wish to suggest/suggest to avoid? And have you ever visited Lisbon?

Books: Gibraltar reading and more

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The book: Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe

The edition: HKB Press paperback, 285 pages, with an hilarious cast of characters

The story: at the beginning of the Great Siege, Giovanni Bresciano is the second of only two Gibraltarian to join the army to defend their country. On his second day in the army, his first friend among soldiers falls from a precipice. Is it an accident, or is it something sinister? Is there a murderer or a spy on the loose? As the siege goes on and the city suffers from hunger and smallpox, Bresciano tries to uncover the truth.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I was suspicious of this book, because I had read another one by Sam Benady (see below) and it had failed to impress me. But I was wrong. It may be little known, but this book is as good a crime novel as you can get. Not only it has an extremely well-developed and puzzling plot, it also has well-rounded characters (down to Bresciano’s own teenager weaknesses, which I didn’t have patience for but still rang very true). And it pairs it all off with an accurate period setting and plenty of very well-written descriptions.

Language & writing: the authors are quite good at rendering the multilingualism of the place. Also, it’s too bad that I didn’t take notes while reading, because this book is full of good words; I don’t know for sure, but some of them may be Gibraltar-speech too — one is for sure:

Monday morning brought with it a damp easterly wind that rapidly swathed the Rock in a heavy levanter cloud.

(The levanter cloud is a weather effect happening in Gibraltar, as explained here. Below is a picture of it.)

Image credits: Wikipedia

Links to better understand this book:

Read this if: if you like period detective stories

Counts as: Travel with books project – Gibraltar; Bloggiesta, my goals; Bloggiesta, Jessica’s mini challenge

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I’ll add here my very short thoughts about two more Gibraltar-related (and one non-related) books I read recently, I really don’t have enough to say about them to justify a separate post, sorry.

Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar by Sam Benady, published by Gibraltar Books, 48 pages
This is one of those books written only to make use of a given setting. It includes two novellas featuring, guess that, Sherlock Holmes in Gibraltar. I am not an expert, but this Holmes was in no way similar to the original character, and the book was nothing comparable to Conan Doyle’s works. It features a nice line drawing, though.

Gil Braltar, by Jules Verne, as published online here
This short novella is intended as a satire against the British, but I only found it cruel and unnecessarily so.

In Honor to Cain, by Francesca Raffaella Guerra, as published by Ubi Minor, 134 pages
This one has nothing to do with Gibraltar and I only mention it here because, like the Sherlock Holmes’ one, it’s only excuse for existing is that it is set in a particular town (namely, in my home region). I’m sorry but I can say absolutely nothing good about this one, so I won’t.

Travel with books – Vienna

To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.

Vienna is my second take at this project, and it took me ages to get down and write this post. Oh well, I am nothing if not disorganized! I ended up reading 7 books based (at least partly) in Vienna, which I visited last summer. Disclaimer: I know Vienna better than the 10 days spent there last summer, seeing as I used to live there and visited regularly ever since. Yet this project actually opened my eyes on something, and I am glad it did!

The Vienna Art History Museum towards sunset

My reading list:

Links are to my thoughts about each book, asterisks are books that are only partly set in Vienna. Papierkrieg is only available in German.

Vienna as seen from the Belvedere Palace Gardens

The books I read are very different from one another, but in none of them will you find the Imperial Vienna of palaces and music that most tourists are regularly shown. The only one vaguely hinting at that kind of world is Roth’s novel, which in fact is a strong critique of everything that society turned into.

It strikes me as odd, thinking about it now, that the two books by Austrian authors I read (Roth’s and Mucha’s) are the two that most mercilessly describe the bad faces and the dark corners of the Viennese society of their age. There is no hiding here, no way of embellishing things, no golden façade. You may well visit Princess Sissi’s palaces and listen to Mozart concerts, but that’s makes you the most cliché of tourists.

Inside the Rathaus: a detail of the luxurious ceiling

Now, the books I read by non-Austrian authors seem to be connected by something else: the presence in Vienna of Jews. In People of the Book it’s a given, but the Viennese section of Psalm at Journey’s End is also focused on a Jewish family, not to mention A Death in Vienna, which has the Jewish community and Austria’s Nazi past as the core of the story. (There may or may not be Jews in The Drawing of the Dark, but they do appear as side characters in Radetzky March.)

I had not realized it before, but there still is a strong Jewish community in Vienna — and a strong deployment of police in the synagogue area on Saturday mornings. There are still strong feelings, basically in the shape of trying to forget all about it / never mention anything. Austrian try hard to forget their role in the Shoah, the way you try not to think about a bad memory. Brooks captured it well in her book:

I noticed that when I walked with him near the Hofburg, he always went out of his way to avoid Heldenplatz, the Hero’s Square. It was only much later that I came across the famous picture of that square, taken in March 1938. In the photograph, it is packed with people, some of them clinging to the gigantic equestrian statues to get a better view, all of them cheering as Hitler announced the incorporation of his birth nation into the Third Reich.

Of course I’m not saying that Austrian don’t accept their responsibility, or that the subject is taboo, but rather that they try to ignore the elephant in the room. A friend of mine, who also used to live in Vienna, noticed that Viennese people never mention the monument to the Austrian victims of the Shoah, and if someone mentions it, they’ll say it’s ugly. The monument represents a library the books of which cannot be read, as a memorial to the huge amount of Jewish wisdom and learning that was lost in the Shoah. I agree it is ugly, but willingly so: it’s meant to be disturbing, as the memory of all that happened to the Jews is disturbing.

The Memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah

On the square, there is a sign explaining the monument, and it reads as follows (capitalization as is in the original):

The “Memorial to the Austrian Jewish Victims of the Shoah” reminds us of the 65,000 jews murdered during the Nazi regime. The outer sides of the reinforced concrete cube by british artist Rachel Whiteread (*1963) present themselves as library shelves. 41 names of places where Austrian jews were murdered are engraved around the bottom of the monument. The object is a symbol for the jewish culture of books, which not only offers a sphere of refuge, but also stands as a living sign for the surviving jewish mind.

A detail of the books

I’d like to finish with another reading list, of more books about Vienna that I wish I may read sometime:

  • In My Mother’s House by Margaret McMullan
  • The Fig Eater by Jody Shields
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
  • An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
  • The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr
  • Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell

And a more cheerful image to leave you with:

No caption needed, I guess: it's the Giant Wheel at Prater

Travel with books – Greece

To know what this is all about, see my introduction post.
This is my first take at a Travel with books post, so if you have any idea on how I can make it better, please do tell me!

*****

It took me a lot of time to write this post because I could not get hold of the photos, but it’s finally here. We were in Greece in January, first in Athens and then in Crete. I read five books for this project (see list below), some before leaving, some during the trip itself and one after coming back home.

 

The Acropolis in Athens

Here’s the list of possible reads I came up with, i.e. books set in Greece that sound interesting. Links are to my reviews, i.e. the books I actually read for this project; bold titles are the ones I am still interested in reading in the future; underlined titles are books I read in the past.

  • Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
  • Alessandro Baricco, An Iliad
  • Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
  • David Gemmell, Lord of the Silver Bow
  • Robert Goddard, Into the Blue
  • Victoria Hislop, The Island
  • Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba The Greek
  • Morgan Llywelyn, The Elementals
  • Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Archanes
  • Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Spartan
  • Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Oracle
  • Colleen McCulloughs, The Song of Troy
  • Steven Pressfield, Last of the Amazons
  • George Psychoundakis, The Cretan Runner
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Firebrand

Cretan landscape

It was interesting to read about the place I was in, it gave a completely different taste to the books, because I was experiencing the city through the author’s words and then immediately I could lift my eyes from the book and find the real city in front of me, and see what was similar and what was different.

In Athens, for example, I was reading The Oracle and a street name came up, and both me and my husband were convinced we had trodden that street on the same day — yet we could not find it on any map!

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

In Crete we were able to visit Archanes (the town the book is named after) and also Plaka, where most of The Island is set. We sat in a tavern that could be the one featured in the first chapters of the book, and watched the island of Spinalonga on the other side of a narrow canal. The story was much more real after seeing its setting.

 

The main (or rather only) road in Plaka

Inside a tavern in Plaka, overseeing Spinalonga (as described in the novel!)

Spinalonga, the former leper colony

And yet not everything in this experience was for the good. You may recall how I was disturbed by the sexism in Zorba the Greek. I had assumed it was due to the book being old and not having aged well, yet I was wrong because during this visit (my first to Greece) I noticed many things that hinted to a society that is still very machist and sexist. And while it disturbed me, it also made me notice the little sexist attitudes described in the other books I read (although in those cases they seemed more a description of society than an attitude on the author’s part). Such as this:

She had turned eighteen, her schooldays were long past and she had only one ambition: to marry well.

 

The archaeological site at Cnossos (the labyrinth of the Minotaur)

All in all, this turned out to be an interesting experience, and one I will surely continue.

 

View of Athens from the Acropolis

Our next destinations are supposed to be Andorra, Andalusia and Nepal/Tibet. Any suggestions as to what to read?

Travel With Books, or: Hey, a reading project!

When I choose what to read, I usually go with gut feeling. I never had any major reading project set for myself, except from school reading projects and, since book blogging started, reading challenges. Book by book, I choose what I feel like reading next, and I’m fine with that.

Still, I have cradled one reading idea for some time now: that it would be nice to read books about or set in a place before I visit that place. I’ve been traveling quite a lot in the past few years and the idea turned up every time I planned a new trip, yet I never got around to actually take it through.

Then I mentioned it to my readers during the Read-A-Thon, and the idea has never left me since. I thought it through and decided to transform it into a real personal reading project. (Feel free to join, if you wish! I’d be happy to share thoughts and destinations! Just email me ioscribacchinaATgmailDOTcom or leave a comment!)

Here’s what I plan to do: read at least a couple of books for each place I visit, and blog about it. Each post will feature:

  • a list of possible books about that destination
  • a list of the books I read, with links to reviews if I wrote them
  • pictures from my trip
  • my thoughts about how the real place and its bookish counterpart related in my experience

I will add links here to my destination posts. Should you ever write a post that fits into this project, let me know and I’ll add a link to your blog too!

If you want to join or share, feel free to grab the button. It is based on a beautiful picture by Calsidyrose I found on Flickr. If you know anything about vintage compasses, please click through and see if you can answer the author’s questions. Thank you.

Destinations:

  • Greece (Athens and Crete)