For World Book Day on 23rd April, and to help everyone get through the most unusual times that we find ourselves in, I’ve come up with my Top 10 Travel Books of all time.
So, get ready to download onto your tablet or pick from the shelf – social distancing as you go – books that will transport you to another space and time.
Driving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart (1999)
Chris Stewart could have been a rock star, but he retired as the drummer of Genesis, his schoolboy band, when he was 17 and launched a career as sheep shearer and travel writer.
This book describes his life on a remote mountain farm in Andalucia, of which most people have a rather romantic idea. Those of us who have pitched up on an isolated Andalucian hillside to live, know it’s not all blossom and sunny days! Stewart paints the picture well, and his descriptions of the local characters, the unpredictable nature of life and the beauty of rural Andalucia make it an endearing read.
The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt (1987)
Isabelle Eberhardt was a woman of difference: born in Geneva in 1877, she moved to the North African sea port of Bône with her mother, converted to Islam and, in the main, lived her life as a man before drowning in the desert aged 27.
Her diaries give you an insight into French rule of North Africa and her love for the desert, the region and its culture. They’re also a personal account of her search for inspiration as a writer, her love for her husband and her fascination with death, which was particularly strong following an attempt on her life.
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)
The book that really ignited the solo travel trend, and a film starring Julia Roberts, this is one of the most influential travel books of the 2000s.
Gilbert’s tale of upping sticks and heading into the world, to find herself in Italy, India and Bali will have you scrolling through pages of online travel sites for your next trip. At a time of reflection, it’s appropriate, too.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, Paul Theroux (1975)
Paul Theroux is one of the great travel writers and several of his books could have made the list. In the end, I plumped for The Great Railway Bazaar as train is my favourite mode of transport.
This was Theroux’s first travel book and as he heads from London to Tokyo, primarily by rail, he introduces us to the characters he meets. There’s a wonderful range of landscapes and people, and a sense of freedom which he encapsulates perfectly and which, I think, only train travel can give you.
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850, Florence Nightingale (1854; published 1987)
Florence Nightingale will forever be considered the ‘lady with the lamp’ who, during the Crimean War, nursed injured and dying soldiers, changing the way nursing was perceived and practiced forever.
Travelling upriver on the Nile, Nightingale wrote copious letters to family and friends which were finally published more than a century later. Nightingale was well-travelled and knowledgeable, and this book shows both her learning and her wicked sense of humour, which she is less known for. Her adventures are captured well thanks her to wonderful turn of phrase.
The Places In Between, Rory Stewart (2004)
Rory Stewart was campaigning for Mayor of London prior to the Covid-19 outbreak and is known for walking everywhere.
Years before, Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan just after the Taliban had been deposed, and this book tells the story of those wanderings. He has an old-fashioned, terse style of writing but his modern outlook, focusing on the people he met and their situations, is more in keeping with the way travel writing is headed now. It’s heart-warming and tear-jerking as well.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby (1958)
Eric Newby is a favourite of mine, making it difficult to choose just one of his books. However, this, his first book is amusing, and bookends the other end of Afghanistan’s history to Rory Stewart’s work.
When Newby undertook this adventure to climb a remote, nearly 20,000-foot peak in north eastern Afghanistan, he was a fashion buyer with no mountaineering experience. It has several laugh out loud moments and it’s clear why Newby went on to become one of the best travel writers of his generation.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, R. L. Stevenson (1879)
From the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, comes a travel book where the sidekick is a donkey called Modestine.
As a young man, Stevenson headed off on a 12-day, 200-kilometre hike through the sparsely populated Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Today we think nothing of hiking and camping but in 1878 this was not seen as recreation but something peddlers did. With a commissioned sleeping bag heavy enough to require the services of Modestine – a stubborn ass with whom Stevenson did not manage to create an effective master relationship – it’s an interesting look at rural France and Stevenson’s philosophy for this undertaking.
At Home in the World, Tsh Oxenreider (2017)
Digital Nomadism, working as you travel the world, is growing in popularity, particularly amongst writers and developers who simply need a good VPN connection to work.
Tsh, her husband and three children all aged under 10, spent 9 months travelling the world having sold up back in the States. From China to Australia, Uganda, France, Croatia and places in between, they found the balance between wanderlust and a contented homelife. A pleasant, easy read which shows travelling with children is doable!
Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson (1997)
Seeing your homeland through the eyes of another is interesting and, in this case, very funny. There were parts of this book which had been clutching my sides I was crying so much.
Bill Bryson loves Britain and the way he winkles out our national idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and holds them up to the light is amusing. He veers about across the country (his mood often veers too) and whether you’re a native or foreigner to the shores, you’ll recognise something of the British way of life.