Manchán Magan'stales of a travel addict

WHILE ADMIRING the writhing, Tarantino-esque magnificence of the central portal of Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, recently I paused to look around at my fellow travellers, all of us journalists on a press trip. One of the group, a distinguished elderly gentleman, had his nose pressed into the pages of a book. He was a former newspaper editor, a charming, decidedly old-school figure. "Is that a guidebook?" I asked. "It certainly is not," he said, showing me the spine. "It's García Lorca, of course. No point coming to Santiago without Lorca." His words were without any hint of reproof; his eyes twinkled as he said them.

Later that evening he brought me the book, pointing out the wonderful madrigal Lorca had composed to the city: "It rains in Santiago . . . lament of stone and crystal . . . Shadow and ash of your sea, Santiago, far from the sun." He told me I was welcome to copy it, in case I wanted to quote it in my article. "I can't think of a better way to capture the place," he said. "It's just such a shame that so few papers would allow one quote poetry in a travel article these days."

It got me thinking about how rare it is for any of us to think of packing a poetry book when heading off on holidays, yet what better way to get an insight into a country? A nation's soul is often best seen through its poetry. We scour the shelves for the latest Michelin, Frommer's or Rough Guide, spending about €25 on each, yet often four stanzas of great poetry will act as a more efficient skeleton key, unlocking the essence and undercurrents of a place. Certainly it does so with more elegance and elan than the typical turgid guidebook prose.

On visiting Brooklyn Bridge, which would you rather: the New York guide's "renowned bridge with double-arched towers and steel suspension set firmly into the East River's bedrock" or the poet Hart Crane's "Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks, A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene; All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . . Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still", from The Bridge?

The beauty of poetry books is that they are small - mini Tardises that will whisk you from the cattle-pen chaos of a delayed-departure gate. They can reveal the quintessence of an experience in two perfectly wrought sentences. Take Ezra Pound's 14-word poem In a Station of the Metro: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough." Imagine descending into the Paris Métro, waiting for Line 8 to Concorde, and just looking around you, reflecting on those words. That is all and everything Pound has to say on the matter; perhaps there is nothing more to say.

The first time I went to the US I took Walt Whitman with me, and each morning I'd read a few lines from his Song of the Open Road to set the energy for the day. It was hard not to set out from my hostel with an added spring in my step after reading such lines as "You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers! You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides! I think you are latent with unseen existences - you are so dear to me."

My editor friend is off next to the Algarve, in Portugal, and will be bringing The Lusíads, Luis Vaz de Camões's epic interpretation of the Portuguese voyages of discovery. Last year he brought Horace's Odes; he can't face the idea of not bringing them this year, too, so they will also have to be packed. Inspired by him, I've decided that next time I go anywhere I'll be adding an extra item to my checklist of sunblock, mozzie spray and shortwave radio.