Living the Story

By travel writer Tracey Ellis


Instead of 'living to tell the tale', what about living the tale itself? Books can transport us to new destinations merely with their words. Tracey Ellis explores how far they can take us when we read them immersed in the actual setting they take place, and how to let those experiences creatively endure afterwards. 

Sometimes the most unexpected moments are the best ones. Travelling to somewhere new, we all have certain expectations, but sometimes it doesn't always go to plan. We create an itinerary, a 'must-see' list, all in effort to tick that box, but how often do we really go outside our comfort zone and explore beyond the surface of places? 

We've all read books set in exotic destinations that make us want to pack our bags and go there at once. And while most of us read books on holiday, there are ways we can take ‘armchair’ traveling to a new level. With a little research and pre-planning you can have a more meaningful and immersive travel experience just by absorbing a story set in the destination you’re going to.

Searching for the unknowns, the undiscovered, the unpredictable, can give us a wider sense of what life has to offer in foreign climes, and inspire us to not only be 'in the moment' there, but also to create beyond the moment, taking us on a different journey than we originally set out to take. 

Discover the Magic of Book Travel 

As soon as I book a trip to a new destination, I start exploring the literary world set there. Not only to help me pre-discover the place I'm going to, but also to build the anticipation of new experiences. Sometimes historical fiction fits the bill, a travel memoir, or an engrossing novel that transports me magically to the setting with a beautiful descriptive flow.

From the moment I begin reading, I feel connected to the place, so by the time I arrive there, the physical connection is elevated by the literary scaffold already built. Getting a glimpse into a culture or place before you travel offers an engaging foundation on which to build upon, not only to enrich your experience in that place, but also to help spark your curiosity, inspiring you to discover more.

Even for the most touristic of places, this technique of 'book travel' provides exciting alternative avenues, taking you off the beaten path to unlikely places in both body and spirit, perhaps to places you never even knew existed.

"Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places." - Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Sweeping vistas from St. Mark's Square, charming gondolas, narrow waterways and romantic bliss. This is how I envisioned Venice to be - dreamy and alluring - yet I remained hesitant to go somewhere that attracted so many. Despite all its clichés, I booked a trip in November, hoping to experience a truer, if slightly more melancholy, city that was devoid of tourists and effortlessly enthralling in its potentially flooded labyrinth of tiny streets. Once more, I was itching to go beyond the surface of stereotype and delve further into Venice's mysterious aura.

My chosen literary guide to explore was the novel 'Miss Garnet's Angel' by Sally Vickers. A quiet, gentle, meditative kind of story, it had all the elements of book travel I wanted; infused with mysticism and wonder, it focuses on a character moving out of their comfort zone to explore this beautiful Italian city, which is exactly what I longed to do. And with a Venetian backdrop that is both atmospheric and evocative, I was hooked from the outset by how Vickers captures the faded grandeur of the city and its many changing faces.

As soon as I arrived in Venice, I felt the greyness and cold Miss Garnet, the main character, describes upon her own arrival; "Before her spread a pearl-grey, shimmering, quiet alien waste of water,” yet this depressing welcome was also laced with intrigue. Upon reaching her chosen neighbourhood to reside for six months, the ‘benevolent gaze of an angel’ atop a church immediately strikes her -“he was standing with a protective arm around what appeared to be a small boy carrying a large fish. On the other side of the angel was a hound”- and ultimately sets the tone for the story.

Miss Garnet allows people, paintings, and the place itself to touch her soul for the first time. Her conservative prejudices are gradually swept away as she discovers friends in unexpected places and becomes increasingly caught up in the tale behind an old painting of Tobias with the fish, dog and the Angel, a parallel story within the story, and the catalyst to set her on an unexpected course.

Seeking out the angel which transfixes Miss Garnet from the start was my first point of exploration. Considered Venice's oldest church, the Chiesa dell' Angelo Raffaele is home of the archangel Raphael, who was regarded as the totem of sailors whose ships came from the East, ships which brought wonderful goods as well as the plague. As the angel associated with healing, the link is inextricable with this part of Venice near the Maritime Station.

The Angelo Raffaele is in an area of Venice which few tourists access, hence its appeal to me. The façade of the church faces a narrow canal, and at first glance, is not as striking as the other churches in Venice. The grey day made the exterior a cloudy shade of vintage lace, and anyone unfamiliar with the book wouldn’t have paid it a passing glance.

However, the rich, ghostly interior held famous 18th century works of art mentioned in the book; namely the works of The Life of Tobias, the centre of the parallel story. Alone in the church, walking in the shoes of the character herself, it was hard not to feel the same spiritual effects she did, connecting on a deeper level to the figures within the artwork and statue, feeling the growth of the consciousness of the human spirit that this book has evoked in so many.

As I was leaving someone else entered, another woman with a look of hesitant expectation as to what she might find inside. With just one glance I knew she was another Miss Garnet follower, in search of the art panels described in the book, or a sense of something beyond the realm. I gave her a knowing smile before departing, for a solitary experience in the church was ideal; to absorb, to reflect, to discover.

From there I decided to wander through the maze of alleyways, losing my way on purpose, to find the ‘unexpected’ as Miss Garnet herself does in the book. My unexpected appeared in the form of a black dog in a shop doorway, with a familiar heavy metal song emanating from inside which made me pause.

Looking in the shop windows my gaze met with a hundred faces; eyeless souls with white skin and colored, pursed lips, some on menacing smiles. Masks are synonymous with Venice, and I had no intention of succumbing to the tacky souvenir versions I had seen near Rialto Bridge. Here, it felt like true craftsmanship lived, or rather craftswomanship as I soon discovered when the ‘mascareri’ (experienced mask maker), emerged from a small corner of the workshop with a quiet smile.

Angela is the daughter of the shop owner, and together they paint the most mesmerising masks with intricate designs, using historic paint recipes and sumptuous Venetian fabrics. Taking over the role of her late mother, this family-run workshop held a bit of magic that felt inexplicable and steeped in history. Seduced by the masks, I knew I had to have one for my daughter, a budding artist, and Angela even provided a blank papier-mâché one for her to paint herself.

As I left I stroked the dog and wondered about Angela’s mother, how proud she would be of the legacy carrying on, keeping her spirit alive in this tiny shop off the beaten path, home to hundreds of hand painted masquerade masterpieces infused with love, history, and symbolism. How perhaps she is watching over them like the Angel Raphael, connecting the thread of humanity, love, and loss between the past and present. All that was missing was the fish.

“Long ago she had decided that history does not repeat itself; but perhaps when a thing was true it went on returning in different likenesses, borrowing from what went before, finding new ways to declare itself.”

Even though I didn't make it to all the stops on my literary treasure hunt, using this book travel method allowed me to discover gems in corners of Venice I never would have otherwise, and for that I am grateful. It inspired me to create my own photo journey of a city which held so much mystique, of a city that is at once both straightforward and ambiguous, over-explored yet mysterious, and most importantly, continues to call me back to discover the undiscovered, or perhaps to re-discover the luminescence of Venice once again, this time from the perspective of a different book from a different time.