Book Review: Duncan J.D. Smith's Only In Vienna

In a recent visit to Vienna, Urban Explorer Duncan Smith reveals what it takes to discover the true soul of a city

TVR Books | Gretchen Gatzke | December 2010 / January 2011

‘The City is My Jungle’

An "urban explorer" is how Duncan J.D. Smith defined himself. After a life-time of foreign adventures and some two decades of travel writing that has included the acclaimed Only In… series, Smith was at Vienna’s British Bookshop for an evening of slides and stories for an audience of several dozen friends and fans.

"The city is my jungle," Smith told the crowded bookshop on that Thursday evening, dark except for a light that shone on the author, and the presentation projected onto the screen behind him. He began with stories of his family and tales of childhood travel that had hooked him for life. His father, who as a young man was nearly indistinguishable from the author who stood before us, was especially keen on foreign adventures.

A trip to Morocco had sparked Smith’s fascination with far-away lands, but, being a child, he could not just travel at will.

So he made a plan: He fashioned a new outlook for himself, one that involved both his father, and his immediate surroundings. "I would start to view everything beyond my parents’ doorstep as foreign,"  he said.

He began to write about what was around him. The small town of Sheffield, Yorkshire, turned out to be a good place to start. Smith and his father became "part-time explorers"  of Yorkshire, and began writing a column called Yorkshire Curiosities for a local newspaper about their findings of the hidden corners of northern England.

The next slide popped up to reveal a pre-pubescent Smith posing in a coffin in a cemetery. Living history. He laughed. "It’s no surprise to find me doing something like that, even today."

Smith’s first job was in a local bookshop, surrounded by literature that inspired him to travel through the pages of books like Rosita Forbes’  India of the Princes, Kenneth Gandar-Dower’s Abyssinan Patchwork and stories from famed British explorer Percy Fawcett, who was known for his ill-fated attempt to find the Lost City of Z. Smith continued to write and produced a number of books about his hometown of Sheffield.

But constant exposure to travel literature only fueled his lust for exploration and soon enough, Smith became sales manager for Lonely Planet Travel Guides. Adventure ensued.

Photograph after photograph of exotic locations appeared on the screen. Smith compared images of Morocco and Damascus, speaking about unusual accommodations; staying in a Bedouin tent in Jordan, for example, or a safari lodge in Kenya. One thing about travel, Smith noted, is that it makes you question your own definition of what "normal" is.

On a trip to Kenya, he came across two Maasai warriors who were clearly taken by his appearance, just as he was by theirs. Upon learning that the Maasai referred to the English as iloridaa enjekat, or "those who confine their wind," Smith discovered that they were fascinated by his trousers, which, compared to the more loose-fitting dress of his hosts, didn’t allow the spoils of a large meal to disperse naturally into the air.

Which is one way of looking at it...

During a recent routine teeth-cleaning, Smith’s dentist asked, "Can you honestly call yourself an explorer when everything around you has been explored?" To which he replied, quoting Nicolas Bouvier:

"Deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away, the traveler finds himself reduced to more modest proportions – but also more open to curiosity, to intuition."

An explorer, to Smith, is someone who goes to a place for the first time and ventures for the unexplored. This is not to be mistaken with a traveler, who follows the explorer, or a tourist, who follows the traveler. You and I, Smith said, are a combination of the tourist and the traveler; yet we still have the capacity to be an explorer, as long as we are able to open ourselves to new ideas.

It’s safe to say Smith has achieved that status. He moved to Vienna, fearful of coming and simply living in a place, despite his love for travel. Gradually he began to relax. "But I couldn’t just sit there," he said.

So he began to explore the passageways, unusual buildings, cemeteries and other rarely-sought out aspects of Vienna. He started with a map. "I did lots of reading," he said. "One thousand hours of research."  His method, two weeks exploring the city, one week to rest…in total, nine hours per day and about one year to complete the entire project.

Next he submitted the manuscript, a success that transformed into Only In Vienna, the first of the series, published by Christian Brandstätter, that now includes over half a dozen guides of little-known and unusual hidden sites of Central European cities.

"I don’t give you too many directions, though," he said. "It’s not a box-ticking exercise."

Smith tells stories, rather than listing facts and recommends going by foot whenever possible.  He explores because it takes him out of his comfort zone and he lets every place he visits leave its mark on him.

Smith ended the evening with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, that defines exploration not only for him, he said, but for everyone fueled by a desire to escape from the norm.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

It is only through travel, to stepping outside and looking back, that we will ever really know ourselves.


Only In Vienna: A Guide to Hidden Corners, Little-known Places and Unusual Objects

By Duncan J.D. Smith

Brandstätter, Vienna 2009

Available at Vienna’s British Bookshop


See also: A Walk Through Vienna With Duncan J. D. SmithSnooping in the Hidden City

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    the vienna review December 2010 / January 2011