Plenty has been written about the differences between tourists and travellers. I’m usually a traveller and very occasionally a tourist – and yes, it definitely depends on who I’m with. I’m not a great fan of guide books that give me the Top 10 things to see and do, all neatly packaged. Such lists come with the implied suggestion that I have to tick off each one before I can claim to ‘have done’ Paris, or Timbuktu, or wherever. [Not that I would EVER use the expression – ‘I’ve done wherever’. I’ve been to Malta about two dozen times at least and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see on the island. I defy anyone to say they’ve done Malta.]
I dislike rankings, TripAdvisor being a case in point. Without knowing these people, how can I trust their opinion of what is worth seeing? It’s all very objective. Things need context. I don’t have much faith in numbers. But that’s me.
I rarely do any prep work in advance of a trip. I don’t have a set list of things to see or do in my head. I have my usuals – I want to find a local market, I want to spend a few hours in a local cemetery, and if there’s a museum that deals with man’s inhumanity to man, I’ll be there. I like to cash in on the three wishes I get each time I visit a church for the first time, so they’re always a possibility. And I like to eat like the locals do – I’d take street food and neighbourhood caffs over posh restaurants any day.
But for that sense of place, that background of culture, that familiarity of people, for those I go to novels set wherever I’m headed.
I was in New Orleans back in 2001. I was driving around the southern states and it was my start and endpoint. I liked it a lot. And now I want to go back. Not because I have any lasting impression of the place from when I was there, but because I’m in the middle of the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith.
I’d read the second book first and liked it enough to go back to the start – and I’m glad I did. New Orleans Mourning explains the essence of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. [I didn’t know that a string of Mardi Gras beads is referred to as a ‘pair of beads’ – and I had no idea that NOLA was such a class-conscious city.] Smith develops each character’s strengths and insecurities and uses this to give her whodunnit context. By the end of the first two books, I was sold. I’m happily kindling through the rest of them and want to go back to see it all for myself, using Skip as my guide.
Dana Stabenow does something similar with her Kate Shugak in Alaska. Peter May does it with Finlay McLeod on the Scottish islands. Timothy Hallinan does it with Poke Rafferty in Bangkok. And the list goes on. This is my sort of travel reading.
On the rare occasion I buy a guidebook, I buy local – something written by someone who lives in the area. Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. More recently, in Košice, Slovakia, Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice, a sequel to Wanders in Košice, was our guide – both purchased in the local tourist information office, both little gems, replete with backstories, insider tips, and context. Just what I like.