Travelling through the pages: find inspiration for your holidays at home in literature

painting showing child reading in bed

Have you ever been so consumed by a book that it almost felt like travelling to the story’s places?

Walking alongside the protagonist across a busy marketplace, glancing over their shoulders on snowy mountain tops or feeling the cold sea spray during a stormy ship passage? 

Through literature, we can travel in our minds to places we might never see ourselves or that are fictitious in the first place. In times of the COVID-19 pandemic, discovering far-away places can be hard – so let’s travel to new horizons in Europe with the help of historic works of literature.

Selma Lagerlöf and Nils Holgersson

A prime example for getting to know new places through the written word is ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’ by Selma Lagerlöf, one of Sweden’s most famous authors of the 20th century and the first woman to win the Nobel prize. 

Her book takes you on a journey through all of Sweden’s historical provinces, following in the footsteps of Nils Holgersson, a naughty young boy from Southern Sweden who is shrunk to the size of a thumb and travels the country on the back of geese. 

In 1902, Lagerlöf was commissioned by the Swedish National Teachers’ Association to write a geography reader for public schools in Sweden. At that time, she was already an acclaimed author having published several novels, such as ‘Gösta Berling’s Saga’. 

Although she only published her first novel at the age of 33, she had been a keen reader and poet since her early childhood. Although the family struggled with her father’s alcoholism and illness, Selma found her way as a teacher and became involved early with the women’s movement. 

When she won a prize from the Swedish magazine Idun, focusing on women’s equality and literature, she was able to publish her first novel – immediately kicking off her career as an author. 

For her novel about Nils Holgersson, she researched the Swedish geography and folklore, flora and fauna for three years. 

Her protagonist lives among wild animals and follows the wild geese along their annual journey to northern Sweden, getting to know local fairytales and legends, meeting people such as the Swedish king and Selma Lagerlöf herself. 

Cultural heritage plays an important role in the novel. Nils gets to know the regional highlights, such as Visby, Lapland, Karlskrona, the landscape of Southern Öland and the Falun Mine – which today are world heritage sites.

The contemporary newspaper ‘Ny Tid’ reviewed the novel enthusiastically after its publication in 1906/07: ‘It acquaints the children with Sweden’s nature; interest them in its bird world, both tame and wild; in its domestic and forest animals, even in its rats. It explains its vegetation, its soil, its mountain-formations, its climatic conditions. It gives you customs, superstitions, and the folklore in the different sections of the country. It takes in farming industry, manors and factories, cities and peasant-cabins, and even dog-kennels. It has a word for everything; an interest in and for everything.

Do you want to travel along Nils and his feathered friends? Follow his route through the chapters with this map:


Explore Europe through literature

There are of course many other writers who have dedicated their stories to places across Europe. 

Browse through this overview of openly available novels that include especially vivid and detailed descriptions of landscapes, towns and villages in Europe – and share your own favourites with the hashtag #DiscoverEurope! 

France
– Robert Louis Stevenson: Travels With A Donkey. On Internet Archive
– Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary. On Project Gutenberg (in English); on Internet Archive (in French)

Germany
– Theodor Fontane: Effie Briest. On Internet Archive.
– Thomas Mann: The Buddenbrooks. On Internet Archive.

Greece / Turkey
– Homer: The Odyssey. As a comic; on Project Gutenberg.

Ireland
– James Joyce: Ulysses. On Project Gutenberg.

Italy
– Thomas Mann: Death in Venice. On Project Gutenberg.

Poland
– Bolesław Prus: The Doll. On Polona – Polish digital library (in Polish).

Portugal
– José Maria de Eça de Queiroz: The Maias: Episodes of Romantic Life. On Project Gutenberg (in Portuguese).

Scandinavia
– Mary Wollstonecraft (1796): Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. On Project Gutenberg
– Selma Lagerlöf: The wonderful adventures of Nils. On Internet Archive.

Spain
– Benito Pérez Galdós: Fortunata and Jacinta. On Project Gutenberg (in Spanish).

Switzerland
– Johanna Spyri: Heidi. On e-rara.ch; on Project Gutenberg.
– Friedrich Schiller: Wilhelm Tell. On Internet Archive.

United Kingdom
– Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist. On Internet Archive.
– Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway. On Internet Archive.

By Larissa Borck, Swedish National Heritage Board

This blog is part of Europeana’s Discovering Europe season featuring cultural jewels and hidden gems from across the continent.

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: Evening Reading. Georg Pauli, 1884, Finnish National Gallery, Public Domain

4 thoughts on “Travelling through the pages: find inspiration for your holidays at home in literature

  1. Dear Ms Borck, dear Europeana,
    I have often travelled in my mind to the place where a story was unfolding itself while reading the said story, and become richer in feelings and developed my imagination. I am one of those people who grew up reading at the dinner table, mind you.

    I have just finished Michael Crichton’s “Timeline” https://www.amazon.com/Timeline-Michael-Crichton-ebook/dp/B0031RS1XC/ref=sr_1_1, where a team of present-day archaeology and history students are sent back in time to medieval France (to the village of Castlegard, near LaRoque Castle in Dordogne, the site of the 1357 hanging of Lady Claire, sister to Arnaut de Cervole, to be precise) to rescue their professor from the middle of a battle. (Lady Claire’s martyrdom led France to win the Hundred Years War against the English, by the way.) Now this is a place I would like to walk, even if the novel seems to be just a subjective reinvention of the medieval era. Or maybe it is not.

    Yet my favourite travelling pages have been of different kinds. There were either those pages that I read AFTER visiting world sites for real with my family and/or friends – oh, the joy of saying “I’ve been there!”… This is true for Zadar, Croatia and Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia” https://www.amazon.com/Black-Lamb-Grey-Falcon-Rebecca-ebook/dp/B000SEGMT6/ref=sr_1_1; Valencia, Spain and Jason Webster’s “A Death in Valencia” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Death-Valencia-Max-C%C3%A1mara-ebook/dp/B008031UL2/ref=sr_1_1; Batumi, Georgia and Chris Morgan Jones’ “The Searcher” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Searcher-Ben-Webster-Spy-Book-ebook/dp/B019IO6BSI/ref=sr_1_1; Venice, Italy and David Hewson’s “The Cemetery of Secrets” https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cemetery-Secrets-David-Hewson-ebook/dp/B0044KLPB0/ref=sr_1_1; the island of Madeira, Portugal and Lior Samson’s “Chipset” https://www.amazon.com/Chipset-Homeland-Connection-Book-4-ebook/dp/B00AP6UPKO/ref=sr_1_1; and many more.

    Or there were those pages that I used to read – and re-read – about journeys to fictitious places in an attempt of perhaps escaping the (often harsh) reality of the NOW, when reading is “a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real”, as Matt Blake has put it here: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/august/book-obsession-signs-love-favourite/.

    It all started when I was a teen and found some of the first stories written by Kir Bulychev under the title “Alice: The Girl from Earth” (https://www.you-books.com/book/K-Bulychev/Alice-The-Girl-From-Earth), translated from Russian (first stories published in 1965) into Romanian. They are stories about the value of friendship, courage, and keeping your word no matter what the cost. The places this teenage girl from the future travels to are scattered through space and time; and while she solves mysteries, makes discoveries and saves endangered peoples and species, her home is still the Moscow of the 21st century – an exciting place, especially if your father is the manager of the zoo! I have never been to Moscow though – except in my mind. I will go one day.

    I am a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, my students are tweens and teens, and reading has always helped us cope. Living through COVID-19 we now see that science fiction is valuable – our status quo is actually fragile, yet we can travel to the Moon and beyond, for one thing. I have prepared many activities (during the past 10 years or so) making use of science fiction books, films and series.

    Francis Morgan’s story “Tommy Goes to the Moon” is exploited here: https://tothemoonandbackfromthemoon.weebly.com/. Owners of a make-believe time travel agency worked collaboratively last year and came up with recommendations for their (prospective) customers to visit various places in the past, as by travelling there they could find out more information about important events, sights and people connected to STEM careers – see their account here: http://blogs.eun.org/sdw-blog/2019/05/10/travellers-through-time/. Watching “Timeless” https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5511582/ has taught us about different events in history, while meeting well-known people such as American President Abraham Lincoln, but also hidden figures like Bass Reeves. Not to mention the stunning visuals – the authors aimed at making the sets look as authentic as possible in every episode, be it Nazi Germany or World’s Fair in 1893.

    However, “Timeless” has also brought up the “make your own destiny” view for me and my students. We are suffering reality overload nowadays, I believe. With unprecedented access to information, with very little control to influence or change something, what are young people who read to do? I remember Tudor Chirilă’s letter to secondary school students written back in 2009 – they need to keep reading, to keep being clean and to keep working towards becoming strong (see https://atelier.liternet.ro/articol/7297/Tudor-Chirila/Scrisoare-catre-liceeni.html, in Romanian). Stendhal, Dumas, Dickens, they all differentiate between good and bad, Tudor Chirilă says. And it is true. Read what they wrote, dears. This is how you can learn what is good and what is bad. The present of this poor country cannot unfortunately teach you what is good and what is bad any longer. And read science fiction too.

    I am currently waiting for the universe to tell me to pack that bag again, “while homebound during a pandemic [with] plenty to be thankful for”, as Rick Steves has put it here: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/how-we-travel-when-we-cant/614800/. Reading will lead the way.

    Daniela Bunea.

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