Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2019
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: a penetrating exploration of eastern Europe three decades after the Berlin Wall came down, an invitation to travel mindfully, and a compendium of one thousand travel marvels.

Pravda HaHa: True Travels to the End of Europe
By Rory MacLean

In the euphoria that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, this distinguished travel writer journeyed from Berlin to Moscow to take the pulse of eastern Europe. Exactly thirty years later he reprises his investigations and the resulting book is deeply depressing. The optimism of those days has evaporated, as the anticipated positive changes have failed to materialize. Lying and corruption are the order of the day in Putin's Russia, while despicable populists have turned Poland and Hungary into virtual single-party states.

Arguably this intelligent and deeply researched book is a work of journalism more than of travel writing. It is not the kind of travel book that entices you to follow in the author's footsteps. The opening chapter focuses on an "affable and dodgy oligarch" from the author's little black book of contacts: he hopes consorting with Dmitri will help him to understand "chippy, lying, modern Russia." His writing is not merely observational, but also imaginative. He has a novelist's gift for developing character and reproducing dialogue. The decadent shenanigans that take place in Dmitri's world evince a James Bond movie, and some of the real-life baddies who illegally trade weapons-grade uranium-235 and so on sound just as evil as Goldfinger.

Some travel writing can be so lazy. But not here, where descriptions are particularized. He would never refer merely to Russian tanks but specifies T-14 Armatas, "the world's most deadly tracked combat vehicle". In Transnistria he is served not just vodka but Ukrainian Khlebnaya Sleza. A street entertainer in Sebastopol doesn't sing generic Russian pop songs but "Broken Heart Tango." He notices not simply mountain birds in Crimea, when he pays a local guide Katja $100 to take him on the back of her motorcycle, but linnets and yellowhammers.

His moral and political position as a man of the left is made clear throughout. His analysis of how populist leaders can manipulate history through museum exhibitions is brilliantly incisive when applied to the House of Terror in Budapest. I would have been more alert to its distortions if I'd read this before visiting. The Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk once focused in an original and humane way on the human cost of war around the world. But its founder has been hounded out of his job and the museum is being brought into line with a Polish nationalistic agenda. Changes have been "tacked on like emoji smileys on Goya's Disasters of War."

Having bravely confronted people who hold sinister and hostile views, he confesses to feeling an "unbearable sorrow." Parallels with recent events in the UK and US are inevitable. People who like strongman leaders don't seem to care if they're lying, and lying seems to have become an acceptable political technique. The "Pravda" of the title, Russian for truth, has been mocked and discarded ("HaHa"). The "End of Europe" in the title may refer not only to a remote geographical location but to the loss of an ideal.

Mindful Travelling: Journeying the World, Discovering Yourself
By Sarah Samuel

Titles like this one attract a self-selecting readership. While some readers will be inspired by this gentle philosophizing, others will find it overly dependent on common-sense truisms such as "nature is a great antidote for stress." The book asks questions such as "what stops us from being still?" which are not specifically travel-focused questions. The author is attempting to apply the general aims and practices of mindfulness, that is of being present in the moment, to the act of traveling. Travel is (re)defined very broadly to include the act of simply going somewhere new and mindful travel means to pay close attention to your surroundings (and yourself).

Seasoned travelers may well concur that "a wonderful thing about travel is that we take ourselves away from many of our false identities" based on professional role and status. Some aims of mindfulness overlap with those of the "ordinary" traveler, for instance to be curious and open to the new. Mindfulness encourages adopting a "beginner's mind" (a concept from Zen Buddhism) which is pretty well unavoidable when you land for the first time in Lagos or Delhi.

There is some good advice in here, especially for the Instagram generation who like to count (and recount) their travel experiences to the detriment of appreciating them. The section entitled "Take time to have no plan" might give food for thought, though it is hardly revolutionary to recommend unplugging from phone and guidebook.

This nicely designed little book with its pleasing end papers is from a small specialist press with a strand of books labeled "Conscious Living." Quotations are interspersed throughout the text, most from the usual suspects like Khalil Gibran and Paulo Coelho. Given the rise in the popularity and status of mindfulness, and its undoubted success in helping individuals to increase their self-confidence, this book is destined to find a ready audience.


Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences
Edited by Joanna Reeves

We turn to this highly desirable tome—less a coffee table book than a bedside pre-nocturnal dreamcatcher. Mercifully the cliché "bucket list" is not used because no individual could hope to experience more than a fraction of these one thousand recommendations, distilled from a huge amount of insider traveler knowledge from Rough Guide authors. Varying in length from a scant 100 to a meaty 3000 words, the entries touch on 180 or so countries including obscure territories like Bonaire and the Cape Verde Islands. About a third of the locations are in Europe, a tenth in North America. Countries like Syria, Yemen and Libya with remarkable sights are omitted for obvious security reasons.

While some selections are obvious, many others are original and intriguing. Anyone who has been to Barcelona has seen Gaudí's famous buildings but who has admired the concert hall by another Barcelona Modernist architect Domènech i Montaner? Everyone knows about walking the Camino but who has thought of cycling it? Thank goodness the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik is omitted.

With a massive 1000 travel destinations and experiences from which to choose, it can't have been difficult for the editors to cater to every taste. Culture lovers can dream of the Dalí Museum in Catalonia, of the Mayan murals at Bonampak in Chiapas Mexico, or of seeing a Greek tragedy at the ancient theater of Epidavros. The nature lover will be drawn to hiking above Lake Ohrid on the border between Albania and Macedonia and to tracking chimpanzees in a Tanzanian rainforest or whale-watching in Iceland. Gourmands will drool at the prospect of a glutton's tour of Bologna or a Malay cooking course in Cape Town. The active thrill-seeker will read of big game fishing in the Azores, canoeing the gorges of Northern Australia, and pedaling along the River Loire or the Karakoram Highway.

One test of the quality of a book like this is whether a write-up about a place you think you know makes you want to go back to see what you missed, as happened to me when I read about the Northern Quarter of Manchester in the north of England. Concrete details abound rather than vague generalities, yet not so specific as to kill off the interest of the casual browser. Each regional section ends with a listing (in even tinier type than the one used throughout) of practical info and relevant online resources (but no prices).

On the whole the quality of writing is first-rate, which is an admirable feat given that well over 250 writers contributed. The editor has called this book a "joy and a terror to edit". Gorgeous photographs abound yet the text takes precedence, unlike others in this genre.

There is a tendency to a clever journalistic style as in the description of the notorious Cap d'Agde on the Mediterranean coast of France as a place where "sex on the beach is not necessarily a cocktail." But some entries, like the one describing the Guggenheim in Bilbao, could serve as models for a travel writing seminar.

Very occasionally the standard slips and we are invited to "indulge our wild side" or "escape modern day stresses". The text is remarkably error free, although the proofreader clearly fell asleep over the Regent's Canal in London where te [sic] pictureesque [sic] whafs [sic] can be seen. More seriously, one or two recommendations in this "fully updated fourth edition" are out of date: the Petöfi Csarnok flea market in Budapest closed in 2017.

But these are minor quibbles. Even if you are exceedingly well-traveled, you will discover lots that is new and enjoy being reminded of the places you have been. If you aren't, what an incitement to dream and plan.

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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Mindful Travelling: Journeying the World

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Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences

Buy Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: 1000 Ultimate Travel Experiences at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Amazon UK