Book Reviews: Secret Cities, Or Getting Lost With Gusto

March 6, 2021

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Secret Brooklyn by Michelle Young and Augustin Pasquet

Secret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide by Hanna Robinson

Secret Naples by Valerio Ceva Grimaldi, Maria Franchini and Fernando Pisacane


There are those travellers who are happy to simply tick off the four or five biggest tourist attractions in a given city and then tell friends they’ve “done” that destination, and then there are those who read books like this – celebrations of culture, creativity, quirkiness, history and a genuine yearning for exploration.


The average visitor to New York is – and fair enough – often overwhelmed by the density of the city’s attractions. Brooklyn is often only referenced as a place on the other side of the eponymous bridge, recognised as a setting for a number of films, but otherwise fairly mysterious. Secret Brooklyn introduces readers to the area’s heritage in insightful, curious ways – revealing its fascinating history through, in many examples, the facilities and architecture that now inhabit the spaces where important events and breakthroughs (from Civil War battles to early film studios) originally took place. The authors show that Brooklyn’s personality is multi-faceted and complex, enthusiastic about sports (baseball; paddling on a polluted river); religion (Quakers and Hasidic Jews and their events and memorials); music (vinyl works and rare instrument stores) and much, much more besides. Use even part of this volume as a guide on a visit to Brooklyn and you will have a rich and rewarding experience.


Secret Edinburgh is an equally insightful collection of off-the-radar treasures for visitors to Scotland, but it has two additional factors in its favour. For one, Edinburgh is many centuries older than Brooklyn and as such, the impact of considering an item, an artwork or a left-behind oddity that has been in that place for a millennium feels somehow greater. And for another, author Hannah Robinson has both a delightful sense of humour and the skills to combine that with excellent research and perceptive perspectives, making each entry in this book a pleasure to read – even those that may not match the preferences of a reader looking for a specific theme in the sites they visit. Here is observance of detail that encourages travellers to keep their eyes open wherever they are, more aware now that down every side alley or on every building down the Royal Mile (or wherever in the city and surrounds), there is likely a feature with a story; a strange anecdote or a noble narrative. Art and gardens and history are everywhere in the city and in this book, and allowing Robinson to be your guide on your next visit is highly recommended.


One of the publishing strengths of the above two books is their simple layout – a short page of text per attraction opposite a full-page picture: clear and easy to read. In Secret Naples, the decision has been taken to not prune the list of options to include as effectively as the authors of the other two books did, making it, in design terms, less easy to read; somewhat heavier. It’s understandable, in that Naples is an ancient city and there are literal layers of antiquity to explore, but relative to the above options, it makes the city feel less superficially attractive. Through no fault of the authors, there may also have been a spark or two lost in translation. Not surprisingly, there’s a large focus on the city’s religious and artistic heritage, much of which is less famous (to non-Italians, certainly) than its equivalents in Rome, Florence or Milan. There are also, it transpires, a high number of tunnels underneath the city, so if subterranean surveys are your thing, you’ll be happy.

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