The literary pilgrimage used to be simple. You would travel to a place to see the home, grave, or drinking joint of your favorite writer. Literary pilgrimages, like their religious counterparts, involve traveling to a place that has meaning.
Perhaps the most famous story about a pilgrimage is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour, / Of which vertu engendred is the flour; / Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth / Inspired hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne, / And smale fowles maken melodye, / That slepen al the night with open yë, / (So priketh hem nature in hir corages): / Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
Translation: When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought / Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout / Through every vein with liquid of such power / It brings forth the engendering of the flower; When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown / Through every field and forest, urging on / The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun, / His second half course through the Ram now run, / And little birds are making melody / And sleep all night, eyes open as can be / (So Nature pricks them in each little heart), / On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The pilgrimages that Chaucer describes are inspired by the good weather. People desire to travel and to travel with purpose. In the case of the literary pilgrimage, you travel there because the words of the writer have opened something within you or allowed you to see something within yourself which you had not discovered before. The haunting echo of his or her words have become as much a part of you as your heartbeat. A pilgrimage inspired by God would be similar, I imagine.
At least, that’s how it begins. Your first literary pilgrimage is inspired by a writer whom you love. But then, you realize how fun a literary pilgrimage is and every time you go on vacation, you research to see if there are any literary sights to be seen at your intended destination.
My first literary pilgrimage was actually unplanned, so I suppose I am a little unconventional in that way. When I was 17, I found myself in Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare! It was an amazing adventure. At the time, I hadn’t yet realized my literary-nerd nature, so I did not really think of it as a pilgrimage then.
In 2010 I found myself in Amsterdam and had the privilege of touring the Anne Frank House, the tiny hideaway where the Franks hid from the Germans. suppose this was perhaps the beginning of my pilgrimages because when my mom, sister and I were planning the trip, I said that this was a must-do activity for me. Climbing the tiny staircase that was so steep it might as well have been a ladder was overwhelming. The whole tour was a sobering experience, but one that I was grateful to have had. It gave me a better understanding of what my grandfather fought for while in the US Navy during WWII and it helped me understand even more what all of the victims of the war suffered.
In addition to experiencing the place where Anne and her family hid themselves for such a long time, I was privileged to see the actual diary that Anne kept. It was housed in a case and open so you could see a couple of the pages.
As I grew more into myself and realized more who I was, I stretched into book culture (once I realized what that was) and developed the goal of visiting the grave of one of my favorite writers: Edgar Allan Poe. I finally realized this goal in July of 2013. My day trip to Baltimore was fun. I wandered around an old 19th century graveyard and beheld the grave of Poe. This journey was a simple one, but it had been on my to-do list for quite some time.
There are many other Poe pilgrimages I have planned in my head because there are a number of Poe houses up and down the east coast which I would like to visit. But, perhaps more importantly, after my first Poe Pilgrimage, I was inspired to pilgrimage to as many writerly destinations as possible and every time I go somewhere, I research to see if there are any writerly places to see.
While in Key West earlier in 2013, I visited the Hemingway House and got to experience the opulence of Hemingway’s life, thanks to the wealth of his second wife. This experience made me even more determined to see Poe’s grave.
My recent trip to Puerto Rico, unfortunately, did not foster any literary pilgrimages. Apparently no famous writers cloistered themselves there. This requires more research, and perhaps another trip. Despite the lack of writerly locals, the trip was still fabulous, by the way.
Anyway, in more recent times, literary pilgrimages have expanded beyond the typical gravestone, former house or pub visit. In Dublin, you can take a Leopold Bloom tour of Dublin based around the path that James Joyce sets in the novel called the James Joyce Bloomsday Walking Tour (it takes place on June 16th). If I ever make it to Dublin, I absolutely want to do this tour. There is also a tour of based around James Joyce’s life and work. (Please note: I have not taken any of these tours and therefore cannot offer a recommendation)
I think tours of this nature are becoming popular because of people’s increasing desire to completely submerge themselves in another world; be it the world of a book, a video game or a movie. That’s how I felt wandering around the Frank hideaway. There were pictures pasted on the wall and furniture was still arranged as it had been when they lived there. These types of tours make me think of those extraordinarily rich worlds you find in RPGs. It’s another life and another universe and being able to submerge yourself in something like that and have it be tangible to more than sight and sound is a unique opportunity.
Other such tours/destinations are making it to the mainstream too and one in particular is the inspiration for this post. In an April 6 article republished by AU Travel (it was originally published by Yahoo Travel), I learned that you can visit a small town in England called Whitby which was a setting of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Next to visiting places which famous writers occupied, visiting places which inspired them is just as good and as a writer myself, probably an even more amazing experience!
The article, titled “Dracula’s ‘hometown’ is hauntingly beautiful” includes some beautiful photography and I can see why Stoker was inspired by this place. Just the small sampling of photos in the article make me want to go there. Of course, as a lover of all things Gothic, I probably would want to go there had I seen photos or not!
Literary pilgrimages are a way in which you can connect with a favorite writer or book and they make for great concepts around which to base your travels. I hope to have many more literary pilgrimages in my future travels. Some of my future literary pilgrimage destinations include: The Anne Rice House in New Orleans, a Carlos Ruiz Zafon tour of Barcelona (if such a thing exists), a visit to Stoker’s place of inspiration, Whitby, and more!
If you could make a literary pilgrimage, where would you go, what author would it center around and why would you want to make that pilgrimage? Please share!