Novel Destinations: a literary travel guide

I’ve been so close to greatness and didn’t know it. In Sonoma, I could have visited Jack London’s ranch. And in Savannah, I missed the home of Flannery O’Connor.

I love walking through the halls and rooms of great people, looking out their windows and breathing in the scent of their begonias. I want to see what they saw; understand what inspired them.

I got a thrill walking through the rooms in Vienna where Mozart composed his symphonies. I always feel a bit sad when I stand in the Baltimore rooms where Edgar Allan Poe fell in love with his future wife. Standing near Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, I gazed upon the mountain that figured in so many of his paintings.

It’s as if I can smell the creativity that charges the air. Or maybe I hope I’ll find inspiration in walking in their footsteps.

The facade of 3 Amity Street in Baltimore, home to Edgar Allan Poe as he began his writing career.

The facade of 3 Amity Street in Baltimore, home to Edgar Allan Poe as he began his writing career.

So imagine my delight in finding a book filled with 500 literary landmarks. Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. Written by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon and published by National Geographic, the book (and related website), the book is filled with practical advice for visiting the places where writers lived, worked and visited.

The authors have been to hundreds of the sites listed in their book, but according to Schmidt, they’re still working on getting to the rest.

“When my co-author, Joni Rendon, and I were writing the book, at least one of us traveled to the ten locales featured in the section ‘Journeys Between the Pages,’ which lead from Victor Hugo’s Paris to Harper Lee’s Alabama hometown. Between the two of us we’ve been to hundreds of the other sites featured in the book as well. For the author houses and museums that we could not visit first hand during the research process, we interviewed curators and experts,” she told me in an email.

It’s research anyone who loves literature should undertake, don’t you think?

Schmidt said she is now traveling full-time in the United States and abroad and has continued visiting sites from her book, including, she said, “Jack London’s hauntingly atmospheric Beauty Ranch in California’s Sonoma Valley, the splendid Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Agatha Christie’s summer retreat in the English countryside, Greenway House, which inspired the setting for the Hercule Poirot tale Dead Man’s Folly.”

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is the setting for Victor Hugo's

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is the setting for Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

While most of the book is a practical listing, the section entitled “Journeys Between the Pages” will have book lovers soaking in all the atmosphere and detail the authors add to these expanded descriptions of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West or James Joyce’s Dublin.

When asked, Schmidt chose two destinations where she felt the author’s presence: Louisa May Alcott’s Massachusetts home and Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo.

“Of all the literary sites I’ve visited, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, is the place where I most felt like I had stepped into the pages of a novel. She drew so heavily on her family and their home for the characters and the setting in Little Women that walking through the house feels as if you’ve become part of that fictional world. Fans of the book will no doubt recognize things like the trunk of costumes the March sisters used to stage their plays and the parlor where Meg got married,” she said.

“Another standout for me is the Château de Monte-Cristo, a manor house and grounds on the outskirts of Paris that Alexandre Dumas called his ‘paradise on earth.’ To reach the château you walk along a wooded path, through man-made caves, and past a waterfall. Inside the house, each room presents a different facet of Dumas’ life, from his affinity for gourmet cooking to his exotic travels. Also on the property is a stone tower he had built for his office, which he named Château d’If after the prison in his novel The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an intriguing and imaginative place, exactly what you might expect from someone who wrote adventure stories.”

Some destinations are so close to home I’m heading over ASAP. Some are far away so they’re going on my very long to-do list. With any luck I’ll get to Pearl S. Buck’s homes in either nearby West Virginia or Pennsylvania very soon. I’m hoping to see Paris again soon. Novel Destinations is chock-full of literary highlights in the City of Lights.

The courtyard of the Maison de Ville, in New Orleans' French Quarter.

The courtyard of the Maison de Ville, in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

I’ve already been to several novel destination including the Poe House in Baltimore and Maison de Ville in New Orleans, where Tennessee Williams stayed, and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, setting for Victor Hugo’s story about a bell-ringer.

Always love a good book to take on my travels. Now I have “Novel Destinations” to tuck in my bag for a day away — or even longer.

I’ll be tucking this book away with my Frommers travel guides and other tour books to inspire me next time I’m planning a trip.

Ⓒ Text and photos
Mary K. Tilghman