NOT QUITE HEAVEN
Barry Oakley reports from the comfort of his armchair on an ambitious new travel narrative
PROCEED carefully before reaching the first chapter of Heaven on Earth by Matthew Brace (Ebury Press, $24.95). Step over a straw man in the preface that Brace has duly demolished: ‘‘ It is not enough any more simply to take a holiday. We don’t want boil-in-the-bag tourism any longer; we want experiences, wonder and meaning.’’
Now zigzag through the introduction, avoiding platitudes (‘‘It seems that increasingly we need our holidays to mean something’’) and hyperbole (‘‘Now we are fuelling a second travel revolution, a seismic shift in what we want next from our holidays’’).
But once he lets go of the sociological microphone, Brace drives a mean tourist bus, taking us to what he claims are the new travel hot spots: Northern Ireland, Romania and Libya.
In the new Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants are sharing power after 40 years of fighting, nightlife in Belfast is a blast, metaphorically instead of literally, and the paramilitary murals are now a tourist attraction. But old animosities still linger. When Brace was taking pictures of one of the artworks, a young woman with a child on her hip walked in front of him and gave him a taste of the old eloquence: Fack off.’’
Brace sees another revolution at the other end of Europe, in Romania, but it doesn’t sound like a must-see to me. The biggest reason for not going is the Presidential Palace, the world’s largest building after the Pentagon. Tiny men need to compensate, and since Nicolae Ceausescu was only 4ft 9ins (the old imperial measure expresses it better), the dictator’s compensation was considerable: 3100 rooms, with a nuclearbomb-proof basement and an interior space large enough to take a helicopter on top.
It came for him and his equally awful wife, Elena, in the end, but they were put in front of a firing squad when it landed again.
If you can avoid this monstrosity, the new, free Bucharest offers street musicians, sonorous Orthodox liturgies and miniature golf on the roof of the InterContinental Hotel. I am sure there is more, but Brace didn’t seem to stay long enough to find it.
He is more persuasive about Libya, where he visits Leptis Magna, possibly the bestpreserved Roman city outside Italy. It is built of limestone and has thus remained largely intact, with a magnificent theatre, the mandatory Roman baths and a colonnaded highway once lined with stalls, where the lions, leopards and camels were kept before being taken to the imperial capital.
Scorning what he calls ‘‘ safe and fluffy’’ destinations, Brace now goes to a literal hot spot: a live volcano called Arenal in Costa Rica. When he hears it booming in the distance, his guide calms his nerves: ‘‘ This is nothing; it’s just saying hello.’’ Brace starts climbing, past roaring fumaroles — escape valves for the pressures underneath — and into the path of the burning boulders blown out of the volcano, breaking up as they bounce. He uses his soccer skills to weave and dodge, sprains his ankle and limps back to safety.
Having felt the tremors of pure adventure, Brace goes in search of spiritual experience and finds it in the Shetland Islands, the most northerly outpost of the British Isles. Shetland’s placenames, an aromatic mixture of Scots and Norse, sound as if imagined by Tolkien. Beyond Fladdabister, Muckle Flugga, Fleck and Grutness Voe, he ferries to the tiny island of Mousa, where an Iron Age tower, or broch , has survived for more than 2000 years.
Later, Vikings inhabited the broch and, as Brace ponders these things, around the headland came the silhouette of a Viking longship, its silent oarsmen rowing in perfect synchronicity. It’s what he calls ‘‘ a Blue Bubble travel experience’’.
And it’s the spiritual and pastoral that brings out the best in Brace. His tourist-bus jokiness is replaced by the contemplative and elegiac. When he finds the ultimate ecoresort on Victoria’s Cape Otway Peninsula, he sounds like Dylan Thomas: ‘‘ In the skies above us olive whistlers whistled, fantails fanned and superb blue wrens wrenned, and somewhere, sleeping off a long night of rodent hunting, was a powerful owl.’’
Despite the introduction’s talk of tourism’s seismic shifts, this is what travel, and good travel writing, has always been about. Barry Oakley is a former literary editor of TheAustralian . Matthew Brace is an occasional contributor to Travel&Indulgence .
Peace at last: People relax in the grounds of City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland
A head of its time: Libya’s Leptis Magna