The best books for the intelligent traveller

The Books I Picked & Why

Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies

By Mary T.S. Schaffer

Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies

Why this book?

The best travel writing allows us to explore a place vicariously and this book certainly does that. But it also gives a sense of what it is like to explore as a woman and on horseback, two things I cannot claim to have ever done. It is rich with insights into the nature of the land and people. And it is sensitive without being sentimental. Schaffer was a true pioneer and the book gives a sense she would have been good company too. 


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In Patagonia

By Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia

Why this book?

I've picked In Patagonia, his first book, but I can honestly recommend anything written by Chatwin. Long after his death in middle age, he remains one of the best in the world for balancing fine writing with a sense of place. We have all read those authors who can't help reveal that they think the places they visit ought to come second to their waxy words. And we've all read books where the journey is truly extraordinary but the writer is not up to the task of sharing it. Chatwin always finds that sweet spot where the writing elevates the places he visits, but never overrides them. 


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Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent

By Alexander von Humboldt

Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent

Why this book?

Humboldt is the Godfather of so many fascinating areas of natural history. His mind unravels mysteries for breakfast. The book is a great travel story in its own right, but this tale envelopes countless examples of groundbreaking discovery. 

Personally, I find his work inspiring because he excelled at revealing how nature and place reflect each other. The plants and animals we encounter change with latitude, altitude, and a dozen other variables. This is the science that allows us to start making maps from plants and animals. We are all indebted to Humboldt and I feel it strongly. 


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Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania

By William Blacker

Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania

Why this book?

A unique book. Read this and you'll find yourself in a disappearing world. Northern Romania eschewed the modern conveniences and less delicate touches of capitalism for most of the twentieth century. Blacker shares a life wholly dictated by the rhythms of nature. This is a world where the locals recognise someone visiting from another village at a distance, not by their face or their clothes, but by the horse they are riding.


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A Year in Provence

By Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence

Why this book?

I love all of Bill Bryson's books, especially his travel literature. He retired recently, but he is still too well known for me to include his work here. Instead, I'm going for an old favourite in a similar genre. A Year in Provence was very well known in its day, 1989, so much so that waves of tourist fans forced the author to emigrate. But it's been a few years and it's possibly not so widely read now. 

Mayle's writing is funny, economical and so readable. If you fancy the idea of spending a glutinous, hilarious time in rural Provence without moving or suffering any gastric consequences then this is the book for you. Mayle's fond telling brings a cast of eccentric local characters to vivid life. If you can turn a page without smiling or finish a chapter without laughing, you're made of sterner stuff than I. Mayle was a highly intelligent writer, so clever that he knew how and when to hide it. 


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