03 JAN 2018: On the southeast corner of Adelaide East and Toronto Streets, basement level, stood a temple to travel - until "progress" stepped in. Toronto's Open Air Books closed in 2016. The owner, Jeff Axler, could find a map or a guide book to anywhere on his higgledy-piggledy shelves  

And he knew - nay, he was passionate about good travel writing.

He introduced me to the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, and wherever Jeff Axler is now, I will be forever grateful to him for that introduction.

Literary travel writing is an uncommon form. A good travel writer uses the route purely as a canvas, and on that canvas he paints a self-portrait, warts and all.

Anyone - even I - can write about a hotel, a cruise ship, a beach, a view. A competent wordsmith will come up with something like "A Year in Provence". (And I am not decrying "A Year in Provence" - it's entertaining, it's funny, it inspired a hundred "me-too's". But in the end it's fluff.)

But a great travel writer? A great travel writer will take you there. You will be walking alongside him (or her in the case of - for instance - Jan Morris) and sharing their intimate thoughts.

Maybe it's more than a year since Open Air Books' doors closed for the last time, and in honour of a man who unknowingly inspired me, here's my own ten best travel books EVER written.

10. "Through Connemara in a Governess Cart" (1893) by Edith Somerville and her cousin who went under the name of Martin Ross - these two Victorian Irish ladies went up to London for ten days and stayed for three weeks "waiting for a fine day". So they returned to Galway, rented a governess cart and a jinnet (a jinnet is a mule of sorts) and spent two weeks exploring Connemara - this at a time when high-class Victorian ladies were expected to stay home and embroider and swoon.

9. "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" by Eric Newby. In 1956 Eric Newby abandoned the London fashion business, and decided to go mountain climbing in Afghanistan. It's funny, understated, and just about anything that could go wrong does indeed go wrong. Find it and read it.

8. "The Great Railway Bazaar" (1975). Paul Theroux's four month trip across Europe, Asia, India and Russia by train is a classic. Theroux writes (and complains) about train trips all over the world. This is his classic

7. "An Inland Voyage: (1875) by Robert Louis Stevenson. No, not "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes" - everyone knows about that book. "An Inland Voyage" describes a canoe trip through Belgium and the north of France, through a world that is now gone

6. "Coasting" (1987) by Jonathan Raban. Raban sailed single-handed around the coast of Britain in a restored ketch, but this book is more a rumination on the state of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Raban's book "Old Glory", an account of his boat trip down the Mississippi is a contender, but "Coasting" wins out

5. "Travels with Charley" (1962). In 1960 John Steinbeck loaded his standard poodle, Charley, into a camper and drove around the USA, roughly following the Canadian border, the Pacific coast down to Mexico, across the southern edge of the USA, and back up the Atlantic coast to his home in Long Island New York. His son later said that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see America one last time, and while there are arguments about the truth of his account, Steinbeck's reflections on the USA at the beginning of the '60's were right on point

4. "Notes from a Small Country" (1995) - another "round the edge of Britain" account, this time by Bill Bryson, this time by train, bus and foot. Bryson has written a lot of other travel books - "Small Country" is his best work.

3. "Coming into the Country" (1976). John McPhee has an ability to make anything fascinating and readable (just read his book about Florida oranges!) In "Coming into the Country" McPhee travels the length and breadth of Alaska, talking to everyone from politicians to prospectors.

2. "As I Walked Out One Midsummer's Morning" (1969) - Laurie Lee's lyrical memoir of his tramp through Spain in the 1930's (and getting trapped in the Civil War) was required reading in my high school days. It remains good writing to this day

And…drum roll please…(well, I did give this all away at the beginning, didn't I?)

Best ever…."A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

In 1933 Paddy Fermor decided to walk from The Hook of Holland to Istanbul, carrying with him only a classical education, rucksack of clothes and the Oxford Book of English Verse. One of the opening pages has him walking across frozen fields in Holland. And you are there with him. Few writers have that ability. Read anything by Fermor (I recommend "Mani" as book number two) and be transported. His ability to convey a sense of place is magical.

And as a "gimme" - Wilfred Thesiger's "Arabian Sands" (1959) is right up there

So that's my list. You'll probably point out that I'm missing Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" - I just could never get into it. Nor Jan Morris's "Venice". Likewise Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia".

My column - my choices! What are yours?


email icon facebook logo twitter logo


Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

Read more from Derrick Bloch

comments powered by Disqus