A new chapter to sightseeing

Published Feb 27, 2011


The first time I entered a library I saw a sign that was to make a big impression on me, and fuel my curiosity. It simply read: “Prepare to explore new worlds”. And the sign was right – soon I was travelling on my own magic carpet through fairytales from Persia, walked as slowly as I could with Hansel and Gretel to the candy, sugar and gingerbread house, went mining with the seven dwarves and then, later, explored the wilds of Africa with a bit of help from Wilbur Smith, embarked on high adventure with Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley, spurred on my horse as Louis L’Amour took me through the Wild West, and encountered death and betrayal in Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction.

Many years later as part of a Contiki tour – we all have to start somewhere – I found myself gazing in awe at the jagged, snow-covered Eiger Mountain in Switzerland. I longed to take a cablecar to the top, but the weather was terrible, as it was in the book. At least there was no one with a ice hammer waiting behind a rock…

Sure, there are many travel authors and they do a good job of it – Paul Theroux comes to mind, as does Charley Boorman and Michael Palin – but what has really helped me remember a city I’ve visited has not been re-reading the travel brochures, or a guide book purchased at a tourist venue, but rather works of fiction, especially crime, set in that specific city.

It’s something I’ve done subconsciously and it hit home only recently when, after a brief visit to Istanbul – two days – I found myself wanting to know more about this millennia-old city that had captured my heart and so entranced me. By chance, a reading through the online Guardian led me to click on a profile of British author Barbara Nadel, and then…

Not only was she something of an expert on Istanbul – spending six months a year, every year, for more than a decade in the city will do that – but she had also written detective novels set in that city, 12 of them (the 13th is on its way) featuring Inspector Cetin Ikmen. Next thing I was back in the library, holding on to a grubby copy of Ikmen’s debut, Belshazzar’s Daughter.

Ten pages in and I was hooked, just like a corpse pulled in from the Bosphorus by a fisherman, and now I have all 12 (13th has been ordered).

Madness, perhaps? But as a way of seeing Istanbul – the entire city, mind you – it cannot be beat. So far I’ve “been” to places I’ve only seen on the tourist map, but it won’t be long before Ikmen visits the Cappadocia area (Dance With Death) – now we’re talking, seeing as I’ve been there courtesy of Turkish Airlines and will really feel at home reading that page-turner.

Recently, Nadel was asked to quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figured in her novels, and she said: “This bit of description from the eighth Ikmen book, A Passion for Killing, is, I think, a good example: ‘After crossing the Galata Bridge, Constable Yildiz steered the car through the steep, narrow streets of Sultanahmet and then down on to the broad Kennedy Caddesi dual carriageway that would take them,ultimately, to the airport.

‘Even in Sergeant Ayse Farsakolu’s short lifetime, this area had changed enormously. Bordering on the Sea of Marmara, districts like Kumpaki and Yedikule had once been poor places where large families with haunted eyes lived in cramped and frequently insanitary accommodation. In more recent years however, this part of the city had been given a considerable face-lift and, although the poor had still not disappeared completely, they had moved on. Now many of them lived in high rise blocks out by the airport’.”

Many who’ve been to Istanbul will remember those high-rise blocks, and many can recall the “steep, narrow streets” of Sultanahmet, because that is where you’ll find Topkapi Palace, Hagi Sofia and the Blue Mosque, to name just three of the city’s top attractions.

And what makes Nadel’s Ikmen series so wonderful is that the book covers show many splendid parts of Istanbul, though they are mainly of those many-minaretted mosques – but then again, how can anyone who has been to Istanbul ever get bored of those sights?

My other favourite city in the world is New Orleans, pre-Hurricane Katrina. Then the Big Easy was as easy as they come, but not so easy on revellers, especially the ones who wake up with a hangover and sugar in their hair and on their clothes. That would be the sugar from beignets bought at cafés in the Jackson Square area, the famous coffee house being Café du Monde. I am always reminded of that 1994 experience while reading about James Lee Burke’s hero, the Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux and his “assistant” Cletus Purcell. Burke’s crime stories are mainly set in Iberia Parish, New Orleans, and his evocative prose and descriptive narrative shows that while a picture may tell a thousand words, his words tell more than just pictures. It also brings back memories of so long ago, of a part of the US that’s not really as one sees the US to be…

I’ve never been to Moscow, or any part of Russia for that matter, but once you’ve read any of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series, you’d either want to go there, or pity the Russians – even though glasnost was supposed to be their passport to freedom and economic bliss.

Renko is a senior investigator who stolidly goes through life battling bureaucracy, baddies, bad cops, and solving murders. And, in Moscow, there are plenty, especially since Putin came into power and the country’s assets were sold off to the highest bidders.

But cities inspiring good reads can also work the other way and, one night a few years ago while reading George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins, I realised where I wanted to go on holiday. I had money to burn from a retrenchment package and yearned for the day to send a postcard from a foreign clime to my former boss, telling him how I had been able to pay for the trip, but no place came to mind.

In Redskins, Flashman, a scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief and coward of a hero, somehow found himself as the sole survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (he always emerged in splendour, this time still wearing his dinner suit) and,

on arriving in Deadwood, met Wild Bill Hickok (they were friends from way back), and tried to persuade the legendary gunman to accompany him to New York. Wild Bill declined the offer, saying he had a big card game coming up. And, as we all know, Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head by sore loser Jack McCall, seeking revenge for the death of his brother.

It wasn’t just a light-bulb moment, it was more like a spotlight and then and there it was decided we would visit the US, with Deadwood (by co-incidence the TV show was showing on TV at that time), and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s last stand) high on the agenda. Boston was our starting point, followed by the Western town of Deadwood in South Dakota,Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (we stayed in Gardiner, Montana, just across the state line), and ended in San Francisco, California. It was a three-week holiday of the proverbial lifetime as we saw most of Boston’s tourist attractions, visited Mount Rushmore (SD), Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower (as featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Custer State Park (SD), Yellowstone (WY) with all its attractions, including the geyser Old Faithful, and drove down to the Grand Tetons.

In Deadwood I stood on the exact same spot where Wild Bill was killed – the sign with an arrow said so, and who am I to argue? – and then nearly had a heart attack as I clambered up Mount Moriah Cemetery looking for the burial place of its famed no-nonsense sheriff, Seth Bullock (as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant in the series). The thud-thud-thud in my chest told me to give up the search, though I did see the site where Wild Bill was buried, and next to him was the grave of Calamity Jane, the area neatly fenced off. I recall that there was a father and his two sons with him, and they just could not understand what their dad, or they, were doing there. “Who was Wild Bill, dad?” one asked. “Yes, and who was Calamity Jane?” asked the other. With a sigh, he said, “Okay, when we get back home, I’ll let you watch Deadwood, then you’ll see.” They walked towards their car with smiles on their faces.

In San Francisco, we visited Alcatraz and Golden Gate Park, strolled over Golden Gate Bridge, took a walk through Haight-Ashbury and had one of the best curries ever at a Pakistani restaurant in the Mission District. I also got to drive on the “wrong side” of the road in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana – yes, it’s true, that really is Big Sky country there, plus wide lanes.

Plus, I finally got to meet my writer friend in San Francisco, a journalist with whom I had communicated via e-mail for more than 10 years.

And no, I did not send the postcard to my old boss – I was having too much fun, and seeing and enjoying so many splendid things, that such devilish thoughts were not even on my mind.

l Have you ever been inspired to visit a city or country after reading about it in a book or magazine? Or has a city or country inspired you to read about it in, for example, a crime novel? If you have, do let us know: e-mail us at brendan.seery @inl.co.za - Saturday Star

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