Travelling by Book

I’ve insatiably devoured books since I first went to school. I started school late due to a family house move; I was five and a half and should have begun school a year earlier. I skipped quickly up two years within a few months and certainly by the age of eight was a serious reader. I remember the age clearly as I was in bed with mumps, my dad too, and my mother was run off her feet running the family business alone while we recovered. As well as having to nurse us, she had to find at least three books a day to keep me quietly occupied. Real books, not kids’ picture books. Friends and neighbours would come to our door with their offerings of books to lend me. My attachment to reading led to my mother telling me I read too much – I suppose back in the early 60s this was akin to telling kids today that they spend too much time on their phones and tablets. 

Well, ‘always having my nose in a book’ may have got me into trouble, but later on took me into a career in book publishing. I took the standard route for women at the time, starting as a secretary, but by the time I left to have my daughter in my late twenties, I was a commissioning editor of non-fiction books, which included cookery and travel books. I’m still working as a freelance book editor – though work mainly on fiction these days – and so I still constantly have my nose in a book. Though to be more precise, it’s very often my computer as all my publishing work now comes via email and I edit and proofread onscreen. 

I like to read real books for pleasure though. I’m not a fan of Kindle though will admit it has its uses for some things. But when going away, it’s real, solid, paper books that are packed in my bag. And that brings me to the real subject of this blog post: travel books.

Of course, most of us haven’t been doing much, or indeed any, travelling over the past 15 months with all the Covid restrictions. But when I look at these books on my shelves they remind me of happy travelling times. 

I’ve always liked to take a book set in the place I’m heading to for a holiday. Sometimes it’s a novel; other times it might be some travel writing. I don’t mean guidebooks, though they come with me too, but writers’ memories of travelling through or living in countries I’ve yet to explore. Here are some that are special to me.

I can clearly remember reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about him living in Paris as a young, unknown writer in the 1920s, when in Paris myself many years ago. It’s a short book and I started reading it sat outside a cafe one morning with my cafe creme (before the days of flat whites, etc), the sun was shining and the Eiffel Tower was in view, just a short walk away. Where else should one read this book!

I went to Venice by myself for the first time in 2006. I’d been many times before but this was the start of my solo travelling. My dear friend Jane lent me her copy of Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel to take with me. Vickers is a Jungian psychoanalyst, which means she brings a wonderful insight into her characters’ thoughts and behaviour, but she’s eminently readable – not stuffy or hard going. She’s become a favourite writer and I have lent Miss Garnet to many friends on their way to Venice for them to enjoy her too.

The blog, 10 years old in a month’s time, really began in Kardamyli, Greece, in 2011. A friend, Anna, who lives in Greece, arranged a place for me to stay in Kardamyli, an hour’s drive from Kalamata airport. When I searched for books about the place I found Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. To be honest, I knew nothing of Fermor, and that he was a prolific and much respected writer, who had chosen to live in Kardamyli after a life of travels. But by chance I found myself arriving there just days after he died. The book is wonderful, I took it with me everywhere, reading about ‘The quiet charm of Kardamyli’, and everytime I stopped at a cafe or restaurant for food or drink, people would come up to me and want to tell me about Fermor, how sad they were he’d died, what a wonderful man he’d been. I was witness to their sadness and memories and that made the book very special to me.

I didn’t get back to Greece until 2014 when I went to Crete for the first time. I’d gone in mid-September in search of the last of the summer sun before autumn set in. Unfortunately the weather was pretty terrible, so much so that the beach opposite my apartment was closed for a few days. Nevertheless I had a great time, saw quite a bit of beautiful Crete and enjoyed some wonderful food and met friendly people. My reading for the week centred on Victoria Hislop’s The Island, about the leper island of Spinalonga, which lies off the coast close to where I was staying. Hislop has a home in Crete so knows it well, and is known for her careful research into the background of her books. I enjoyed the book and have since read more of her novels.

Those of you who have followed my blog for a long time will know of my love of Amsterdam, which I’ve written about many times  For reading on one visit I took David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam, a novel about a family, each with their own memories and troubles, going to the city together. It’s a brilliant read which I’ve recommended many times since.

Finally – though by no means the last book of travel memories on my shelves – is Laurie Lee’s A Rose in Winter, a wonderful read about his travels in Andalusia at the time the Civil War broke out. A beautiful, evocative book of the region, I loved reading it while holidaying in Andalusia myself in 2017 – in glorious Granada.

Do please let me know of any books you’ve read while travelling that hold special memories of your travels.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

11 thoughts on “Travelling by Book

  1. Lovely post! Your mention of Granada reminds me of finishing Chaim Potok’s The Book of Lights in the Generalife. Entirely inappropriate for the location but I was riveted by it. We were lucky enough to visit the Alhambra in the early years after Franco when there were barely any tourists around. We walked into the Court of the Lions which was completely empty. Thanks for reminding me of that.

    1. Thank you! And how wonderful you got to the Alhambra before the tourists! I did book a tour that began at 8am so got in early before it was too crowded but would love to go again sometime. I really liked Granada.

  2. Me, too. We moved on to Cordoba which was having the equivalent of an open gardens weekend. Lots of gorgeous patios over arched with wisteria. So lucky to have stumbled upon that!

  3. Ruskin Bond holds a special place in my heart, his books are set in mostly in places where I grew up. He has a story for every mood even those that require a little sob!

  4. HI Kay, I’ve just reread ‘Jogging Round Majorca’ by Gordon West ,originally published in 1929. It is wonderfully dated and is essentially the record of this fairly well-off, laidback couple’s exploration of Majorca and its peasant people, their customs and of the traditional hospitality extended to all strangers then; all now virtually eradicated under the pressures of commercial tourism. It’s a lovely little book and fun to experience familiar places as seen through the eyes of these earlier visitors. What changes since, and in less than 100 years!

  5. Years ago I started an export company and was doing business with the Virgin Island government. My attorney there told me that before I did any business with the islanders that I should read Herman Woulk’s Don’t Stop The Carnival. Wouk and his family lived for some years on an island just off St. Thomas and wrote a story that was both comical as well as moving. Anytime that I heard of someone traveling to the Caribbean, I would recommend the book.

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