I dashed in the direction the sign pointed and found the very library-looking building’s entrance open. Of course it was quiet, and empty, a bit musty, but it was dry. I discovered there that librarians joyously welcome foreign visitors. I was greeted warmly and invited to tour the collection of foreign-language books in a special section.
The librarians, who spoke very competent English, had much more than travel guides at their disposal: They had literary works by foreign writers set in their locale. I sampled some in the reading area, spending a memorable rainy day very profitably.
Ever since, if I have a bit of extra time, no matter the call of sand, sea or cuisine, I go to the local library. Once, in Smolyan, a small town in Bulgaria, the librarians offered to issue me a borrower’s card, so enthusiastic were they that their collection would be perused. On numerous occasions, I’ve been invited to coffee, drinks, even meals in homes by warm and truly dedicated librarians.
Here, on my current drive around Crete, the stop in Agios Nikolaos would be the longest. The scenic port with a crammed marina, pristine beaches, ancient ruins and great food draws its share of tourists, so when I found the Koundoureios municipal library, I assured my greeters that I wasn’t looking for guidebooks. They beamed with approval when I asked whether they had works whose stories took place in Agios Nikolaos. That’s how I found du Maurier’s story.
Stopping at a foreign municipal library is a perfect way to enrich your travel experience, especially if you find a literary gem or two along the way. The libraries themselves are often in town centers, though not budget priorities, and when baggage allowances were far more generous, I would present a book from my personal collection (I’m a former English professor), having packed a few for just such a purpose.
But literary excellence is a secondary consideration. The most rewarding part is the local detail so many authors — who often have years of experience in the place you may be visiting for a few days — include in their stories. So the mention of a cafe or a trolley route is worth taking note of and including on your itinerary.
When I began to travel, in 1968, resources such as published travel guides were about the extent of my research on my chosen destination. So when I bumbled into my first library visit, I was flying blind, only finding whatever titles the librarians had managed to stock in their collections.
But in recent years, I’ve developed a variation that produces similar results and allows me the same interaction with helpful librarians. In my most recent visit to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, I preceded my call on the library’s staff with an internet search for “stories set in Sofia.” One site listed 22 books in English set in the city.
The list gave me a targeted approach instead of my more random method. With it, I went to the city library, which overlooks a pedestrian plaza bordering a modernized tram line. I love the circular marble stairs with carved wooden banisters and wrought-iron posts that climb past the Vazrajdane theater, which shares the old building.
Once inside, I found it easy to spot the reference desk. Predictably, the librarians there were helpful and engaged. One, who introduced himself as Peter, took me under his wing and we checked the upper floors for another colleague before settling in front of a computer in an attempt to locate one of the titles on my list. Peter knew several of the authors and told me that one, Garth Greenwell, wrote in Bulgarian, too.
Sadly, our search was futile, and here is where I think the exemplar of kindness resides: Peter called a friend who was in contact with the author. After a short conversation, it was arranged that I would receive Greenwell’s latest novel, “Cleanness,” set in Sofia like his last, “What Belongs to You,” via email — one more unique memory of my trip.
I have now searched the phrase “stories set in …” many times, and there is always a site or two with lists of surprising length. I’ve been amazed at the wealth of book titles, regardless of the location. Of course, I could always order them online and read them at home or in my hotel room.
But it is far more fun to search the stacks in a foreign library, usually in the company of one or more extraordinary people volunteering their assistance. For me, these shared moments are as memorable as any in my wanderings. And as my experience in Sofia demonstrates, it is the search and not the book that is the most rewarding.
Scorza is a writer based in University Park, Md.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.