Johnny, my friend’s 14-year old son, is pretty sure that I am a treasure hunter. He told me this the other day, whispering it excitedly to me like one would tell another a really cool secret. He had been over to my place with his Dad for the afternoon and had been fascinated with my book collection of old guidebooks.
For the last few years, I have collected guidebooks from the Golden Age of Travel, a 50-year period between 1890 and the outbreak of World War II. I don’t care for the mint condition guidebooks, though. No, my shelves are lined with well-used books that were held by hands of a traveler. Travelers who, for instance, had their worn copy of Baedeker’s Northern Italy open while they gazed upon the Roman Coliseum and then notated the margins with just a glimpse of their thoughts: “Wonderful.” Memories of those long gone and all but forgotten are preserved in little mysterious notes and underlinings; Remnants of a time when a traveler’s confidante wore a red jacket and knew how to keep a secret. I enjoy trying to decipher these secrets, looking at each underlined word, tipped in museum ticket stub, marginal note, and marked map for hints on what the traveler experienced decades ago.
Johnny’s eyes widened when I showed him one of these maps – Florence from a 1924 copy of Muirhead’s Northern Italy Guidebook – and pointed out how the previous owner had circled and crossed out locations that he had most likely visited on his trip. He flipped through the book and noticed a sketch in the rear end paper. It was a rough sketch of a building with quick cribbles as windows and I could almost see the gears turning in Johnny’s head as he studied it, trying to deduce what it was and why the book owner drew it. “See how he drew the top at different levels? I bet it’s of a line of buildings. Maybe he was sitting at a café and liked the look of the row of buildings across the street?” I pointed out that the list on the opposite page was of train departure times from a handful of Italian cities. “Then I bet that he drew this in one of those cities!” He said this to me as if he cracked a code, ready to jump on the next plan to Italy to try to find the building.
On the way to dinner, Johnny came up with a background story for the Italian guidebook owner. He had convinced himself that the sketched building was the location of a hidden treasure. That location with an “x” in pencil on the map of Florence? It was definitely the place where the treasure still resided. I smiled and told him that I’ll go to Italy and check it out, promising to split the treasure with him if I find any. There was some truth in this, actually: I will indeed be going to Italy this winter, specifically to retrace the steps of long-departed travelers based on their marginalia and ephemera left in my books. So maybe I am a treasure hunter after all. Will “X” really mark the spot of a treasure? There’s only one adventurous way to find out!
Retro Traveler is an intrepid explorer, having been to over 20 countries in the last few years. In a few weeks he will be opening retrotravels.net, a non-commercial website that will highlight his collection of well-used guidebooks. See more of his guide book & journal photos at Flickr
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