Reading is one of the great joys of being on holiday, but since most of my articles are about travelling around Europe, I’d like to use this article to recommend some European travel books specifically.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Regarded by many as the greatest travel writer of all time, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about travels all over the world from the 1930’s throughout the 20th century. His masterpiece (On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland) is the 3‑book collection describing his walk from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the inter-war years. If you are travelling Europe and are interested in the people, the history, and how it has changed since the early 20th century then look no further.
Paul Theroux is one of the most successful travel writers of recent times. Whilst his travels are usually global, rather than merely continental, the stories, people and places are all inspiring for any trip no matter where you are going.
To my surprise I enjoyed this book the least of this list. I was hoping for either a rose tinted view, or some humorous criticism in the style of Bryson. I found this book just a little too cynical and negative. Theroux almost feels jaded at times in the early parts of the journey, giving an especially hard time to Spain. As the book goes on it contains more good stories and has a greater focus on people which brightens the feel. Recommended, once you know what to expect.
Robert Byron is best known for his book The Road to Oxiana. One of his earlier and less refined works is Europe in the looking-glass which describes his journey with friends from Germany to Athens via Italy in a Rolls Royce in the summer of 1925. Whilst Byron can come across as rather arrogant at times, the writing is none the less of a high calibre and the stories interesting and amusing.
Nick Hunt — Walking the Woods and the Water
Nick Hunt’s book is intended as a repeat of the famous journey made by Patrick Leigh Fermor I have mentioned above. It is a wonderfully written illustration of how Europe has changed (or not) in the 80 years since Paddy walked to Constantinople.
Nick Thorpe — The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest
Nick Thorpe has written a great book with a large focus on the history and the people around the river Danube. His walk up (rather than down!) the Danube takes in large parts of the former Ottoman and Habsburg empires.
Geert Mak — In Europe: Travels through the 20th century
Recently translated from Dutch this is the closest in style that I’ve found to Leigh Fermor. It is fascinating to read from the perspective of a non-English culture, and notice the similarities and differences. Note that this is more of a history of the 20th century told from the perspective of places, rather than strictly a ‘travel book’. Highly recommended.
Francis Tapon — The hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans can teach us
A detailed study of the countries of eastern Europe from Finland to Greece and Germany to Russia. Tapon evidently spent considerable time amassing the knowledge and experience in this book. He is also a great advocate for couch surfing, so if that’s part of your plan this will make very good reading.
Andrew Eames — Blue river, Black sea
A modern journey along the Danube. A solid travel book with some good stories, I just wished for more of the childlike wonder found in some other books, notably Leigh Fermor. This strikes a more believable balance of joy and hardship but I prefer the rose tinted approach. Still highly recommended for anyone planning a similar trip.
William Dalrymple — From the Holy Mountain: A journey in the shadow of Byzantium
More a book about the history of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine/Eastern Orthodox empire. Possibly not the first book to read in this list but a great extension if you enjoy the historical enthusiasm of Leigh Fermor.
William Blacker — Along the enchanted way: A story of love and life in Romania
William Blacker travelled to Romania after the fall of communism and lived (and loved) in isolated communities that had changed little since pre-industrial times. I found this a fascinating and gripping tale of a near-vanished culture.
I hope you find this selection enjoyable, please let me know what you think below. I’d also welcome other suggestions.
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