Where does imagination come from? That’s a tough one to answer. It’s hard, if not impossible, to grasp something limitless, transcending both time and space, that can reinvent itself and become more powerful than knowledge. Even more curious is what sparks our imagination. It can be a smell or taste that triggers an old memory, a strange encounter, an inexplicable trauma or longing, a dream even. It can also be a place, an inspiring one we can relate to, where all of life’s enigmas suddenly become clearer.
Southern France, Land Of Intellectual Exile
The clear golden light, bright colors of the Mediterranean, terracotta roofs and olive groves of the French Riviera have been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists ever since the 18th century, when the Midi, short for Southern France, became a place of intellectual exile for great minds to ponder in the sunlight, waiting for inspiration to strike. An epicenter of modern arts, its charismatic atmosphere has been immortalized in exemplary paintings and defining pieces of literature.
In the early 1870s, Jules Verne anchored his yacht in Cap d’Antibes, bought a villa and wrote the scenario for Around the World in 80 Days.
American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was obsessed with the idea of wealth, what people do with it and what it does to people. He and his wife Zelda spent most of the 1920s on the French Riviera, an escapade from prohibition back home in New York and an excellent literary experiment. It is believed it was here that he concluded “the rich are different from you and me,” the famous line in The Great Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby, one of the 20th century’s defining novels, was written in a rented beachfront villa from where Fitzgerald could catch glimpses of the blinking green light from the nearby lighthouse, perhaps the inspiration behind the green light associated with Jay Gatsby’s longing for Daisy. It was also here that his wife’s affair with a young French aviator, a betrayal he could not get over, inspired him to write Tender is the Night, his last novel.
English writer Aldous Huxley lived on the French Riviera for seven years with his wife in a house that became known as Villa Huxley. It was a period of sheer contentment and artistic boom, which gave birth to his chilling dystopian novel Brave New World, written in just four months. He also finished and published Eyeless in Gaza here.
Painted in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh‘s Cafe Terrace at Night depicts the real-life cafe at the Place du Forum in the town of Arles in Southern France. The oil painting is his first attempt to paint a starry sky, but not his first to capture the laid-back atmosphere of these parts. In his own words, “The Midi fires the senses: makes your hand more agile, your eye sharper, your brain clearer.”
The French Riviera has had its fair share of artists, but will forever remain synonymous with Pablo Picasso. An expat for most of his life, the Spanish artist permanently left his homeland for France in 1904. The City of Light, with its impressive community of artists, inspired some of his best works. Southern France brought out the best in him. After World War I, he was offered the keys to the Grimaldi Palace in Antibes, which became his studio for six months. It is now home to the Picasso Museum, where 254 of his works inspired by the Mediterranean’s charms are on display. Picasso continued to move from one town to the other along the Riviera before passing away in Mougins in 1973.
Stricken by wanderlust, searching for a new home few ever found, many great artistic minds had trouble staying in one place for too long. Did they travel to find inspiration, or were they inspired to embark on life-changing voyages? We’ll never know…
Ernest Hemingway‘s travels didn’t just influence his greatest literary works, they urged readers to live out of their suitcase as well. The expatriate scene invited the young journalist to Paris in the early 1920s, where he drank absinthe with fellow artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce at the Dingo bar and The Ritz Paris. His collection of memoirs from the City of Lights was published posthumously in A Moveable Feast.
In the early 1930s, Hemingway traveled to Spain to research the notorious “running of the bulls,” a practice he had always been fascinated with and wrote his comic treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. He returned to Spain in 1937 as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War, a trip that became the background for his novel For Whom the Bells Toll.
In 1933, Hemingway embarked on a ten-month African safari in Kenya, an experience brought to light in his fictional travelogue Green Hills of Africa and the short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
But it was always Havana that held a dear place in his heart, ever since his first visit in the 1920s. He wrote For Whom the Bells Toll in his room at Hotel Ambos Mundos, and also his last important literary work, The Old Man and the Sea, inspired by a real-life old and lonely Cuban fisherman.
After his wife passed away, Gorge Orwell thought about leaving London behind to find a place where he could write his next novel. His editor at The Observer recommended the remote and narrow Scottish island of Jura. In 1947, Orwell moved into a farmhouse called Barnhill, with no electricity or heat. The desolate atmosphere, loneliness, unwelcoming surroundings and harsh conditions provided the perfect backdrop for his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a hair-raising dystopian novel predicting a ghastly future that may not be too far from the truth.
To say that English murder-mystery novelist Agatha Christie had itchy feet is a massive understatement. In the early 1920’s, she embarked on an epic journey around the world with her first husband, and became one of the first Brits to ever try stand-up paddle boarding, hanging ten in Cape Town and Hawaii. With her second husband, an archaeologist, she traveled through the Middle East. Her voyages in Egypt inspired Death on the Nile, her visit to the ancient rock-cut city of Petra in Jordan inspired Appointment with Death, and Iraq became the setting of Murder in Mesopatamia and They Came to Baghdad. Later, during her stay on the Canary Islands, she wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train.
Her most recognizable novel, Murder on the Orient Express, was written in Istanbul in 1934, inspired by her own experience on an Orient Express train she had been stranded on for 24 hours due to a flooding. Ask for room 411 at the Pera Palace Hotel and you can stay in the exact same room where she imagined the plot.
Italy’s Azure Spells
Italy’s charms have always lured artists and hopeless romantics. But no Italian city has seen such a great concentration of literary minds like the Gulf of La Spezia on the Ligurian Coast, better known as the Gulf of the Poets, frequented by the likes of Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, D. H. Lawrence, George Sand, Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf, Dickens and Henry James.
Percy and Mary Shelley arrived on the Ligurian Coast in 1819 and rented a seaside villa overlooking the Gulf of the Poets. The picturesque Lerici Castle, perched above the bay, is believed to have been the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written after a night of ghostly storytelling with Lord Byron.
Percy Shelley, liberal thinker and poet, wrote some of his greatest poems in the Gulf of the Poets, which later became his deathbed. In 1822, his boat was caught in a severe storm and the poet drowned, his body washed to the very shores where he put pen to paper.
On the same Ligurian Coast, close to Lerici, the small town of Portovenere is home to Byron’s Grotto. Legend has it, Lord Byron actually lived here and wrote The Corsair inside the grotto, one of his most popular poems, and he would often swim 4.6 miles to the Shelleys’ house in Lerici. The grotto now pays homage to the English poet with a commemorative plaque dedicated to “the immortal poet who as a daring swimmer defied the waves of the sea from Portovenere to Lerici.“
The Ligurian and Amalfi coasts proved inexhaustible sources of inspiration for Nottingham-born novelist D.H. Lawrence. For a miner’s son from the Midlands, he had quite the exciting life. Accused of being a spy, he left his homeland in 1919 and traveled ceaselessly ever since, from Germany and France to Italy, where he would return on many occasions, bewitched by its azure spell.
Twilight in Italy is an account of his travels and hikes through the Italian Alps with his lover, Frieda, who abandoned her family to run away with him. It was in the Gulf of the Poets that D.H. Lawrence began working on The Rainbow and Women in Love, and Ravello saw the writing of his greatest novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, thought to have been inspired by his wife’s affair with a young Italian soldier.
Between 1844 and 1845, Charles Dickens traveled with his wife and children to Italy looking for a change of scenery. When he reached Rome, he was disappointed to find a city very much like London, degraded and rotten as he later described it in Pictures from Italy. His time on the peninsula did prove fruitful after all, as he began working on The Chimes during his stay at Palazzo Peschiere in Genoa, presumably inspired by the ringing bells of Genoese institutions.
German novelist Thomas Mann visited Venice in 1911. He was staying at the Grand Hotel des Bains when, one evening, he exchanged glances with a young Polish boy, a short gaze that provided the plot for his masterpiece, Death in Venice. Mann later described the writing process “as though taking dictation from God.”
Art depends on circumstance. It is in our power to create the proper environment that could bring inspiration, whether it be of an artistic kind or the sort that can influence big life decisions. So tell us, what is it that inspires you?