Novel idea: take fiction not fact for true cultural immersion. Photo: Mondadori

WE THINK... • November 2015

Pack a novel instead of a guidebook next time you travel

Chris Stewart

Yes, guidebooks are useful, but turn to fiction and you’ll get a more enlightening perspective on your destination. Genesis drummer turned author Chris Stewart shares his thoughts

It was Arthur Eperon who started the rot, back in the late 1970s. His books were called Travellers’ France and highlighted the best places to eat on routes through the country.

Eperon was a discerning trencherman; the books were good and sold like cream buns. For a brief while, you could follow his recommendations and end up with a good feed and somewhere nice to stay the night.

But it wasn’t long before these bijou grub-stops became victims of their own success: car parks stuffed with English cars, dining rooms echoing with the hooting and braying of the chattering classes. It was a job to find a table or bed.

Since the arrival of the internet, the situation has become untenable. And I must confess to my part in all this: I had a hand in compiling The Rough Guide to China back in 1984. We didn’t realise then how good it was to make our own decisions, and not to follow the pack. It was sometimes hard, and things went wrong, but when they didn’t there was a tremendous sense of achievement.

Today I’ve discovered a way to recreate this feeling – by leaving the guidebook at home altogether. Instead, I recommend taking with you a novel or two, written ideally by a native of your destination. What better way to get to grips with the culture and people among whom you will be travelling?

“We didn’t realise then how good it was to make our own decisions, and not to follow the pack”

Victor Hugo and Balzac make marvellous guides to France and the French. For a modern interpretation, you could do worse than Michel Houellebecq. Obviously Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba is the book for Greece.

I’m off to China again next month. Last time I took The Death of Woman Wang and Smearing the Ghost’s Face with Ink. This time I shall let Mo Yan be my guide.

You could take this one step further and do it at home. Delve into Dickens or Hardy to discover England and the English. Or Martin Amis and Ian McEwan for a more modern take.

This puts me in mind of an idea I find particularly tempting: if I devour enough novels, perhaps I won’t need to go travelling at all. I’ll be able to experience all I need of the world in the bosom of my own home... nice thought? 

This article has been tagged Opinion, Travel Tips