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Travel Book Reviews - Europe
Mostly books for women, about women or by women


Tracking across Switzerland
by Diana Nial

Diana Nial worked for the Swiss Dining Car Company, which provided meals for the Swiss railways, for six years from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Nial came to Switzerland from the UK to work for the United Nations but got fed up with being stuck behind a desk. She took a chance on the railways. This book is a mix of anecdotes from her work and her trips, with a few recipes thrown in for good measure.

Nial’s account of her work is the most interesting part of the book. The dining car was often so short-staffed during holidays she was sometimes on her own. She prepared the meals, served them, cleared up and handled the bar. When she started, meals were prepared in the trains' tiny kitchens. By the time she left, meals were served pre-prepared, as on planes.

She meets some interesting characters. Benny is a regular passenger who helps her out by manning the bar. She overhears him make feeding arrangements for his snakes, and finds out later about his job at the serum department of the University of Zurich. 

I didn’t think the sightseeing tips added much to the book, although some of the facts were interesting—I hadn’t realized that Switzerland had 1,484 lakes and 140 glaciers! And I enjoyed her description of the transport museum in Lucerne, with old railway coaches, some dating back to the 1870s. She is obviously passionate about trains and communicates that passion.

The book is the sequel to Swiss Meals on Wheels, a more detailed account of Nial’s experiences on the train. After the book was published, readers wrote to her, suggesting she write about the food served in the dining cars and the places she visited. This explains the recipes, which sound delicious, even when they sometimes seem randomly placed. What I enjoyed most were her portraits of the individuals she met and worked with on the trains.

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Calabria: The Other Italy
by Karen Haid

Calabria is the toe in the boot of Italy. It’s the region that non-Calabrese Italians tend to look down on as crime-ridden and backward, something I found out for myself. When I told my Italian colleague that I was reading about Calabria, his reaction was “Why?” Karen Haid sets out to counter this attitude and prove that Calabria has a lot of offer. She succeeds in doing both.

Haid is an American who speaks Italian and decided to settle there and teach English to support herself. As a non-EU citizen, she ran up against Italy's wall of bureaucracy when trying to get a work permit. On the verge of giving up, she received - and accepted - an offer from a school in Locri, Calabria.

Haid spent her time in Calabria exploring the region. Her descriptions of everyday life are interwoven with the region’s rich history, and both often overlap. Calabria was settled by the ancient Greeks in the 7th and 8th centuries BC. The region of Regio Calabri still has a strong Greek heritage, with road signs in Italian and Greek. In Guardia Piemontese, settled by the Waldensians (adherents of a French protestant movement) in the 13th and early 14th centuries, road signs are in Italian and the native Occitan language, which sounds a lot like French. For example, the Italian terme (spas) translates as banh chaut, which in French would be bains chauds (hot baths). The mythological Scylla and Charybdis mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey could well be a series of sharp rocks and vortexes between Calabria and Sicily.

To my delight, Haid is also a foodie and samples many of Calabria’s regional specialities: pecorino cheese; capicollo, a cold cut made from a pig’s neck; and sopressatta, a spicy, lightly smoked salami. The region is also home to the bergamot and a sweet, mildly flavoured red or purple onion, first grown in the municipality of Tropea by the Phoenicians.

And of course, there are the people: outspoken, unfailingly hospitable and proud of their region. Among these are Luisa, the president of Reggio’s Anglo-Italian Club, with whom Haid goes on several trips; and Maria, the woman she meets at the Terme Luigiani, who regales her with jokes in the Calabrian dialect.

This book doesn't gloss over Calabria. Crime is very real here: the mafia is known as the ‘Ndrangheta and has a long arm. But that's no reason to stay away. When I started reading this book, all I knew about Calabria was pizza calabrese. Now it's on my list of places to visit!

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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is a Finnish writer best known for her children’s books about the Moomins. This is one of her few books for adults—a gentle, meditative book about the summers a little girl, Sophia, spends with her grandmother on a tiny, deserted island in the Gulf of Finland. It is fiction, but it doesn’t really feel like fiction. Jansson and her partner spent their summers on an island like the one she describes in the book, and the character Sophia was based on her niece. What this book does with gripping effectiveness is capture life on one of these Finnish islands, known for their many summer houses.

The book, written in 1972, paints a picture of what we would today call a summer of disconnect, of living in the moment—a time before cell phones and computers, before we were wired to react all the time to everything. “No-one came to visit and there was no mail. An orchid bloomed.”

The book begins as Sophia’s grandmother searches for her false teeth among the vegetation in front of their little house. It has rained all night and the “bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened”. Sophia’s mother is dead but the book is haunted by her absence. Her father is there but the book is really about the old woman and the little girl. And the island, which is a personality in its own right.

What struck me most is the protagonists’ seamless connection with the natural world, reflected in slow, rhythmic sentences and vivid descriptions. The family walks along paths in the “magic forest”.

“Only farmers and summer guests walk on the moss.” Moss is frail and if you step on it three times, it dies.

When I finished reading the book, I felt I had actually visited, experiencing the “warm, dark silence” of a Finnish summer night and listening to the “steady, chiding chatter” of long-tailed ducks. This book is still, a respite from a shrill, constantly changing world.

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A Slow Train to Switzerland
by Diccon Bewes

While researching a book on a Switzerland, Diccon Bewes—a Briton who has lived in Switzerland for over eight years—found a reference to a diary written by an English woman, Jemimah Morrell (known as Miss Jemima) who traveled with Thomas Cook’s First Conducted Tour of Switzerland in 1863. He was intrigued.

Found in the post-war rubble in London’s East End, safe in a tin box, the diaries were published as Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journals, and then forgotten. Bewes managed to obtain a copy of the 100th anniversary edition. The diaries were a time machine, taking him 150 years into the past of a country he knew well. Accompanied by his mother and Miss Jemima’s ghost, he decided to retrace her footsteps, sticking as close as possible to her mode of travel. He would see for himself how much, or little, Switzerland had changed in the last century and a half.

In some ways, the Switzerland Miss Jemima visited was dramatically different from the country today. It was poorer; most people lived off the land and certainly could not afford leisure travel. The Swiss railway routes were limited and service was nowhere near as efficient and extensive it is now. Swiss tourism was in its infancy, and neither Heidi nor milk chocolate existed. But some things have not changed: visitors then, as now, complained about the high prices!

The Swiss journey Thomas Cook organized in 1863 was an attempt to persuade ordinary British people to explore the continent, until then a prerogative of the rich. The birth of middle-class tourism driven by a growing railway network helped make Switzerland wealthy.

Miss Jemima’s group of seven, who called themselves Young United Alpine Club, included four women and three men, including her brother William. These intrepid Victorians travelled by train, carriage, ferry and often on foot, walking for miles and making modern-day travellers look pampered. Their schedule was gruelling: Usually up at 5 am, travelling all day, rushing to briefly explore their destination before bedtime and off again the next day. Neither trains nor carriages had bathrooms, and  I have special admiration for the women, clambering up narrow paths carved out on mountains in long dresses and corsets—paths that I would find difficult in trousers and good boots.

The book is full of interesting facts. In 1863, Geneva time was five minutes behind Bern but 15 minutes ahead of Paris. This made it challenging for trains to run on time, so Swiss time zones were standardized in 1894.

Bewes reveals many links between Britain and Switzerland: Thomas Cook’s tours started the tourist invasion of the country, English engineers were called to help set up the Swiss railways and—believe it or not—the British invented skiing (on wooden skis)!

I loved the alternating perspectives on Switzerland—Diccon Bewes’s and Ms. Jemimah’s, whose observant and at times mischievous voice often dominated. She describes a downhill descent on a mountain path: “rugged with loose stones which threaten to make mincemeat of our shoe soles. Even the mules are…discarded…. In fact, one mule discarded its rider… to give the animal his due, there was some display of oriental grace in the camel-like kneel with which he preceded his nonchalant roll across the path.”

I have lived in Switzerland for almost 30 years and know a lot of the places Bewes describes – but I hadn’t seen them through these eyes. I will now take this book—and its two knowledgeable guides—with me when I travel in the country. And I would invite you to do the same. 

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Victoria’s Travel TipZ Italian Style:
Simple Ways to Enjoy Italian Ways on Your Next Trip to Italy

by Victoria De Maio 

This handy little book, slim enough to slip into your handbag, is not a guide book in the traditional sense but a list of do’s and don’ts aimed mainly at Americans travelling in Italy, possibly for the first time. 

Victoria De Maio is an American with Italian grandparents who obviously loves Italy, and this love comes through her writing. Clearly she wants you to love it too. 

The book starts, appropriately enough, with food, which is serious business in Italy. You sit down to eat, take your time and enjoy the food. In fact, “take your time” is a mantra that flows throughout the book: don’t rush, go with the flow, don’t feel you have to see everything but take in what you do see. Take the time to explore tiny side streets because sightseeing isn’t only about historical monuments but about getting the feel of a place, appreciating the multitude of ways it is unlike your home. Yet that doesn’t mean you avoid something just because it is touristy—after all, you are a tourist, aren't you?

There is plenty of advice in this book about the best way to see tourist sites (don't drive!), money, how to pick a place to stay, conversions (Centigrade anyone?), and so much more. Her advice on safety is sensible: there are pickpockets but they do not lurk in every corner, so take precautions, as you would in most places, but don’t get so obsessed with safety that you don’t enjoy yourself.

Each chapter begins with a proverb in Italian (translated into English). Many are familiar and exist in English, so this helps jumpstart an understanding of the language. The brief glossary of basic Italian words at the back of the book was also helpful.

One thing worth noting is a bonus section that contains advice from people—bloggers, tour guides and others—who were asked for a single tip they would give visitors to Italy.

My favourite: “Don’t stint on the gelato”!

Rather than tell you what to see and where to go, De Maio tries to give you a sense of the culture and the people, showing you how to get the best from your trip, all dispensed with a healthy dose of humour. This book will be the delight of first-timers to Italy but repeat visitors will also have plenty to discover within its pages.

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Narrow Dog to Carcassonne
by Terry Darlington

“We could bore ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, or have a bit of an adventure.”

And so a retired couple, Terry and Monica Darlington, take their whippet, Jim, and their narrow boat, meant for canals, across the Channel into France. This the first time I’ve reviewed a travel book whose star is the family pet: the thieving, pubs- and chips-loving whippet, Jim (the “narrow dog” of the title). He is a reluctant sailor, though—he hates it when the ground shifts under his feet, so moving boats are things he could do without. But since he doesn’t really have much choice, he puts up with his humans’ eccentricities, and even manages to summon enough sangfroid to comfort Monica when she is convinced the boat will capsize.

And it does sometimes come close to capsizing. Especially as Terry and Monica are not expert sailors. Narrow boats are long and perfect for sailing down inland canals, but completely unsuitable for crossing a large body of water.

The book starts in the canals in Britain, then the momentous crossing of the Channel, battling six-foot waves (they’re helped by an expert, The Principal) and then through French and Belgian canals. Sailing through canals exposes parts of cities most people don’t see, and they meet people you wouldn’t normally meet as a regular tourist—sea captains, the occasional drunks and gongoozlers (landlubbers who are fascinated with boats). I learned a lot about locks (which help raise and lower boats between canals with different water levels) and lock keepers. Jim is a big attraction—everyone they meet along the route is taken up with “les anglais et leur petit lévrier”.

Through all this sailing, Jim is irrepressible. They can’t even take him to the vet without him dividing up the patients in the waiting room “into those he could chase, those he could impregnate and those he could eat”. Tied to a café table in Paris, he tries to strangle himself, drag away the table, look for scraps and any chance for sex. At one point, Monica decides Jim should earn his keep and catch rabbits for their dinner. So Terry and Jim go hunting. Except that the rabbits are savvy enough to know that this is no hunting dog, and calmly step back into the hedges when they see Jim charging, stepping back out once he had gone.

A laugh-out-loud book - as long as you can cope with the absence of inverted commas around quotes.

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Italy: 100 Locals Tell You Where To Go, What To Eat & How To Fit In
by Gigi Griffis

If your way of travelling is to rush through places, ticking them off your list, then this book is not for you. If, however, you want to really get to know a place and its people, then this is perfect. And what better way to get to know a place than getting advice from the locals? Which is exactly what Gigi Griffis’s guide to Italy is.

The book is divided into two sections. The first is a series of brief guides to the country for foodies, wine lovers, outdoor people and history buffs from chefs, wine experts, a base jumper, hiker, cyclist and a professor of Italian history.

The second section divides the country by region. Griffis selects a few cities from each one and interviews the locals—both Italians and expats living there. She selects not only cities but also small towns and villages. Each interview is presented separately: what there is to see, what tourists should eat and where, what they should do (or not do) to fit in, where you can meet people and much more. The answers make for a fascinating read.

One of the absolute no-nos—it comes up several times—is to order a cappuccino after (or heaven forbid, during) dinner. Wearing flip-flops anywhere except the beach is another. And of course, ketchup on pizza or pasta.

Much of the book is about food—the local specialities: sardines in onion sauce in Venice, risotto alla Milanese in Milan, spaghetti con le vongole in Naples… I could go on. And of course, the gelato! I firmly believe that the Italian gelato is the best ice-cream in the world, especially artisanal gelato. An American expat in Venice says you can tell artisanal gelato by the colour of banana (greyish-white), mint (white) and pistachio (greyish-green) gelatos, because they use real ingredients rather than commercial flavouring and colouring.

It’s not just about food, of course. There is so much to see in Italy. The advice from people in Rome was, yes, do see the famous monuments, but when you’re done with them, head off the beaten track. The book also suggests how to meet local people—mostly in bars! (Don’t think about getting drunk there, though—Italians start drinking at an early age, so they can hold their drink and do not look kindly on drunks.)

The people interviewed seem to love where they live, and so they make the best guides. This is such a great idea! Hats off to Griffis for thinking of it. It would be wonderful to start a series of guides like this, so we could become part of the lives of the places we visit, even if it’s for a short time.

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A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside
by Susan Branch  

Susan Branch and her husband Joe always wanted to go back to England, which they both love and hadn’t been back to since 2004. So in 2012, when Susan turned 65, they booked themselves on the Queen Mary 2 and went on a two-month ramble through the castles and cottages of rural England. This is their diary.

The book is beautifully produced, with over 300 photos and watercolours—Susan is also a painter. But what is striking about it is that the book is handwritten. (I’m a bit of a font nerd so I looked closely at the letters to make sure.) It’s a day by day account—a real diary—so there is a lot of detail. And mouthwatering recipes scattered throughout. What I found amazing was that they travelled with 12 bags, which made me feel like a light traveller! They packed everything, including an electric kettle, mugs and tea.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, there is a lot of useful information on travelling in England. The Branches rented apartments but sometimes stayed in bed and breakfasts. These are described in detail, as are the National Trust houses they visit. On the other hand, there was nothing of the multicultural, multiethnic country that the UK has become. Apart from a few modern things like a GPS in the car, computers and printers, you could be in 1950s England. In that sense, it is fairly narrow view of the country. And there are annoying references to “the adorable English” and their “cute” way of speaking.

But, as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of handy tips for the traveller. And if you’re an American visiting the UK for the first time, this is definitely worth reading. Susan translates a lot of “English” terms into “American”. There are also lists of recommended books and movies about England. And details of how to get to places and where to stay. I know that if I planned a trip like this, I would use this book.

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Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia
by Chris Stewart

This is a charming account of an English couple who buy an old, remote farm in Las Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Andalucia. Chris, a former Genesis drummer, doesn’t pretend that living here is easy. The farm, El Valero, is run-down and takes years to fix. There is no electricity, access road, or running water (the farm’s on the wrong side of the river). The chickens and quails are eaten by stoats and weasels (“Unfortunately, as I was eating the egg, a stoat or a weasel was eating the chickens”), and the vegetable patch is raided by sheep, who eat everything except the chillies and aubergines. But there are olives, almonds and oranges, and lemons are so abundant that there is no way to avoid driving over the “fallen yellow orbs”.

But while Chris can get a little romantic about the farm and his neighbours, his wife, Ana, puts things into perspective. She is a no-nonsense woman, who does not suffer fools—or the annual of slaughtering pigs—gladly. She isn’t taken in by the “helpfulness” of Pedro, from whom they buy the farm, and is eventually proved right.

What attracted me about this book is the fact that neither Chris nor Ana had any experience of farming. But through sheer determination, they made a go of it. It made me feel like I could do it too—give it all up and move to Andalucia. To be able to go out on a sultry summer night with a full moon for a swim in a little pool and see the shepherd next door going past with his sheep. To see the orange blossoms in the spring: “exquisite white five-petalled stars” with a “delicate and heady” scent that lasts for months. And to become part of a community that goes back to a simpler way of living in tune with nature—a world away from our hyperactive, hyper-connected lives.

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