Whether on the road or in your armchair, adventure is exhilarating and oftentimes life changing. As we all venture down our proverbial roads, we discover there are so many that beckon, so many to take. This roundup represents just a few of my favorite travel narratives—each offering a welcome escape from our current home-bound lives.
On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel by Tony Cohan
On Mexican Time is one of my all-time favorite travel narratives and one of the best I’ve ever read about Mexico—a country I love. If you care to explore and to observe, you will discover Mexico is so much more than just a spring break destination. With colorful and humorous prose, author Tony Cohan immerses you in the sights, sounds and smells of life in San Miguel de Allende—a charming town in Mexico’s central highlands. This inspiring evocation offers a window into the mystical and mercurial soul of Mexico. It is a meditation, a love song. If you’ve read it, read it again. If not, pick it up; you’ll be happy you did.
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes
Under the Tuscan Sun is Frances Mayes’ lyrical tribute to the Tuscan countryside and to taking chances. From the beautiful landscape to the simple ingredients that comprise the seasonal recipes peppered throughout the book, she turns her poet’s eye on the layers of civilization and tradition underpinning life in Tuscany, as well as the joys and frustrations of restoring an 18th century farmhouse. You may be familiar with the general story having seen the film of the same name starring Diane Lane, but the book is so much richer. I promise once you’ve luxuriated in her account of life in Italy, you’ll yearn for your own time under that Tuscan sun.
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is a man after my own heart—keenly interested in the peregrinations of ancient travelers. In his book In Xanadu, he traced Marco Polo’s footsteps along the Silk Route, carrying a vial of holy oil from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepluchre. In From the Holy Mountain, he introduces the historic and no-less ambitious journey of two monks, John Moschos and Sophronius the Sophist, who in 587 AD set off on a journey through the crumbling Byzantine East, gathering the wisdom of the ascetics and mystics they met a long the way.
The book begins on Mount Athos—the site of the first monastic settlement founded in Greece in the 9th century—where in 1994 Dalrymple is reluctantly given permission to view and read Moschos’ original manuscript—The Spiritual Meadow. There in the ancient library surrounded by ephemerae of the ages lit by a single flickering paraffin lamp, he is able to read Moschos’ account in one dusk to dawn sitting. What follows is Dalrymple’s picturesque account of the wandering monks’ journey, where by walking in their footsteps he endeavors to “sleep in the same monasteries, to pray under the same frescoes and mosaics, to discover what was left, and to witness what was in effect the ebbing twilight of Byzantium” in what was once the center of Christianity.
The Last Barbarians: The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong River in Tibet by Michel Peissel
Long intrigued by the vast open landscape of Tibet and her beautiful, enigmatic people, I was so pleased to come upon Michel Pleissel’s The Last Barbarians. I had no idea until I picked up this renowned Tibetan scholar and adventurer’s book the source of the Mekong River had gone uncharted into the mid-1990s. Atmospheric and vivid, Pleissel’s writing harkens back to those 19th-century explorers and brings this strangely haunting country to life. He reveals the unforgiving landscape and the great strength one has to possess to survive it alongside our human foibles. He also reveals a reward not originally sought: the discovery of the Riwoche horse – the missing link in Equine evolution. Anyone interested in the landscape and people at the “roof of the world”, as well as geographical mysteries should read this book.
Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese by Robert D. Kaplan
While the full title of this book sounds like a mouthful, don’t let it put you off—it is rather like a mouthful of the best wine you’ve ever had: nuanced and colorful and revealing. And where wine may have legs, Robert D. Kaplan has gone ahead of you doing the legwork and research on this incredible spin around the Mediterranean and her time-soaked empires.
With prose as fine as the bristles in an archaeologist’s most prized brush, Kaplan lays bear epochs of history, one on top of the other. Tunisians, Greeks, Muslims, Vandals, Normans and Romans—they’ve all conquered and destroyed and left testaments to their highest ideals throughout the Mediterranean. Some locations were beaten to dust like Carthage in Tunisia, others became palimpsests—one culture’s beliefs layered over or alongside the other, as in the following passage describing the cultural eclecticism so present throughout Sicily and on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse in particular:
“Ancient Greek ruins lay in pits beneath the cobblestones, surrounded by remnants of medieval churches. The heart of this compact magic was the Temple of Athena, fronting a semi-circular plaza of faded baroque palazzo, grimy with mold. The temple—a fifth-century-BC Greek ruin inside a medieval church—looked so mortared over and rebuilt that it looked like a totem to history itself: a piled-up wreckage of styles and epochs. The Doric temple had been Christianized in the seventh century AD and later turned into a mosque, before being re-consecrated with Norman and baroque retaining walls. The entrance was a massive, double-tiered portal, behind which was a second entrance of twisted columns built by the pagan Greeks overlaid with statues of the Virgin Marys, with Romanesque archways alongside. ”
Through Kaplan’s work in Mediterranean Winter, I am reminded that time is indeed a mute bearer of secrets—only the remains hint at the stories untold.
Stay tuned for Part Two—another roundup!