5 Classics of Travel Writing

readinginbedI’m much more a fan of reading non-fiction than fiction, and my favourite genre is travel writing. A well-crafted piece of travel writing, whether it takes the form of a journal, essay or more literary piece, transports you to a different place and time, revealing things previously unknown to the reader or capturing the beauty of the everyday that we often miss in our busy lives. Here are five of my favourites:

 

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

This is most certainly a travelogue, but not one in any ordinary sense. Rather, In Patagonia is a collection of snapshots and sketches from Chatwin’s wanderings, readings and imaginings of the region. Meetings with descendants of Welsh immigrants fill pages next to an account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s retirement, which sit alongside thoughts on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the mythological giants imagined by Magellan. Dispensing with a narrative or plot, the reader is instead privileged to dip in a vast and curious pool of information. The stark Patagonian landscape serves as a cipher for the end of the road, for lands remote and imagined, and the array of characters Chatwin encounters (both historical and present), for those drawn to the ends of the earth for exploration, escape and enterprise.

Buy it here.

Monte FitzRoy in Patagonia. Photo from Wikipedia

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger is often described as an anachronism, his education at Eton and then Oxford, and his dogged determination to discover what lay within the blank spaces on a map, harking back to the gentlemen explorers of the Victorian Era, obsessed with colonisation and Empire. However, he distinguishes himself by immersing in the culture of the people he encounters, travelling for the sake of the experience, and his lyrical and articulate writing. Arabian Sands is his account of five years spent crossing and recrossing Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the mid-1940s, accompanied by nomadic Bedu camel herders. Thesiger was also a talented photographer, and the images in the book capture a way of life on the brink of extreme change.

Buy it here.

Thesiger in Abu Dhabi in 1948. He donated over 5000 photographs of his travels in the Middle East to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo from Pitt-Rivers Museum.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Nobel laureate Steinbeck’s novels capture the voices of early 20th Century America, reflecting on his broad range of interests, from history to politics to ecology. In 1960, Steinbeck set out on a road trip in a fitted-out pick-up truck with Charley, his standard French poodle, to document the changes that had occurred across the States throughout that period, and connect with the identity of a new America. Much has been made of the truth of the account, with Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, having been present for most of the journey yet largely absent from the book. Studies have since revealed that a number of events and encounters were fictionalised, but I feel Steinbeck deals with the issue, meditating on how personal experience shapes a person’s reality. The writing is as good as you would expect from such a renowned author, and there’s Charley, the travelling companion we all dream of.

Buy it here.

John Steinbeck and Charley on the road in 1950. Photo from The Guardian.

News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

In 1935, Fleming, then an editor for the Times, set off on an overland trip from Peking (now Beijing) in China to Kashmir, then in British India, by horse, camel and on foot. Tartary, an area corresponding to a vast swathe of Central Asia, had long been subject to influences from China, Russia and the British Empire in a period referred to as “The Great Game”, yet at the same time was a black hole in terms of most Westerner’s knowledge. With the Soviet Union supporting a communist uprising in Xinjiang, no news had been gathered from the region for several months before Fleming’s journey. The writing is crisp, with a wry humour, although readers should be aware some passages are very evocative of their era.

Buy it here.

Photograph of a Madrasa in Samarkand taken c. 1912. Photo from Wikipedia

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text for many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying the airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. In 1935, whilst attempting to beat the record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed into the Sahara. Surviving the crash and lost in a sea of sand, they face a drawn-out death from dehydration. This experience is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, part memoir of early aviation and part meditation on the human condition. This is powerful, lyrical storytelling, rich with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this slim volume is as near perfect as a piece of travel writing can be.

Buy it here.

Saint-Ex and his aircraft. Photo from The Guardian.

 

Which classic travel books have inspired you?

 

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Why I’m Not A Food Blogger

1. I rarely take photographs of food, because by the time I think about getting my camera out, I’ve already eaten it. But on the upside, my food is always hot (unless it’s not supposed to be).  Such as this lovely Lebanese meal I had recently in London.  Grilled chicken, flatbreads, halloumi cheese, and baba ghanouj for dipping.  I think it’s baba ghanouj, but that might have been the name of a band I saw in Greece.  Or maybe that was imam baildi?

 

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2. I can cook pretty well, but the things I cook rarely look pretty enough to bother taking pictures of them. However if the food tastes good, I don’t really care. So, here’s a rare photo of some haggis, neeps, and tatties from the Burns supper I had last month. I’m sorry that you only get to see the cold leftovers in a tupperware tub.  But it was YUMMY.

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3. I maintain a healthy mistrust of most vegetables. Growing up in the north of Scotland, choice was pretty limited; cabbage, kale, parsnips and carrots. Oh, and neeps*. Christmas dinner had potatoes served TWO different ways – roasties and mash. Perhaps cauliflower cheese for a special meal. I don’t think I’d heard of celeriac until I was in my 20s, let alone eaten it.

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Tomatoes. Made of genuine evil. kton25 on creative commons

4. I’m pretty happy to eat what I’m given, and not really know what’s in it or how it made. I really don’t mind. I once ate a mystery meat kebab that someone passed through the bus window to me in Ghana. It was LUSH. And that’s baba ghanouj? Hmmm, mushy. That’s ok. And is it baba ghanouj or baba ghanoush? Does it matter so much?  Let’s all enjoy our hummous/ hummus/ hoummos together.

 

5. I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that couldn’t be improved with the addition of a massive dollop of horseradish sauce. ANYTHING. Plus, I hate washing up far more than I love cooking.

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*In North America, neeps go by the more exotic name of rutabaga. It makes me feel very cosmopolitan to say “rutabaga”, despite the rutabaga being one of the least cosmopolitan of vegetables.

Extinct is Forever: Why We Need to Save #JustOneRhino

I saw a rhino the other week. Out on training walk for the TGO Challenge, I took a footpath that led me along the edge of the nearby safari park, letting me look through the heavy security fence, and watch as it trundled over the plains of Bedfordshire.

It was a white rhino. Although it wasn’t remotely white; rather a dark grey. Not even the pale sort of grey, the grey that you might be able to call off-white in the wrong light. Just plain dark grey. Its name actually comes from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans for wide, referring to the animal’s mouth, which is wider than that of the black rhino. Incidentally, the black rhino is also dark grey in colour, although they just happen to be very slightly darker shades of grey than the white rhino. Continue reading

The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11

A Vagabond January

To help meet my goal of being more focused on work, and in the rest of my life, I’ve been noting down little achievements in my journal. But without taking time to revisit what I’ve done and reflect on milestones I’ve passed, I’ll never maintain the momentum I had at the start of the year. So each month I’m aiming to publish a review of what I’ve been up to.

Where I’ve Been

I kicked off my #30NightsOut challenge to spend more time outdoors in 2015 with a Hogmanay camping trip with a few friends to White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire. Huddled round the campfire, we celebrated the New Year with a feast of ribs, corn on the cob and sweet potatoes roasted on the fire, and washed down with a few glasses of bubbly. We were able to watch several firework displays from our vantage point, until wind and drizzle forced us to bed in the wee hours. Grotty weather put paid to our plans to climb the hill in the morning, so we retreated home to the comfort of pyjamas, duvets and endless cups of tea.

I’ve entered the 2015 TGO Challenge, a demanding backpack across Scotland from coast-to-coast, that will take place in May. The Bear (my bf) and I are going to hike for approximately 14 days, so we’ve been out on several training walks in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

I’m not really one for sitting about, as you might gather, so while I’m looking for work, I’ve got myself involved in a project with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton. I’m working with a team over the winter to refit their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long ketch custom-built to be able to sail anywhere in the world. So far, my jobs have been rather dusty as we strip back old paint, ready for a fresh coat.

Highlights

After a hard day of sanding on John Laing, I escaped out to the pretty village of Lymington in the heart of the New Forest for a walk across the wintry heathland. The pale silvery sunset looked like it might promise some snow, but all we got was a crisp hard frost that turned the heather crunchy.

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I visited the Adventure Travel Show in London on the 18th January. It was exciting to browse the stands and see travel options available, but the most inspiring part of the day was listening to talks from people like Benedict Allen and Ann Daniels. I was particularly inspired by a talk by Russ Malkin about filming his travels, and really want to try some of his tips for myself.  Just need to get a camera…

I’ve Been Reading

I’m a massive bookworm. Getting stuck into a good read is just one of life’s pleasures, and I particularly love books that explore a topic in exquisite detail. Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is a spell-binding examination of the connection between forests and fairytales, and how both have shaped the culture and experience of Northern Europeans like myself. Each chapter ends with Maitland’s retelling of a familiar tale.

As a lighter diversion, I also read Sihpromatum: I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace, which I picked up as a Kindle freebie. A self-published memoir written for young-adults, this is a coming-of-age tale that charts Grace’s transition from a whiny, self-centred teen to a young adult with a wide-eyed wonder about the world.

I’ve also spent a lot of my usual reading time this month listening to the BBC podcast of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Quite frankly, big books feel a little daunting to me (perhaps from the time I dozed off and dropped the hardback copy of A Game of Thrones on my face, giving myself a black eye), but the hour long chunks of the story have been perfect, and I can lie back on the sofa and daydream of the drama and romance of Tsarist Russia without worrying about injury.

Best of the Blogs

This month I shared an account of the time I set out on a trip to explore Oslo, and only managed to spend time in the hotel before flying out again. Visiting Scandinavia at this time of year is likely to mean snow and freezing temperatures, but these tips for making the best out of winter travel curated by Turnipseed Travel will inspire you to get out into the cold. Closer to home, I enjoyed following the bloggers that took part in the #blogmanay experience, in particular these stunning pictures of Glencoe by Finding The Universe. But if getting knee-deep in snow really isn’t your thing the naughty guide to winter in London by Girl vs Globe might be more up your street.

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IMG_3651v1This shot of the Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis, is a flashback to my time in Athens for the TBEX Conference in October last year.

Coming Up Next Month

I’ll be obsessing over maps in February, as I put together my route across Scotland for the TGO Challenge, and send it off for approval from the event co-ordinators on the 14th. I’ll also be out for some more long training walks and to test some of the equipment I’m planning on carrying.

I’ve got a short-break to the Peak District planned for the start of the month, which is bound to include more hiking. Depending on conditions, I might also be tempted to spend a night under canvas for my #30NightsOut challenge, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed for snow and the excuse to find a good pub with a roaring fire at the end of the day.

That’s it for this month. Thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates from my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.