Why you should go to the library on your next vacation

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I just finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s suspense thriller.Not after midnightwhile sipping Cretan wine on the balcony of Airbnb I Booked for a five night stay in Agios Nikolaos on the Greek island of Crete.

Reading is the result of a travel enhancement I stumbled upon many years ago. I had free time in a rural administrative capital in a mountainous region and it was raining, the scourge of the lone traveller. A street sign advertised something I could make out, “Bibliotheca”, which I guess could be the local library.

I rushed in the direction indicated by the sign and found the entrance to the building, which looked very much like a library, open. Sure, it was quiet and empty, a bit musty, but it was dry. I discovered there that the librarians welcome foreign visitors with joy. I was warmly welcomed and invited to visit the collection of foreign language books in a special section.

The librarians, who spoke very proficient English, had much more than travel guides at their disposal: they had literary works by foreign writers located in their area. I tasted a few in the reading area, spending a memorable rainy day very fruitfully.

Travel guides are not dead, but they will never be the same again. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Since then, if I have a bit of free time, whatever the call of the sand, the sea or the kitchen, I go to the municipal library. Once, in Smolyan, a small town in Bulgaria, the librarians offered to issue me a borrower’s card, so enthusiastic that they were going to go through their collection. On numerous occasions, I have been invited for coffee, a drink, or even a meal at home by warm and truly dedicated librarians.

Here on my current route around Crete, the stop at Agios Nikolaos would be the longest. The picturesque harbor with a crowded marina, pristine beaches, ancient ruins and excellent cuisine attracts its fair share of tourists, so when I found Koundoureios Municipal Library I assured my hosts that I was not looking for guides. They beamed with approval when I asked if they had any works with stories set in Agios Nikolaos. That’s how I found du Maurier’s story.

Stopping by a foreign public library is a perfect way to enrich your travel experience, especially if you find a literary gem or two along the way. Libraries themselves are often in city centers, although these are not budgetary priorities, and when baggage allowances were much more generous, I would present a book from my personal collection (I am a former professor of English), having packed a few for such purpose.

But literary excellence is a secondary consideration. The most rewarding part is the local detail so many authors – who often years of experience in the place you might be visiting for a few days – include them in their stories. So the mention of a cafe or a tram route is worth noting and including in your itinerary.

When I first started traveling in 1968, resources such as published travel guides matched the breadth of my research into my chosen destination. So on my first visit to the library, I was flying blind, finding only the titles that the librarians had managed to store in their collections.

But in recent years I’ve developed a variant that produces similar results and allows me the same interaction with helpful librarians. On my last visit to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I prefaced my appeal to library staff with an internet search for “stories set in Sofia”. One site has listed 22 books in English set in the city.

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The list gave me a targeted approach instead of my more haphazard method. With her, I went to the municipal library, which overlooks a pedestrian square bordering a modernized tram line. I love the circular marble staircases with carved wooden railings and wrought iron posts that rise in front of the Vazrajdane Theater, which shares the old building.

Once inside, I found it easy to spot the reference desk. As expected, the librarians were helpful and engaged. One, who introduced himself as Peter, took me under his wing and we searched the upper floors for another colleague before settling down at a computer to try and locate one of the titles on my list. Peter knew several of the authors and told me that one of them, Garth Greenwell, also wrote in Bulgarian.

Unfortunately, our search was fruitless, and I think that’s where the example of kindness lies: Peter called a friend who was in contact with the author. After a short conversation, it was agreed that I would receive Greenwell’s latest novel, “Cleanliness“, located in Sofia as its last,”What belongs to you“by e-mail – another unique memory of my trip.

I’ve now searched the phrase “stories set in…” several times and there’s always a site or two with surprisingly long listings. I was amazed at the richness of book titles, regardless of location. Of course, I could always order them online and read them at home or in my hotel room.

But it’s much more fun to rummage through the stacks of a foreign library, usually in the company of one or more amazing people who volunteer to help. For me, these shared moments are as memorable as any of my wanderings. And as my experience in Sofia demonstrates, it is the research and not the book that is most rewarding.

Scorza is a writer based in University Park, Maryland.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice webpage.


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