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Ljubljana: World Book Capital

24 February 11 words: James Walker
Fancy a literary pilgrimage that takes you through Joyce's Trieste and into the Slovenian capital nobody can pronounce?
 One of the many book-inspired artefacts in the Ljubljana museum.

When it comes to holidays, my destination has always been determined by literature. There’s something about reading works in their natural settings that enables a greater connection with the text. Recently, Louis de Bernières Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993) took me to Kefalonia to retrace the steps of Pelagia and Antonio Corelli’s tragic love story. On other occasions it has not so much been a specific location which has determined my reading but finding the appropriate environment. On a trip to the Scottish highlands I read Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (1965) about his time as a fire lookout in the North Cascade Mountains. The novel deals with Kerouac’s increasing spiritual disenchantment with Buddhist philosophy and was better appreciated when immersed within a vast and barren landscape. 

Location is also just as important for writers as it is readers. Alan Sillitoe was only able to visualise Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) when sat under an orange tree in Majorca whereas Dutch author Tommy Wieringa made a smaller but just as significant journey to pen his novel Joe Speedboat (2009), by writing in a local monastery to the rhythm of the chanting monks. David Peace on the other hand has inverted this process by travelling inwards and bringing the world to his doorstep in what can only be described as ‘method writing’, by filling his home solely with artefacts from the particular historical period he is writing about – which may explain his 70s fixation.

Now when I look along my bookcase I see a new genre emerging, that of memories of different holidays, hidden meanings buried within the text. So if you’re a bit of reader or a writer looking for inspiration, how about a literature-inspired holiday that will take you through Trieste, in the upper northeastern corner of Italy, and across the border to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, the current World Book Capital .  

Two for the price of one: Saba lived on the left, Joyce on the right.

Up until 1918, Trieste was one of the oldest parts of the Habsburg Monarchy. As a prosperous seaport offering a gateway to Eastern Europe, it has been heavily influenced by its various occupiers, resulting in an eclectic mix of architectural styles. Coffeehouse culture has flourished to accommodate the various Diaspora, making this the perfect location to boot up the laptop and observe the world. You are also spoilt for literary walks, being the former home of Ettore Schmitz (Italo Sveno) and the poet Umberto Saba, whose antiquarian bookshop still remains today off via San Nicolò.

But Trieste is perhaps best known as the surrogate home of James Joyce, who taught Schmitz at the Berlitz school at Piazzo Ponterosso 4. Whilst in Trieste, Joyce finished writing Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the short prose-poem Giacomo Joyce, the play Exiles, and a large majority of his experimental masterpiece Ulysses. There are over 45 plaques on various buildings detailing the Irishman’s presence to help you navigate the city. However, I opted for a simpler route and sourced out the nine dwellings he stayed in during his two bouts of voluntary exile between 1904-1915 and 1919 – 1920.

Whilst photographing the nine magical blue plaques that evidenced the journey, I was reminded of Geoff Dyer’s dire experience of tracking down DH Lawrence’s Sicilian home in Out of Sheer Rage (1997):

‘You look and look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist. You try saying a mantra to yourself, ‘DH Lawrence lived here.’ You say, ‘I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw...’, but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it and the sea glinting in the distance.’

This pretty much summed up my Joycian literary pilgrimage. Head stuck in a map harassing the locals for directions whilst trying to emotionally connect with a soulless blue plaque. It was only when I sat down in a coffee shop and relaxed that I was able to absorb my surroundings, witnessing the frenzy of the city as people went about their daily lives. This is how you enter the mind of Leopold Bloom; on your backside with a cigarette and espresso.  

Joyce lived above this cafe. Inside are original letters and a decent espresso... 


I waved goodbye to the bureaucratic blue labels and headed via coach to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, the setting for Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die (1998). This is the story of a beautiful young woman who wakes up from a failed suicide attempt only to be informed she’d caused irreversible damage and has a few days left to live. Now the tables are turned and destiny is no longer in her hands, Veronika is set on a quite different emotional journey.

What struck me walking along the cobbled streets that hug either side of the Ljubljanica river that splits the city in two, was how anyone could fail to find beauty in such tranquil settings. This in turn led to anger that Veronika could not see how fortunate she was. This was Coelho’s point, that we don’t appreciate things until it is too late. By reading the novel in its natural setting, I guess it had more resonance than if I had read it in my usual setting, stuck to the sofa with the TV on mute.

If you are more of a writer than a reader, then check out Trubar Literature House which is named after the founder of the Slovene literary language and author of its first ever book. The aim of Trubar is to become a hub for writers of all persuasions and all nationalities, so do pop in. They were very welcoming and keen to encourage collaboration to all via multi-authored online projects.

Ljubljana is the World Book Capital until 22 April. So you better get your skates on if you want to see this giant fountain pen in Fish Market Sq.

Ljubljana is currently the UNESCO World Book Capital, a title it holds until April 22 2011. So you better book those flights soon if you want to experience some of the 500 events it has programmed, many of which are held in English. The overall theme, inspired by Jacques Derrida, is how literature can open up the ‘otherness inside us’. Linking up with the International Cities of Refuge Network, they are particularly open to exiled and persecuted writers from around the world. Having seen the self-imposed exile of James Joyce in Trieste, Ljubljana is a fitting place to finish off your journey, to be reminded that for some writers, travelling is a necessity rather than a luxury.

Vital statistics
Ryanair flies to Trieste from Birmingham and London Stanstead.
Travel between Trieste (Central bus station) and Ljubljana (Ljubljana Avtobusna Postaja) is relatively cheap and simple. It takes just over 2 hours by bus and runs regularly although it has a limited Sunday service. Please note TRST is Slovenian for Trieste. 
Rail Europe website  
Ljubljana bus travel website

This is an abridged version of an article that was recently published in Issue 3 of Leaf Writers’ Magazine.
James Walker’s website



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