In the first week of our trip to Europe, we set a pattern that became an important feature of our holiday; visiting sites or houses connected to the greats of literature. The first, at Laugharne, on the estuary of the River Tâf, Southern Carmarthenshire, was where Dylan Thomas spent the last years of his life. We enjoyed a peaceful morning strolling along ‘Dylan’s Walk,’ from Castle Laugharne to the Boathouse, now tea rooms and a museum devoted to Thomas and his work. Thomas wrote many of his major pieces, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, in a small shed located between the Castle and the Boathouse and its interior remains faithful to how Thomas left it when he took his ill-fated trip to America.
Later that month, after travelling through Counties Clare, Wexford and Galway in the Republic of Ireland, we spent three days in Dublin. Ireland values it’s scríbhneoirí so they created the Dublin Writers Museum, which has, since 1991, celebrated the history of Irish literature through copies of books and displays of writing paraphernalia owned by Irish writers, some of whom have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It also houses the Irish Writers Centre a resource and support service for Irish writers. We spent several hours at the museum, immersed in an august literary tradition that continues today.
We scheduled our trip to Dublin so it coincided with Bloomsday, a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Set on the 16th June, the book describes Leopold Bloom’s thoughts and impressions as he meanders through Dublin. Early in the book he stops at Davy Byrnes’ to eat lunch so we joined the throng at Davy Byrnes’ in the middle of the afternoon on the 16th June 2017, enjoyed a Guinness or two and listened to the Irish songs that grew louder, more intense (and more raucous, but because we don’t understand Gaelic we can’t be sure) as the day joyously rambled into evening.
Early next morning, unaffected by the previous night’s indulgence, we lined up with several hundred others to visit the Long Room of the Trinity College Library and view the Book of Kells. I studied Medieval Literature in 2006 and have, since then, harboured a desire to see this delicately yet sumptuously illuminated text. Because of its age and fragility, it is displayed in a large glass case and there was barely any elbow room as dozens of tourists at a time strained to see the pages of the book before moving on so more visitors could view the text. The wait and polite jostling, however, were worth it.
After reluctantly leaving Dublin and recrossing the Irish Sea we took the train to Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lakes District, an area beloved of poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, and writers Thomas de Quincey and John Ruskin. As a former junior primary (elementary) school teacher, I was on this occasion, more interested in Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter, than the Romantic poets. It took nearly half a day to walk from the Lake Windemere Ferry to Hill Top. The walk was mostly uphill but the day was cool and we relished the lush English farmland we passed through. As inexperienced walkers, we were careful to stop occasionally, rest, drink water and take in our surroundings. Once we arrived we had a cup of tea and sandwich at the nearby tea rooms before visiting Potter’s house and the gardens. Both house and garden match the illustrations from Potter’s books so I took several photographs of the garden for my granddaughter who, like so many children, enjoys the timeless tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends.
In France, the literary highlight was a visit to Shakespeare and Company. A lover of book shops, this is one I have longed to visit. Due to the weather and our poor map reading skills we failed to locate it on our first day in Paris but found it through a circular route (along the Quai de Montebello, down the Rue Maitre Albert then, realising our error, back along the Boulevard Saint-Germain to Square Rene Viviani) on our second day. I had, of course, to buy a book.
In Florence, we discovered the Casa di Dante, the birthplace of Dante Alighieri, was ten minutes walk from our accommodation on the via Lambertesca. We had not planned to visit the Casa, but by then we had come to accept our footsteps often led us to literary sites (though that’s not hard to do in Europe). Dante’s Divine Comedy is considered a masterpiece and the greatest poem of the Middle Ages. It was innovative for the time because it was not written in Latin but in the vernacular, which made it accessible to many more readers. Dante, therefore, anticipated the Renaissance and initiated the development of a national language of Italy. The museum, steeped as much in the history of Florence as in Dante’s literary works, attests to the esteem held for him by his birth place.
While planning our holiday, we realised that at the end of seven weeks we would need to rest before the long flight back to Australia. We decided to find a beach where we could relax during the final days of our trip. On the advice of friends, and because there are no cars allowed on the island, we spent five idyllic nights on Hydra, a peaceful haven, despite the occasional bray of a donkey. On our first day, we were told about a forthcoming performance by sixteen young actors and dancers, students from the Ryerson Theatre and Dance Company, Canada. The show, Our Leonardo (devised by Corinna Seeds, directed by Peggy Shannon with choreography by Alyssa Martin), was a tribute to Leonard Cohen who, before he gained fame as a musician and song writer, was a novelist and poet. Cohen lived in Hydra from 1960 to 1968 and the tribute was hosted by Hydrama, which has for more than two decades presented many drama and dance performances as well as workshops, seminars and courses. Their focus is on Greek plays but they invite groups from around the world to perform under the stars in their small amphitheatre in the tiny village of Vlychos. We could have spent an hour walking to Vlychos from our accommodation but decided to take a water taxi instead; it and the performance were both free. Once we arrived we followed the locals to the theatre and found seats in the already crowded amphitheatre. The audience included English, Australian and American expatriates who, along with several natives of Hydra, knew Leonard Cohen and we listened eagerly as they shared their stories of the sixties. The performance itself was energetic; young bodies glistened with sweat as the performers sang and danced their homage to Cohen and his music. It was a fitting finale to our abbreviated, eclectic but intriguing literary journey through Europe.