Good travel writing makes for the ideal travelling companion. Its kaleidoscopic blend of history, politics, and personal experience creates a truly interdisciplinary, and, in my opinion, highly rewarding, genre.
Here is a selection of Europe’s best:
Border, Kapka Kassabova
Border concerns the author’s journey around the border territory between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. It explores the hopes and dangers, both physical and psychological, of those who attempt border crossings:
‘People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.’
Kassabova, who grew up in Sofia, starts by recollecting innocent summer holidays spent by the Black Sea. Whilst she was lying on a beach, horrific things were happening just a few miles away. Renting a house near the border, Kassabova begins to uncover the unsettling history, recoverable from conversations with locals, of security guards and surveillance.
Back then, the forested border of Bulgaria was an escape route from life behind the iron curtain. Many people lost their lives in attempting the journey south. They were pursued, shot and then furtively buried; traces of their journey still remain in the trees in the form of their carved initials.
Now, refugees flee north instead of south. In Turkey, Kassabova meets many people who desperately want to reach Bulgaria, their gateway into Europe, as they flee horrors like the Syrian Civil War. She also encounters Bulgarians who were evicted in 1989 from their country for their Islamic faith, and reached the Turkish border downtrodden and virtually possessionless.
Deservedly, Border received the Stanford Dolman Travel Award for its richly poetic evocation of life on the edge of Europe.
The Crossing Place, Philip Marsden
Marsden travels among the Armenians, revealing the ghost of their suffering and displacement. Some of its passages focus on Europe: he follows Byron to Venice, where the latter spent time in an Armenian monastery on San Lazzaro learning Armenia; and he trudges through Transylvania in search of a closer understanding of the Armenian diaspora.
As well as his stay in Armenia itself, Marsden heads to Turkey and Syria for a haunting look at the Armenian Genocide of 1915-17. Hounded by the Young Turks and murdered in their hundreds of thousands, the Armenian death marches reached Syria where hundreds of Armenians were burned alive in caves by Deir ez-Zor or died of starvation or dehydration.
This book is highly informative and is a deep testament to the enduring spirit of the Armenian people.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
George Orwell originally went to Spain thinking he would write newspaper articles. He soon joined a militia because, in his words, ‘in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.’
He wrote about his service on the front line in Aragón and the defence of P.O.U.M’s headquarters on the Ramblas in Barcelona. His life on the ‘quiet front’ was infested by rats, lice and filth, until he was shot through the throat and almost died. The description of the moment he was shot is one of the book’s most vivid passages.
Orwell’s partisanship is evident. Accordingly, Homage to Catalonia should be read for its personal account of life during the Spanish Civil War and not as authoritative history. But it is a good place to start reading about some of the events of 1936-39.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris
Jan Morris has written about many of the world’s great cities: Oxford, Venice and Sydney are among her best known works. In her final book, she chose to cover the city of Trieste, a city of profound significance to her ever since she was decommissioned in its harbour at the end of the Second World War.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is much more self-reflective than most travel books, offering musings on identity as well as place. In simple prose, it takes the reader on a tour through Trieste’s shifting identities, with the expert eye of a life-long traveller and commentator.
Read it and you’ll have to add Trieste to your Eurail route.
A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor
In 1933, at the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland with the intention of walking to Constantinople.
A Time of Gifts is this journey’s first instalment. In his footfalls from Holland to Hungary, the reader is offered a reflection on adolescence (from the vantage point of adulthood) and a picture of a Europe that was showing signs of discontent.
The baroque style of his prose can occasionally be daunting. However, for its sweep through Europe and for its endless curiosity, this book deserves all its acclaim.