Getting From Here To There, The Retro Way

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Commentator Andrei Codrescu discovers an old travel book. He thinks there might be a market for imaginary travel based on books such as this, that delight in great writing and topics not followed much today.


Now, a new twist on an old cliche: You can't get there from here. Well, now you can, thanks to commentator Andrei Codrescu.

ANDREI CODRESCU: The free books app on my iPhone makes available, thanks to the Guttenberg Project, books published before 1923 - out of copyright now.

Browsing through forgotten titles of the past, I came upon a gem: "Castles and Cave Dwellings of Europe" by Sabine Baring-Gould, published in 1911. This writer went to places no traveler dare go these days, either because they no longer exist, destroyed by war or nature, or no longer tended because unreachable by modern roads.

The writing is sublime, full of a passion, still heir to the ages of exploration, a passion that he likes in the details of history, archaeology, even geology, in addition to those incidents unique to the moment.

The writer explores prehistoric cave dwellings, modern troglobites or cave dwellers, sub-terrains or underground cities, cliff refuges, cliff castles, subterranean churches, rock hermitages, cave oracles, thieves' dens and book sepulchers.

Enters chalk and limestone dwellings and fairytale of lost civilizations and current habitations with a central palate richer than most of today's lavishly photographed travelogues.

A quick search reveals the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould - born 1834; died 1924 - was a hagiographer, antiquarian, novelist and prolific travel writer, whose accomplishments include a 16-volume lives of the saints and the book of werewolves. Oh, and he wrote the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers."

The cave habitats of Europe opened to his erudition and lust are mostly lost now, many devastations later, but they made me hungry and gave me an idea. Why not retro travel?

Instead of going to places sold now to tourists, why not use the old travel books as guides and go one way or another to the places where European explorers, from Sir Richard Burton to Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould went? And not only them. One could spend a fruitful year in search of places once featured in old city guides, like the famous New Orleans city guide written during the Great Depression by writers of the WPA.

You can retro travel to Spain with William Dean Howells, to Morocco with William Bingley, or to Syria with John Lewis Burckhardt. And come to think of it, I'm founding the Retro Tourism Agency. You go, I get 10 percent.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu edits Exquisite Corpse, a literary journal online at

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