Perceptive Travel Book Reviews June 2015
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: An ingenious project to track down secret and indeterminate places around the planet, a mid-life crisis that sees a woman transplanting herself from Sydney to Prague, and a blow-by-blow chronicle of a 4000-mile cycling trip around the perimeter of Britain.

Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World
By Alastair Bonnett

A couple of months ago, I visited an intriguing driftwood sculpture in a nature reserve on the southern cost of Sweden. Nimis consists of towers connected by higgledy-piggledy walkways and tunnels, all nailed together to form a mini-city. The artist, Lars Viks, did not have planning permission and, when the authorities made moves to dismantle Nimis, Viks declared the area to be an independent enclave called Ladonia. This name appears on no maps, and neither can you find directions to Nimis apart from some unofficial 'Ns' painted on trees to guide you through the woods.

This is exactly the kind of "off-the-map" hidden geography that interests Alastair Bonnett, though Ladonia happens not to be included among the 47 ghost towns, underground cities, oceanic garbage vortices and other weird places and non-places treated in his new book. From the useless strips of land (or Gutterspace) between buildings in New York bought up as a hobby by a hardware store owner, to bizarre little enclaves belonging to one country stranded inside another, he explores the idea of place. Who knew that a Belgian village called Baarle-Hertog has scattered pockets in and around the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau so that by walking around the Baarles, you are constantly stepping over international borders? In another strange border story, the author set himself the task of finding border posts of two adjacent countries as far apart as possible and settled on a crossing between Guinea and Senegal divided by 27km of no man's land.

Bonnett is an academic geographer who has collected fascinating stories about places that are off-grid and elusive, and which therefore feed our geographical imagination, and satisfy our human longing for surprise. And there are certainly plenty of surprises in this book. We learn that the asbestos-mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia has been evacuated and deleted from maps. An island named New Moore emerged in the Bay of Bengal after a cyclone deposited alluvial material, and was instantly disputed by Bangladesh and India. A rusting gun platform off the east coast of England was declared the independent principality of Sealand in 1967 ( and has been put to nefarious offshore purposes ever since. One of the most unforgettable tales is of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal, only five miles wide, where a tribe now numbering about 100 souls lives in total isolation from the rest of the world.

Armchair travel is here taken to an extreme because readers are never going to visit these shadowy places. Furthermore neither has the author except in a few cases like the triangular traffic island near his office in Newcastle, England. Even when traceable addresses are provided, such as 4 Mures Street, Bucharest, all that one would see is a faceless Communist-era building which between 2003 and 2006 was used as a top-secret interrogation center by the CIA.

Bonnett is a cracking story-teller and, although some of these sharply written five-page essays may strike you as tall tales, they are thoroughly researched. Whether the book should be categorized as travel writing is debatable, but it is utterly original and intriguing.

The Thing About Prague: How I gave it all up for a new life in Europe's most eccentric city
By Rachael Weiss

Finding herself single, childless, bored with her administrative job in Sydney and about to hit a full blown early-mid life crisis, Rachael Weiss's mind returns to the "cobbled streets, midnight blue evenings, snowflakes and cheap beer" that she'd known when she lived in Prague a few years earlier. This book could serve as a sort of sequel to the book reviewed in the April issue, since it is a detailed first-hand account of someone pursuing "a better life for half the price".

She is a dreamer who loves new beginnings. But then the reality bites of finding a job, a place to live and a social life, in a new country with an impossible language. She writes entertainingly about her failures, and warmly of the pleasures of life in Old Europe. By the fifth month she is still trawling through unsuitable and depressing job ads (IT specialist at DHL, Telesales Consultant, Automotive Account Manager....) when she suddenly sees an ad for a Writer. On the same day that she lands a job writing content for a hotel company's websites, she manages finally to rent a charming little apartment.

They hired the right person because she certainly can write. With an engaging conversational style, she quickly establishes a warm rapport with the reader. Her anecdotes are at times hilarious—for example when three incomprehensible Ukrainian plumbers invade her apartment to carry out compulsory pipe replacement as decreed by the EU—and sometimes alarming, most memorably when she finds herself hiking alone with a smelly Kyrgyzstani chap who keeps telling her he would like to eat human flesh.

The author's energy seems boundless. While engaged in the herculean struggle to earn a living and learn Czech, she is writing a novel, running a hiking club, leading (or rather, improvising) musical services at an English-speaking synagogue and looking for love. She makes herself do things she doesn't want to do such as phone up innumerable rental agencies and speak in her limited Czech to make viewing appointments, take up internet dating and tout her previous book round stony-faced Prague booksellers. Her sensible brave self wages an ongoing contest with her "cowardly whimpering self" in her attempt to integrate as a permanent resident in the land of her father's birth. After three years, she is defeated by bureaucracy. When the Czech Republic entered the Schengen zone in 2008, non-EU nationals were limited to stays of only 90 days within any six-month period. Undaunted, she has now moved to Dublin and will no doubt bring the same warm heart and droll voice to her next book.

Eat, Sleep, Cycle
By Anna Hughes

The adventure described in our third title under review is of much shorter duration, just ten weeks. Here we have another brave woman undertaking an extraordinary challenge, to cycle around the 4000-mile coastline of Britain, the largest island in Europe. All the usual elements of a big challenge are here, including the initial detox of possessions, the fear and trepidation, the joy in simple pleasures like tea and cake, the gradual exclusion of extraneous concerns as the all-absorbing obsession with pedaling takes over. The title mentions eating and sleeping, but there isn't much of anything apart from cycling.

Anyone considering doing some coastal cycle-touring in the UK will certainly want to read this book, to prepare themselves for the killer terrain (such as the highest road ascent in the UK which rises from sea level to 2,000 feet near Applecross on the west coast of Scotland), the relentless rain and the morale-sapping headwinds. My problem with the book is that there is too much of this. The day-by-day narrative structure ends up being repetitious and often a little plodding, in the way that the ceaseless revolution of the pedals becomes monotonous to the cyclist.

The author must be a logistical genius because she has the entire itinerary worked out before she sets off, with all her accommodation pre-arranged. Mostly her overnight stays are with acquaintances and strangers who have offered hospitality through Twitter or cycling websites like Some of her lowest points (and there are many) are when she has to push herself almost beyond endurance to reach one of her hosts by the appointed hour. For me, this tyrannical timetable means that her journey lacks a spark of spontaneity. The daily distances, all meticulously recorded, are so large (e.g. 121 miles on her fifth day) that she has no time or energy to explore places or convey their flavor.

But I don't mean to be churlish: colorful characters are met along the way, and her doggedness in carrying on, when she admits to herself (in Wales) that she doesn't want to do it anymore, is impressive and potentially inspiring.

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 (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently 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 to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Off the Map

Buy Off the Map at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Thing About Prague

Buy The Thing About Prague in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Eat, Sleep, Cycle

Buy Eat, Sleep, Cycle at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Sign Up