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Summer Travel Reading

Three Great Travel Writers, and the Places That Inspired Them

All great travel writing has one thing in common: it’s written by travelers, not by tourists.

What’s the difference? Well, we’ve all been tourists, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We want what the resort ads and the inflight magazines call an “escape,” and sometimes an escape is just what we need. Travel, though, is something different – in fact, it’s the very opposite of escape. Travelers aren’t just getting away; they’re plunging in. They may have left one world behind, but they’re committed to discovering another. And if we’re lucky, they come back and tell us about it.

The three books we’re recommending here (four, actually, since the two titles by Patrick Leigh Fermor constitute parts one and two of the same wonderful trip) all demonstrate their authors’ masterful grasp of the history and culture of the places they’ve written about. They not only travel across time zones, but across time itself. They haven’t gone on two-week assignments for editors impatient for a quick read – they’ve spent months, perhaps years, soaking up everything they can about places they know they’ll never completely understand ... which never stops them from trying.

All great travel writers should also be fine travel companions.  When you read their books, you get the sense that you’re not rushing around with a guide, there to help you tick off one must-see sight after another, but rambling along with an endlessly curious friend, splendidly capable of infecting you with that same desire to turn every corner, poke up every back road, and linger for a drink with every local character with a story to tell.

Come to think of it, you couldn’t ask for a better escape.

THE WORLD OF VENICE

We tend to think of Venice as a tourist curiosity, a live-in museum where fewer and fewer people actually live, fighting a losing battle with the tides. Jan Morris reminds us that the “Queen of the Adriatic” reigned for centuries as one of Europe’s great empires, a seafaring colossus whose merchants and bankers lavished their fortunes on art and architecture. Morris lovingly describes the lagoon city they built, its enduring culture and forgotten quirks, and the lives of the artisans and aristocrats whose legacy still fascinates us today.

IN SEARCH OF LONDON

Most travel writers build their reputations by venturing to places as new to them as they are to us. H.V. Morton followed that path, too – but one of his best books is a portrait of his hometown. Morton’s 1950s London was a wounded metropolis, still recovering from the Blitz. But Morton saw beyond the lingering scars to reveal, neighborhood by neighborhood, the spirit of a city built by Celts and Romans, by Normans, Elizabethans, and Victorians, to become one of the great capitals of the world.


A TIME OF GIFTS

What does a bright lad do when he drops out of school? In the early 1930s, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk across Europe. He crossed the Channel and started in Holland, ambling his way across a landscape still untouched by the devastation of Hitler’s war and undivided by the Iron Curtain. Castles and monasteries, Baroque cities along the Danube, Hungarian plains and Transylvanian forests, the hospitality of minor nobles still lingering in Habsburg nostalgia – all figure in an adventure too vast for a single volume. (Followed by Between the Woods and the Water.)

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