Armchair travelling seems the only escape these days. So why not get out a favourite classic and settle in for a nostalgic read. When borders re-open, there’ll be time to visit those destinations immortalised in literature.
Everyone loves a good story but some stories pull at the heartstrings more than others. Some stories resonant so strongly that readers travel thousands of miles to walk in the author’s footsteps, visit the settings of their adored fictional characters and in some cases even get married there. And if those stories have also been told on the big screen, then expect a huge following.
And so I discovered in Prince Edward Island when after eating my share of lobster and poking around the capital Charlottetown, I hit the Anne trail. If you need to ask “Anne who?”, then you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables and fallen for the eternally positive albeit feisty red-headed heroine, Anne Shirley.
Author Lucy Maud Montgomery set her nine books around Cavendish on the north shore of the island (the smallest of Canada’s 10 provinces), an area of time-warped bucolic beauty, which is as gorgeous in reality as the descriptions on the page. On a spring day, I encountered rolling green hills, fields of dandelions and little coves where brightly-coloured fishing boats bobbed up and down.
My first stop on the ‘trail’ was Green Gables itself – a beautifully-restored 19th-century farmhouse, which was Montgomery’s inspiration for the timeless story of the 11-year-old orphan who was sent to live with brother-and-sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, in such a house. Surrounding Green Gables today are the legendary Haunted Wood and Lovers’ Lane, where Anne and her fictional friends played in the stories set in the first decade of the 20th century.
From Cavendish, I headed to the Anne of Green Gables Museum in a hamlet called Park Corner (a few kilometres to the north-west), where Montgomery was married in 1911. The museum occupies a house built by Montgomery’s uncle, John Campbell, in 1872 and still owned by his family today. I bought a couple of books and luckily a descendant, Pam Campbell, was on hand to sign them. I could have bought a dozen different red-mopped Anne dolls, along with hats, scarves, jams, preserves, raspberry cordial and a swag of other memorabilia. However, I happily mooched around part of the 40-hectare property and its Lake of Shining Waters (the title of another book in the series) to see the spot where devotees, particularly Japanese couples, like to get married.
Anne of Green Gables has been translated into 36 languages and spawned movies, TV series, and a long-running musical. And quite remarkably, it was a compulsory text in Japanese schools for decades.
Across the other side of the world, another little orphan heroine attracts busloads of tourists to her fictional home in the Swiss Alps. On a late summer’s day, our small group got off a train at Maienfeld (a 1.5-hour train ride from Zurich) and walked the one-kilometre road that winds uphill, through the town’s medieval square and past green fields and vineyards to Heididorf (Heidi town). This shrine to Heidi is, in fact, the former village of Oberrofels, complete with town hall and post-office, which was renamed some 25 years ago as it resembled the setting of the famous children’s book. Nowadays an old farmhouse acts as a wonderful museum, which outlines the story of the six-year-old girl who, in this case, was sent by her aunt to live with her grandfather, a recluse, high in the alpine meadows.
Heidi books in several different languages fill the shelves of the old farmhouse and rooms have been recreated to represent the simple life the little heroine shared with her, often curmudgeonly, grandad.
Written by Johanna Spyri in 1881, the story has fans spanning several generations, helped along by at least 50 different movies and television series including the 1937 Hollywood version that starred Shirley Temple. Once again the Japanese, and Koreans, love it; a 52-episode animated series released in Japan in 1974 made sure those who had not read the book certainly knew the story. And young Asian couples also like to wed in the museum or in the fields beneath the towering mountains.
After buying Heidi stamps in the post-office, we lunched at the Heidialp Oshsenberg restaurant, further up the mountain where a guestbook is full of messages from international travellers, including quite a few Aussies, who had made the pilgrimage to this lovely part of the world.
The town of Maienfeld itself is a great place for a short stay. I wandered along the cobblestone streets taking photos of stone fountains, murals, historic buildings and those fascinating Medieval guild signs that once denoted the occupation of the person living in that particular building.
While these children’s stories have struck a deep chord with millions (and created a thriving tourist industry), there are many adult literary trails to follow as well.
Travellers have converged on Stratford-Upon-Avon for centuries to follow the Bard (I once stayed in the Ophelia Suite at the historic Shakespeare Hotel), while author festivals abound. The beautiful English city of Bath holds a Jane Austen Festival every September, where thousands of men and women dress in Regency clothes to parade through the streets and attend balls and other genteel gatherings.
Australia even has its own Austen festival – held in Canberra at Easter – where dancing the cotillion (a country dance) and Mr Darcy lookalike competitions draw plenty of interest.
And it’s fun to stumble across a literary town by accident. While visiting friends in Broadstairs, Kent, I learnt that Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to the seaside town from 1837 to 1859 and wrote David Copperfield and other tales during his sojourn.
As I strolled this quaint town with its beach bathing boxes, ice-cream parlours and more than a fair sprinkling of pubs, I came across a Dickens’ landmark at almost every turn – the Bleak House B&B, the Old Curiosity Shop tearooms and the Charles Dickens pub, plus the town holds a week-long festival in his honour every June.
When it’s time to start travelling again, it will be fun to poke around these lovely towns – and if the mood takes you – get married in the green fields of Cavendish or high in the Alps in Switzerland.
Here are a few links to these literary destinations and author festivals. Note that many festivals and perhaps the long-running Anne of Green Gables Musical may be cancelled this year.
And if you’re a fan of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings you might like to read my story about my visit to Hobbiton – the fascinating movie set in New Zealand.