This morning, I strode out of my house while the sun was still wet around the ears, busy making pavements glisten and getting ready to start the day.
I headed past the light pastries that curled in one towards the other. Past the suits and boots and jangling keys heading towards shops to open and start the day.
I knew where I was headed: to a coffee shop slash cafe, a place with tables, wifi and power sockets, ready to become awash with literary inspiration.
Well, we’re nearly an hour in and I have become very well versed in the love lives of the staff, the promotion process and annual leave debacles and the merits, demerits and debates surrounding soya milk refrigeration.
It has not, let’s face it, been the muse-focused breakfast I had hoped for.
And it got me thinking, longing really, to be able to reach for and roll around in the artistic hideaways of my dreams.
Of the polished wooden fold-out desks with feathers and parchments in Bath, where Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.
And the Deux Magots caffeine hit in Paris.
A weekend trip to the stoney, honey streets of Edinburgh revealed not one, not two, not even three but more than four places that alleged to have been the spot where J.K. Rowling sat and wrote her outline for the Harry Potter series.
With more than 400 million copies sold worldwide, 435 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and the accolade of being the fastest selling book in publishing history, who can blame baristas for trying to cash in.
Yet not all literary hot spots appeal.
I’ll also keep clear of The White Horse Tavern in Manhattan, too, famous for Dylan Thomas’s last drink before his last breath, rather than for inspiring the memorable words “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea” from the opening lines of Under Milk Wood.
(Thomas’ house in Laugharne, on the other hand, takes in spiritually-sweeping views of the Taf estuary, complete with egrets, oystercatchers, seals and otters. But it is a long way from anywhere else, a bit cramped and, perhaps most importantly of all, not open to the public. Or at least, not in a way that would allow people to pull up a chair and write.)
All of which brings me to perhaps the most important point.
There is no point in blaming anyone else for any blocks that come with writing.
As Stephen King says, “Don’t wait for the muse. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”
So, I’d better just face reality, knuckle down and get on with it.
And besides, if ever you read a bestseller that revolves around soy milk and its refrigeration characteristics, well, you’ll know where it came from.
And I can pop back here and add another cafe to the list.
In the meantime, here are seven of the best places around the world for indulging in some literary inspiration…that are also lovely places to visit even if you never plan to write a thing.
1 – Graham Greene in Hanoi
The luxury hotel Sofitel Metropole combines period wooden desks with a cool pool for beating the sticky heat. Ultimate writing indulgence.
2- Philosophers in Paris
Once the haunt of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, there’s no doubt that today Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés attracts a tourist crowd. Arrive early to catch the muse who flirted with James Joyce and Albert Camus over a fresh baguette and a swirling cafe au lait.
3 – Harry Potter in Edinburgh
I actually like the Black Magic Cafe for its proud sign declaring that J.K. Rowling definitely did NOT write the Harry Potter franchise here. Also, its Pink Flamingo makes for a tasty treat. But if that doesn’t work for you, try rival claimants The Elephant and The Spoon Cafe.
4 – James Joyce in Italy’s Trieste
While there are plenty of spots in Dublin to retrace the penmanship of James Joyce and Ulysses, Italy’s northern Trieste offers arguably better food. Caffe Tommaseo lays claim to the Dubliner’s work and washes it down with Viennese chocolate cake and a frothy cappuccino. They even throw in an old typewriter, just to augment the mood.
5 – The Lion King in Samburu
Well, yes, the Lion King doesn’t have quite the literary cache that, say, The Jungle Book has. But the Sasaab Safari Lodge in Kenya has the most beautiful desks for writing with outstanding views of African grasslands and acacia. Plus, screenwriters for The Lion King did actually include the warthog Pumba as a result of a trip here, not to mention sketching the outline for the iconic Pride Rock. And Sasaab do serve coffee on their safaris. Although, gin and tonic is more traditional… #justsayin’
6- The Bard himself in Stratford
Shakespeare began and ended his days in the English market town of Stratford. And while the details may have faded over a few centuries here and there, with the number of historic half-timbered eateries and inns in the area, it’s pretty easy to imagine that he sat in any one of them to come up with the immortal words “to be, or not to be: that is the question.”
7 – Don Quixote in Madrid
While Shakespeare penned his plays in the drizzle of the English sun, contemporary Cervantes wrote the world’s first novel, Don Quixote, in Madrid. Soak up inspiration in the literary quarter of Spain’s capital, or else travel out into the Castilian plains to Cervantes’ home in Esquivas. The small town of Almagro offers caffeine, tapas and literary inspiration all in one spot.
What’s not to like?
Bonus – Nelson Mandela and Cape Town
It’s an inspiring story alright, but it’s a world away from the coffee and cake atmosphere of the previous seven suggestions.
But it’s important so I’ve kept it until last.
If ever you’re struggling to get something written, remember this. Nelson Mandela wrote his 500 page manuscript The Long Walk to Freedom in secret, in prison. And nowadays, you can visit Robben Island and walk away with more than just literary inspiration.
A visit provides an all-encompassing inspiration that perhaps more closely resembles awe.
Get reading, get writing everyone. Well, you know. If you want to…
All the best,
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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