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Best Travel Writing: An Original Traveller's Top Picks

Best Travel Writing: An Original Traveller's Top Picks

So here we all are, literally and metaphorically grounded. One day soon, we'll be off exploring our wonderful world again, but for now it seems like an opportune moment to indulge in the next best thing to travel - reading the finest works by the best travel writers. As both a journalist and founder of a travel company, Tom has always had an interest in travel writing. Read on for a roundup of his favourite travel books...


A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), by Patrick Leigh Fermor

For me the greatest of all works of travel writing, describing the 18-year old Leigh Fermor's walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in 1933 and 1934. The writing, the route, the era, the adventures and the people Paddy Leigh Fermor meets all combine to astonishing effect, but the secret sauce that secures these two books top spot for me is that while the journey was taken in the 30s, Fermor's diary of the journey was lost for decades and he only retrieved it in the 1970s. The resulting combination of a young man's adventures and escapades across Europe - as the threat of another World War loomed - recounted by an older, wiser man with the gift of hindsight, works to devastating effect. After his death, the final part of the journey was written up as The Broken Road by Leigh Fermor's esteemed biographer Artemis Cooper and while it is a fine work, it only goes to show how astonishingly good a writer the polymathic Leigh Fermor was himself.


The Golden Door: Letters to America (2012), by A. A. Gill

Anything and everything by A.A. Gill is - as far as I'm concerned - near flawless, be that his restaurant reviews (that rarely contained more than a paragraph or two about the actual restaurant), TV reviews or, of course, his travel writing. Original Travel had the great honour of sending him on two trips that he wrote up in typically beautiful style for the Times (The Turban Warrior, about a trip to Oman) and Vanity Fair (on Stockholm, available in his collection of travel writing A.A. Gill is Further Away) but my favourite is his book in praise of America - The Golden Door; Letter to America. There's no denying Gill could be an ocean-going snob, and you'd imagine him having a healthy disdain for the USA, but this series of essays explores parts of America - both geographical and psychological - that reveal his deep love for, and understanding of, that extraordinary country. This love was in part instilled in Gill by his godfather Alistair Cooke, who presented the 15-minute radio show Letter from America (hence the book title) on the BBC for an astonishing 58 years. I would recommend that anyone visiting the US reads this book before they go. It will almost certainly engender a newfound respect and understanding of a country that has so influenced our world.


The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), by Paul Theroux

Not a particularly original choice (many of these aren't, admittedly, but they are classics for a reason) but The Great Railway Bazaar remains one of the great travelogues of all time. The premise itself was beautiful in its simplicity: 'it was my intention to board every train that chugged into view from Victoria Station in London to Tokyo Central, and to come back again via the Trans-Siberian Express', and Theroux's love of trains chimes with our own Original Travel belief that this is the most civilised of all forms of travel. We couldn't put it quite as eloquently as American-born Theroux, though, in one of the finest of all opening sentences. 'Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.' But as so often in travel writing, it's the people and not the places that shine. As Theroux again puts so well. 'I sought trains. I found passengers.'


In Patagonia (1977), by Bruce Chatwin

Chatwin's staccato style of short, sharp sentences (something I've never been accused of) takes a bit of getting used to, but it works to perfection when describing the weird and wonderful landscapes (and equally weird and wonderful people inhabiting them) of Patagonia. He then intermittently launches into elongated asides about particularly unusual characters or incidents that reinforce the sense that this is a far-out place in all meanings of the phrase.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), by Rebecca West

If you're worried about trying to tackle a book that's over a thousand pages long, 'Journey' - the first chapter of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - is the most sublime introduction to a supremely talented writer. West describes the train journey from Salzburg to Zagreb and the various characters (and their national characteristics) of the other passengers in her and her husband's carriage. It is utterly engrossing. Anyone who visits one or more of the former constituent nations of one-time Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia) would do well to read this to get an extraordinary insight into a fascinating part of the world. Probably best read on a Kindle or tablet so save on weight.


Arabian Sands (1959), by Wilfred Thesiger

There have been few more evocative descriptions of a way of life than Thesiger's account of his time living and travelling with the nomadic Bedouin of the Empty Quarter, the vast sand sea that spans the border between latter-day Oman, Yemen and the UAE. It is also a very poignant description of the way modernity was impinging on the Bedouin way of life, and a fine record of their beliefs and practices in a fast-changing world. The Empty Quarter itself - the largest dune desert in the world - also plays a starring role, as Thesiger explains how much life there is in a seemingly lifeless place.


From the Holy Mountain (1997), by William Dalrymple

More and more poignant with every passing year, this 1997 book is the story of Dalrymple's journey from Mount Athos in Greece around the Levant (the wonderfully old-fashioned name for what is essentially the eastern end of the Mediterranean) to Egypt, chronicling the fate of the remaining Christian communities in countries where once they would have made up a sizeable proportion of the population. It's a beautifully written account of the relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews in a region of huge historical significance, and the sections on Syria are particularly sad given the ongoing civil war.


The Innocents Abroad (1869), by Mark Twain

In my humble opinion Mark Twain is one of the funniest writers ever, and never more so than in this - his first book - a travel writing classic about his voyage aboard the Quaker City from the US to Europe and onto the Holy Land. In amongst some moments of seriousness, Twain mercilessly mobs up the inhabitants of every nation the cruise visits, but reserves his most arch mockery for his fellow American citizens accompanying him on board the Quaker City.


A Writer's World: Travels 1950-2000, Jan Morris

Morris secured the ultimate travel journalistic scoop by reporting on Hillary and Tenzing's conquering of Everest, and went on to write a series of beautiful and thoughtful travel books, historical texts and memoirs, including about the transsexualism that saw her transition from male to female in the 1970s. This collection is the perfect beginner's guide to the descriptive prowess of one of the greatest travel writers Britain has ever produced.