I never met Jan Morris and never even corresponded with her, but she has long been one of my favourite travel companions. Sometimes she was with me throughout the journey, on my shoulder as I crossed each bridge in Venice, stalked familiar haunts in Wales or took a road trip through Spain. Sometimes her presence was fleeting, on an Istanbul street corner, outside a Swiss chalet or searching for Bach in Leipzig. Through her books and her essays, Jan Morris accompanied me on my trips, and then when I got home, she took me to places I’ve never been, travels of the imagination to Hong Kong and New York, Cairo and the slopes of Everest.
When I heard the news that Jan Morris had died, in her beloved Wales at the age of 94, there were many books on my shelves that I could have reached for but really there was only one choice. All who loved her work will have their favourite, and mine is Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Indeed, this wonderful book might just be one of my favourite volumes by any writer. It is a book that I turn to time and again, and one that I have read from cover to cover more times than I can remember.
I had it with me the last time I was in Trieste. We were staying a little way up the coast, in Duino, where I headed up onto the clifftop in the footsteps of Rilke, a walk that I wrote about for the most recent issue of hidden europe. But for most of the time I was there, it was Jan Morris who I was exploring with, in this city she had returned to in the last years of the 20th century to work on her masterpiece. It is a book about Trieste and its story, and recommended reading for anyone planning to travel there, but it is also a book about its writer and her own journey, from the quayside as a 19 year-old soldier by the name of James to one of our greatest chroniclers of place by the name of Jan.
Jan Morris was evidently in reflective mood during that trip to Trieste, and it was, she wrote, “here more than anywhere I remember lost times, lost chances, lost friends, with the sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place.” And I walked from the station to the quayside and through the streets, along the coast and up onto the karst that looms over the city, and I felt it too. Often, our feelings about a place are shaped not only by our experiences but those of our travel companions too. I cannot think about Trieste without thinking of Jan Morris. The city I explored with her and the city of my imagination are both shaped by her words, and they are places I love to return to, time and again.
Jan Morris is my favourite travel companion and she inspired me more than any other writer. To travel with her is to learn how to pay attention, to look closely and to listen. Like the best travel companions, she sees things you don’t and, even if you don’t always agree with her, she always has something interesting to say. In the sadness of her death, there is the consolation that her words remain. On the page and on the street corner, the travels will continue. She will speak to us still.
A note on our choice of the image of Miramar to accompany this article
In the final sentence of her book "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere", Jan Morris speculates on where her spirit might be found after her death. We might search for, she suggests, "wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor, but now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of Miramare, watching the nightingales swarm".