From dodging the Nazis in Italy to running around New Zealand, our tipsters found inspiration and insight to help them forget the pandemic
Last modified on Thu 13 Jan 2022 11.02 GMT
Fabled Shore is Rose Macaulay’s account of her journey in 1949, alone and by car, round the coast of Iberia from Catalonia to the Algarve. She found dire poverty and the Spain she describes, still reeling from civil war, is unrecognisable to us now. Today’s tourist hotspots were then empty, pristine beaches with ramshackle houses, sometimes only with a barn to sleep in, and curious children who clustered round this strange creature – a foreign woman travelling alone by car. The prose is full of beautiful descriptions, with a very funny account of what she found in Gibraltar. Strange to think that there are people still alive who remember that time. Read this, and weep.
Arabia: Through the Looking Glass by Jonathan Raban was published in 1979. The author visited the Middle East before the vast wealth of the 1970s oil boom damaged Arab culture and traditions. Raban’s gregarious nature and the chatty eloquence of his writing reveals the hidden depths of the people he encounters. You’re pulled into conversations with expats and Bedouins with equal intensity. As a young child, I spent two years living in Saudi Arabia during the exact time of Raban’s research. This book allowed me to experience the entire region with an adult’s insight, wit and well-crafted observations.
I promised my eldest that I wouldn’t book another holiday in Scotland this year … but that was before I read Helen Ochyra’s Beyond the Bagpipes and now it’s going to take all my willpower not to book us another remote Scottish cottage. Beyond the Bagpipes charts the author’s journey around Scotland following her mother’s death and is a cliche-free and evocative portrait of the country. I found my own experiences of places like the “moulded seascape” of Uig Sands mirrored in Ochyra’s descriptions, while folding down page after page to mark all the places I still need to visit.
The incomparable Venice by Jan Morris is a love letter to a city that still exists behind the superficial hustle and bustle of mass tourism: a place of unique character, breathtaking contrasts and the indomitable spirit of a grand inheritance. Venice transports me to the serene dusk of quiet alleyways and the ever-surprising emergence into bright, busy squares. It reminds me that the ancient city is a place for wanderers, rewarding those ready to stray from the well-worn tourist trails. Less a travel book, more a book that exhorts you to stay and take the time to know a place, a people and their history.
One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake made me want to head out to a Parisian bakery as soon as I read it. A woman cycles around France in search of the perfect croissant while trying lots of French delicacies on the way. There are recipes, great mouthwatering descriptions of the food, fabulous descriptions of France experienced on two wheels and just a general love of travel and France across each and every page. Wonderful and really evocative of the taste, sights and smells of this diverse country. Fabulous.
Vintage travel books hold a special place in my heart. The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White is one such book. White draws on his 16 years’ experience as a resident between 1983 and 1998 and shows us a Paris full of contradictions. He guides us through a heady mix of elegant literary characters sharing ideas at bohemian cafes, while breathing life into the lives and experiences of some of the marginalised groups who call Paris their home. The Flaneur leaves you feeling entertained, just a little bit smarter and yearning to know more.
I like Down Under by Bill Bryson because the author never seems to use the same approach to each of his books. Is this book going to be snarky Bill? Is this going to be funny Bill? Is this going to be funny, yet informative Bill? Is this going to be snarky, yet informative Bill? I could go on, but my hands would start to cramp with the unlimited combinations. While many of the scientific discoveries outlined in the book were a little beyond me, I thoroughly enjoyed Bryson’s descriptions of the larger-than-life personalities behind the discoveries, which really brought the science described to life. Bill Bryson also loves Australia, and it shows.
Reading Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy showed me how far you could go by just turning the pedals on a bicycle (in her case, from Ireland to India). An open mind, a bucketful of resilience and a deep respect for all those she met just added to the joy of adventure. It took a while between reading the book in my 20s and then pedalling myself east to west and north to south across the US in my 50s, but she has been with me the whole way, even laughing on my shoulder whenever it felt a bit tough, to spur me on.
Guardian Travel readers’ tips
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Anna McNuff’s adventure books, particularly The Pants of Perspective: One Woman’s 3,000 Kilometre Running Adventure Through the Wilds of New Zealand, were the most wonderful escape for me in the first (and neverending second) lockdown. Her bouncy voice and humour, and her lust for adventure, were honey for my hurting, quarantined soul. I felt as if I was there with her on the Te Araroa trail, feeling like I could manage anything and have that precious escape from WFH stress and pandemic anxiety.
Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines was one of the books that inspired me to travel in Italy. It’s about the kindness of strangers to outsiders based on the help Newby himself received from local families and peasants as an escaped prisoner during the second world war. Struggling with a broken ankle, Newby was hidden in a hay loft for months and eventually met his future wife, Wanda. They exchange Italian and English lessons, learning about each other’s cultures and background all while evading enemy soldiers. Newby is moved from house to house, works on a remote farm and is hidden in a cave. You can smell wood fires – and share sunsets, fears and hopes. A great read.