Venice by Jan Morris
Recent reports suggest the now-quiet canals of Venice are at their clearest for 60 years, with dolphins and swans spotted in recent days. The city, of course, has always had a touch of fantasy about it. “Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city,” writes Jan Morris in this 1960 masterpiece. “She is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.” The book pens a portrait of a city thick with atmosphere and stuffed with history, conjuring an intoxicating sense of place with Morris’s trademark wit and wisdom.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy de Lisle
Canadian cartoonist Guy de Lisle is no standard travel writer – and his books are far from standard travelogues. Using simple, unfussy, comic-strip illustrations, he recounts his first-hand experiences of living in some of the world’s knottiest destinations, from Myanmar to North Korea. The result is a series of graphic memoirs that brilliantly juggle the subtleties and oddities of being a stranger in a strange town. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is the product of a year-long stay in the region and, over the course of more than 300 pages, tries to make sense of somewhere rarely less than complex.
• Jonathan Cape
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy
Few travel writers of any era compare to Dervla Murphy. Now in her late 80s, she’s been responsible for dozens of travel books, dwelling on destinations as varied as Cuba, Laos, Romania and Cameroon. Her 1965 debut remains her best known work, and tells the account of an astonishing solo bicycle expedition to Delhi. “Within a few weeks my journey had degenerated from a happy-go-lucky cycle trek to a grim struggle for progress by any means,” she writes, before encountering wolves, broken ribs and heat exhaustion. She also packs a .25 pistol, and has more than one cause to use it.
The Crossway by Guy Stagg
This searingly honest account of an on-foot, 10-month journey from Canterbury to Jerusalem found its way onto more than one awards shortlist following its publication in 2018, and for good reason. Guy Stagg, a self-proclaimed non-believer and non-hiker, undertakes the trek as a form of self-healing, following years of coping with depressive thoughts that “stung and reeled”. If the pretext is downbeat, the journey itself is an odyssey, encountering memorable characters and a rippled patchwork of different cultures and beliefs. Almost unbelievably, he sets off from Kent in the dead of winter, requiring a crossing of the Alps in snow. And he writes like a dream.
Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking around America with Interruptions by Jenny Diski
After spending three weeks crossing the Atlantic on a cargo ship (“at night, the rabble of stars demanded to be watched”), Jenny Diski travels around the perimeter of the USA by rail. The joy of the book lies as much in her portrayal of characters she encounters en route as the immersive detail of the country she’s passing through. Or, as she writes, “it is much more as if America is passing through you, what you are, what you’ve known”. Part-memoir, and written around 20 years ago, Stranger On A Train captures an America that still feels familiar – albeit with cigarettes in place of smartphones.
French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France by Tim Moore
Few writers since Bill Bryson have nailed the comic travelogue as well as Tim Moore. Dogged in pursuit of an adventure, he’s pedalled the former Iron Curtain on an East German shopping bike, walked the Camino de Santiago with a donkey and, most recently, crossed the USA in a breakdown-prone Model T Ford. He’s also properly, consistently funny, as evidenced in 2001’s French Revolutions, which sees him attempt to cycle the entire course of the Tour de France. The acknowledgement in the title pages (“The Tour de France press office, without whom none of this would have been difficult”) sets the tone for a hugely entertaining read.
• Yellow Jersey
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West
Readers get evangelical about this vast book, originally published in two volumes, which ostensibly describes Rebecca West’s travels through what was then Yugoslavia in 1937. It is, however, far more than just a keen-eyed journal. Gathering up centuries of history and blending them with her own often piercing observations, West uses the book to paint a deep and intricate picture of a region on the brink of the second world war. The New York Times has called it a “masterpiece of history and travel”, while Time magazine would later describe West as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer”.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux
“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there…” So run the opening words of Paul Theroux’s 2002 classic, Dark Star Safari. Written more than two decades after his first long-distance travelogues, and some four decades after living in Africa as a young teacher, the book follows Theroux on a compelling, north-to-south journey down the continent. The narrative doesn’t shy away from harsh judgements – in Kenya “tourists yawned at the animals and the animals yawned back”, while aid workers also come in for some barbed criticism – but the people and landscapes he encounters are portrayed so vividly you can almost feel the equatorial heat from the pages.
Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-mile Adventure by Monisha Rajesh
Monisha Rajesh has form when it comes to rail travel. This globe-straddling journey is the follow-up to 2010’s well received Around India In 80 Trains, and sees her undertake a 45,000-mile (72,000km) journey through Europe, Asia and North America. Her gift for detail means characters, as well as places, are brought to life. And from a high-altitude ride into Tibet to a trans-Canadian epic – not to mention a homecoming trip on the Venice Simplon Orient Express – the book does a fine job of affirming the things, large and small, that make rail travel such an absorbing way of seeing the world.
A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush Eric Newby
“CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?” With this 1956 telegram – sent by disillusioned London fashion executive Eric Newby to a diplomat friend – begins an engrossing, at times comical, mountaineering journey into Afghanistan. The pair lack anything like the requisite climbing experience, but undergo a brief training period in Wales before travelling to the unforgiving peaks of Asia, with the aim of conquering the 5,800-metre Mir Samir. Newby’s prose is sharp and lively throughout, drawing the reader into remote villages and the “spiky and barren-looking” Hindu Kush, where hardships (and a chance hillside encounter with steely adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, who sneers at their air-beds) await.
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