In 1750, during the reign of Louis XV, a peripatetic Frenchman named Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron began his travel memoir, “Le Cosmopolite,” with the declaration: “The universe is a kind of book; and if you’ve only seen your own country, you’ve only read the first page.” A crowd of audacious and distinctive new books by spirited, inquisitive globe-trotters now expands our geographical lexicon, conveying what they saw, enjoyed and endured with humor and passion.
The British writer and publisher Diana Athill, born in 1917, spent most of her 20s trapped in England, “hungry for the thrill of being elsewhere” while World War II raged. In 1947, to celebrate the return of peacetime, her aunt treated her and her cousin Pen to a holiday in Florence — a reprieve from the “cruel bottling up of six years of war.” Athill kept a record of her adventure, which she recently rediscovered. In A FLORENCE DIARY (House of Anansi, $16.95), a delectable time capsule, she brings alive the liberation, luck and drama of those heady Italian days. When her cousin ditches her on the Simplon-Orient Express for a better carriage, Athill ends up sharing a compartment with a young man who turns out to be a Roman prince — and sends flowers ahead to greet her at her hotel. Moving with Pen to an affordable pension, she exults like Lucy Honeychurch in “A Room With a View,” discovering that “our rooms look half over the river and half over a lovely bosky garden.” Her exaltation extends beyond the pension to loggias, chapels, Michelangelo sculptures, Fra Angelico frescos, “miraculous” pastries and scrumptious Florentine men. “It’s partly their marvelous color, but, they are beautifully proportioned too,” she muses. “The ones that mess about in boats on the Arno look so very right with almost nothing on.” In later years, Athill would travel widely, but her postwar Florence stands apart. “I am forever grateful that it was my very first ‘elsewhere,’ ” she writes. “None could be lovelier.”
The loveliness of Havana, that “strip of city facing a sparkling tropical sea,” is less accessible than Florence’s. In HAVANA: A Subtropical Delirium (Bloomsbury, $26), Mark Kurlansky (whose previous books include “Cod,” “Salt” and “Paper”) concedes that “ to be truthful,” the place “is a mess. The sidewalks are cracked and broken, as are most of the streets.” Havana’s crumbling landmarks (“drab gray buildings, or rust-streaked, turquoise and rotting pink ones — resembling birthday cakes left out too long”) lack the magnificence of the Duomo and it’s difficult to find “miraculous” pastries. For many years, geopolitical contretemps have kept most North Americans (except Canadians) from seeing the city for themselves. Yet, as Athill well knew, there’s nothing like being kept away from a place to make you want to go there. Since Fidel Castro came to power, Cuba has been off-limits to casual American travelers, and any who tried to sneak in unofficially had to pray that Cuban customs officials wouldn’t stamp their passports. But after President Obama initiated a thaw, a full-scale tourist invasion commenced. So that prospective visitors can know what they’re not yet missing, Kurlansky reaches back 500 years to track the city’s evolving history, separating out the different strands — Spanish, African, American, Russian; political, social, musical, culinary — that slowly steeped to create Havana’s piquant blend of static defiance. For now, the city retains the form it has held for so long, “frozen in the tropics” and time.
Visitors to Havana make a point of touring the house on the outskirts of the city where Ernest Hemingway lived for two decades, Finca Vigía, and drop by his haunts in Habana Vieja. In the Cuban capital, Kurlansky writes, Hemingway is “remembered with an obsession that borders on fetish.” This sort of fixation is hardly limited to Hemingway, or to Havana. Any point on the globe where a famous writer has paused to pick up a pen has heated the imagination — and changed the travel plans — of besotted fans. In FOOTSTEPS: From Ferrante’s Naples to Hammett’s San Francisco, Literary Pilgrimages Around the World (Three Rivers, paper, $16), Monica Drake, the New York Times travel editor, brings together several dozen stories by journalists who went spelunking for the geographic touchstones of their literary heroes, from William Butler Yeats to James Baldwin, Edith Wharton to Pablo Neruda. In these pages, you’ll accompany Lawrence Downes as he retraces Mark Twain’s gonzo months in Hawaii in 1866, where Twain kick-started his career by sending dispatches to The Sacramento Union, reporting on the outlandish practices of surfing, eating poi and swimming with naked ladies. (“When he got into the surf, they got out.”) Ann Mah, under the spell of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, went to the Italian port city to track down the hardscrabble neighborhood where Ferrante’s characters Lenù and Lila grew up. Tony Perrottet traveled to the Swiss village of Cologny, on Lake Geneva, to imbibe the amorous atmosphere that engulfed Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, in 1816 during the summer when Wollstonecraft thought up “Frankenstein,” Shelley worked on “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Byron composed “The Prisoner of Chillon” and Claire Clairmont seduced Byron. The villagers believed Byron’s villa was “a virtual bordello.” Regardless, the libidinous foursome took time out from their horseplay and masterpiece-making to visit the nearby places where Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote “Julie” and Gibbon slaved over “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Even geniuses aren’t above making literary pilgrimages.
To research THE ALPS: A Human History From Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond (Norton, $26.95), his entertaining, turbocharged race among the high mountain passes of six alpine countries, Stephen O’Shea rented a low-slung, limited-edition Renault Mégane sports car. Not out of machismo, but out of prudence. Afraid of heights, he dreaded the hairpin curves and steep descents that his route imposed and didn’t want this phobia to bar him from vistas that might enrich his troves of anecdote. His powerful car was a road-hugging automotive security blanket. Not so terribly long ago, O’Shea explains, most people feared the towering mountains as much as he did: “With their avalanches, landslides and crashing boulders, they were killers.” As late as the 1780s, Goethe dismissed the Alps as “zigzags and irritating silhouettes and shapeless piles of granite,” but by then a cult of the natural “sublime,” championed by Edmund Burke and Rousseau, had begun to pull culturally aspirational Europeans into their beguiling bergophilia. Before long, thrill-seeking youths were scaling the rocky heights, armed with diaries and easels to record their impressions; and by the 1890s, the limber and intrepid had taken up a novelty sport called downhill skiing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an early adopter, schussed down a slope 2,400 meters above Davos, then predicted that one day “hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for the skiing season.” Now of course, that sounds elementary.
It would be challenging, if it were even possible, to repeat O’Shea’s comprehensive, and intrepid journey; but MOUNTAIN LINES: A Journey Through the French Alps (Skyhorse, $22.99), a disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan, Jonathan Arlan, presents a less daunting itinerary for those who prefer bunny slopes to black diamonds. Early in 2015, rootless after a breakup, Arlan traveled briefly to Greece, then drifted to a Serbian monastery in the Balkans. One restless night, seeking direction, he opened his laptop and Googled “long,” “mountains,” “hard” and “walk.” Up popped a map “with a lake at the top and an ocean at the bottom and the word ALPS in between.” A thick red line ran down the center, marking a 400-mile walking route called the Grande Traversée des Alpes, from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. Three months later, he stepped into the mountains, where he would slip on narrow paths and scrabble up rockfaces, stopping at night in hiker huts to share meals and bedrooms with strangers. Arlan had little prior experience of hiking. In fact, he had “spent most of my life avoiding sports, hard physical labor and anything else that might make me sore the next day.” As his mileage mounts, a panoramic portrait emerges, not of the breathtaking alpine backdrop or of the author’s endurance but of the emotional landscape created by the fellowship of hikers.
For eight months, a few years back, a rural community in the Gers — the agricultural core of Gascony — folded a Chicago food writer and his family in their warm embrace. That writer, David McAninch, first encountered his borrowed Gallic terroir in 2012, when he traveled to the region to research a story on duck and rapturously succumbed to the local manner of preparing it — whether confited, carpaccioed, grilled, roasted, braised in wine or scattered as cracklings across a salad. Returning for another taste, he devoured duck rillettes, and pan-seared foie gras and confirmed his love not only for the cuisine but for the people: “The Gascons I met drank wine with lunch every day. They ate what they craved.” To them, such Rabelaisian ways were “a right to be exercised not just on special occasions, but every day.” Resolving to claim that right for himself, he rented a picturesque old water mill and moved his family to this culinary paradis. DUCK SEASON: Eating, Drinking, and Other Misadventures in Gascony — France’s Last Best Place (Harper/HarperCollins, $28.99) is his loving record of that stay. Early on, he joined a men’s cooking club whose macho, rugby-playing members whipped up lamb navarin, duck steaks and apricot tart at “epic Friday-night dinners.” Later one of them inducts him into the ancient rite of creating gâteau à la broche, a “tall, conical, hearth-baked confection” made by pouring a rich hazelnut batter in layers into a mold that revolves around a spit. Mostly though, he and his family simply eat and drink very well, reveling in the daily rhythm of Gascon society.
Another water bird changed the life of the Midwestern writer Andrew Evans. He captured video of a rare variety of penguin just as he was achieving his lifelong dream: traveling as a journalist to Antarctica. In THE BLACK PENGUIN (University of Wisconsin, $24.95), Evans interleaves three urgent personal quests: his expedition, his effort to convince his family to accept his homosexuality and his struggle for the right to marry the man he loved. As a Mormon growing up in rural Ohio, Evans knew he wasn’t like everyone else and so did the kids at school, who bullied him mercilessly. His only “shield of defense” was “a worn copy of National Geographic.” At 14, he wrote an earnest letter to the National Geographic Society, which responded in two months with encouragement. Many years later, after becoming an Eagle Scout, serving as a missionary in Ukraine and graduating from Brigham Young University, where he was forced to submit to “reparative” conversion therapy, Evans wrote to the magazine again, and this time he got an interview. It was the fall of 2009. “I want to go to Antarctica,” he told the editor. “I want to go overland — I want to take the bus.” What he was after, he explained, was to “take an old-fashioned expedition to the bottom of the world” but “to tell the story in real time, online.” “The Black Penguin” relays the ups and downs of that journey, but the terra incognita Evans claims is his own pride.
When Lisa Dickey went to live in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1995, hoping to energize her journalistic career, she had no idea she would be drawn back again and again. But that year she accepted an invitation from a photojournalist to travel by car and create a “very personal” photo essay. The result was a portrait, “in words and photographs, of the lives of contemporary Russians.” At Lake Baikal, they joined scientists on a research expedition; in Birobidzhan, capital of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region, they attended services in the last remaining synagogue, where the custodian led headscarved old women in prayers to Jesus. And they “watched with delight as two closeted gay men in Novosibirsk put on a spectacular drag show for us in their living room.” Dickey didn’t tell them she was a closeted gay woman.
Ten years later, she returned to revisit the people she had met. And in 2015 she returned yet again. This time she told her close Russian friends that she was married — to a woman. In BEARS IN THE STREETS: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia (St. Martin’s, $25.99), Dickey integrates all three visits in 12 chapters, divided by city. The title of her book comes from a repeated complaint she heard on her most recent trip: “Americans think that in Russia, we have bears roaming in the streets!” “Over all, relations between Russia and America are at their worst since the Stalin era,” she writes. But “‘People are people’ was a phrase I heard again and again, whether in the hills of Buryatia, on the waters of Lake Baikal or sitting in any of the innumerable kitchens where Russians fed me and we toasted our friendship.”
The British journalist Tim Moore is no Russophile, and he has his reasons. In 2015, having learned of the existence of an Iron Curtain Trail for bicyclists, also known as Euro Velo 13, he decided to traverse its 10,000-odd kilometers, threaded along the borders of the former Soviet Union, from above the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. To increase the rigors of throwback privation, he chose an ancient, heavy East German bicycle, the MIFA. In THE CYCLIST WHO WENT OUT IN THE COLD: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain (Pegasus, $26.95), Moore’s mirthful account of his perversely arduous ordeal, he concedes that his plan contained one serious flaw. When he decided to begin his ride in mid-March, he forgot that it might still be winter in Scandinavia. “As a slave to the ‘idiot’s gravity’ of the map,” he explains, “I just couldn’t begin to imagine heading from south to north.” Never mind: He had laid in porcupiney snow tires for his clunker and had handwarmers resembling oven mitts on his handlebars. Still, after a hard day’s cycling, he discovered that his arms were stiffly angled into backward wings — his sleeves had frozen. But by then he was in Finland, so there was a sauna. Still, as fears of hypothermia set in, he put in an emergency call to Finland’s point person for the European Cycling Federation, who arranged provisional housing through a network of good Samaritans. As Moore rolls south, his mood improves. The only real dip in his equanimity comes during his brief crossing into the “pothole slalom” of Russia, which spurs a torrent of grumbles about the “rolling miasma of unregulated neglect and decay,” the depressing sight of “stack-a-prole … five-floor prefab tenements” and the sinister drabness of his hotel, “silent as Chernobyl and about as welcoming.”
A Russian woman set off the astonishing chain reaction that transformed the fate of another cyclist, the Indian artist Jagat Ananda Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia. To read his biography, THE AMAZING STORY OF THE MAN WHO CYCLED FROM INDIA TO EUROPE FOR LOVE (Oneworld, $19.99), written by Per J Andersson and translated by Anna Holmwood, is to absorb a feel-good story that’s so feel-good it makes other feel-good stories feel bad. As a baby in the jungles of Orissa, the child of untouchables, Pradyumna Kumar (who goes, for obvious reasons, by the nickname PK) received a bewildering prophecy. He would “marry a girl from far, far away, from outside the village, the district, the province, the state and even the country,” an astrologer declared, adding, “You needn’t go looking for her, she will come to you.” For years, that prophecy and his own beatific disposition were PK’s only birthright. Having moved to New Delhi to accept a scholarship to an art school but lacking funds to support himself, he made money by drawing portraits of passers-by. On Jan. 26, 1975, PK was sketching near the airport when he saw a cortege of jeeps escorting a white woman who PK thought might be his long-awaited soul mate. She wasn’t, but he did her portrait anyway, and she liked it so much that he was instructed to bring it to the Soviet Embassy. The woman turned out to be Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut. Soon PK’s name appeared in The Times of India and the next thing he knew, he was invited to draw Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In December of that year, Gandhi’s secretary created a government-approved area by a fountain where PK and other artists could draw, “just like the Place du Tertre in Paris.” On Dec. 17, his future wife, Lotta, appeared. The stars aligned. But then Lotta returned to Sweden. How would he get back to her? That’s the story this book tells, and it will involve a bicycle (several, in fact), which will carry him through India, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, following a map called serendipity. When he at last reaches Sweden, and Lotta, the page of another country will open for him.
What travel books are you looking forward to this summer?
“Four books top my to-read pile. Two are about women who walk: Melanie Radzicki McManus’s memoir of her hike across Wisconsin, ‘Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail,’ and Lauren Elkin’s ‘Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London,’ about the wanderings of fascinating women. I’m eager to read Tsh Oxenreider’s ‘At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe.’ Oxenreider and her husband traveled for nine months with their three children, which my husband and I also plan to do with our kids someday. Martha Cooley’s memoir, ‘Guesswork: A Reckoning With Loss,’ goes deep, chronicling the year she spent living in a small village in Italy.” — Cheryl Strayed
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