By Reshma Krishnan Barshikar

As I travel, the usual guidebooks have fallen by the way side. Sure, I always have a Berlitz (my favorite city guides) handy for quick reference, but I find there is almost nothing to beat a good robust novel or travel memoir to help elevate the experience. Most guide books resemble bland coloring books, a great novel or memoir are the crayons that help you color in the picture and often you’ll find yourself coloring outside the lines.

For instance, I loved having Commissario (Detective) Guido Brunetti as my personal guide as he chased murderers down the Rialto in Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon. It helped my husband and I get completely lost in Venice. Perfect. Murder mysteries are particularly good because they usually take place at some renowned site in a city and are great at evoking atmosphere as you walk around the same spot. Here are some of my personal favorites:

If you’re heading to Spain then don’t miss:

The Return by Victoria Hislop:
This novel is perfect for a good introduction to the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish don’t like talking about the civil war in 1936. It’s much too close and I think they’re in some sort of denial. Guernica, Picasso’s masterpiece that hangs at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, was a response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village and helped bring worldwide attention to a war that was constantly brushed under the rug. Reading this book before you see the painting helps you understand it better. Hislop manages to convey the sheer horror of what happened and this painting is arresting once you understand that. The Return is a both a historical romance and a journey of self-discovery. Men: don’t let the romance fool you, this is just as good and has tons of swashbuckling history. An English woman heads to Granada in order to change her life and trace her roots when she stumbles upon a café run by an old man who begins to tell her a story. Sure there are clichés abound, but this is a fabulous introduction to the Spanish Civil War, Flamenco, as well as the beautiful region of Andalucia.

For more information check here.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon:
We have alluded to this book before during our Eat, Do & See for Barcelona post. Set in Barcelona  after the Spanish Civil War, The Shadow of the Wind was written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and centers around a book within the book. A young protagonist named Daniel Sempere becomes obsessed with the book and goes on a journey to find more titles by the author, only to find out that all the titles by the author were bought and burnt by a mysterious man. He sets out to find the mystery of the missing books and it takes him on a journey into the deepest secrets of Barcelona.

For more information check here.

Stranger in Spain by H V Morton:
I bought this at a secondhand bookshop in Madrid – it cost me a whopping 100 Euro and was my souvenir for the trip. Printed in 1955 (no, you can’t borrow my copy), it was one of the defining travel memoirs in Spain. H V Morton was a pioneering travel writer and journalist and one of my writing heroes. His essays on Ana Bolena, The Alahambra and Isabel and Ferdinand are some of the finest in the book.

For more information check here.

The term “travel guides in disguise” has been copyrighted and is owned by Reshma Krishnan under Creative Commons Attribution.

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