Shelf of travel guide books
Friendly Friday

Travelling through the pages of books

Perhaps the next best thing to travelling is reading about travelling. Whether travelling through the pages of books, browsing internet travel sites, or reading travel blog posts; armchair travelling is a pleasure in itself.

Like most travellers I love guidebooks. Even though I don’t really need them so much these days (I use the internet mostly for planning and research), I often get one for a country just because I love to browse through for inspiration and later see the book on my shelf as a memento of the trip.

Shelf of travel guide books
Some of our travel guides

I also enjoy travel writing, which is not the same thing. A well written book about travelling is one of the best sources of inspiration. It can trigger a desire to visit a country or city; it can provide colour and context while on a trip; and it can broaden your understanding of a country as you later start to reflect on your own experiences there. Here are a couple of my own favourites:

Between Extremes

Book jacket with two men and a horse
Between Extremes

This is possibly my all-time favourite travel book, for several reasons. Firstly, it has its genesis in something that is the very antithesis of travel, imprisonment. When Brian Keenan and John McCarthy were incarcerated by terrorists in a Lebanese dungeon they kept themselves sane by travelling in their minds across Patagonia. After their release they took the trip for real, and this book is their account of it.

Which brings me to the second reason I like it so much. It is told alternately by the two men, and their characters and travel styles are very different. They remind me a bit of me and my husband when we travel. When McCarthy arrives in a new place he already has a list of the things he wants to see and a plan for how they will see them, rather like me. Keenan on the other hand would rather sit in a bar; or maybe go for a stroll, and see if anything interesting comes along, more like my husband. It’s fascinating to see their journey through both perspectives.

This is the book that sparked my desire to visit Chile and in particular to see the El Tatio Geysers. That proved to be one of our favourite trips ever, so that is a third reason to like this book!

Flat plain with geysers and people in warm clothes
Visiting the El Tatio geysers in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cherry

Book jacket with a man in fur gloves and hat and thick boots
Cherry

This isn’t exactly travel writing, it has to be said. But one of the things I like to do is read a book while travelling that relates to the place(s) I am visiting; and this is one of my favourite ever picks for that. I read it while on our Antarctic cruise. That proved the perfect setting in which to appreciate this true account of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959) was one of the few to survive the expedition. He later faced a struggle against depression, haunted by the thought that that he could possibly have saved Scott and his companions. But in truth he was one of its heroes, undertaking an epic journey in the bitter Antarctic winter to collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin for scientific studies of the birds. The temperature was seventy below freezing, his teeth shattered in the cold and the tent blew away. Later he wrote about his experiences in The Worst Journey in the World, which inspired Wheeler’s interest in him.

Although we didn’t experience anything like such temperatures on our visit to the region it was nevertheless easier to picture the conditions he survived while looking out on these icy wastes than it would have been reading it at home in my cosy London suburban house!

Looking across the sea to snow-covered shoreline and low clouds
In the Lemaire Channel
Large iceberg
Antarctic iceberg

Lviv

Now for something rather different. One of my most treasured travel guides is also one of the least useful. It is old (1960s) and written mostly in Russian, of which I only speak a handful of words. When I visited Lviv in 2010 it was with a group of Virtual Tourist friends and we were welcomed to the city by a Ukrainian member of VT, Victor. Although he lived in the far east of the country, and didn’t know Lviv, he was a huge help in assisting us to navigate the city, find the key sights, book restaurants and understand the language and culture.

One evening he showed me his old guidebook to Lviv, published back when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. I found it fascinating and was really touched when he gave it to me as a gift when we left. In fact I felt bad then for having shown such interest in it! Of course I sent him a present in return when I got home, a book about my London suburb Ealing; but it didn’t feel quite enough recompense for such an interesting and unique book.

Worn guidebook with old photos on the cover
Open book with old photos

A gift from Victor, the old guidebook to Lviv

Since then Victor has been forced to flee his home twice; eight years ago when war broke out in his home city of Luhansk and again earlier this year when the present war got too close for comfort to his new home in Severodonetsk. He and his wife are currently safe in Poland, staying with a mutual Virtual Tourist friend, and despite everything he remains positive. He is such a well-liked member of our community; we all wish him well and hope for peace so he can return to the country he loves. Meanwhile this book is a lovely reminder of our time in this beautiful city which I hope is spared the awful destruction we have witnessed elsewhere.

Lady and man at a table
With Victor in Lviv, 2010

Do it yourself

Like many keen travellers I enjoy creating books as a memento of our travels. Years ago that meant collecting bits and pieces to combine with photos in a scrap book.

Scrapbook page with photos
Scrapbook page with photo and tickets

Scan from our Syria scrapbook from 1996

Today however we can create ‘proper’ books using one of several companies who provide this service. We upload our photos, design the layout of our pages and hey presto, we have a travel book! I haven’t found the time to create as many of these as I would like (it was going to be a lockdown project until I discovered blogging!) but I have done a few of some favourite trips.

My most ambitious work to date however has been compiling a book for my husband which I called ‘All the holidays we ever had (so far)’. It covers the period from our first little holiday together on the Isle of Wight in 1980 to the trips we made in 2014, the year I put it together. Obviously there will need to be a part two in due course when I have enough material, although Covid has probably delayed that by an extra year or two.

Book of travel photos
‘All the holidays we’ve ever had’

Thank you Sandy and the What’s On Your Bookshelf team for taking me down memory lane with this look back at travel books I have both enjoyed and enjoyed creating! Next time around (6th May) it will be my turn to host Friendly Friday with another photography challenge, so please join me then.

40 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    Another travel reader! I just jotted down Between Extremes and will order it from my local library through interlibrary loan. The story about Lviv and the book are especially touching these days. Glad to know your friends have been able to escape to a safer place.

  • rosalieann37

    This isn’t exactly on the same topic but — Bob was in the Navy so my first two children were born on the east coast and then he was transferred to California and then to Key West. I had a puzzle that was a map of the USA, and I drew on the puzzle the routes that we had taken on the drive across the US and back. So when they put the puzzle together they could see where they had been (even though in some cases they were too little to remember).

    My mother would take the maps that came in National Geographic magazine and mount them on cheesecloth and put dowels at the top and bottom and then she would hang the maps in the hall

  • Alison

    I have to say Sarah you are one truly remarkable woman, the places you have been amaze me. You always have something different and interesting to write about, you manage not to just write about the place but also the people. Your travel books are amazing. Have a great weekend 🌼

  • Rose

    Lovely to see your bookshelf and hear your reading recommendations, Sarah. My favorite travel guide is the “Road Atlas of Europe”. It was my husband’s sweet grandma’s, so it has huge sentimental value. It’s a paperback that was published in 1981, but it appears much older. It contains road maps of 28 countries and large-scale maps of 17 major European cities. It’d be fun to travel with it and see how much Europe has changed since 1981.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That road atlas must indeed be a treasured possession. I’ve always liked maps since I was a child (perhaps my love of travelling grew from my love of maps?) so I could pore over that for hours! I think most cities in Europe you would actually find the road layout pretty much unchanged since then, It’s more the case that buildings have mushroomed and skylines changed. It’s only on the outskirts I think that you would see a significant difference, with many new roads and housing estates, at least in the UK.

  • Tanja

    You have a lot of guides.I like your travel book which you made for your husband.is it just photos or text and photos?I have never made a scrap book but I have a lot of travel photo albums. and my blog is now a kind of online travel diary.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh yes, we have a lot of guides, the result of years of travelling! This is just the shelf in our sitting room – there are more on the upstairs landing 😀 The book is mainly photos, the only text is the place names and years as you see on the pages I shared, plus a list at the start of every holiday included, by year.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Great stuff – we too do an annual book (through Photobox) and we now have a lovely set of pictorial memories over several years. Guide books, we still buy but we no longer take them with us simply to keep the backpack weight down, they are heavier than clothes! We take pictures of relevant pages and take those instead (no weight!) plus of course, like you, use the internet. At least by buying the guide book we still add to the collection on the shelves. And lastly, yes it’s great when you read a book which inspires you to visit somewhere, so here’s to borders opening fully once again!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I use Blurb for my books, just because it’s the first site I discovered and I got used to the way it works. But I think they’re all much of a muchness. I’ve used Photobox for other things such as prints. And I rarely take a guidebook now unless on my Kindle 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I don’t read as much as I used to either, but if you have time I do recommend that one. It’s some time since I read it but it’s stayed with me 🙂

  • rosalieann37

    I am trying to shift everything to digital so that my children won’t have so much stuff to throw out. But my sister and I have been doing something called Storyworth where we shared our experiences when we were children. Her perspective is completely different from mine. We might almost have been in two different families. The result of our efforts are in a book but while it has photos, it is primarily text.

    As for travel books – I don’t have as eclectic taste as you do. My favorite travel books are those that were written by Emily Kimbrough about her travels on narrowboats and in a VW bus back in the 60s. I was inspired to do a narrowboat trip of my own.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      That Storyworth project sounds interesting. I wonder if my sister and I would have such different perspectives? We’re very different characters but I think we see our childhoods quite similarly.

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m also a fan of travel books … my husband (like you) do most of his research on the internet and I will look for a book in the book shop ☺️.
    Very interesting books – I have not read one of them, but ‘Between Extremes’ looks like something I will enjoy.
    Oh, and your photo of the Antarctic iceberg – stunning! And I like that book you made for your husband … sounds like a project I will enjoy 😊.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      In our case I look for a book AND I do most of the research on the internet 😆 My husband likes to be involved in the big decisions, like where we should go, but he prefers to leave most of the details to me! I do really recommend ‘Between Extremes’ and also that book project 🙂

  • Leela Gopinath

    Wonderful Sarah! I really enjoyed reading about your favorite travel books and why you like each of them. The one on Lviv particularly touched me….thinking about what is happening there right now. And I have been inspired to do a travel book like you have….all our journeys together….what a wonderful gift for the spouse….thanks

  • margaret21

    I really need to get round to doing one of these photo books. They are excellent mementoes. Thanks for nudging me ahead of out upcoming trip to Macedonia .I’ve always been a greet scrapbook fan though. And though my children weren’t keen on their daily diary sessions at the time, as adults they can’t stop browsing through all these memories of long-gone holidays and trips.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ooh Macedonia? That will be interesting! I’ll look forward to hearing all about that 🙂 I used to do a scrapbook of every holiday. It was a lot of work but fun, and my mother in law in particular loved seeing them. Since she died, and with blogging and photo books available as alternatives I haven’t done any, although we did collect tickets etc from the North Korea trip which I scanned and included in the photo book 🙂

      • margaret21

        I think that, for me nyway, a diary/scrapbook is irreplcaeable. The blogs and photo-books are the public face of our holidays. The bits that perhaps you don’t share with a wider world are often where the real memories reside. I’ll be doing one next month, I think. Only 8 days in Macedonia, then … well, wait and see 😉

        • Sarah Wilkie

          My blogs are public of course but the books I usually only share with my husband and maybe a few friends or family members if interested 🙂 Eights days sounds good – when do you go? Our next venture abroad will be Sofia in June – a return trip for me but first time for my husband 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Oh, brilliant! I went to Romania in 2006 as a result of reading an article in a newspaper saying that it was like travelling through a country 200 years ago, and I also read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and theWater, and Elizabeth Luards Family Life….which detailed travels through a number of countries on a shoestring, and the people they meet, food they share…. I have actually created books from some of my earlier travels to remind me of the adventures in Cuba, Transylvania and a few other places

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sue??? Interesting that a newspaper article sparked that Romania trip. I went to Sibiu some years ago and had a day tour around some local villages – I couldn’t believe how ancient and unchanging they felt. I’ve never heard of Family Life, I’ll check it out 🙂

  • sustainabilitea

    Sound like some interesting books. The travel books I come back to often are “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Bella Tuscany” (and others by Francis Mayes, although I despised the movie made of the first title. It was nothing like the book!

    janet

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Janet. I haven’t read those but I’ve heard good things about them. I hate it when a film doesn’t do a book justice – in fact I quite often avoid seeing a film if I’ve already read the book, just in case!

      • sustainabilitea

        Frances Mayes signed off on the movie, but I hated it and only watched part of it. I think I may have only liked one movie better than the book and that was “The Scarlet Pimpernel” with Jane Seymour. Other than that, I tend to avoid movies made from books I like also.

  • Sandy

    What a great compilation Sarah. I like your idea of publishing your own travel book. Although I’ve thought of compliling a photography book, I haven’t yet gotten to it. In someways, I think my blog has gotten in the way AND enabled it. When I get around to it, I think I’ll start with my blog posts and photos and work from there. Another project!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sandy 🙂 Yes, I’ve taken ideas and bits of text from my old TravellersPoint blog for books in the past and even from very old Virtual Tourist material. It’s a fun thing to do if you can find/make the time 😀

    • Annie Berger

      Very interesting read, Sarah and extremely touching story about Viktor and the Lviv book he gave you. Glad that he and his wife are safe on Poland now

      Our first joint international trip in 2013 was based on Steven’s wish to visit Cambodia as it wasn’t open back in the ’70s andy wish you take the Trans -Siberian train across Russia, Mongolia, and China after reading an article in The Denver Post about such an adventure I’d kept a couple of years.

      What am exciting first trip that we thought would our one and only. Ha ha – that just sparked our wish to travel for months together every year!

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