Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2019
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: Diametrically opposed world travels by an elite athlete obsessed with cycling 240 miles a day for 75 days and by an early-retired couple who dawdle along on cruises. Plus a sometimes astute, sometimes droll account of travels along the River Rhine.

Around the World in 80 Days: My World Record Breaking Adventure
By Mark Beaumont

The scale of the challenge that the Scottish ultra-endurance cyclist Mark Beaumont set himself two years ago is mind-blowing: to cycle 18,000 miles around the world in little over 11 weeks. That divides up into nearly 1000 miles every four days of cycling, because the legendary 80-day period has to include flights from Beijing to Perth, Brisbane to Invercargill, Auckland to Anchorage, and Halifax to Lisbon. Most of us would find this itinerary rather tiring if we were driving it, but to imagine pushing the pedals up hill and down dale for 16 hours a day to reach the target seems superhuman.

The support crews he enlists for the various legs comprise a team leader, logistics manager, performance manager (physio), mechanic, driver, and cameramen. Straining every sinew every day to maximize his progress, his team members are rarely shown as people who make jokes or show affection. As one comments: "We are an odd wee slick-functioning bubble, generally without much reference to location, but in the occasional quiet moments we could look out the window and remember we were in the centre of Russia or Mongolia, many miles from Paris, and the scale of the world would pop back into view."

Not till day 34 does the author permit his team a detour to see a sight (the cliffs of the Great Australian Bight). Not till day 43 does he devote a (single) paragraph to how he maintains contact with his two small daughters back in Scotland. He confesses to occasional rages when a member of his team delays him by a few minutes and to lapses of courtesy when he is so "focussed" (i.e. obsessed) that he offends the Russian drivers they employ by failing to say hello. The obsessiveness and ruthlessness of mind-set does at times seem to make him a little less than human. I was reminded of the "Atomic Theory of the Bicycle" proposed by Irish satirist Flann O'Brien in his comic novel The Third Policeman in which the hero notices that people who spend most of their lives riding bicycles begin to interchange atoms and become half human, half bicycle.

The author acknowledges right at the beginning that this can't be a travelogue. When he does pause to admire the scenery, it is for a branded sponsor photo shoot. Perhaps his earlier books (The Man Who Cycled the World and Africa Solo) based on unsupported cycle trips done at touring pace gave more of the flavor of the countries and therefore more pleasure. The book mentions a concept new to me: Type 2 fun refers to something that is not fun at all until reflected on later. Maybe reading this book falls into that category.

Bucket Lists and Walking Sticks
By Emma Scattergood

Like many books that are mainly transcribed from travel blogs, this one reminds me of the slide shows my family's neighbors in London Ontario used to subject us to. "This is us just before we get on the tour bus." "Here we are eating at a waterfront restaurant recommended by our tour guide." And so on. The book is a chronological account of an early middle-aged couple's grown-up gap year, traveling by cruise ship from their home in eastern Australia to southern England, via a couple of weeks kicking their heels in Southeast Asia. They use a relative's spare house in England as a base from which to travel to Paris, Prague, Venice, etc. The walking stick belongs to the author's husband Darryl who has spent years in rehabilitation after a serious motorcycling accident in 2011. His wife decides that the trip of a lifetime might help to combat his depression and sets about micro-managing a seven-month trip.

Their starting point is the laminated bucket list that has long occupied a corner of the author's wallet. I am sorry to say my heart sank when I read that they wanted to gaze on the Mona Lisa, slurp a Singapore Sling at Raffles, see Michelangelo's David in Florence, kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland, and so on. It would take a superb travel writer to bring anything new to these travel clichés and that is what we do not have. She is taken aback at the mud, urine and feces on the ground near the great archaeological site of Petra (from her list). "It's my first taste of what high tourism can really do to a place." If you visit only the most famous sites, what else can you expect?

There are careless errors too: the Terracotta Army has become the Forbidden Warriors, Thames narrowboats have been turned into longboats and in the third line of the book, the idea for a journey "chrysalises" when she means crystallizes. Alas this chrysalis of a book never metamorphoses into a beautiful butterfly.

But one mustn't be snobbish. No doubt the majority of travelers share the preoccupations of ticking off the famous sights, staying in comfort, making use of hop-on hop-off buses, and getting the laundry done. The difference here is that Darryl's disabilities must be accommodated, and we can't help but be pleased that he arrives home healthier than when he left, and has weaned himself from anti-depressants. This is an entirely unpretentious book written by an "Everywoman".

The Rhine: Following Europe's Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps

The Rhine: Following Europe's Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps
By Ben Coates

With relief, we turn to a thoughtful and entertaining book about the River Rhine. This is an obvious subject for a writer who is married to a "proud Rotterdammer" and lives in the great port city at the mouth of the Rhine. Instead of a tedious daily journal, the narrative alternates satisfyingly between his personal wanderings and the big picture. In Amsterdam he stops at a café to drink herbal tea ("like canal water") and reflect on Amsterdam in the Golden Age of the 17th century.

He sets off to follow the river through the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein, traveling on foot and (yes) bicycle, by swimming and by boat, train, and even cow. He aims to investigate whether there is a Rhineland culture, and how it is changing. The River Rhine has long been freighted with German nationalistic significance, symbol of German strength and unity, and a source of prosperity and identity. Its borderlands are at the heart of the European project, so an investigation by a Briton now resident in Holland is timely in this sad era of Brexit.

His extensive background research is worn lightly, on topics as diverse as Roman history, the Cold War and current international trading threats. Readers should not object to a bit of dumbing down (he sums up the themes of Wagner's Ring Cycle in a sentence) because travel books, like TV documentaries, have to simplify. His well-paced prose is peppered with lively similes and other felicities. The Rhine is like an overworked parent juggling family and careers, i.e. it must protect its recreational and natural amenities like its fish population while acting as a major shipping route through an industrial heartland. He has a knack for using contemporary metaphors, for example the Frisians of northern Netherlands are the Ringo Starrs of European history; in Roman times Utrecht became a Helmand or Basra; near the source of the Rhine in the Alps the river is "no wider than a double bed and rockier than a soap star's marriage."

His tolerant attitude is charming too. He has been encouraged to believe that he will find Biesbosch National Park in southern Holland an unspoiled tidal wetland, whereas he discovers "more a poorly maintained golf course than an epic wilderness." Yet he cheerfully decides that it would be pointless to feel annoyed that it wasn't unspoiled; the river is doing well recovering from past pollution and withstanding the pressure it is under. While some travel writers might bemoan the "hipsterfication" he meets from Rotterdam to Basle, he loves the draughty warehouse spaces turned into open-plan food markets and craft breweries.

He can quickly characterize a place with well-chosen observations—of provocative graffiti, punky funky haircuts, dubious lumps of modern sculpture and a small girl cartwheeling down the pavement. He manages to upend the cliché that European cities like Cologne, Bonn, Strasbourg and Basle are bland, staid, and humorless. I might have to reconsider my less-than-enthusiastic assessment of Germany as a travel destination.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

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Bucket Lists and Walking Sticks

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Amazon UK

The Rhine: Following Europe's Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps

Buy The Rhine: Following Europe's Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon UK
Kobo Canada