Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2020
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: A lost region of Europe stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland, a painful account of making a new life on a Scottish island with only nature for company, and an inspiring selection of adventure ideas for children and their parents.

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country
By Simon Winder

Often my starting point for choosing travel books for review is the short list of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards and Lotharingia was short-listed for the 2020 Travel Book of the Year. It is interesting to note how many titles in the various categories resist genre labeling, and this one is a satisfying fusion of history, travelogue, and memoir, with the emphasis on history.

A huge swath of land from the Netherlands to Switzerland was assigned to one of Charlemagne's great grandsons, Lothair II, in AD855. Over the next 12 centuries, Lotharingia has had a dauntingly complicated history and it disappeared as a region in the 10th century. With his immense learning and panoptic view of history, Simon Winder sets out (in an entertaining and accessible style) to track its tangled history, arguing that in some ways Lotharingia remains a fault-line running between France and Germany.

He often slips in a phrase like "as it is today" when he describes how a 16th-century Archbishop of Cologne and his lover Agnes fled to Strasbourg, leaving Bonn and its hinterland as Catholic, "then, as it is today." He visits the Cistercian abbey of Altenberg not far from Cologne and wanders past some fishponds "still there and functioning eight hundred years later." He maintains that the center of Delft (a town to which he tried without success to persuade his family to move) retains its 17th-century atmosphere because no one had the funds or energy to improve it after the Dutch Golden Age ended.

Dry-as-dust history books don't bring places alive like this and make you want to visit. As he says, "It is impossible in many of these towns not to be almost overwhelmed by the sense of walking through an unbelievably ancient continuum of experience, of being merely the latest character to trot through a street-pattern and set of thoughts and needs effectively unchanged from before records exist."

With wit and verve he deflates the vainglory of important figures from the past. He can also puncture his own fanciful expectations: he arrives at Habsburg Castle in Switzerland, vaguely expecting rainbows, singing, and a commemorative goblet but instead gets "instructive information boards and a little drinks terrace."

He is also good on art history, Bosch, Durer, Rubens... He mentions the marvelous Ghent altarpiece painted by Van Eyck. The prudish Habsburg Emperor, Joseph II (one of the "great unintentionally comic figures of the 18th century") was so appalled at the naked figures of Adam and Eve that he ordered an alternative to be painted with animal furs, making the couple look like "Flintstones swingers." Both versions can be seen in Ghent Cathedral (and I want to).

I confess that I was quite often lost among all the castles and princes, battles and annexations. And the seven maps at the front didn't help at all. And yet it was a delight. Reading this book is a little like wandering around Venice: you may lose your bearings, but there is a treat in store around every corner.

I am an Island
By Tamsin Calidas

About fifteen years ago, a successful professional woman and her new husband were propelled to flee London and make a life at the opposite end of Britain. Almost on a whim and against their better judgment, they bought a dilapidated stone cottage and smallholding on a Hebridean island to "live the dream" by becoming as self-sufficient as possible. It is no spoiler (since it is mentioned on the dust jacket) to say that within a few years the marriage has broken down and the author is left alone, struggling to survive.

However many times we have followed people escaping the rat race in search of a rural utopia, there is always interest and variety. In lyrical but unsentimental prose, the author describes a grueling life of laboring from dawn to dusk repairing walls, collecting wood, and looking after sheep. You can't help but admire her fortitude and resourcefulness, as she delivers lambs (not all of whom make it), improvises a way to prevent the barn roof from blowing away, and learns to spin wool. At one time she has no money at all and is reduced to foraging for sustenance.

Relations with the community are strained to put it mildly, and the title of her book doesn't lie. From the beginning, these incomers perceive hostility which turns into festering resentment. According to her version (and of course that is the only one we have), some of her neighbors are downright cruel, alluding openly to her inability to conceive a child and her failed marriage. They tell her "You think you are better than us" and we wonder what has prompted this. She discovers that her prize ram has unexpectedly died. After burying him, she is so convinced that foul play has been involved that she digs up the rotting corpse and takes it to a pathology lab on the mainland, where tests are inconclusive. Is this a sign of madness?

For solace she turns to nature, as she did in her lonely abusive childhood. Some of her lyrical writing about the land and seascapes of the Western Isles is beautiful, full of intense almost operatic emotion. But at the center there is a heart-aching loneliness. "I open my arms to the cold embrace of the wilds... Only they offer the close kinships which for years I have been lacking." At her lowest point she contemplates wading into the icy sea and never returning, but instead discovers the joys of extreme wild swimming. While swimming naked at night she has semi-mystical encounters with wildlife including a suckling doe. It occurs to me that in previous times her neighbors might have considered her a witch.

She achieves an accommodation with solitude and seeks to celebrate it. On setting out on a nocturnal swimming trip, "I purposely keep away from the isolated twinkling lights of the island as my footsteps tread the dark hills and fields beyond the croft." This shunning of her neighbors' twinkling lights strikes me as symbolic and very sad. The 17th-century English poet John Donne famously wrote: "No man is an island". At least perhaps they should not try to be.

100 Adventures to have before you grow up
Anna McNuff

Wild swimming is number 35 in the top adventures recommended in this illustrated children's book, though this author would definitely not advocate swimming alone at night in 7°C water. In fact the disclaimer on the inside front cover warns "Adult supervision required." Unfortunately, some experiences urged on the young in this book would require hefty adult financial help as well. One listing is: "Visit a natural wonder of the world" like the Great Barrier Reef, Victoria Falls, or the Northern Lights. Another recommended experience is bathing in natural hot springs to which not many children (unless they live in a region with underground thermal activity) could have access.

I preferred the more local and achievable suggestions, such as "go on a night-time hike". Many children routinely rebel when parents propose a walk in the country, but doing one by moonlight with a few friends, even if just up a hill near home, sounds more exciting. An accompanying suggestion is to end up in a graveyard and tell spooky stories (adventure #76). Another local idea is to go on a "Flip-a-Coin Adventure" where you let a coin decide left or right at every junction. Some original projects that might motivate a child, perhaps bored in Covid lockdown, include using Google Maps to devise a walking or cycle route in a pattern that spells out his or her name. (Try it—it's fun! For example a 40-minute walk in Lower Manhattan could be: Sixth Avenue, Union Square, Stuyvesant Street, Avenue A, Norfolk Street.)

Not all the suggestions are for one-off experiences. Some involve longer-term commitments such as taking a photo every day for a year or walking the same route in four seasons. Some ideas sound more worthy than adventurous, like becoming a waste warrior or building a hedgehog hotel. These will be undertaken by a certain sort of biddable child or one who is already fired up by an issue.

Inserted text boxes include biographical snippets about epic travelers and extreme adventurers (among whom the author is one), covering 15 female and 14 male heroes, from a trans-Iceland pack-rafter to a long-distance walker fundraising to save the black rhino. Perhaps there are some dreamy children out there who will have their curiosity sparked to follow a river from source to sea or build and sleep in a snow cave. I wonder if there is such a thing as a child armchair traveler.

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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I am an Island

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100 Adventures to have before you grow up

Buy 100 Adventures to have before you grow up at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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