By Suroor Alikhan
I Belong Here – A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain
by Anita Sethi
“Get back on the banana boat!” On a train from Liverpool to Newcastle, Anita Sethi is subjected to a vicious attack by a man, who lets loose a torrent of abuse. But she is British, born in Manchester and as much a part of the country as he is. The incident leaves her with post-traumatic stress disorder – this was not the first time – and she suffers from anxiety, panic attacks and claustrophobia.
Craving wide open spaces, Sethi decides to reclaim her country by walking its “backbone”: the Pennine Way, at 431 kilometres the UK’s oldest trail. The Way follows the Pennines, a range of hills and mountains that run from the Peak District to the Tyne Gap. She is determined to transform the incident of hate into something that brings hope and beauty.
“Dehumanising language is designed to cause despair, but I will not leave the pathways I walk upon, this place I call home. I will not give in to fear and despair. Instead, I walk even further, even deeper, into this place where I belong.”
She sets out with the basic equipment she has, which results in water seeping in through her boots. But as she walks, she starts to get stronger and heal mentally as well. The landscape helps her put her problems into perspective: “I relish even the moody and mercurial clouds threatening rain at any moment, for so vast are they that they add to the sense of the great outdoors’ immensity, making me feel tiny in the landscape, my worries washing away.”
Her descriptions of natural beauty around her are vivid, like the path behind her, “weaving its way like a strand of silver hair in the mountains and then vanishing into the mist”. She connects with some of the people she meets, learning to trust again.
This is much more than a travel book. Sethi writes about her journey, both physical and emotional – a “journey is not just linear but takes us inward”, she says. She also tackles the bigger issues: for example, the “banana boat” the racist referred to leads her to talk about the banana plantations and the indentured labourers brought to work on them.
This is a rich book, and I loved the way Sethi found intimate connections between the landscape and humans – not just in the way we relate to the land, but also drawing on deeper connections through language. Visiting Hull Pot, the largest natural hole in England, she draws a parallel with the holes left in our lives by grief and loss, like the death of Sethi’s friend, to whom the book is dedicated.
“I sit down a while and gaze at the landscape and breathe. I knew that journeying through the North had something to offer up to me. I felt it calling me. Go back to where you’re from. This is where I’m from. I’m from the North. The glorious North.”
This is ultimately a story about healing, identity, and a sense of belonging.
Review of Names for the Sea － Strangers in Iceland
by Sarah Moss
Iceland: the name conjures up smoking volcanoes, boiling geysers and the Aurora Borealis, along with cold, dark winters and endless summer days. But Iceland is much more than that, and Names for the Sea rounds out this picture, written by someone who spent almost a year there.
Sarah Moss has always had a hankering for the northerly islands.
In the mid-2000s, the National University in Iceland needed an expert in nineteenth-century British literature. Moss applied, was hired and in July 2009, her family moved to Reykjavik.
When they arrive, Iceland is in full recession after its banks collapsed. The family, in a sense, benefit from this: most Icelanders are homeowners, so finding an apartment to rent isn’t easy. They eventually find one in a wealthy suburb: the apartment blocks were half-built when the banks collapsed and the money dried up. They are the only inhabitants in their building.
One day the Icelandic papers report “a small eruption in the south”. Moss and her son Max take a volcano trip to see it for themselves. She describes the “sulfurous glow” and the lava, like a flame, sliding down the hill, “slow as tar”. Then, a few weeks, later, the volcano erupts again. Except this time, it’s not what the Icelanders call a tourist eruption, but one that disrupts air traffic, the consequences of which ripple throughout the world.
Moss gives you a sense of day-to-day life is like in Reykjavik. Fresh fruit and vegetables are in short supply. Most of these are imported and are now too expensive for most people. However, Iceland is starting to grow its own fruit and vegetables. Public transport is run mainly for children getting to school and back—Moss is almost the only adult to use buses to get around.
I learned many interesting things about Icelanders. They feel safer on the sea than on land. (This might have something to do with a large number of active volcanos.) They do not talk to strangers, not even to complain about the weather. Moss’s students are shocked that there are people who would strike up a conversation with someone they don’t know.
Moss seeks out Icelanders who can give her a sense of the country’s past. She visits Magrét and Theódór, the grandparents of one of her students, who lived through a volcanic eruption on their little island. She talks to a woman, Vilborg, who remembers the Second World War and growing up in rural Iceland. Þórunn introduces her (in a manner of speaking) to the hidden people, the elves. Elves are taken seriously in Iceland: many people believe they exist.
Moss acquires a bicycle and uses it to get to work, immersing herself in the landscape, which is almost a character in its own right.
“On my right, across the sea, there are mountains that are visible only at sunset and—I will learn in winter—sunrise, sharp, snow-covered mountains pink in the low light. They fade as the sun goes down. Nearer, there are filaments of cloud drifting in front of Esja, bright against a hillside matt as sugar paper. Curlews call across the water and the Artic terns flicker shrilling over my heads, beaks and wings pencil-sharp in the soft sky. Geese are beginning to mass on the waves, their low conversation the bass line to the seagulls’ fish-wife screaming on the headland.”
Iceland may be part of Western Europe, but at a time when globalization seems to make everything the same, this is a refreshing discovery.
“I was…sick of the anxiety. This was no way to live, I realized if I wanted to hang on to my sanity. It was time to just do the thing that I secretly longed to do: to actively seek to enter a world that co-exists with the visible one, a world of signs and portents; and to experience this land, my home Britain, as the indigenous people I’d met in the far-flung places of my travels had experienced theirs, and to let the rest go.”
Jini Reddy was born in the UK. Her parents had moved from South Africa, and she had spent part of her childhood in Canada, so she never really felt part of the country of her birth. After a difficult decade, her instinct to connect with nature, and especially nature in Britain will help her find a way out of what she calls her “decade of despair”.
Reddy finds the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator online and decides that’s where she will start. There is a labyrinth in Cornwall on a farm above the sea cliffs. It sounds perfect, especially as Reddy has an affinity with the sea—it is where she feels happiest. And so her journey begins.
Reddy meets a British Native Shaman in Herefordshire, a tree whisperer in Cromford in the Derwent Valley, and a priestess in Glastonbury. She walks St. Michael’s Way, a pilgrimage route from near St. Ives on the North Cornwall coast to St. Michael’s Mount on the south coast—13 and a half miles, which she does in a day. She finds peace on Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland that is cut off from the mainland at high tide when the causeway linking it is flooded.
Although her journeys do not always result in epiphanies and are sometimes disappointing, Reddy persists.
On Iona, a Scottish island, she looks for the Glen of the Temple, a place that is supposed to be magical. But locals either haven’t heard of it or give her extremely complicated directions. She almost gives up when, on her last day, she bumps into someone she knows who offers to walk with her to look for it. They find it and it is truly magical.
“The first thing I notice is the deep reservoir of silence, as physically tangible as a bird or a hill or a tree. There are no human footprints on the muddy track. The valley conveys the impression of having rarely witnessed human life. There is no tension here, no grievance or edge or chill. Nothing has jostled this valley. It is entirely at peace with itself. There is a clarity here that I have only experienced before in isolated valleys in Nepal or Pakistan. … A sparrowhawk reels overhead, as if enacting some primal ritual that it undertakes when a human actually does enter the glen.”
The characters in this book, the shamans and priestesses, have this in common: they have found a way to be closer to the natural world, to take the time to understand it in a way most of us have forgotten. Reddy reminds us we can too, without having to travel to the ends of the earth.
Review of A Foodie Afloat
by Di Murrell
There are people who travel so they can tick places off their lists, and there are those who immerse themselves in their surroundings. Di Murrell belongs to the latter, having spent most of the last two decades on a barge in Europe and the UK.
She decides to travel from Cambrai to Paris, a couple of hours by car but a week on a barge.
“We see places that no normal holidaymaker will ever visit and view them from an entirely different perspective. … Best of all when we do stop and tie up, local people do not view us with that suspicion reserved for unknown callers in out-of-way places. We are accepted as people who are passing through.”
In A Foodie Afloat, you travel with Murrell along France’s waterways, taking in natural beauty and meeting interesting people: a truffle hunter, a crayfish catcher, and the unpretentious German man they shared a table with, who turned out to be a two-star Michelin chef!
But as the title of the book makes clear, the focus is on the food. Murrell clearly enjoys eating and cooking and seems to be able to produce fantastic meals from the barge’s small kitchen. Each chapter ends with mouth-watering recipes, so the reader can join the feast.
Murrell avoids supermarkets, focusing instead on local producers and farmers’ markets, on foraging along riverbanks (wild garlic and mushrooms and a variety of fruit), and on occasional anonymous gifts of fresh food from locals.
Barges, because they go along the waterways, provide a completely different perspective of cities and towns. In Paris, they go under the Bastille on the canal St. Martin in the middle of the city. It’s a magical scene: “The spotlights in the tunnel create shimmers of rainbow colors that sweep across the roof, illuminating the darkness. At regular intervals, there are brick air vents through which the sunshine and water filter down. Circles of light shine through the swathes of trailing plants that grow down through the vents. These vertical gardens are reflected in the water in front of the boat and the creepers hang down far enough to brush our wheelhouse roof as we pass beneath.”
The chapters follow the course of a year, going from spring to winter, and the recipes follow the same rhythm. Because Murrell believes in not wasting anything, a recipe for chicken breasts is followed by one for “the rest of the chicken”. I enjoyed both the recipes (I have tried out a couple) and the trip. Murrell’s writing reflects the leisurely pace of the barge: the time to take in the landscape and, in a way, to become part of it.
Review of To The Lake – A Balkan Journey of War and Peace
by Kapka Kassabova
“To journey to the place of your ancestors, you must be prepared to see what it is easier to deny.”
This is the account not just of a physical, but also of an emotional journey. Kapka Kassabova returns to the place her family originally came from, Lake Ohrid on the Balkan peninsula.
She is the fourth generation of women to migrate and is looking not only to learn about her grandmother and great-grandmother but also to understand why it feels like pain—illness, depression, anxiety—is passed on from mother to daughter in her family, “like a dark wave”. “Unless we become aware of how we carry our own legacies, we too may become unwitting agents of destruction.”
Lake Ohrid and its twin lake Prespa straddle North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. The lakes are among the oldest in the world, probably about three million years old and once part of a sea. The lakes are still shrinking; on Lake Ohrid, ladders that once led to the water from hermits’ caves in the surrounding limestone mountains hang halfway down, seeming to go nowhere.
Kassabova starts her journey in Ohrid (“on the hill”), her grandmother’s town, where “all the men look like my cousins” (many of them probably were). The question she is asked is, “Whose are you?”. At dinner in a small restaurant on the first night, she is served by a waiter who is a poet, and the bottle of wine she orders is named after a poem. The place feels magical: “Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers. Below me was a reminder that gladiators had fought here only two thousand years ago. … The stillness was complete as if the lake absorbed not only noise but time itself.”
She travels along the lake, to rock churches where frescos of saints have their eyes gouged out (probably by people who thought the plaster had magical properties), and visits the shrine of the Black Madonna. She drives to Albania, since she cannot cross the invisible border that cuts through Lake Ohrid, exploring the town of Pogradec on the southern end of the lake.
She will return to Lake Prespa on a second voyage: “I swam in the warm, dark water…but only once—there was an unsettling feeling of something lurking beneath.” But this is also a trip where she finds healing, in the monastery of St. Naum on Lake Ohrid.
The Balkans have a history of conflict, both from invading powers and civil strife. Repressive regimes led to emigration, either because of poverty or politics. Families were split up, including Kassabova’s, unable to reunite because of the political climate.
Kassabova discovers a pattern “of absent men and women left behind, unbending women who dislocated themselves and their loved ones out of shape trying to right what had gone wrong with the family”.
History still has a hold on people. In Albania, the memory of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship is still fresh. In Greece, Pavle, a Macedonian, tells her about the civil war that tore the country apart after the Second World War. On a more cheerful note, Kassabova visits a cherry orchard near Lake Ohrid which was a gift from a Turkish Aga to his lover, a woman from the family that owns it.
There is also a narrative of religious tolerance. In Ohrid, the azan (call to prayer) is followed half an hour later by church bells, so that they don’t clash. Both Muslims and Christians worship at the same shrines, and there are intermarriages between the faiths.
This is probably the best book I’ve read this year—not just the best travel book. It is full of history and insight into the Balkan people. Because Kassabova is from the region, there is a sense of immediacy in the stories she tells. The writing is powerful and lyrical, shaded with darkness and light. I’m going to end with a passage about Lake Ohrid.
“The land is riven with the anguish and contradictions of linear roads, but the lake contains multitudes. It cannot be imprisoned by chronology. The lake is where all roads end. The boats seem to float on air. I plunged my arms into the lake, forever fresh and green without spring without autumn.”
Review of Basilicata – Authentic Italy
by Karen Haid
Karen Haid, who has spent many years in southern Italy and speaks Italian, explores Basilicata, the “instep of the Italian boot”.
Basilicata is sandwiched between Puglia, Campania and Calabria, with Greek temples, medieval castles, caves with early Christian paintings, beaches, snowy mountains—not to mention the brigands of old—and much more. It was known as Lucania and until today, someone from Basilicata is known as a lucano or lucana.
The capital Potenza is known as a città verticale or vertical city, because people “move vertically, or at the minimum on an incline, all day long, going up and down staircases, escalators, elevators and streets in order to carry out their normal lives”. Yes, there are public elevators that go up and down the city!
Haid travels extensively through the region and engages with the people she meets. At the Parade of the Turks in Potenza, she learns local expressions from a young man (like Effess… said with enthusiasm and the raising of an outstretched hand).
Near Castelmezzano, a town “clutched onto the edge of a cliff at the base of gargantuan, spikey rocks”, she takes the Volo Dell’Angelo, the flight of the angels, which involves being strapped into a harness attached to a rope stretching over a distance of 1.5 kilometres and sent off through the air at 120 kilometres an hour!
She goes to Mt. Vulture, the only major volcano east of the Apennine chain. The crater’s two lakes are surrounded by a lush forest extraordinarily rich in biodiversity. The European Bramea, a night moth, which “has been flapping its wings from as far back as the Miocene period” lives exclusively in the forest.
Throughout her trip, people she meets, particularly women, invite her into their homes. Like Teresa, who lives next door to Haid’s apartment in Accettura and makes sure that Haid is fed and taken care of.
Which brings me to the food. I was delighted that Haid is a foodie. Her descriptions of what she ate made me want to leave for Basilicata right away. There is peperoni cruschi, a sundried sweet, crunchy red pepper; lamb stew with lampascioni, a bulb from the hyacinth family that tastes like a small, bitter onion; and bacon made from the pig’s jowl. The antipasti on fixed menus are enough for a meal in themselves: grilled vegetables, pecorino and caciocavallo cheeses, salami and capocollo (a cold cut made from the pig’s neck).
There is a lot more in the book. Haid is a convincing guide, and I have certainly put Basilicata on my list of places to visit!
Review – Findings
by Kathleen Jamie
Findings is a perfect book at a time when most of us have put our long-distance trips on hold and are instead taking our holidays closer to home. The pandemic has also changed the way we live, taking out the busyness and leaving time for reflection.
In this quiet, meditative book, Kathleen Jamie writes about Scotland, where she lives, and its natural beauty.
Jamie is fed up with the notion that we need to banish the dark. “We couldn’t see the real dark for the metaphorical dark. Because of the metaphorical dark, the death dark, we were constantly concerned to banish the natural dark.”
So she decides to visit Maes Howe during the winter solstice, hoping to find real darkness. Maes Howe is a Neolithic tomb where 5000 years ago, they interred the bones of the dead.
From the outside, it is just a mound. To enter the tomb, you have to walk, crouching, down a passageway 25 feet long, which opens into a dim soundless stone vault. The walls contain chambers where the bones were laid.
Nearby are the ruins of Skara Brae, a Neolithic village. “There is preserved a huddle of roofless huts, dug half underground into midden and sand dune. There you can marvel at the domestic normality, that late Stone Age people had beds and cupboards and neighbors and beads. You can feel both their presence and their utter absence. It re-calibrates your sense of time.”
The book moves with the seasons, starting in December. Spring brings new life, and Jamie watches the birds return to raise their young. She can see a family of peregrines from her window, and a pair of ospreys nest in a Scottish pine nearby, “a ridiculous toupee made of sticks”.
She goes to the island of Coll to look for the crex-crex (also known as corncrake), a bird that is now extinct in England, where they were once abundant. The brown birds, about 10 inches tall, live in tall grasses and are known for their cry that sounds like “someone grating a nutmeg…[o]r a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile”.
On Ceann Iar, an uninhabited island, she watches seals by the sea, undisturbed by the driving rain, and finds not only a dead whale by the beach but plastic detritus and the remains of a small plane. In Braan, she watches the salmon as they try—and often fail—to jump up a waterfall to a spawning place.
But it’s not just nature that intrigues her. She visits the Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh, the chapter I found the hardest to read, as she describes the body parts preserved there. She climbs to a vantage point in Edinburgh to look at the city, taking in its skyline and through a telescope, the details of its buildings.
Findings is essentially about seeing your surroundings, noticing the tiny details. But to do that, you need a stillness within, which Jamie has. This book is an inspiration to stop and look at the world on your doorstep.
This book, first published in 1942, is a travel classic and a priceless source of information about what used to be Yugoslavia.
Rebecca West travelled with her husband through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s, at a time when the Nazis were gaining power in Germany, and war seemed a possibility.
She visited Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The country was relatively young, officially recognized as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in July 1922. Her book is a combination of her travel diary, the region’s history and reflections on such ideas as authoritarianism and democracy.
The book provides insight into inter-personal relationships at the time. The couple are accompanied for most of the trip by their friend Constantine, a Serbian Jew. He is ebullient, intelligent, curious—all the things valued in a travelling companion. But that changes once his German wife Gerda joins them. She is quick to take offence and full of superiority, dismissive of anyone who is not German. Sadly, Constantine defers to her and starts to take on her attitudes, to the dismay of West and her husband. The couple are so clearly drawn that I felt I knew them. (I have met people like Gerda and have much the same reaction to them as the author.)
What Black Lamb and Grey Falcon brought home to me was the complexity of this region’s history. It had known upheaval for centuries, with Austria, Hungary, Venice, Germany, and the Ottomans jostling to rule it, resulting in endless wars and political manoeuvring.
As they sail into Trogir (now in Croatia), she describes the vista: “It is one of those golden-brown cities: the color of rich, crumbling shortbread, of butterscotch, of the best pastry, sometimes of good, undarkened gravy. It stands naked and leggy, for it is a walled city deprived of its walls. The Saracens leveled them, and the Venetians and the Hungarians would never let them be rebuilt. … On the quay stand Slavized Venetian palaces with haremish lattice-work fixed to screen the stone balconies, to show that here West meets East, brought thus far by Byzantine influence and perpetuated by the proximity of the Turks.”
She includes a long, but fascinating, chapter of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914—the events leading up to and following it, the people involved, and how chance sometimes plays a role in directing the events that change our world.
Franz Ferdinand’s trip to Sarajevo was a secret, and therefore one with no security arrangements. His wife, Sophie, was a commoner, and not entitled to Ferdinand’s honors. So he traveled to Sarajevo to inspect the military without informing civilian authorities and without security, leaving him an open target.
West says, “It has always interested me to know what happens after the great moments in history to the women associated by natural ties to the actors.”
She finds out when the couple meets the sister of Chabrinovitch, one of the men who attempted to assassinate Ferdinand on that fateful day. Chabrinovitch failed and jumped into the river. Later that day, the authorities came for the father, leaving the mother and sister alone. They escaped but ended up in an internment camp in Hungary. The mother was bewildered by the events: “Her eldest child had tried to kill the Archduke and his wife—apart from anything else, she felt it was too grand for us, it could not happen.” An event that changed the world brought down to its human elements. These are not just names anymore, they are real people who fought and suffered.
This is just one example from a book packed with them. West moves smoothly between the past and the present, finding the stories and people behind the history.
This is not for those who want a quick read: it is a highly researched and detailed account of a country, as thorough as it is possible to be. Some of her attitudes feel outdated now, but remember she was writing 80 years ago, in a different time.
What motivates someone leave the country of their birth to live and work elsewhere?
Louise Ross tries to answer this question by talking to 20 women from a variety of backgrounds who moved to Portugal. She got to know these women – in their 40s, 50s and beyond – as president of the association International Women in Portugal. And they have fascinating stories to tell.
You’ll meet Sally Hastings, who grew up in a cult in the US that did not believe in modern medicine. At 16, she was offered a modeling job in Paris and left, encouraged by her parents (much to her surprise!) She studied bartending in New York and has lived in Spain, Switzerland, and Greece. She is now married to a Portuguese man who manages a touring show for a cabaret, for which Sally worked as the dresser for many years.
And then there’s Sandhya Acevinkumar, whose grandfather left Gujarat, India, in the 1890s on a Portuguese caravel and landed in Mozambique, where Sandhya was born and grew up. In 1976, after Mozambique’s independence, life became difficult for Indian immigrants, so the family left for India and then for Portugal in 1978. After secondary school, Sandhya agreed to marry a man chosen for her by her parents. Things were not smooth and her husband felt threatened by her intelligence and efficiency in business. Sandhya has now made sure that both their daughters have gone on to university and are free to marry anyone they choose.
And finally, Tody Cezar is an American with a Jamaican mother and a Ukrainian father. At 19, she married her boyfriend so they could travel around Europe (you couldn’t take off with your boyfriend then). But he was gay, so the marriage was fairly short-lived. She studied art restoration in the UK, eventually working with the UN to restore churches and mosques in Kosovo.
These are just three of the stories in this book. Most of these women left home because they were curious about the world. Once their horizons widened, they were no longer content to go back to their old lives.
My one criticism: the book could have been longer. I would have loved to know more about these women, and some of their stories could almost be novels in the making.
The book brings home the fact that people have been moving since time immemorial, and that travel opens up your horizons. These women pushed beyond their comfort zones—sometimes far beyond, but they have gained a wider worldview and most have become true citizens of the world. The other thing I took away from Women Who Walk is how comfortable they all feel in Portugal and how welcome they are made to feel there.
Review – This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland
by Gretel Ehrlich
Greta Ehrich visited Greenland in the early 1990s. That was the first of many trips, as she fell under the spell of the place and its people.
“My first trip to Greenland was in the summer; the second trip took place in the dark time…when black days give way to black nights. After that my visits became chronic as if darkness laid down on ice held secrets I could not yet fathom. Though I visited there in every season and the interstices in between, I came to prefer ice and a failing sun to summer’s warmth and open water.”
Ehrlich intersperses the chapters on her time in Greenland with accounts of the expeditions of Knud Rasmussen, a Greenlander-Danish explorer, to document the Inuit culture in the early 1900s. The result is immersive—you feel the cold and the hunger, sense the dislocation caused by endless dark of endless light and get to know the people and their ways. She makes friends in Greenland and learns enough of the language to get by.
Greenland, the world’s largest island, is an autonomous territory within Denmark. The Inuits, its native population, survive mostly on hunting. If the hunting is bad, if the caribou take a different route or seals are scarce, then there is no food.
It is a unique world. There are no trees. Dogs are all-important―they provide the transport, pulling sleds over vast icy spaces so that hunters can find food. Without dogs, there is no food. They are the first to get fed; humans then eat the leftovers.
The people Ehrlich meets and befriends are an important part of her journey. In Ubekendt Ejland, she stays with Hans and Arnnannguaq and becomes very close to their young daughter, Marie Louise. The two communicate perfectly in spite of not having a common language. She meets not only the Inuits but those who have chosen to live in Greenland, making it their home, like Ikuo Oshima, who came to the island in 1972 from Japan and never left.
The landscape is stunning. Ehrlich describes the scene from the boat: “We entered a forest of icebergs. The path between was chrome and slake, a mirror that did not reflect. It was ripple-battered, then smoothed. Icebergs creaked. Bits of rubble skidded down sleek walls. Arctic gulls shrieked, rising up, looking for food. The glazed wing of an iceberg caught the light. From one translucent arch, a row of blue tears fell.”
Ehrlich does not romanticize the way of life; it is hard but has a lot to teach us. Inuit society is communal, without the concept of private property or privacy, and people look out for one another. What this book showed me was that there is a different way to live, a way that does not involve endless consumption and competition. But even here, the modern world is impinging, and it might just be a matter of time before this centuries-old way of life becomes a memory.
Review – Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life in Italy
by Frances Mayes
Good travel writing is not just about where to go and where to stay: it is about capturing the essence of a place, the things that make it different and familiar. Frances Mayes lives by her own advice to travel writers: Don’t stay in a hotel but live in a place—shop locally, go to the neighborhood cafés and become part of the community. “[T]he deeper you go, the stranger the people become because they’re like you and they’re not.”
For me, that sums up the charm of Bella Tuscany, a love song to Italy, where she bought a run-down house, Bramasole, and did it up (and wrote about it in Under a Tuscan Sun). This book finds her and her husband Ed settled into the house and exploring the country. The couple are university professors in California, so they get away when they can, mostly during the summer holidays.
The book is full of lyrical descriptions and some wonderful incidents. In Palermo, Sicily, they go to a “down-home” restaurant: plain décor, no tablecloth or menu, and harsh lighting. They sit down and the food starts to arrive—plate after plate after plate—including spicy melanzane, “a touch of the Arabic, eggplants with cinnamon and pine nuts”. Eventually, Mayes has to admit defeat, especially when faced with a plate of squid. But the waiter wasn’t having this: he rolls his eyes, “takes my fork, gently grabs a handful of my hair, and starts to feed me. I am so astonished I open my mouth and eat.”
Tradition is very much alive in Italy, and Mayes writes about the overlay of the past on the present. On Good Friday, she joins a procession of the stations of the cross. It is evening, people are carrying candles they shield from the wind.
“Through roving clouds, the full moon comes and goes. I have the strange feeling of having slipped behind a curtain of time and entered a place and ceremony both alien and familiar to me. The music sounds atonal, shrill, almost something you could imagine hearing after death. … We’re all bundled in shapeless raincoats and scarves, further erasing connections with the present time. … [W]e almost could be in the fifteenth century.”
It is not always smooth sailing, however: the outer wall of Bramasole collapses and has to be rebuilt, and visitors are frequent and can be a nuisance, especially when they expect to be fed and don’t offer to help out.
But all of this is worth the joy Mayes gets from the house and the country: she loves the food, the people and the way they live, especially in the more rural areas. There is a connection with the land and the seasons, a sense of not being rushed but taking time to savor the moment. Buying Bramasole was a gamble, but also a life-changing step for Mayes. It opened the door to another way of living and gave her a richness that is immeasurable.
Review – One More Croissant for the Road
by Felicity Cloake
A travel book by a food writer—what more could you want?
Felicity Cloake, inspired by the Tour de France, decides to do a tour herself with a slight difference. She would cycle around France, stopping to eat regional delicacies and at least one croissant a day, hoping to find the perfect one. (She rates each one on a scale of 1 to 10 at the end of each chapter.)
She starts in Cherbourg in the northeast and circles the country, heading south along the coast, then following France’s contours until the grande finale in Paris (where she finds two almost perfect croissants.) Her constant companion is Eddy the bike, with friends joining her for some of the stretches.
Coake’s trip is planned around food, with each stage ending in a town famous for a dish: oysters in St. Malo, buckwheat crêpes in Redon, chocolate in Bayonne, cassoulet in Castelnaudary, Carcassone and Toulouse (I was very impressed with the fact that she had three cassoulets in three successive meals, but that’s what you can do when you cycle), fish soup in Marseille, choucroute garnie (saukerkraut with pork) in Strasbourg and onion soup in Reims.
Cycling isn’t always easy: she is almost blown off a mountain road on the Col de Joux, often led astray by Google Maps into dead-end roads, and victim to Eddy’s uncertain brake pads. But she has time to appreciate the countryside and can set her own pace—at least, most of the time when she’s not rushing to get to a dinner reservation in a town still miles away.
The book has some wonderful moments. One wet morning, trying to stuff her “sopping tent back into its reluctant bag”, she finds two snails sheltering in her handlebar bag, making inroads into her expensive Bayonne chocolate, “having snobbily shunned the Milka”. Then there are the old men in Marseilles who offer advice on getting an authentic Marseille tan: “Lots of oil is the secret, they confide”.
And there’s the food, which is really the point of the book. Cloake’s descriptions of what she eats are mouth-watering. In Redon, she is served “half a baguette, a plump golden croissant and four little pats of Paysan Breton beurre demi-sel, which does actually appear to be 50 per cent salt, 50 per cent delicious dairy fat—I end up eating everything, just so I have an excuse to finish the butter.”
And the hot chocolate she drinks in Bayonne reminds me of the one you get in Spain—rather than the milky stuff you get elsewhere, this is “[i]ntensely bittersweet, rich but not creamy, with a handsome mousse of chocolate bubbles rising out of the rose-patterned Limoges porcelain like a crown”.
You should really go to France to savor the food, but just in case you can’t and are feeling adventurous, the end of each chapter has recipes so you can recreate her journey at home. Even the croissants.
This book is another in a series on slow travel, an alternative to rushing around with crowds of people, trying to see everything as quickly as possible before moving on. This is all about taking the time to savour the experience.
And Cassandra Overby is thorough: everything—and I mean everything—you ever wanted to know about planning a walking trip in Europe is here in this book.
Overby loved travelling and managed to save enough money for a trip around the world. But she quit after three months, tired of “long lines, loud tourists, bus exhaust and expensive attractions…and how…global…international travel had become.” She decided to settle down, bought a car and set up home in the US. Then, three years later, her partner asked her to go with him on a month-long walking tour in Europe. She agreed reluctantly, and only because the relationship was important.
The trip was an epiphany.
She realized that by walking, she could avoid everything she had grown to dislike about traveling. It brought her to small towns and villages and into contact with local people. She helped a family of farmers in Switzerland feed their livestock, listened to an impromptu alpenhorn performance, discovered little chapels in villages and enjoyed the stunning landscape. Overby found that not only was it good for her physically, but it was also cheaper and a truly restorative, low-stress holiday. This book is her way of sharing her find with others.
There is a lot to think about and do before the trip: where you want to go, what you want to do and how much you want to walk. Any pace is good, as long as you are comfortable with it. She tells you how to prepare physically, with suggested exercises, so that the holiday doesn’t turn into a trial. There is a lot of practical advice: how to treat minor ailments, the safest way to hike alone, what to pack, and basic do’s and don’ts, including how to treat your fellow walkers.
Overby provides 15 detailed itineraries in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Morocco, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey. Each walk includes information such as the local language, use of English, scenery, main sights, difficulty, and the time it takes. From her descriptions, she has obviously done these and loved them.
There is something here for everyone, whether you want to travel in a group, with another person, or on your own; whether you are fit and prepared to walk long distances or want to do day trips. I won’t say buy this book if you are planning to hike through Europe—I would say buy it even if it is a distant dream. Overby will convince you and guide you into making that dream a reality. The book is also available as an e-book, so you can take it with you.
Karen Jeffery has a press pass for the Cannes film festival and decides to spends six months in the south of France, immersing herself in its culture, language and food. She makes a short trip to Provence and a foray into the Cinque Terra region in Italy, but her focus is on the Côte d’Azur and the villages perchés, the villages clinging to the mountainsides.
The book is self-published, which is nice, but it could have done with an editor’s touch to tighten up the language. She scatters French words and phrases throughout, and some of these are misspelled. These are things that could easily have been fixed. I would have liked it to be a little slower with a little time over each place. But the fact that she loved her trip comes through in the book, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
She obviously loves France and is comfortable traveling on her own. She relies on public transport and shops at markets—the best way to find local produce—and works on her French. Starting with some basic phrases, she is able to hold conversations and translate for Anglophones by the end of her stay.
She loves the food and the wine, and as a foodie, I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of her meals. “An amuse bouche of watermelon pieces with bruschetta with tapenade and aioli is followed by an asparagus salad with petite mozzarella, olives, tomatoes, greens and fennel. Lightly dressed lamb with wild mushrooms, summer vegetable flan (light as a breeze), frites.”
She settles into the rhythm of life of the region—slowing down, going with the flow even when that means having to change her plans and taking the time to eat. Working on her laptop at a restaurant in Vence, she orders lunch, asking the waiter to put it on the table next to her laptop. “Why don’t you finish your work, Madame, and I’ll set up a nice table for you on the terrace?” he replies.
The elastic sense of distance was something that reminded me of my hometown, Hyderabad (India). When she asks locals how far a place is, she is inevitably told it’s dix minutes (10 minutes), no matter how far it really is. (In Hyderabad, it tends to be five minutes.)
She talks to plenty of people—there are short interviews throughout the book, and she refers to everyone she mentions by name, even waiters and shops assistants. There are links to her photo albums, so your best experience might come from getting this on Kindle.
Beth Jusino is a publishing consultant living in Seattle. She and her husband Eric have jobs they enjoy, but feel that something is missing in their lives. So they take three months off work to walk from France to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and on to Finisterre (which translates as the end of the earth) in Spain.
Jusino doesn’t realize just how much of a challenge it will be: she is used to walks in the park, not for months on the road. The couple had not travelled outside the United States, and Jusino’s knowledge of French was “la pomme est rouge” (the apple is red), not of much use as not a single person asked her about apples the entire time she was in France.
The camino de Santiago, as the path is known in Spanish, is said to be divided into three, no matter how much of it you walk: the first third is a test for the body, the second a test of the mind and the final third a gift to the soul. And so it proves for Jusino.
For several days, her feet—she calls them Princesses because they feel every pebble on the path—hurt constantly. The pain eases once she buys new shoes by which time, she realizes, she has walked 360 miles across southern France!
Crossing the Pyrenees into Spain proves to be difficult: not only is it a gruelling, steep climb, but there is a strong wind that Jusino feels is going to blow her off the mountain. She has a panic attack and is ready to give up when she walks around a bend and sees sheep. Her dream was to walk along a herd of sheep, and just seeing them calms her down and lifts her spirits.
As for the gift to the soul, Jusino learns to accept the things she can’t control, like noisy neighbours, poor service and musty rooms, but also the gifts the camino sends her way, like a cool glass of water offered by a stranger or the soup cooked by the abuelo (grandfather) in one of the Spanish albergues (hostels). But most important are the people along the way, fellow pilgrims and people who run the gîtes and albergues.
At the heart of the book is how slowing down can change your perspective. Instead of rushing around and spending a lot of time staring at screens, walking gives you the time to look around, get to know people—even yourself—and to think. It is time out and one of the reasons that I would someday like to walk the camino.
This book inspires me to do it. Jusino proves that you don’t have to be on top of your form to take on a challenge like this. The trick is just to do it rather than dream about it. In the end, this desk-bound woman walked 1,000 miles in three months. And that is something to be proud of!
Review – A Year in the World—Journeys of a Passionate Traveller
by Frances Mayes
“How do place and character intertwine? Could I feel at home here? What is home to those around me? Who are they in their homes, those mysterious others?”
To find out, Frances Mayes (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame) stayed in rented houses rather than hotels. It changes the dynamics of travel: you shop at the market, cook in your kitchen and get to know the neighbors. “The aromas from your kitchen become a territorial marker: I live here.”
In spite of the title of the book, the towns Mayes chooses are mostly in Mediterranean countries and the UK. She and her husband Ed spend part of their year in Tuscany, renovating a house. The idea comes to her at the end of a holiday. Why don’t they keep moving?
So begins the year of travel. They go to Portugal, Andalucia, Italy, Fez, Burgundy, UK (including Scotland), Greece, Crete and Turkey. Like me, Mayes arrives somewhere and imagines what it would be like to live there. She delves into the history, the landscape, the people, and most of all, the food: Mayes is a dedicated foodie. She is often accompanied by the ghosts of long-dead writers from the region, whose books Mayes reads on the journey. They add an extra layer of complexity.
In Naples, a group of musicians inspires a couple to dance a tango on the street. In Fez, Mayes is amazed by the colours in the narrow streets: the women in the djellabas and the spices at the stalls. In Lisbon, a bookshop owner advises Mayes on where and what to eat. And the food: churros con chocolate in Spain, fish fried in “gossamer” batter in Portugal, pizza in Naples (naturally!), couscous with seven vegetables in Fez, and hot toffee sauce and gingerbread in Scotland (recipe included).
Not all the trips are on solid land though. She agrees to a speaking engagement on a cruise ship that sails by Greece. Given that Greece was the inspiration for her travels, I felt she was doing it a disservice by seeing it from what is essentially a floating hotel. The relief when in the next chapter, they go back to being on their own! Turkey is also by boat but with a small group of friends.
Mayes writes lyrically—with a tendency to romanticize. I’d like to end with her description of a Scottish riverside: “The hydrangeas, lining the banks of the languid little river Hiraethlyn, mimicked the flow of water. Blurry, blue reflections doubled the dreaminess. The woods were silent, except for sparkling river sounds. …The late sunlight seemed liquid, a faded watercolor with pastels smearing the sky into the water.”
Find out more on Amazon
Helen Russell lived in London, working crazy hours with hardly any time off. When her partner is offered a job at Lego in Jutland, Denmark, they realize that it is going to be a complete change of pace. It’s not just a move to another country but also from a city to the countryside. Russell decides she will spend her time getting to know “the happiest country in the world”.
Happiest country? Really? Russell starts out being skeptical, but almost every Dane she asks rates themselves 8 to 10 out of 10 for happiness. So what is the secret? For one, the pastries are amazing. There is a strong work-life balance—people come home at 4 in the afternoon at the latest, and anyone putting in extra hours is seen as being badly organized.
The taxes are high but the state takes care of its citizens from birth to death, with generous subsidies for school, homes, health and so on. This gives people a safety net and the freedom to live the way they want, which means they take up jobs they enjoy. And because education is free, they can train as often as they want to. Russell gains first-hand experience of the social system when she becomes pregnant and is impressed by the level of care.
But there is a downside, of course. In spite of Denmark being gender equal, there is still a high level of sexual violence, and employers hesitate to hire women of child-bearing age. There is also pressure to conform, tradition being big in Denmark. There are clubs for every kind of activity, so leisure is regimented: each club is assigned a particular day, including the swinging club! People can plan their days for an entire year.
Russell is funny about her attempts to fit in as a rather anarchic person. There are some wonderful moments: while trying to tell her Danish teacher she has seen the TV series The Killing, she inadvertently calls her a bitch (kaelling); she is told off for flying a Union Jack, as the only flag allowed is the Danish one; and her dog shows he sorely needs training to fit into Danish society.
I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book as much as I did but Russell’s fondness for Denmark shines through. She made me laugh but also taught me a lot about a country I only knew through the small screen.
Find out more on Amazon
Review – The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice
by Polly Coles
If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in Venice, this book is for you. I read it on a trip to Venice, and it gave me a completely different perspective on the city.
Polly Coles moves to Venice from an English village with her Italian partner Alberto, a violin maker, and their four children. Living in Venice is unlike living anywhere else: there are no cars, and transport involves either a boat or, for the most part, your two legs. The city tends to flood if the tide is very high. And then there is the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy.
However, in some ways, this is an older, more connected way of life. You cannot escape into the bubble of a car: you have to engage with the people you come across. There are no huge, impersonal supermarkets: the butcher and grocer not only know their products but also get to know their customers and their needs. When Coles buys an avocado, the grocer finds her one that would be ripe exactly at the right time.
Coles settles in and obviously loves Venice and its people. The city is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. “Here, in Alberto’s workshop, an antique craft was being pursued, but…the musicians who came in for repairs or to buy a new instrument were, of course, as modern as anybody anywhere. This was Venice at its best: a place of artisanal excellence, keeping alive ancient traditions and techniques for the modern world.”
She also writes with great empathy about immigrants. She hears the stories of women from Moldova, who have left their families to earn money to send back home. She writes about the African and Indonesian street vendors who manage to keep a safe distance from the law.
I enjoyed her observations, her sense of humor, and her worry about how far she should hang the washing on the line that runs between two apartments. (She decides on the halfway point so that the lady in the apartment opposite isn’t subjected to the indignity of sipping her morning coffee on her balcony with someone else’s boxer shorts flapping over her head.) The book is full of vignettes that build a picture of the real Venice.
But most of all, this book is a cri de coeur for the preservation of Venice as a living community, rather than as a romantic backdrop for the millions of tourists who have no real investment in the city. Shops that serve the community, like butchers and bakers, are being replaced by cheap souvenir shops, and Venetians are being pushed out of the city by the rising rents as landlords would rather rent apartments to tourists by the week. The result is that the kind of community that keeps a place alive is disappearing. And that is slowly killing this wonderful, unique city.
Find out more on Amazon
Alone in Cracow (in what was then Austria) and bored and lonely, Swiss pioneer traveler Lina Boegli decided to see if a woman could work her way around the world. Her journey began in 1892 and lasted 10 years. This book is a collection of her letters to her best friend, Elizabeth.
Friends were appalled at the idea but their warnings about rape, shipwreck, slave traders and murder only made her more determined. She had enough money to book a passage to Australia. As for the rest, she had a teacher’s certificate and could teach French or German or work as a housemaid. Boegli’s trip would eventually take her to Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii (which was on the brink of being annexed to the United States), and the US.
Boegli is an observant and adventurous traveler with an unshakeable faith in people. She also has a dry sense of humor, which I enjoyed. In West Maitland, New South Wales, a lady warned her about murderous cab drivers. She disagreed: the cab driver who had driven her was charming. When she saw him again, “It was almost like meeting an old friend; after the stories of my hostess, I am so much obliged to him for not having murdered me.”
In many ways, she was progressive—she believed in women being able to vote. When she heard about the theosopher Annie Besant who had the clergy up in arms, her reaction was, “She must be interesting if she is so dangerous”. Theosophists believe in reincarnation, a concept that intrigued her. She also thought of another trip around the world: how would she travel, by balloon or electricity? Like other Europeans of her time, she saw white people as generally superior, although she did admire the Maoris, as well as the Samoans for their focus on education. Her prejudice was one element that jarred in the book.
I would recommend reading Forward—it is an interesting historical look at what the conditions were like for single women in the late 1800s, and it is heartening to know that, even over a century ago, women were adventurous enough to take a leap into the unknown.
Buy now on Amazon
Review – Writing on the Road: Campervan Love and the Joy of Solitude
by Sue Reid Sexton
If you’ve ever dreamed of buying a campervan and disappearing into the wilderness, this book is for you. It has everything you ever wanted to know about them and then some: buying the right one, dealing with waste (and the pros and cons of a Porta Potti), and DIY.
But this is not a manual. Sexton is a writer who works best in her campervan in the wild: in her case, the western Scottish highlands. Scotland has some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve seen, and her descriptions made me realize how much more there is to explore – places like Assynt, with rocks three thousand million years old and a rich variety of wildlife.
Sexton also takes you on her personal journey as she deals with the breakup of a long relationship. But the real love affair is with campervans. She has had four over the years, each with a name and personality. Vera, “a wee old lady of a van” with a 10-year-old engine under the seats, overheats passengers and melts the cheese. Vera gave way to Vanessa Hotplate, who could be a little unstable. Sexton found out just how unstable when she tried to drive down an open road with strong gusts of wind. It took all her skills as a driver not to be blown across the road into the path of approaching trucks.
Interspersed with lyrical descriptions of nature are some hilarious moments. During a perfect evening by the sea southwest of Kintyre, she watches the sunset, “the pinks and oranges…burning a reflected path across the water to my door”. A seal emerges and blows bubbles at her. She settles in for the night, when a windowless van pulls up, full of men. A voice very close to her window asks if someone has brought a knife. She locks her door as quietly as she can and waits for the worst. There was the “sound of something heavy, like a suitcase full of body parts, landing on the ground”. Fortunately, the men, who were probably surfers, soon go to sleep, and she wakes up unharmed.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book and was pleasantly surprised at how multi-faceted it was. Sexton is funny, thoughtful, and honest about her fears. Read this book even if you’re not planning to head to the hills in your mobile home: it will remind you of the joys of being alone, facing down your fears, and being close to nature.
Buy now on Amazon
If there is a thread running through this book, it’s chickens. Chickens who behave like domestic pets or behave like attack dogs, and rescued battery hens who wander around in little knitted pullovers or leather capes.
Nichols used to live in London and ran a public relations consultancy for luxury retail and travel. Fed up of the stressful big city life, she moved her husband and teenage son to rural Mallorca, Spain, in the mid-2000s.
They live among chickens, a dog, a cat, a donkey, and other animals. And Nichol’s buddy, Jack, a toad who visits the pond when the weather warms up and with whom Nichols has long conversations.
Then there are the chickens. Cordelia, who follows her around everywhere and is fascinated by her sneakers because she thinks the laces are worms; and Ferdinand, an old cockerel who has a tendency to attack strangers (including a Jehovah’s Witness whom Nichols found halfway up a tree, clutching a Bible to his chest).
Nichols writes about Mallorca with a lot of affection, both the place and the people. When Jorge, the postman, delivers the mail, he waits until she opens her parcels, out of curiosity. Catalina, who is her housekeeper, is also a friend with strong opinions on how things should be done. When her neighbor, Fernando, has a problem with snails, Nichol’s husband suggests that he use beer to get rid of them. Fernando tells his mother, and finds her in the kitchen, plying the snails with beer from a bowl.
But Nichols still consults as a PR person, and there is a huge contrast between rural Mallorca and ritzy London. Some of the funniest moments in this book have to do with her clients, who range from eccentric to this side of crazy.
The star of this part of the story is definitely Henrietta, an aristocrat who saves battery chickens, who are treated so badly that they lose their feathers. So she, with a little help from like-minded people, knits them little sweaters until their feathers grow back. Henrietta, like Nichols, has names for every single hen she’s rescued and introduces visitors to all of them.
I loved her descriptions of the animals and the people she meets. My gripe was that she inserts dialogue where it isn’t really needed—for example, when describing a place, which sometimes felt stilted. But there are enough laugh-out-loud moments in the book to make it worthwhile. And she captures what it is like to live in a friendly, rural community in Spain.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review – 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 making 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.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review – 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 to 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 specialties: 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 flavored 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!
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review – 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.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review: 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 traveled by train, carriage, ferry, and often on foot, walking for miles and making modern-day travelers look pampered. Their schedule was grueling: Usually up at 5 am, traveling 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 a 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.
This handy little book, slim enough to slip into your handbag, is not a guidebook in the traditional sense but a list of do’s and don’ts aimed mainly at Americans traveling 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 favorite: “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 humor. This book will be the delight of first-timers to Italy but repeat visitors will also have plenty to discover within its pages.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review – 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 narrowboat, meant for canals, across the Channel into France. This is 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.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
If your way of traveling 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 ex-pats 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 specialties: 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 Italian gelato is the best ice cream in the world, especially artisanal gelato. An American ex-pat in Venice says you can tell artisanal gelato by the color of banana (greyish-white), mint (white), and pistachio (greyish-green) gelatos because they use real ingredients rather than commercial flavoring and coloring.
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.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
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 watercolors—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 traveled with 12 bags, which made me feel like a light traveler! 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 a 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 traveler. 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.
Find out more or buy now on Amazon
Review – 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 chilies and aubergines. But there are olives, almonds, oranges, and lemons that 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 neighbors, 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.
Find out more or buy the book now on Amazon
— Originally published on 09 August 2015