1 month ago

The Armchair Traveller: Part Three

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What travel ban? Why not voyage to unfamiliar places with these recommendations from three GLOSS contributors …

Emily Hourican, author

I’ve never been a great reader of travel books, with a couple of notable exceptions – Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, when I was in my late teens, at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia. West wrote the book in 1937, and it’s far more than a travel journal – it’s an exacting historical record of a region on the brink of the Second World War – but from a voyaging perspective, her observations and re-creation of place and people are remarkable.

My sister gave me a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here for Christmas a few years ago, and I confess I never read it until lockdown, when I began dipping in, as a form of escape from daily tours of the local park. This is a personal collection, Chatwin gathering his favourites of his own travel writing as he was dying – it was published posthumously – and it is eclectic and wide-ranging, full of anecdotes and what Salman Rushdie called “his choicest performances.” He describes a military coup in Benin during which he is arrested as a mercenary, a trip to Ghana with Werner Herzog, an encounter with couturier Madeleine Vionnet, rival to Coco Chanel and ‘the best dressmaker in the world’ in her own words, who he meets in her apartment in the Seizieme Arrondissement, said to be the most exceptional art deco interior in Paris. There is a vigour and curiosity to Chatwin’s writing that I love, it reminds me of how alive and alert we feel when we go somewhere completely new; it’s a feeling I want to hang on to right now, when everything feels rather samey. 

Aoife Mannix, poet

The summer after my Leaving Cert I cycled the Ring of Kerry whilst reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The two friends I was travelling with pointed out the impracticality of lugging such a tome around with me when I had hardly any clothes or money. Hundreds of miles and pages in, I shouted with excitement that there had finally been a kiss. I was teased relentlessly about this all the way to Cork. Yet to me, at 17, this was a book about a young woman escaping the claustrophobia of academia for a life of passion and adventure.  

A couple of years later I went interrailing and fell asleep on a train reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I had the most vivid nightmare about slabs of pulsating red meat on hooks until I was woken abruptly by an inspector. He only wanted to see my ticket and passport but for a moment, I thought I was being arrested for murder in deepest, darkest Russia. For me, books are a form of totally immersive travel and escape, even if to dark places.

Recently Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series has made me long to visit Naples, a city I’ve never been to. Not because her descriptions of its tough working class neighbourhoods make it sound very tourist-friendly but because of the brilliant complexity of the friendship between the two main characters. We follow them from playing with dolls to the heartbreak of motherhood while learning a vast amount about Italian culture, class, and gender politics.

My favourite book that’s actually about travelling is William Fiennes’s The Snow Geese. As a young man he nearly dies of Crohn’s disease but decides that if he recovers, he will follow the migration of geese from Texas to the Arctic tundra. It’s about the beauty of the birds and the natural world but also the shared obsessions of the characters he meets along the way.  It is about the freedom of the human spirit in the face of long confinement, ill health, and grief. A book for our times if ever there was one.     

Sarah McDonnell, editor

The closest I am going to get this summer, to the Ile de Re, the island off the west coast of France where we holiday every year, is to observe the maddeningly slow unfurling of several spires of hollyhocks in my own urban garden. On the sun-baked – and occasionally rain-slicked – one friend calls it the “Ile de Rain” – narrow streets of the island, hollyhocks, or rose tremieres, spring from tiny cracks in pavements, yellow, magenta, red. My Lidl orphans – salvaged from the Last Rites trolley at my local branch – remind me I’ll get back there next year, to the Ile de Re, that is. As does reading a lovely little history of the island, simply called Ile de Re, by David Canard, one of those Right Bank types with great thick floppy hair and brick-red trousers who have a second home on the island … I fancied I saw him one day as I pottered about – pottering being my favourite holiday activity – but then there are a lot of men on the island who fit his description.  

I read a lot, and widely, from the weighty to the weightless. When things get a little tense, I become an escapist reader, especially in the depths of winter when the need is greatest. I am also, snorefest, BORING!, a longtime francophile, since my first trip to Paris as a wayward teen. Paris made me more wayward, which only added to its allure. For two long hot summers during college, I lived in a chateau in the Loire Valley and looked after some VICs – Very Important Children. The chateau’s courtyard was so vast, I used a bicycle to tote the dirty washing across to the laundry. There were receiving lines after Mass, Paris Match photoshoots and elegant lunches with Very Important Grandparents where I prayed the children would behave. Invariably they let me down. 

There was very little downtime but I soaked it all up and as I do with any place to which I travel – and I probably went to France at least once a year after that – I began to read and read and read about every aspect of France’s culture, politics, history and of course food, gardens (try Monty Don’s charming The Road to Le Tholonet), to interiors, to flea market guides. Memoirs – of the Duc de Saint Simon, biographies – Love and Louis IV by peerless Antonia Fraser (though I liked Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King too) French novels – Balzac, Camus, Gide, philosophy – Voltaire, (Mitford’s book about Voltaire and his clever clever mistress, much cleverer than he, is fantastic – and her book on Madame de Pompadour too) Rousseau. And those books by enterprising Irish and British people who up sticks and set up home in the Poitou, or Perpignan, or start a winery from scratch (try Raymond Blake’s A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France, about Burgundy, or Caro Feely’s five books about starting a vineyard), ex-Financial Times fashion writer Karen Wheeler’s frothy Tout Sweet series, wonderful Carol Drinkwater’s Olive Farm series (Carol writes for The Gloss) about her place in Cannes – transporting, entertaining, but above all transporting – from the armchair, or sofa or bed. F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Amanda Vail’s Everybody was So Young (the story of Sara and Gerald Murphy on the Cote D’Azur), Chanel’s Riviera, by Anne de Courcy, The Riviera Set: the History of Chateau L’Horizon (with its fascinating stories of Winston Churchill) by Mary S Lovell, and of course sad stories of wartime, Resistance and collaboration.   

I started with Peter Mayle of course, who some say ignited all of our obsessional interest in France, with A Year in Provence. I had the pleasure of meeting him with my friends and his neighbours in his house in Provence a year before he died. He and his lovely wife Jenny were charming, the house as coolly elegant as you would expect (complete with THAT stone table). We were discussing bread experiments at home over a glass of rosé, and he insisted on kindly inscribing a little book on bakeries he had written … Yes, I read that too. His French crime novels are fun too – particularly if you have visited the places he mentions. An exhausting day “doing” the antique warehouses of Isle Sur La Sorgue with two girlfriends ended in an excellent dinner in the very same Restaurant de La Gare that was mentioned in his Hotel Pastis. In the same way lunch at La Colombe d’or in St Paul de Vence was all the more exciting having read MFK Fisher’s fabulous food / life memoirs … ( I do love books about eating, not just French eating: Elizabeth David in Italy and Elisabeth Luard in Spain and Petrick Leigh Fermor in Greece and Rebecca West in Yugoslavia) writing about travel and food, and the pleasures of the table. 

Some regions I know better than others, all I have enjoyed: Provence for the food, the interiors, and landscape (disgruntled villagers in tourist season not so much), the wind-whipped and sea salty trips to Brittany, posh Normandy and the striped beach huts of Deauville and Trouville, hot hot medieval Auch, where monumental thunderstorms followed sweltering days, spiders were the size of frogs, frogs swam in the swimming pool and buzzards hovered over baked fields. The Loire Valley, with its castles – some 18th-century Sleeping Beauty pretty, others medieval and muscular. Ais, Avignon, Cannes, Nice, Antibes … every place on the map suggests a book to me. And if I don’t have it, I will research it and find it. 

My most recent – Provence 1970 by Luke Barr – which I read last week, written by the grand-nephew of MFK Fisher, about ten weeks in the lives of Fisher, who spent much of her life in France, Julia and Paul Child and Simone Beck (the Childs built a home on Beck’s estate) the legendary New York chef James Beard, the reclusive Richard Olney, Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor, with eccentric, aristocratic Sybille Bedford in a walk-on role. Using letters, diaries and records, he pieces together a period of ten weeks in the winter of 1970, when all these greats of cooking, and food, each one a committed francophile, all avatars of the French food revolution which was shortly to sweep California, beginning with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, overlapped in the south of France, staying with each other, cooking for each other, and criticising each other, publicly, and in private. It’s a terrific read.     

Reading before I travel makes travel so much richer for me. Reading when I cannot travel keeps the spirit of holiday alive.  

Main featured image: Lingfield deckchair from very.co.uk

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