Armchair traveling

Yesterday was World Book Day, which gives me an excuse to discuss the combination of two of my favourite activities: reading and traveling. For the past few years, I have made a habit of reading about a place before I visit. I don’t mean that I read a travel brochure or guidebook in preparation (though I might) but I want to read some piece of literature that gives me a different kind of insight into a place. I want to know how someone else experienced it, either as a local or a visitor, memoir or fiction – I’m not too picky, as long as this literature can evoke a sense of the place at the time it is set.

I do tend to favour old memoirs, written about places that were not yet popular travel destinations. This can really add to my own personal experience, because it offers a subjective comparison of how the place has changed, and what traditions remain. But a contemporary novel can work just as well in bringing a new destination alive to me, and learning about local culture, insider secrets, and historical background without ever having to look at a guide book.

For a slow travel experience, I like to have such a book (novel, essays, letters, etc.) with me – it’s as good as any travel companion with whom you can compare your impressions as they are formed. But for city trips I usually begin before leaving, to get an idea of what I might want to do while I’m there, and continue reading during the trip. There is really no formula here though; sometimes I even find a relevant text after returning from a journey, and reading that afterward allows me to reflect anew on the experience I had.

So with that in mind, I present you a list of my favourite travel companions for some of the more recent destinations I have ventured to:

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The Turkish Embassy Letters

Author: Lady Mary Wortley Montague

Where we traveled: Turkey

This book is actually a series of letters written by the good Lady Montague during her travels across Europe to modern-day Turkey where her husband was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman Empire, leaving London in August 1716. This very modern woman set out on the journey with a mind more open than would be expected considering the era she lived in, and her high class status in England.

Her insights into the cultures she travels through are still thought-provoking and eye opening today. Of course she isn’t entirely unbiased – she’s a woman who lived a privileged life and the people she interacts with along the way are of similar class to her, so the scope is somewhat limited. But the letters and impressions do not suffer from this. In fact due to the mode of travel available at the time (horse-drawn carriages) she did experience various degrees of comfort along the way. But this is not important to her story. She has the amazing ability to look at her own culture and see where it can be improved, and how things are done “better” somewhere else.

What really impressed me was how she saw these things and brought the new ideas back with her. She was a leader in smallpox inoculations which she witnessed in Turkey, and had performed on her toddler son, and defied convention by insisting doctors in England adapt the practice. (Bringing the practice home with her is not mentioned in the letters, but any edition with some historical analysis will mention it). She was an amazing woman, with the heart of an adventurer and the open-minded positivism of the best sort of traveler. It should be read, even if you never plan to visit Turkey. She is truly an inspiring woman – I think I could safely say a feminist too.

Parliament at night, Budapest


Author: Gyula Krúdy

Where we traveled: Budapest

Gyula Krúdy was a very well known and loved author in Hungary during his lifetime and is experiencing a bit of a revival in popularity at the moment, after being forgotten. He was born in 1878, beginning his writing career in journalism as a teenager and moving into story telling until his death in 1933.

This book is said to be a particularly good example of his picturesque, poetic prose. It takes place partially in Budapest but primarily around a country estate in Hungary. It evokes a contrast between city and country life in the early 20th century there, and most of the time the descriptions – loads of similes and metaphors – taste like warm honey in your mouth. Admittedly the similes occasionally don’t work for me at all, but I believe this due to the complicated differences of the languages – it was originally written in Hungarian, a very different language from English. But most of the time the translation is gorgeous, and the pages of the book slip like silk through your fingers. A little taste I’m just pulling out at random:

So she whacked the melancholy mare Kati, and, flushed in the heat of excitement, cantered through birch woods, where the aftereffects of melted snow, blackened nests and globular growths hung from bare branches like so many hanged men slain by spring for being no longer fit to live.

I combined this with another book from an author born in Hungary, John Lukacs. The book, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture is perhaps more useful to travelers as it draws your attention to, obviously, Budapest at the fin de siècle, as well as some historically interesting places that still stand today.

St. Hilarion, Cyprus

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Author: Lawrence Durrell

Where we traveled: North Cyprus

I think my book review should cover it:

It was a wonderful experience reading this book. How often does one read a memoir, written by a poet, set in a tumultuous period among a beautiful backdrop of landscape and people? It is, unfortunately, all too rare. But what a pleasant surprise. The very first paragraph of the book is so masterfully written that I was drawn in from the start and didn’t want to put it down. Having said that it is not a fast read, for I found I got caught up in the poetic descriptions of a village and region I have had the pleasure to experience myself, and I would have to reread passages to remember where I was in the story. Durrell can move the reader through various emotions, given the political instability that turns to terrorism among the peaceful villages of the island full of beautiful and kind people, and in contrast the humorous characters and experiences he encounters during his time in Cyprus.

The only thing missing is an epilogue telling of his return to Cyprus – but after some searching I have found more evidence that he never returned, and none suggesting he did. I stood outside his home in Bellapais before reading this novel, and am now yearning to return. I cannot imagine how he did not.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

In Morocco

Author: Edith Wharton

Where we traveled: Morocco

This memoir is pretty amazing just for the timing of it. Wharton traveled with her western mindset and military entourage to Morocco in 1917 during the French protectorate in the last days of WWI. She doesn’t have the same open spirit of Lady Montague but she does give detailed and often beautiful descriptions of Morocco and its people at a time when they were experiencing a great adjustment to their way of life.

She gets to go places where men of the time would not have, namely into harems. And again being a woman of high status in the United States, she is automatically accepted into high society in Morocco, both the local and French. One great characteristic of Wharton is her curiosity, which is stimulated repeatedly throughout her journey and she does what she can to answer arising questions.

I found this a very helpful guide to seeing how Morocco has been influenced by its time under France – and as a protectorate rather than a colony most of the changes can be seen without causing shudders. For example, the cuisine is a mix of the two cultures and a very successful one at that. The Islamic institutes were protected by the French and it is for that reason that even today, non-believers cannot enter the mosques (there are two exceptions that are open to tourists). Also, restoration projects and roadworks have helped bring tourism while preserving and connecting local cultures. I don’t mean to suggest that the protectorate was all positive, but Edith Wharton doesn’t hesitate to explain to her readers what all the benefits may be.

A more light-hearted and contemporary memoir that I also really enjoyed, is The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah. It is his account of renovating a dar – it sounds more like a small palace than a house to me –  while living in it over a year in Casablanca. This is very personal and insightful into the local beliefs and way of life and how they impact his British sensibilities. As you might imagine, there are some pretty hilarious moments in all that.

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Paris
View from Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, Paris


A Moveable Feast

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Where we traveled: Paris

This book made me love Hemingway. I don’t have the words to convey the beauty of his words. I gave it five stars on Goodreads, and I don’t hand out stars wily-nilly on Goodreads. It really evokes that era in Paris where the cafés were over-crowded with suffering American authors who turned out to be brilliant. There is some taste of local culture too, but its really just a book that makes you want to go to Paris, again.

I supplemented this with Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. This is also totally brilliant and from roughly the same period, but the difference is Orwell was mingling with your standard working class Parisians rather than fellow artistic foreigners, and together the two books give you a real sense of Paris life and all its beauty and poverty in the 20th century.

Berlin Wall art, Berlin

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

Author: Anna Funder

Where we traveled: Berlin

Another outsider perspective story, really well researched investigation with personal overtones of life in East Germany. Funder does an excellent job of telling her own experience learning about life in the east, and compiling the experiences of other East Germans who she meets along the way. The history brought to life in this book is essential to really understanding the culture of Berlin today, and much of the former East Germany.


Well, that’s a short list of excellent travel companions, whether you are traveling by train, plane, or armchair. They all offer something a bit different but for me they have all enriched my traveling experiences. I might have to do this again next World Book Day!

To inspire you a bit for general traveling, here are two bonuses:

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton – quite possibly my all time favourite bit of travel writing – and, referenced by Botton in that same book, a quite entertaining memoir of a sort to keep you motivated while you save for your next trip, Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre.

What are some of the best books you have read while traveling or related to a journey you made?

I hope there are one or two new ones for you in the list above. Happy reading!

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