Perceptive Travel Book Reviews April 2021
by William Caverlee

In this issue: An information-packed guide to Italy good for setting out on your adventure or dreaming from your armchair, a coffee-table book with incredible surf photos and information for surfing travelers, and instructions on how to create meaningful, slow travel with children.

100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go
By Susan Van Allen

This is the tenth anniversary edition of Susan Van Allen's guidebook to Italy—a book, as the title indicates, with a clear focus on women readers, but one that I believe both men and women can read with interest. The author has divided her survey into thirteen major sections, with titles like: "Gardens," "Beaches," "Active Adventures," "Advice from Writers," "Cooking Classes," and so on.

This is a true handbook, with specific vacation tips, addresses of museums, dates and hours of admission, recommended hotels and restaurants, suggestions for further reading. These days, with vacations and travel in flux, it's also possible to enjoy 100 Places as armchair-travel reading. The author has compiled a deep trove of background information concerning the sites she has chosen: myths, legends, Biblical references, Roman history, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, all the way up to modern times:

The "Eye of God" —the humongous, uncovered circular opening at the top of the Pantheon's dome, frames the dramatic Roman sky, making the ever-changing city a part of this architectural wonder. It's fabulous near sunset.
The painting caused quite a sensation, like the opening of Star Wars, when folks back in 1518 first saw what Titian painted specifically for this chapel.

Enough of the book is written in a style like these excerpts as to be noticeable: casual, slangy, informal. In any event, the range of sites profiled in the book is astonishing. Included are many famous places: the Roman Forum, Saint Peter's Basilica, Pompeii, Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. But dozens and dozens of entries were new to me: the Palazzo Ducale, Villa Cimbrone, Santa Maria Novella, Sperlonga, Positano.

It was good to find a couple of references to that sublime fairy tale, Roman Holiday. I also think that a lot of readers will be interested in the chapters on cooking classes, language courses, and other workshops and classes that you can take on subjects like mosaics, ceramics, weaving, art restoration, landscape painting... All in all, the author's enthusiasm for Italy is undeniable. The great amount of information compiled here makes for a practical guidebook as well as an enjoyable tour of Italy for the stay-at-home traveler. (You can see some examples of the author's Italy travel stories here on Rome, Umbria, and Milan.)

445 pages. Softcover. With index, appendices, numerous small black-and-white illustrations.

Epic Surf Breaks of the World

Epic Surf Breaks of the World
Published by Lonely Planet

This coffee-table book of surfing spots around the world is a tour for the daring. As you'd expect, the book is filled with stunning photographs, all in color, some that take up two pages—views of oceans, skies, waves as tall as buildings, and world-class surfers riding perilous blue cataracts like super-heroes, which I guess they are.

Each of the fifty chapters takes you to a different site around the world. The main sections are "Africa and the Middle East," "Americas," "Asia," "Europe," and "Oceania." All the places that come to mind are represented: Hawaii, California, Tahiti, Mexico, Australia. But so are dozens of other places that you might not have previously associated with surfing: Norway, England, Israel, Japan, Scotland...

Coffee-table books often mostly consist of photographs, but each chapter here includes a first-person account by a world-class surfer of their visit to a site. So, we have fifty short travelogues—how the author traveled to the beach, descriptions of nearby towns, people you meet along the way, difficulties encountered, transcendent moments upon the waves, and so on. In the case of Cortes Bank, there's not even a beach! You have to get yourself 100 miles off the coast of California, in the middle of the ocean, to catch your wave.

Cortes Bank is one of seven sites in the book designated as "Gnarly" —waves, according to the editors, that are the most challenging and dangerous surf breaks in the world. Here are the other six: Skeleton Bay in Namibia; Mavericks in California; Puerto Escondido in Mexico; Nazaré in Portugal; Shipstern Bluff in Australia; and Teahupo'o in Tahiti. These sites are not for novices; we're talking 50, 60, 80 foot waves.

'Gnarly' waves are a different beast altogether: these are extremely consequential breaks that should only ever be attempted by experts, pros or Aquaman.

When you add travel descriptions and photos of towns, streets, and local scenery to all the photos of oceans and waves, this is a surfing book that could also be read as a general travel book—a world tour of locales you might not have considered up to now, many of which require arduous journeys just to get there. Also, even if you aren't a surfer, you might want to visit these beaches as a spectator or seaside tourist. And, of course, the book is packed with spectacular photography—of interest to casual readers as well as actual surfers.

For those of us who are not aficionados, a glossary would have been helpful. I had to Google the book's title phrase, "surf breaks," just to discover what the term meant. I was also stumped by "left-hand and right-hand point breaks." Also: shortboards, longboards, 3/2 fullsuit, springsuit, tubes, groundswells, windswells, A-frame, triple-overhead... Obviously, such terms will be easily recognizable by surfers, but many of the rest of us could use a little help in navigating the lingo.

Hardcover. 8 inches by 10 ½ inches. 328 pages.

Slow Travel With Children
By Eva Cirnu

This slender book (81 pages) is an introduction and guide to "slow travel," a concept which the author explains in the book's opening words:

Slow travel is a journey of discovery and a deeper, more sustainable way to coexist with the people, environment and culture of the host destination. It doesn't always have to be a long trip or even a trip to another country, but it is a more conscious trip—the antithesis to our fast, 'throwaway' lifestyles.

Such a travel philosophy is certainly an admirable goal and undertaking. I was reminded of friends who once spent a student year abroad, living with local families in France, say; or anyone who has had the good fortune to spend a sojourn in another country with relatives or friends. Whatever the case, consider yourself lucky if you ever had the chance to experience another country from the inside, rather than through the glass windows of a tour bus, checking off famous sites in a headlong rush.

In this current book, the author, her partner, and their young son have lived the slow-travel lifestyle for years, these days claiming both Canada and India as home. They have traveled as a family during all the stages of their son's childhood: infant, toddler, young boy. Thus, the author is speaking from experience when she offers her suggestions and tips on life on the road with children.

Her practical guides cover a lot of ground, with useful information both for families with children and anyone else interested in slow travel: safety, finances, what to pack, where to stay, schoolwork, food, homesickness, culture shock, coming home. There are specific tips on clothes, toys, books, baby carriers. Then there's advice on airports, family lounges, play areas, luggage, often with canny tips like this one: "Babies and children are often allowed their own carry-on luggage—do take advantage of this."

This book is a short read: softcover, around 6 inches by 9 inches in size. Although brief, it is filled with color photos of sights around the world, some of them are full-size; others are small, sprinkled throughout the pages.

I spotted photos of the Himalayas, Portugal, the Diwali Festival of Lights in India, the Dalai Lama. Also, apartment scenes, train stations, crowded streets, a beautiful bowl of blackberries, a camel. Weaving so many travel photos throughout these "how-to" pages is a welcome addition to this book.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

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Epic Surf Breaks of the World

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Slow Travel With Children

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