Following in the Footsteps: Reflections of a Heritage, Literary and Film Tourist

This month we are publishing Heritage, Screen and Literary Tourism by Sheela Agarwal and Gareth Shaw. In this post Sheela reflects on her own experiences as a heritage, literary and film tourist.

Tourism is about fulfilling expectations, fuelling imaginations and making dreams come true. It is about stirring emotions, providing unforgettable experiences about places, objects, people and events. Great skill is required by producers of such experiences to engage audiences in the reconstruction of the real and the imagined. Stories about the past, present and future are told, and tourists are encouraged to participate and immerse themselves in the story-telling.  Since an early age, I have always loved stories and learning to read revealed a world of different endings, some sad and some happy. Equally, I have always loved watching films and TV adaptations, particularly period dramas, so much so that in the summer of 1984, I begged my parents to rent out a video recorder for one month, paying the £20 fee out of my pocket money for the privilege. In an age before the internet, numerous trips to ‘Blockbuster’ video rentals were made as two to three films were watched daily. After the month was up, the recorder went back to the rental shop but was soon replaced after a visit to an electrical store.

It is my love of stories which has fuelled many visits to places that feature within them and indeed it is this fascination which has been at the heart of the inspiration for this book. In essence I am the typical heritage, film and literary tourist. I have many childhood memories of visiting the North Yorkshire Dales on family holidays and one of my very favourite places was Howarth, home to the Brontë sisters, authors of classic works such as Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. Whilst wandering through the streets of Howarth, following in the footsteps of these three strong independent women (as well as thousands of tourists), who had to write under pseudonyms, I imagined and relived their excitement running from the Post Office, clutching copies of their newly published books. A visit to their home, the parsonage, sparked similar imaginings of the family sitting around the fireplace sharing their stories and working on their novels, as did walking on the Moors; in the distance and in my mind, I observed ‘Heathcliff’ galloping through the heather, and ‘Jane Eyre’ weeping for ‘Mr Rochester’.

The infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the entrance to Auschwitz

Another memorable visit to a place steeped in heritage and the object of films, TV adaptations and books, and which is captured within this text, was to Auschwitz, near Krakow in Poland. It proved to be a heart-wrenching, deeply emotional experience for me. Even now when I look back on my visit, I can hardly believe that humankind could reach such depths of depravity; how could there be such disregard for human suffering. For those who have never been so unfortunate to have ever braved a visit to Auschwitz, it is a deeply harrowing experience. Once an extermination camp embroiled with unimaginable human suffering and fear, it is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Poland. It is however, an unconventional tourist attraction in the sense that it does not encompass fun and no laughter can be heard. It is a very sombre place. Upon entry, you are taken into a cinema and shown footage from the camp; some of this was shot whilst the camp was in full operation whilst some of it was filmed upon liberation. Silence engulfed the cinema as we all stared disbelieving at the thousands of filmed emaciated bodies; some were living, but many were dead. Exiting the cinema, we were then taken on a small guided tour around the camp. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ or ‘work means freedom’ decorates the entrance gate to the camp, providing a chilling and ironic lie to all. Even now I can feel the fear and suffering through the stark uniformed blocks of prison cells and stories of heroism and brutality are shared in equal quantities.

The entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Departing Auschwitz, I was then taken to Auschwitz–Birkenau, a short 10 minute drive from the main camp. Here, the iconic entrance and railway spur transports you immediately into the film, Schindler’s List. It isn’t hard to imagine the trains rolling into the station, one after the other, ladened with frightened Jewish prisoners. They arrive tired and disoriented as they are ‘sorted’ by Nazi soldiers. Some are directed straight to the gas chamber whilst others to an unhuman existence. I could still hear the screams of distress as families are torn apart, never to see each other again.

It is a prison within a prison that is impossible to escape. It is encased with multiple rows of barbed wire fences and sentry points at every five meters along its perimeter. As I walked along the station, I felt an overwhelming need to cry and indeed, in the taxi home I shed many tears in despair.

Prof. Sheela Agarwal, Plymouth University, UK; sagarwal@plymouth.co.uk

Prof. Gareth Shaw, Exeter University, UK; g.shaw@exeter.ac.uk

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Film-Induced Tourism by Sue Beeton.

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