In the 1920s, American author Ernest Hemingway spent a large portion of time living and writing in Paris amongst the bohemians and academics of The Lost Generation, including Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and James Joyce. He hopped from bar, to café, to hotel-and back again. He drank carafe after carafe of cheap wine, literally soaking up the atmosphere of France’s capital.
Reading A Moveable Feast on the cusp of adulthood, I was struck by the romanticism of travelling to somewhere as renowned as Paris. Visiting several times since, buying novels at Shakespeare and Company, walking along the Seine, I can say I had been suitably influenced by the pages of this slim book.
Travel writing as a genre can achieve a multitude of things. Some of the most beautiful passages of writing can be found in the travel section of your local bookshop. There is something particularly intriguing about the ‘fish out of water’ narrative, the idea of being completely out of one’s comfort zone, seeing and experiencing something with wide, expectant eyes. Whether climbing a mountain in Argentina, dancing the Tarantella in Puglia or eating street food in Jakarta, there is always something in travel writing to learn from and intrigue us. Even reading about your own country from an outside perspective can illuminate areas of interest that you never knew existed.
Could travel writing, however, sometimes perpetuate misconceptions and colonial stereotypes about a place? How many times do we hear stories of ‘explorers’ and ‘discovery’ when we discuss travel writing? There is also the question to of the demographic of people who are predominantly writing these books. Travel writing that illuminates but that doesn’t ‘otherise’ the subjects of the author’s explorations is the gold-standard that Willoughby seeks to read and to share. There is no single story about a place, and we believe it is fundamental to read with an open mind and consider many different perspectives.
There is a space for considered travel writing. It can illuminate and open new worlds, as well as re-shaping our minds in new and exciting ways.
Willoughby have compiled a list of some of our favourite pieces of travel writing. Read on, get inspired and let us know your own favourites!
Willoughby Travel Writing Favourites
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy by Rachel Cusk
Author Rachel Cusk decides she is tired of the harsh British winters and relocates her young family to Italy for three months. Moving around the country with her husband and two children, the trip is an exploration of language, art, creativity in motherhood, and what it means to call a place home. If you like your travel writing through the lens of memoir, I’d highly recommend picking this one up.
The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
Journalist Helen Russell moves to Jutland in Denmark to discover if it’s really true that the Danes are the happiest nation on earth. Looking at the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Danish life through a sceptical British lens makes this a fun and enlightening read. Each chapter is based in a particular month and on a specific theme, mixing personal experience with research and interviews. If you enjoy Bill Bryson, I think you’ll like this one too!
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer is a wonderfully sympathetic but balanced writer, who shares the now infamous and tragic story of Chris McCandless a.k.a. ‘Alexander Supertramp’, the young idealist who decided in 1992 to give up the trappings of a comfortable life to head out into the wilderness of Alaska. Four months later he was found dead by moose hunters, leaving behind a family with questions. Krakauer investigates McCandless’ travels before his death, revealing a romantic, naïve, adventurous spirit who has inspired countless readers to seek a more authentic life. This will either encourage you go out and explore or deter you. See which side you land on.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
“Had I seen enough things? When I could no longer see them, would I remember them, and would just the memory be enough to fill me up and make me whole?... Could anyone ever have enough memories?”
Raynor Winn writes an honest and raw account of her journey for survival. Shortly after discovering her husband, Moth, of 32 years has a terminal illness, they lose their income and then their home. With homelessness their only option, Raynor and Moth accept their fate and embark on the famous South West Coastal Path, a gruelling 630 mile walk along the rugged cliffs from Somerset to Dorset. Taking a backpack each, a tent and what is left of their savings, they set off and endure tests such as extreme weather, hunger and Moth’s declining health.
But each step they take becomes their purpose and they begin to learn who they really are when everything else is stripped away.
I dare anyone to read this and not feel uplifted, to learn that we don’t need ‘things’ to feel happy and to encourage you to be brave in your decisions.
City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
Amazingly this book is 26 years old, but I still love it. It opened my eyes to a world of travel writing, setting the standard extremely high.
This is a really readable, fun memoir of a year spent living in Delhi, capturing the characters and encounters and carefully placing the whole within the context of the city and country. This will make you want to go and read all that William Dalrymple has written, I’m sure you’ll become as much of a fan as I am, and learn a lot in the process.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle.
An absolute classic of travel writing, and a great first book of Dervla Murphy’s to enjoy. The differences in the travelling done by DM and travelling nowadays are stark, she really experienced a different world. Her bravery and sense of adventure were remarkable. I’ll be revisiting this title this year in light of her sad passing, we’ve lost a truly inspiring character.
Slow Trains to Venice by Tom Chesshyre
Slow trains to Venice is a love letter to rail travel and a healthy reminder that traveling is just as much about the journey as it is the destination. With the goal of meeting up with his girlfriend in Venice in a couple of weeks, Tom buys an inter-rail ticket with no set route or plan. Instead he takes his time and visits several countries along the way and makes many diverting journeys. Reading this book is like sitting down with a friend after their travels, It isn't a travel guide, It is a collections of his opinions, encounters and conversations. It is full of Toms observations about everything from the mundane conversations of other travellers, to the European refugee crisis, Brexit and the complex history of eastern Europe. It is also interesting reding about his stop in Ukraine through the lens of the war currently unfolding.
In such a fast paced world where you can travel to other countries within hours, It is refreshing to escape into a book that romanticizes the slow paced, meandering journeys.