“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Ibn Battuta
Travel inspires us, from seeing dramatic landscapes that leave us breathless at their beauty, to spending time with locals and learning more about how they live their lives. Many of us are missing the feeling of new discoveries, wondering when will it be safe to travel again and itching to book a fantastic vacation to an unexplored destination.
Many great writers through the ages have been inspired by the places that they visited or lived in. We’re familiar with the many tales set in the city streets of the world’s famous capitals, but what about lesser known destinations that have influenced great works. Through their writing, authors take us on a special journey and introduce us to a place through their eyes. We can travel farther than we can imagine, simply through the pages of a book.
So, we thought now would be a great time to learn more about the locations that some of the world’s best authors fell in love with and we’ve chosen one special destination that links several of these people.
Majestic Switzerland lured several literary greats to its soaring peaks and picturesque lakefronts, spawning fantasy elven towns such as Rivendell and the setting for many espionage thrillers on the cobbled streets of Bern.
Lord Byron – Making a Triumph of an Exiled Summer
George Gordon Byron was only 28 years old when he escaped England for a summer, already a successful poet but wracked with scandal, he decided to take off with some friends to a villa by a Swiss lake. It was 1816, and Byron had split from his wife after being caught having an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh.
At that time, it had become customary for artists and aristocrats to embark on a Grand Tour that took them through central Europe. Byron’s friends Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin (who later became Shelley’s wife), her stepsister Claire and a young physician called John Polidori, along with the disgraced poet, rented the porticoed Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva for a summer, which would prove to be historic. Unlike normally balmy Swiss summers, the weather was appalling, trapping the young group indoors for lengthy periods. After a prompt by Byron that each should try writing a ghost story, Polidori produced “The Vampyre”, which would inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Godwin wrote “Frankenstein”, aged just 19.
However, it was another grand house that gave Byron inspiration – the Château de Chillon. This historic island castle was visited by the young English group in June that year, but it was Byron most enthralled by its grisly past. Its unusual layout, in an oval shape that follows the natural rocky outcrop that it’s located on, makes it stand out like a fairy tale against the towering Savoy peaks behind it, but the thick walls hid the cries of many tortured souls. From persecuting Jews (who were accused of spreading the plague) as far back as the 14th century to imprisoning so-called witches in subterranean chambers before burning them in the castle courtyard, Chillon castle was not a place that anyone wanted to be summoned to for many hundreds of years.
However, Byron’s fascination lay with a 16th century nobleman, François Bonivard, who became a political prisoner at the castle. The poet imagined Bonivard’s torment, as he watches his brothers die and he becomes a martyr to freedom. Indeed, it is Byron’s romantic narrative poem that has made Chillon famous, and why thousands of tourists visit every year to see the dungeons and the column where Byron’s name is etched since that summer in 1816.
Mary Shelley – Evoking the Darkened Skies over Switzerland
Mary Godwin was just a girl that summer, but must have felt that she was in the company of giants. Her beloved Percy Bysshe Shelley had left his first wife for her, and she had just borne him a son before they traveled to Switzerland. Lord Byron was a well-established poet and his dashing doctor, Polidari, must have seemed sophisticated to the impressionable young Mary. Perhaps it was the unusual weather that summer, affected by the fallout from an eruption of Mount Tambora, in modern-day Indonesia, that stirred Mary’s creativity.
One wonders if she spoke of herself or one of her companions on the trip when she wrote the lines “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” Either way, she poured out the incredible story of “Frankenstein” – the story of a grotesque creature brought to life brought to life by his creator, Victor Frankenstein, a Genovese scientist. She said the phantasm came to her in a feverish dream, and she committed it all to paper that June, housed in the Villa Diodati, the green-shuttered mansion that still stands in Cologny. Although she became a respected writer, this early work would become her most famous, and has been reproduced in many forms to this day.
Shelley evokes the dismal days of that summer often throughout the novel – the flashes of lightning that illuminate the lake, but also gives readers suggestions of the surrounding landscape where she wrote the novel – the perennially icy peak of Mont Blanc and the brooding Jura mountain range. On the day of Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding, they sail on Lake Como, but perhaps it was the beautiful shores of Lake Geneva that were in Mary’s mind as she spun the tale.
Mary Shelley travelled widely, but as her characters of Victor and the wretch he creates are so intertwined with Geneva, so too is the writer. Gothic horror fans can follow in Mary’s footsteps on their visit to the tranquil settings that she details in the manuscript.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Inextricable Links with the Country
If Geneva birthed Frankenstein then perhaps it could be said that it was the death of another huge literary character, Sherlock Holmes. It was on a trip to the Swiss Alps in 1893 where the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, planned Holmes dramatic demise.
The famed author had already become wealthy from his serialization of short stories about the eccentric detective, but Conan Doyle was also an adventurer and lover of the outdoors. He felt that writing about Holmes was holding him back, both from pursuing other writing and other hobbies. Thus, he wrote the meeting of Sherlock Holmes with his arch-nemesis, Moriarty, in the elevated town of Meringen on a path overlooking the Reichenbach Falls. The pair struggle and fall into the swirling waterfall and are never seen again, presumed dead. This set Sir Arthur free and he moved to Davos, a town known for the spectacular surrounding beauty and its promising influence on health.
Sir Arthur Conan’s wife, Lady Louisa, suffered from tuberculosis, but the fresh air, altitude and sunshine did wonders for her health. This freed Sir Arthur up to push towards some goals he had, one of which was to ski the 14-mile Maienfelder Furka Pass between Davos and Arosa. Conan Doyle wrote about this experience in an 1894 article for The Strand, entitled “An Alpine Pass on Ski,” and it has been cited as the first guided ski tour in the Alps.
Indeed, Sir Conan Doyle was credited with popularizing the sport for tourists and today visitors can find a plaque in Davos to the man, which reads “The perfect pattern of a gentleman.” Intrepid explorers can follow the route he took on ski tours today, admiring the fir trees below and the undulating white slopes of the Swiss mountains, but certain advancements make it a slightly easier journey than it was in the late 19th century.
Visitors can also find the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Meringen, with an authentic recreation of the parlour where Sherlock Holmes met with Watson at 221b Baker Street in London.
JRR Tolkien – Creating a Fantasy World from the Alpine Landscape
Avid fans of The Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit have seen the locations of Middle Earth realized through the eyes of Peter Jackson in the blockbuster movies of the novels. This has immortalized the awe-inspiring scenery of New Zealand in the minds of millions of movie-goers as the setting for this fictional world.
However, it was a walking trip that Tolkien took, at the youthful age of 19, that imprinted the majestic Swiss landscape on his brain, providing such striking inspiration that he created a whole world upon its template. Tolkien was invited on the walking holiday by the Brookes-Smith family who planned regular trips every year and brought along friends who wanted to go. Those familiar with Switzerland can call to mind the diversity of its geography – it’s not simply soaring peaks, but bucolic towns and rushing rivers, placid lakes and sun-dappled forests. This is where Tolkien found his Middle Earth, a fact which he relayed to his son by letter in 1967, telling him of his adventures in the country in 1911.
Traversing the Lauterbrunnen valley, it’s easy to see how this became the Elven town of Rivendell, set amid the rocky cliffs with the 300-meter high Stauben Falls thundering down the mountainside into the valley. This peaceful village sets the scene for where Bilbo Baggins could hide from Sauron in The Hobbit, and it was also where the Council of Elrond met to decide the fate of the One Ring.
The Swiss Alps provide the blueprint for Tolkien’s Misty Mountains, the range that provides the heroes with many challenges throughout their journey across Middle Earth. Tolkien’s party of 13 traversed a number of mountain passes, from the Grosse Scheidegg to Meringen and the 2,165-meter Grimsel Pass to the largest glacier in the Alps, the Aletsch glacier – all immersive experiences which likely fed into his writing. When the young man first saw these peaks, he must have imagined them as a place where mystical beings meet – where the land meets the clouds.
John le Carré – History and Fiction Interwoven in Bern’s City Streets
David Cornwall first arrived in Bern, Switzerland, aged just 16, hoping to study at the prestigious University of Bern. The quaint city was a dynamic place for the young man – he took a room near the Tobler factory, attended tea dances at the sophisticated Bellevue Palace, and even claims to have washed elephants for the circus.
At church one Sunday, he met a pair of consular officials who would later task him with his first tasks for British intelligence. He found fame under the pen name, John le Carré, when he began publishing thriller novels featuring the spy, George Smiley.
Apart from attending university in Bern, le Carré also made it the setting for many famous scenes from his novels. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, published in 1974, is one of his best-loved books and one scene sees two British spies evade the police by escaping through stairwells and hallways decked in mirrors and glittering chandeliers. That is the Bellevue Palace, where le Carré spent the Saturdays of his youth.
In “Our Kind of Traitor”, Bern features again. The 2010 novel centers around a money-laundering oligarch who is lured to Bern by the leader of a criminal brotherhood. Later in the novel, a safehouse is found for the Russian oligarch in the Swiss Alps.
Perhaps most profoundly, the magical Old City of Bern is a central location for his mostly autobiographical novel, “A Perfect Spy”. The protagonist, Magnus Pym, travels there to run an errand for his trickster father, where he works odd-jobs at night. Le Carré’s descriptions bring the city alive, even in the candlelight. He also paints a perfect picture of nearby Elfenau, reached by tram, where St. Ursula’s English-speaking church is located, the place of his own recruitment.