6 Books that Encapsulate a City


The travel section is the last place you need to look when going on holidays. Rough Planets and Lonely Guides just set you on a BLINKERED EXPEDITION with other tourists, and their guidebooks. Bin them and be truly transported by books that ENCAPSULATE A CITY and conjure the atmosphere of a destination, says TIM MAGEE

1970, Paris, France --- Elderly woman chat outside a bakery in a Paris street. --- Image by © Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Corbis


The thought is fleeting but always the same. There is a light over a door at the end of a dark, stone alleyway. I can see my breath. It’s cold, but good cold – the kind of frigid yet welcome early night that you get in Paris at this time of year. In the thought, I’m in a long overcoat, then I open the door and step in from the fog to the fug of a bijou bistro and the half smile of a stained, gouty maître d’.

While writing this I’ve tried to slow the video in my head down, look around and get some sort of frame of reference, but it’s just a thought and not a memory. Inside the door there’s the warmth and welcome of my favourite Parisian restaurant, Allard. But Allard isn’t down an alley and this bistro doesn’t really exist in real life. The oversized overcoat is not mine. The thought isn’t entirely mine either. It’s almost definitely set in pre-war Paris and this thought is a mashable MyTube of my idea of being in Paris, inadvertently directed by the novelist Alan Furst’s The World At Night about Jean Casson, the so-Parisian movie producer who bungles into patriotism as his home is slowly being chewed up and swallowed by the Nazis.

Anything around the revolution or the terror isn’t coloured by the history I’ve read on Robespierre or Marie Antoinette but by Hilary Mantel’s brilliant A Place of Greater Safety, which hardwires you to that city in that time.

Venice, Italy --- Typical canal during Acqua Alta (High Tide) --- Image by © Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis


Venice via guidebook is essentially a museum city, a theme park selling ten-euro espressos to the daily tide of tourists. Reading the guidebook should make you want to cancel your flight, but Donna Leon’s Acqua Alta, one of the series about Commissario Guido Brunetti, will tell you more about the museum culture in that museum city than any guidebook, and it puts you there, off-season and during a flood, and with the odd murder or two. Brunetti doesn’t have a hook, apart from the reader’s fascination with what he actually does put in his mouth during the course of each day. His relationship with his waterborne city is the story but the fascination is with the Venetians and their alien, temporary home. They’re like settlers on the moon, or in the Wild West, except it isn’t the Indians coming to get them, it’s smelly water. Again it’s the genre that’s wrong as Acqua Alta isn’t really a crime novel – it’s a travel book with a murder subplot.



Another alien landscape – Seville, with its oppressive heat, the welcome relief of its siesta and the covetable sophistication of its life – is home to Robert Wilson’s most famous character, Javier Falcón. A good case for leaving some books as books, Falcón recently made it on to Sky Atlantic in a master-class in jamón: television’s Falcón couldn’t be further from the hassled middle-aged introvert in the books but is a campy mince-fest of angst like an over-18 version of Eldorado, or a Renault ad. But what Wilson does best is access Europe’s most underrated city, Lisbon, through the then-and-now novels Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon and The Company Of Strangers, the latter being the better, and not unlike the Furst books – a well-written, dressing-up-for-dinner nookie drama in wartime with characters you really care about.

Domes of mosque, Istanbul, Turkey --- Image by © Troy House/Corbis


Leon, Mantel and Furst are all outsiders looking in. That’s no bad thing but sometimes the knowledge really needs to be local. Some places are too complex for anything else. Istanbul is one of the most exciting, most beautiful cities on earth, a three-storey giant that spans two continents, and that was in the past, and maybe will be again in the future, the capital of the world. Orhan Pamuk’s books are set in his hometown of Istanbul. Istanbul is too big and too complex for cutesy wistful foreigners. Claudia Roden might give me a sense of what a taste of the city will be but the gentle genius of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red is a very different, personal guide to the fastest changing megalopolis on earth.



Some books are biographies of the place itself. If Istanbul was once the world’s capital, New York is now. Edward Rutherfurd’s New York is centred on two families, starting with the musical chairs of Dutch and British rule. The backdrop is of the Carnegies and Vanderbilts but New York is two centuries of a genuine North and South-style soap opera. The writing is clean but the book’s strength is in how it lifts a curtain on the history of the physical city that is the world’s most recognisable. I will never walk down Broadway again without seeing it as a long diagonal green pathway that’s good for picking wild strawberries.



Simon Sebag Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem is pitched as a biography of that city but it is actually the guidebook to the western world with just about every geopolitical and religious issue on earth episodically covered, with some of his own family making an occasional appearance to keep it grounded.

As the young curmudgeon-to-be said in his love-in with Paris, A Moveable Feast, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”

Tim Magee


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