What to Read – What to Do – Czech Republic
THE PLACE: Terezín, Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia)
WHAT TO READ: The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
WHAT TO DO: See the artwork created by the children of Terezín concentration camp.
“The exhibit of the children’s art was an amazing feat…Some children had drawn pictures of their families, their old pets and memories of their lives before Terezín. But the most moving of the images were those that tried to document their current situation. One…child had drawn a bunk bed in a barracks – a dream image floating above the sleeping figure’s head – clouds filled with bars of chocolate and jars of candy.” The Lost Wife (p207)
THE BOOK: As World War Two descends on Prague, artist Lenka and her new husband Josef are separated, and Lenka is taken to a Jewish ghetto in the nearby garrison town of Terezín, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans. Given the job of painting postcards for the Nazis, Lenka becomes involved in a subtle form of resistance – smuggling out paintings depicting the real conditions in Terezín, which has now become a concentration camp. Meanwhile her mother, who is also in the camp, teaches art to the imprisoned children with stolen supplies, and helps to organise secret exhibitions. But while Lenka believes her husband is dead, Josef has made it to America and is desperately trying to find his wife. It is many, many years later that they finally meet again by chance. (This is not a spoiler – it is revealed at the very beginning of the book!)
Inspired by true events, this novel takes us to the heart of a very real concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia, a camp which has become famous for the art and cultural life which endured, despite the inmates’ incarceration. It was also the subject of a propaganda movie made after a 1944 visit by Red Cross officials. In preparation for the visit, thousands of inmates were sent to the death camp Auschwitz so that Terezín would appear less crowded, and the camp was presented as a ‘model’ Jewish settlement. Grass and flowers were planted, a playground was built and living spaces were improved. The inmates also had their parts to play – they were dressed in fashionable clothing, seated outside a newly-created ‘cafe’ and told to go window-shopping outside shops stocked especially for the visit. The Red Cross officials were fooled. Buoyed by their success, the Nazis made a film they could use for propaganda purposes. The inmates had little choice but to take part in it.
All of this is portrayed in the novel; a book which reminds us that despite the most desperate hardship, people are often willing to take incredible risks to remain true to themselves. Many of the inmates at Terezín were artists, musicians and writers and The Lost Wife allows us to witness their fight to keep culture alive despite the inhuman conditions in which they lived.
While I couldn’t help being a bit sceptical about the way Josef and Lenka found each other again so many years after the war, it seems this is also based on a true story – so who am I to judge? Suspend your disbelief, and enjoy what is a fascinating, historical read.
Entrance to the prison camp
Image courtesy of Eugene Tsuprun via Wikimedia Commons
WHAT TO DO: Today the town of Terezín, about an hour from the capital Prague, could be described as “unremarkable and forgettable”, but it attracts visitors from all over the world who want to spend a day learning more about the people who were incarcerated there. There is much to see as you walk around the former barracks, crematorium and fortress.
But the highlight is perhaps the Ghetto Museum, created in the town’s old school building. Here you can watch the surviving 20 minutes of the 90 minute propaganda film, and reconcile it with the place you are seeing for yourself. And then take the time to absorb some of the poems and drawings done by the children of Terezín, encouraged to express themselves by people like Lenka and her mother. On your return to Prague, you can then truly appreciate the Jewish Museum which has a collection of more than 4,000 of the drawings, claiming to be the largest collection of children’s drawings in the world. It is heartbreaking stuff.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: There is much debate on TripAdvisor as to whether you should take one of the guided bus tours to Terezín or make your own way there. The advantage of the tour is that you don’t have to think about transport, and you are accompanied by a guide – sometimes a survivor of the camp itself. Do your research to find out which tours people recommend. But a tour obviously costs more than going under your own steam, and some people complain they feel rushed, preferring to have more time to look around.
The do-it-yourself option means taking reportedly unreliable public transport, with the fear of being left behind if you miss the last bus! And while there are free guided tours available once you get there, it is apparently difficult to know when they start. But at least you’ll be able to wander around as you please and take as much time as you like visiting the different parts of the town.
VIDEOS TO WATCH: Learn more about the cultural life and children’s art lessons of Terezín, as well as the making of the propaganda film here…
And here’s a look at some of the excerpts from the film itself…
One person’s account of their visit to Terezín “…the most heart-wrenching exhibit was for me the collection of children’s drawings.”
Tripadvisor reviews from visitors “It should be required activity of every human being.”
More about the camp from the Jewish Virtual Library “There were so many musicians in Terezin, there could have been two full symphony orchestras performing simultaneously daily”
BOOK SOURCE: A copy of the novel was kindly provided by the publisher Hodder & Stoughton
Visiting Terezín might not exactly be a pleasant experience, but it will be a rewarding one, and reading this novel first will make all the difference.
P.S. Join me on my fiction adventure around the world…
What to Read – What to Do – Western Sahara/Algeria
THE PLACE: Western Sahara/Algeria
WHAT TO READ: See How Much I Love You by Luis Leante
WHAT TO DO: Run a marathon in the Sahara
“We could lay down foundations for buildings, plan streets, dig drains into the ground. But that would mean we’re giving up. We’re only here temporarily, because our country is occupied by invaders. Once the war is over, we’ll go back. And all this will be swallowed by the desert.” – See How Much I Love You (p138)
THE BOOK: Luis Leante’s book See How Much I Love You is set in the Western Sahara, a disputed territory either south of Morocco, or IN the south of Morocco, depending on which side of the dispute you find yourself. In 1975 Santiago, a young broken-hearted Spaniard, decides to get as far away from home and his failed relationship with girlfriend Montse as he can imagine, by do his military service in Spain’s only African colony, Western Sahara. But it is the dying days of the colony and with the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Spain decides it is time to get out and leave this desert land to the local Saharawi people, some of whom Santiago has befriended. At the last minute, Spain changes its mind and negotiates to allow Morocco and Mauritania to take over Western Sahara.
Thirty years later Montse wonders what has happened to her first love, and sets out to find him. She travels to Algeria, where thousands of Saharawi fled to escape Moroccan rule. They settled in refugee camps and have been there for decades as they try to win back their land.
WHAT TO DO: Independent travel to much of Western Sahara and the areas around the refugee camps is not recommended; a read of See How Much I Love you and a closer look at the political situation will explain why. But there is one way you can make an escorted visit to the camps and experience life there for yourself. Towards the end of February each year, the Sahara marathon brings together hundreds of international runners and and similar numbers of Saharawi who take part in 5k, 10k, 21k or 42k races across the desert near the refugee camps.
Image courtesy of SaharaMarathon
Not only can you participate in one of the races, but you can join a week-long cultural and educational program in the camps,which will see you living with a Saharawi family. There are four main refugee camps all named after places in Western Sahara proper, which are run by the Saharawi themselves. After more than 35 years, the camps are more like small towns, with schools, hospitals, prisons and courts.
Image courtesy of SaharaMarathon
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: Taking part in the Saharamarathon is not just a unique travel experience, or a chance to prove your sporting prowess, it is a political statement. The marathon is aimed at showing solidarity to the Saharawi people and their quest to win autonomy for Western Sahara. I would advise you to do your research and make sure you are comfortable with that before taking part. And while the organisers of the marathon and support group Sandblast do all they can to make the event a safe one, just be aware that there are always going to be risks involved in traveling to this area of Algeria. Ask questions, do your reading, and if you are satisfied with the answers, then enjoy taking part in a unique experience that invites you into the heart of Saharawi life and culture.
VIDEO TO WATCH: This promotional video for the marathon is a little out of date – but it gives you an idea of what to expect.
One person’s experience of the marathon “I felt so pleased that I’d actually done it, not only for having completed the marathon but also because I’d been able to learn about what is going on here.”
Questions and Answers about the marathon “Walk around the camps, talk with people, play with kids… that will be an awesome experience. “
Further info about the camps
BOOK SOURCE: Own copy
P.S If you have enjoyed this post, then I suspect you would enjoy my free online bookclub, in which we are taking a fiction adventure around the world. Read more about it here.
What to Read – What to Do – Spain.
“This route, it seemed, had been a good decision, and the extra walking to the east of the area that had been most heavily patrolled had been worth the effort. But the real test always came at the river, and Dodo had planned to cross some six or seven miles upstream of Béhobie. There the slope was gentle and protected by woods on the French side, and although there were guard stations at intervals on the Spanish shore, bends in the river created gaps in the lines of sight at some places…no German patrols had been seen.” – Guernica (p342)
THE BOOK: Dave Boling’s novel Guernica takes us into the world of the Basques in the 1930s – focusing on a family living in Spain’s market town of Guernica, the center of Basque culture and history. It is a time of growing persecution for the Basque as the Spanish Civil War begins to bite and the Ansotegui brothers and their offspring are desperately trying to cling to their identity. On April 26, 1937 Guernica was bombed in an attack which to this day is held up as one of the world’s worst examples of the horrors of war and its impact on civilians. This novel look at that attack through the eyes of the Ansotegui family.
Image courtesy of Jean Michel Etchecolonea via Wikimedia Commons
WHAT TO DO: While most of the novel is set in Guernica itself, there are several scenes in the Pyrenees mountains on the border between Spain and France. As the Basque area straddles both countries, it was ideal for the smuggling of goods and people from one country to another – and the Basque themselves, with their knowledge of the land were perfect for the job. Now – in far more peaceful times for the two countries, you can experience something of what that was like.
The Pyrenees were a place for shepherds and smugglers, and as a result there’s an abundance of fantastic walking trails. A quick google will bring up a number of people offering guided walks, but if you want to know more about the Basque, you might want to consider The Pyrenean Experience which will also give you a taste of traditional Basque mountain life, from the walks, to the food and Basque rural sports, like wood-chopping and stone lifting – something else which features in the novel. You can even meet people who once smuggled allied airmen out of the country and still do a bit of poaching with their children to “keep up the family tradition”.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: Late winter and early spring is ‘Carnival Time’ in this part of the Pyrennees, so while the weather may not be perfect, you can experience a UNESCO recognised event which brings out the depth of Basque cultural traditions. In the towns of Ituren, Zubieta and Auritz the carnival is held in the last week of January, when groups of men dressed as ‘Joaldunak’ march between the towns clanging bells, in an ancient ritual of which no-one really knows the origin. Ituren holds another carnival in September in which the Joaldunak also put in an appearance.
Basque Joaldunak during an ancient bell-clanging ritual during the Ituren carnival
Image courtesy of Jean Michel Etchecolonea via Wikimedia Commons.
VIDEO TO WATCH: Learn more about the Joaldunak and the woman behind the Pyrenean Experience in this video.
One person’s experience of a Pyreanean walking holiday – “I have left a little bit of my heart in the Basque country, and will certainly be back.”
Carnival Time in Ituren – “In short, it was chaos.”
BOOK SOURCE: Own copy
P.S If you have enjoyed this post, then you are sure to enjoy my free online bookclub, in which we are taking a fiction adventure around the world. Read more about it here.
I am delighted to introduce you to a new, regular series here on the Packabook blog which, for lack of a wittier title, I am calling ‘What to Read – What to Do’. Sometimes I just like to tell it how it is!
The idea is that I will take one book, give you a brief description, and then suggest one thing you can do related to the novel. The posts will be fairly short and sweet, but hopefully they will provide you with some great travel ideas. Fiction gives us so many amazing opportunities to explore the world, and each of these posts will reveal one more tiny aspect of that wondrous world that we can investigate for ourselves. Now I appreciate that it is unlikely you will be able to just take off and do these things straight away, but how about keeping a record of the ones which appeal to you? That way when you do manage to make that trip to France for example, you’ll know exactly what to read and what to do when you get there. These posts will be ideal to add to your ‘Bucket List’ or ‘Places to Visit’ boards on Pinterest, so feel free to make good use of the ‘Pin It’ button at the top of the post. (If anyone is not yet on Pinterest and needs an invite, let me know in the comments and I’ll invite you). Now, let’s get started with our premiere edition of…
What to Read – What to Do – France.
“…where lavender rose upon lavender in a hundred shades of mauve, twilight brought a deep, unreal violet to the plateau. One evening in late July, I watched transfixed, as the undulations merged into a mysterious landscape where no boundaries were definable between flower and sky, between falling shadow and the darkening blue.” – The Lantern (p145)
THE BOOK: Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern is described as “a mix between a gothic ghost story and a modern romance” and that’s a pretty accurate description of this novel which takes us to the heart of rural France. When Eve falls for the mysterious Dom, she travels with him to live in a run-down old house in the Luberon, in the middle of Provence. But as the darkness of the winter sets in, Eve becomes suspicious of all around her, especially Dom and the secrets he refuses to share. And on top of that – she’s convinced the house is haunted. There are not a lot of surprises in this novel, which Lawrenson says is inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but if you are looking for an easy read which makes the most of the sights and sounds of the south of France, then this should do it for you. The writer has based the house on her own run-down property in the area, so her descriptions of the buildings and surrounding area are about as accurate as you could get. She even has pictures and descriptions on her website, to really help you visualise it. In fact her website has a load of information related to the region in which it’s set, so certainly worth a visit before setting off.
WHAT TO DO: One of the key elements of the novel is lavender. This part of Provence is famous for its lavender fields and production – both small and large scale, and if you are looking for some stunning scenery then you will be sure to find it here. You can follow one of the ‘routes de la Lavande’, either by car, foot or bicycle, and visit many of the villages mentioned in the novel, immersing yourself in all the sights and smells. Or for something really special you could witness the lavender fields from the air – in a hot air balloon. While Lawrenson doesn’t tell you exactly where her big old house is located, at one stage she mentions it is in walking distance of Apt, so if you make it to this walled city, you’ll know you are in the heart of the novel. Villages such as Roussillon, Gordes and Bonnieux all get detailed mentions, and you will pass through them yourself as you seek out the area’s lavender trails. A quick look on the internet shows a number of organised tour operators to help you make the most of the region and others suggest itineraries you can follow yourself. To help you put it all into perspective it may also be worth dropping into the Lavender Museum in Coustellet. And while the large scale commercial farms near Sault are impressive, Lawrenson also encourages you to visit one of the smaller distilleries, which will give you a better idea of some of the more traditional production methods mentioned in the novel.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: The lavender fields are in bloom between June and August, and the distilleries are open in July and August, so bear this in mind when arranging your trip. For an absolute highlight, you might want to make sure you are there in mid-July when Apt holds its Lavender Festival.
VIDEO TO WATCH: Hear Deborah Lawrenson speak about the book and some reviewer thoughts in this video.
Blog post and pictures from Deborah Lawrenson as she visits Sault – “Shops entirely devoted to lavender and sunshine”
Traveler Phoebe Lowe explores the lavender region around Sault and Apt in her blog – “It was crazily beautiful!! Sooooooo nice!!”
Visit2province.com – for lots of information on the lavender fields
The Luberon – a good general site with some stunning photographs
BOOK SOURCE: A review copy of The Lantern was kindly provided by the publisher.
If you have enjoyed this post, then you are sure to enjoy my free online bookclub, in which we are taking a fiction adventure around the world. Read more about it here.