Picking up a book is a great way to escape and dive into another world beyond quarantine, panic and a global pandemic. And a book based around travel is a great starting point. There are various books out there that can spark an interest in a particular country, inspire you and feed your desire to wander and travel the world (you could even start creating a bucket list of all the places you want to visit once this pandemic is over!).
Here are a few travel book suggestions to inspire your wanderlust:
There are few genres better for inspiring wanderlust than fantasy. Which Harry Potter fan didn’t want to travel to Hogwarts, for example? In fairness, not everyone classifies Harry Potter as fantasy, preferring to put it in its own category of “virgin”.
Still, fantasy is full of interesting locations (shut up, it is). Game of Thrones has most of its entire planet mapped out, with each continent boasting richly-imagined cities, rivers and kingdoms. However, the series isn’t my pick for most wanderlust-friendly. Where some fantasy writing tries too hard to make its locations seem interesting (we get it, Smaug liked coins), Game of Thrones goes too far the other way. It describes locations in such vivid and easy detail, the reader is left feeling like they already know the place, leaving no urge to travel there for themselves.
It seems, then, that the recipe for wanderlust is to create a location that we know enough about to be interested in, but not so well that we feel we’ve already seen it. What book pulls off this difficult balancing act better than Neil Gaiman’s 1996 fantasy classic Neverwhere?
The location is such an integral part of the fan favourite that it serves as the book’s title. Neverwhere is a topsy-turvy version of London, nicknamed ‘London Below’, the city as seen by those “who have fallen between the cracks”, the blurb tells us. As such, a smattering of everyday locations are given surreal, dark twists, including personifications. The Angel Islington is an actual angel, and the British Museum houses the magical relic needed to find him, for example. Hammersmith makes an appearance, but as a blacksmith in the Floating Market. When the protagonists take the tube, the carriage serves as an Earl’s Court for an actual Earl. Even a hospital is given a macabre Gaiman flourish, where one character is crucified on an old wooden “X” in the cafeteria.
The brilliance of Neverwhere’s world-building is that isn’t world-building. A better phrase would be world-subverting. It takes somewhere that already exists, somewhere so big and so old that one cannot help but feel every brick guards a secret, and gives its own brilliant account of what that secret might be. Tempting as Hogwarts or Winterfell might be, the place where I most want to travel is London Below.
Alexander McCall Smith has an exceptional ability at conveying a sense of place. His novels are deeply rooted in the community, with the environment, surroundings and neighbours of the protagonists all shaping the plot. From The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (set in Botswana) to the 44 Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series (both Edinburgh) and the Corduroy Mansions novels (London), McCall Smith magically transports readers to a new locality.
This is best shown through the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the Botswanan capital Gaborone in the 20 novels of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Alongside solving crimes related to theft, marriage infidelity and violence, the stories address a wide range of topics pertinent to contemporary life in southern Africa, with novels discussing the differences between rural and urban life in Africa, the balance between tradition and modernity, the role of religion and belief systems, and debates over morality. As the proprietor of the self-declared no.1 ladies' detective agency in Botswana, and indeed the only ladies' detective agency, the stories also look at women increasingly branching away from non-traditional occupations and the rise of feminism in Botswana. These bigger issues are discussed amid descriptions of Mma Ramotswe's day-to-day life in Gaborone, which always starts with her enjoying a cup of redbush tea on the veranda in the morning sun.
For me, football and travel go hand in hand. Sometimes, the best way to learn about the history, politics and culture of a city or country can be to watch its football teams, and there is no one more aware of that than Tim Parks, the author of A Season With Verona.
The premise of the book is simple- Parks, an Englishman who lectures at an Italian university, ingratiates himself with the infamous Brigate Gialloblu ultras. He decides to follow them up and down the country, watching every home and away game with them as they support their club, Hellas Verona. However, this more than a story about one man watching football, with Parks’ travels allowing him to progressively paint a picture of Italy that is at times beautiful, and at others conflicted.
Throughout the narrative, Parks reminds us that football teams so often reflect the cities they inhabit. From the banks of the River Tiber he muses about the great beauty and historical magnitude of Rome, indicating that it is fitting that the Eternal City should be represented by Roma and Lazio, sworn enemies and two of Italian football’s most successful sides who possess their own storied histories. Parks twice visits Milan, another of Italy’s most resplendent cities and a financial hub of much wealth. Again, he points out to the reader that sometimes, a football team can reveal so much about a city, considering the parallels between Milan and its two hugely powerful and moneyed clubs, Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan and their cross-city rivals Inter.
Each footballing adventure undertaken by Parks allows him to uncover an Italian cultural phenomenon with an English counterpart-the north-south divide. In Italy, it is the north that is typified by affluence, and the disparity between the two is arguably vaster than on our shores, with GDP per person being almost 40% lower in the south of the country. Whilst in the southern city of Bari, Parks discusses the Norman castle and Romanesque cathedral that visitors might ordinarily flock to. Bari may have its share of the charming architecture that Italy is renowned for, but Parks is no ordinary visitor, and the journey through the rough outskirts of the city to the dilapidated Stadio San Nicola reminds the reader that in many ways, Italy’s south has been left behind by the north. When the Brigate of Verona make those long journeys towards the heel of Italy from the north, they continually mock their opponents, denouncing them as nothing more than destitute southerners. With Parks translating the unique Veronese dialect in which the Brigate express both support and contempt, one begins to understand the mutual contempt between north and south. As such, each of Parks’ trips reveals more and more of that Italian cultural divide which, to us foreign readers, might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
And then there is Verona itself. A city of Shakespearean romance and renaissance beauty, a city widely perceived by the rest of Italy as bigoted and uncultured. Parks offers a realistic view of Verona, addressing its problematic history but refuting any unfair media diatribe against the city. Despite developing close ties with the notoriously violent Brigate, Parks does not romanticise them either. He acknowledges the human side of the Brigate, but is unafraid to show them at repulsive worst. He gradually befriends them but does not excuse their behaviour, simply showing us the very extremes of emotion and action that, rightly or wrongly, football evokes in such a passionate nation as Italy. Ultimately, Parks uses football as lens through which the reader can see Italy as it truly is- there are splendid cities and coastlines, deep cultural divisions, different dialects, and like any country, its fair share of social problems. This may not be a glamorous travel book, but Parks proves that if you want to learn both the good and bad about a place, a football stadium is not a bad place to start.