Armchair Travel: 10 Travel Writing Classics

These are some of my favourite classic travel books.

In this edition of Armchair Travel, I’ve curated a collection of some of the true classics of travel writing. The beauty of many of these travelogues is that they take us back to lands which no longer exist.

This is a selection of notable titles by some of the best-known names in the genre, many of which have inspired later writers and travellers. It includes well-known works seeded by mountaineering and polar expeditions, journals of travels in unusual circumstances and situations, and wry looks at more familiar places. It should be recognised that some of the content of the books listed and the ideas expressed within have aged much better than others.

Read on to dive into the inspiration that has fuelled generations of travellers, ideas planning a travel adventure, or to travel vicariously in space and time without leaving the sofa.

The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain (1869)

Twain and a companion spend several months touring Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East on a cruise of the Mediterranean during the period of transition from Grand Tour to modern tourism. He writes sharp, insightful dispatches for an American newspaper, peppered with irreverent observations, satirical caricatures, and his trademark acerbic wit. However, it is to be noted that his views spill over into racism and Islamophobia at points. At a time when few travelled intercontinentally, his accounts were a lesson in culture and history, not just for his readers at home, but for those abroad encountering the brashness of Americans for the first time. The account is the source of the much-quoted observation below. Find it here.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people needed it sorely on these accounts.”

Mark Twain

The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)

The title of this book really is no exaggeration, and it’s no spoiler to let you know things do not go well. In 1912 Cherry-Garrard was the youngest member of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott. He was part of the team making the infamous Winter Journey to the penguin rookery at Cape Crozier with Edward Wilson and Birdie Bowers, and crossed the Great Ice Barrier and Bearmore Glacier with the polar party before being sent back at latitude 85° 20′ South. After leading the final unsuccessful rescue mission, Cherry-Garrard was part of the team uncovering the fate of Scott and the rest of the party, just 11 miles short of One-Ton Depot. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he poured himself into this work, piecing together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen South. Get it here.

The Valley of the Assassins – Freya Stark (1934)

Stark is an intrepid explorer, trained as a geographer and cartographer, perhaps even working in the intelligence service, who writes engagingly of the people she encounters on her travels and challenged the perception of travelling safely as a solo woman. This book recounts several separate trips undertaken by Stark, into Luristan and its bordering regions, the mountainous area between Iraq and present-day Iran, as the fragmenting Ottoman Empire allowed access to areas previously off-limits to Western Europeans. It is hard to ignore that Stark is essentially a gravel robber, with obtaining grave goods and skulls the primary reason for her interest, which she justifies on the basis that it was better these were acquired on behalf of museums than fall into the hands of private collectors. Find it here.

Green Hills  of Africa – Ernest Hemingway (1935)

An account of a month Hemingway spent on safari in East Africa with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in 1933 when such an expedition was the height of glamour. He aspires to spend his time in the Serengeti shooting big game, fishing, drinking, and debating literature and philosophy with his fellow hunters. The book graphically describes the killing of animals, and though Hemingway acknowledges this will be distasteful to many and imagines the feeling of his prey close to death, he only shows contrition over a job poorly done. Alongside capturing the adrenaline rush of the hunt, and the notions of masculinity it conferred, he writes beautifully about the landscape and nature of the African bush. Get it here.

Journey Without Maps – Graham Greene (1936)

In 1935, successful novelist Greene undertook a trip to Liberia, a part of West Africa little known to Europeans, with his cousin Barbera as a travel companion. All the others invited to join him turned him down flat, but Greene was fascinated to explore the influences of colonialism in the region, and investigate the factors enabling Liberia to retain independence in the late-nineteenth century Scramble for Africa. Starting in Freetown, in the neighbouring British colonial possession of Sierra Leone, he treks inland with a team of porters to French Guinea, then through Liberia, a nation founded around a hundred years prior by formerly enslaved people and free-born Black people from the US and Caribbean. Greene’s narrative is compelling and insightful, exploring and exposing European myths about Africa, albeit through the white male gaze of the time. Get it here.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West (1942)

West travelled with her husband to the Balkans in the spring of 1937, their six-week journey through inter-war Yugoslavia was a return visit to document the history, political situation, and people of the region as the dark clouds of WWII gathered over Europe. The scale of the undertaking is epic, with more than 1200 pages of travel journal, historic insight, and cultural commentary, probing the fragmented and troubled history of the Balkan states and the uneasy relationships of the people of the region. They travel through what was then Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, recently on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the remains of the Ottoman Empire, now lying between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. West’s writing is exceptional in its clarity and striking imagery, a masterpiece by turns witty and beautiful, on the edge of overwhelming. Find it here.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby (1958)

Bored of his career in the London fashion trade, Newby undertakes an expedition to make a first ascent of Mir Samir (5,089m / 19,058′) in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. After just four days of training in Snowdonia, the woefully underprepared duo of Newby and Carless set off on their transcontinental expedition to reach Kabul, and into the mountains of Nuristan, where he bumps into renowned explorer Wilfred Thesiger. The book is an entertaining read, though for its frivolity is a comprehensive history of colonial expansion into South and Central Asia and the Himalayas, and the insight into the Nuristan region is a glimpse of somewhere much changed by events of subsequent years. Read it here.

Travels with Charley in Search of America – John Steinbeck (1961)

In 1960, Steinbeck loads up a pick-up truck camper and sets off on a road trip across the United States, travelling though forty states, accompanied by his French poodle, Charley. At the age of fifty-eight, feeling the softening of age about him and growing a little weary with the world, he aims to reconnect with his subject matter and meet the people that make up this new America and understand their stories. He writes with insight into the upheaval and change of the 1960’s, the loss of regional diversity across the country, and the changes in the environment. This is an account of a quiet journey rather than an adventure, slipping into travel-inspired fiction in places. Buy it here.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee (1979)

Lee writes evocatively of his younger days, when at the age of 19, he leaves his small village in Gloucestershire and travels on foot to London, via Southampton, to find work as an itinerant labourer. He travels to Spain, supporting himself by means of his fiddle, tramping across the country on foot and becoming enchanted by the country, the people he meets, the music and customs he experiences. It is 1934, and life is hard in Spain, poverty is inescapable, and the signs of impending civil war are everywhere. This is in part a coming-of-age narrative as much as a travelogue, as the young Lee is filled out by his experiences, capturing the atmosphere, beauty, and tensions of Spain in lyrical prose. Find it here.

The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin (1987)

Central Australia was one of the few regions of the globe inhabited not by herders, pastoralists, or farmers, but by nomadic hunter-gathering people. As they moved across the continent they carved a network of invisible pathways in space and time, the Songlines of the title, which tie together cultural heritage, rites and rituals, and the human condition. This stands in vivid contrast to the prevailing culture of Australia, and Chatwin explores the conflicts between an indigenous population and a colonial force, impoverished people and wealthy, wanderers and the settled. I feel the insights of the book are enhanced by the unusual, shape-shifting form of the writing. It compiles travelogue and anthropology with Chatwin’s famed diaries, and a touch of fiction, making only a token attempt to merge these facets together, often running through deep, probing passages, interspersed with some that are little more than field sketches, before breaking down completely into scattered notes and journal extracts. Get it here.

Do you have any recommendations for classic travel books that I should read?
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