Perceptive Travel Book Reviews July 2020
by William Caverlee

In this issue: The definitive guide for walking the Camino de Santiago, Instagram in book form, and yet another "best of" round-up from Lonely Planet.

Camino de Santiago: Sacred Sites, Historic Villages, Local Food & Wine
By Beebe Bahrami

There's an old math puzzle that asks how many people are needed in a room in order for two of them to have the same birthday. My high school science teacher ran the test once, and sure enough, a guy a few rows over had the same birthday as me. (Wikipedia gives the answer as a 50% probability with 23 people; 99.9% probability with 70.) I wonder if a similar test holds for the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route in Spain. How many people do you have to put in a room for at least one of them to have walked the Camino?

As it happens, I've run across two or three people in my hometown who have made the trek. Maybe that's not as unlikely as it seems. The modern-day upsurge in the Spanish pilgrimage began in the 1980s and 90s, according to Beebe Bahrami, author of the guidebook, Camino de Santiago. Bahrami notes that in 1986, 2,491 pilgrims received a Compostela, the trek's certificate of completion. By 2018, that number had reached 300,000. In addition, it's believed that the 2010 Martin Sheen movie, The Way, gave a significant boost to the influx of travelers coming to Spain.

Meanwhile, there's no shortage of travelogues written by trekkers who have set out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees in an attempt to walk the 485 miles to Santiago de Compostela in western Spain. One of the best is a graphic novel, reviewed here.

Bahrami's book is not a travelogue, but a true guidebook, jam-packed with data, tips, maps, directions, guides to cities and towns, names of restaurants, suggestions on gear to carry and places to stay. It's over 500 pages of fine print and I can't imagine a question that a prospective pilgrim might have that isn't answered.

Still, it's hard to envision anyone reading a thick, fact-filled guidebook straight through—that's not what they're meant for. Rather, I suggest that you read the first two or three introductory chapters, then skip to the end for the two concluding chapters. Afterwards, try browsing the pages at your leisure, front to back, taking special note of the many excellent photographs of attractions along the route—scenery, byways, villages, roads. Also taking note of the book's many sidebars and anecdotes, tidbits of history, special places to visit, etc. Anyway, that's what I did.

Bahrami divides her guide into seven main sections, each comprising a segment of the trip. For someone in the midst of an actual pilgrimage, these chapters form the meat of the book. Here are detailed maps, alternate routes, suggestions for accommodations and places to eat, plus a myriad of other travel warnings and solutions to problems.

For the rest of us, mere armchair travelers, a guidebook like this is still a great source of pleasure. It's fun to open a page at random and see what turns up. Right now, for instance, I've just turned to page 288 and found a sidebar titled, "Chocolate in Astorga." Astorga is a town of 11,153, which among its many cultural attributes, is "a chocolate mecca on the Camino and has been intimately tied to the cacao bean from the moment it was brought to Spain from the Maya and Aztec of Central America by Hernán Cortés in 1520."

In other words, Camino de Santiago serves superbly in its primary role as a mile-by-mile guidebook for trekkers, as well as serving as a rich mine of travel lore for readers like me who have no intention of setting out on a 485-mile pilgrimage unless it's in the backseat of a Lexus with a chauffeur, a well-stocked picnic hamper, and plenty of wine. Buen Camino.

Dame Traveler: Live the Spirit of Adventure
By Nastasia Yakoub

In 2013, Nastasia Yakoub created an Instagram account called "Dame Traveler," dedicated to solo female travelers around the world. Her book of the same name is a compilation of photographs and brief narratives from more than two hundred women. It's a striking collection of fine color photography—landscapes, street scenes, buildings, mountains, cliffs, seasides. Browsing these images is an excellent way to take a round-the-world trip from the comfort of your home.

The book contains four main chapters: Architecture, Water, Culture, and Nature, with images arranged accordingly. In the architecture chapter, we're offered scenes of Paris, Milan, Mexico City, Boston, and so on. Here are familiar places like St. Mark's Basilica, the Sydney Opera House, and Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Spain. But many of the scenes were new to me, sometimes new takes on famous places. Santorini in Greece, for example: "The one-of-a-kind island of Santorini is accessible by ferry or a short thirty-minute flight from Athens." Its photograph features sparkling white buildings on a hillside overlooking the sea.

I don't hang out on Instagram, so I don't know how the photographs appear there. Almost all the images in the book include a woman somewhere in the frame, perhaps the photographer herself (presumably using a tripod and timer) or perhaps someone else. This isn't explained.

The "Water" chapter isn't just beaches. A two-page photo of Illulisat, Greenland, is filled with icebergs and a single red-sailed sailboat. Likewise, the towering Cliffs of Moher in Ireland summon no thoughts of swimming—rather they summon terror for anyone afraid of heights. In the chapter named "Culture," there seems no limit to subjects. I was stunned by the vast interior of the Natural History Museum in London—looking like a scene in an Indiana Jones movie. And here's a shot of fifteen statues on Easter Island, all lined up like soldiers in a row. There's even a photo of the Taj Mahal—but not the cliched long shot; rather a close-up view, angled from below, with a crowd of sari-wearing women in the foreground, including the photographer:

The book's last chapter, "Nature," once again ranges the globe. Mt. Everest garners a two-page spread. Monument Valley in Arizona deservedly gains a spot as well. Also Machu Picchu in Peru. Other photos take us to Japan, Hawaii, Norway, Indonesia, and on and on. A particular stunner is Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia—a hymn to water, forest, granite, snow. Still, after so many spectacular sights, I found myself returning to a simple photo of a pair of windows in a white-washed villa in France, everything covered in red flowers, the flowers blooming upon a kind of wall-climbing vine, an explosion of pink, rose, and red. A modest wonder.

Best in Travel 2020
Published by Lonely Planet

The envelope please...

Somehow, I doubt that the ten countries chosen by Lonely Planet as the top countries to travel to in 2020 even knew they were in the running. Anyway, here it is, this year's winner...Bhutan. Why Bhutan? Well, according to Lonely Planet:

This tiny piece of Himalayan paradise operates a strict 'high-value, low-impact' tourism policy, compelling travellers to pay a high daily fee just to set foot in its pine-scented, monastery-crowned hills. The pay-off for visitors is a chance to walk along mountain trails unsullied by litter, in the company of people whose Buddhist beliefs put them uniquely in tune with their environment.

The next two spots go to England and North Macedonia, with seven more lucky countries comprising the rest of the list. Other categories in the sweepstakes include "Top 10 Cities," "Top 10 Regions," and "Top 10 Best Value." I suppose having top ten lists of travel destinations is no more arbitrary or silly than any other contest or award show, and, as it happens, an annual yearbook like Best in Travel 2020 is a nice way to take an armchair world tour. Nor does Lonely Planet shirk from offering us plenty of excellent color photography.

Most of Best in Travel 2020 is taken up with place-by-place profiles, usually 3-4 pages each, with photos, statistics, map, "how to get there," and so on. It's a format Lonely Planet has perfected over the years whether taking us to bucket-list destinations or various wonders of the world. These guides are packed with useful information and tips, and no doubt there are travelers who choose their next itinerary from surveys like this.

The destinations in Best in Travel 2020 include the Silk Road, Argentina, Austria, Ireland, Canada—every continent except Antarctica. In addition to the four main chapters, the book includes bonus articles on "Best New Food Experiences," "Best New Openings," "Best New Places to Stay," and several discussions on traveling less by air, on lowering one's carbon footprint, on voluntourism, and on eating local.

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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Dame Traveler: Live the Spirit of Adventure

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Best in Travel 2020

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