Inspirational travel books: Our writers reveal the books that inspired them to travel

Ithaca in the Greek Islands. Photo: Dorling Kindersley
Shanghai night field

Procida Iisland in the Mediterranean sea.

Ithaca in the Greek Islands. Photo: Dorling Kindersley

Procida Iisland in the Mediterranean sea.

Ithaca in the Greek Islands. Photo: Dorling Kindersley

Times Square, New York is a busy tourist intersection of neon art and commerce.

Procida Iisland in the Mediterranean sea.

Procida Iisland in the Mediterranean sea.

Ithaca in the Greek Islands. Photo: Dorling Kindersley

It is no coincidence that dedicated travellers are also often great, voracious readers. Because what is reading but an inward journey, or a journey of the mind. Both reading and travelling represent a restlessness of spirit, a desire to  see the world from every possible angle.

Anybody who has every stayed in a modest hotel in Bali, or a cabana in Mexico, or a hostel in Budapest, will recognise the sight of a raffish bookshelf stuffed full of novels and guidebooks and travel memoirs, left behind by people unable to stop moving, even when they were ostensibly at rest.

A good book can take you footstep by footstep across the Sahara Desert, or down the length of Africa overland. It can let you roam across the Mongolian Steppe, or cross the United States on the now-defunct Route 66. It can give you, momentarily, a coffee farm in Kenya, or a chateau in Provence. It can allow you to role-play other lives entirely as an exercise in “What if?” A good book offers meaning, too; it sets the chaos of a foreign place into some sort of order that is not only comprehensible but inspiring.

Every traveller has their favourite reads. But some books are so powerful that they can change the way we think, and act as the catalyst to a physical journey. Here six of our writers reveal the books that influenced their own travels, those works that made them want to pack their bags and hit the road in search of something new and strange. HOMER’S ILIADLuke Slattery

There is one thing I share with Alexander the Great – given the abject failure of my plans for world domination – and that’s a fascination with Troy. Crossing from Greece to what is now Turkey at the head of 160 triremes (warships with three decks of rowers), the young Alexander stopped at the ruins of Troy, stripped off his armour, oiled his body, and ran around naked. My visit, some 2300 years later, was a rather more subdued affair.

I crossed the Dardanelles on a ferribot, to use the quaint Turkish name, in search of Homeric echoes. After a few melancholy days exploring the Gallipoli battlefields I headed south to Troy – fully clothed. The Iliad was the first classic I read. I must have been 10. The granddaddy of all war stories was a nightly tryst with an impassioned world of gods and heroes. Of course it was an abridged children’s version. But it gave me the story, and set me alight.

The word “sobering” best conveys the experience of standing at Troy’s wreckage, a guide droning about King Priam and his son eldest Hector, the legendary beauty Helen, and Achilles the enraged warrior. “Helen’s lover Paris,” he said, “from these very walls lets his arrows fly.”

It is a lovely site – notwithstanding the presence of a kitsch outsized Trojan horse rising gloomily nearby – with views over the rich Anatolian plains and the electric blue Aegean beyond. But the Trojan ruins are the size of a very big house or a very small palace – more like a pirate fort than anything. It is called Troy. But Homer’s Trojan war, a 10-year Greek siege of an Asian kingdom “rich in gold”, was not fought here. Homer was no war correspondent. He sang not of a war that was but of a dream in which he and his listeners could find themselves.

Next stop on my Homeric odyssey was, fittingly, Ithaca. I set out on a warm spring night from the port of Patras on the Kefalonia. The moonlit Ionian Sea is a zinc tabletop and from the upper deck I gaze up at the night sky, dusted with the white pepper of countless constellations, thinking about the joys of slow travel and C.P. Cavafy’s​ famous lines:

Better if it lasts for years,

So you are old by the time you reach the island,

Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

Not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

There is no particular Homeric site on Ithaca, save for the name itself with its powerful mythic resonance. But after a week on the island, a string of pretty pebbled coves lapped by crystalline waters – neat gin on the rocks – I begin to see why the shaggy hero Odysseus, having survived the tribulations of war, would want to return. I do. THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS

Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy Leigh Fermor was, to my mind, the great travel writer of the last century, and Mani, first published in 1958, tells of his journeys through the stark, brooding, glittering Peloponnese​: a region saturated in history and myth and memory. The young Leigh Fermor stopped at the Maniot village of Kardamyli, in a region of rust-coloured hills silvered by olive groves erupting now and then into insular hilltop villages, and made a home. I once wrote to him there, and received a postcard in return. I treasure it.

Naples 44 by Norman Lewis

There is an accidental quality to Norman Lewis’ searing witness account of Naples in the months after the German occupation, as the author was a serving intelligence officer not a writer of renown. The renown would come later, with several books about Indochina. But Naples 44, its dry lightly ironic reportorial style a perfect match for the dark comedy of a grand yet fallen city, is his masterpiece.

Following the Equator – A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain

Perhaps Mark Twain’s true metier was travel writing; what is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, after all, if not a journey down the Mississippi. Following the Equator is a vibrant, often hilarious account of the author’s 1895 tour of the British Empire, and it contains a sharp yet affectionate account of colonial Australia. The book’s offbeat style is best captured in this sparkling incidental line from Twain’s experience of Varanasi: “A canvas-box is not much of a sight – when empty; but when there is a lady in it, it is an object of interest.” JOHN STEINBECK’S  THE GRAPES OF WRATHCatherine Marshall

It was so clear in my imagination I could have sworn I’d already made that journey myself: the ribbon of tar “crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work”, as John Steinbeck​ described Route 66 in his 1939 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. I was 18 and had never been overseas, but Steinbeck brought that road to such vivid life I could practically see it inching its way across the flat expanses of Illinois and Missouri and Kansas, through the dust bowl of Oklahoma, into the eerily empty Texas panhandle, over the crumpled surfaces of New Mexico and Arizona, and into the final, warm embrace of southern California – a state whose abundance of sunlight and fruit orchards would, by the reading’s end, reveal itself to be tragically deceptive.

The despair of the tenant-farming Joad family, their exploitation at the hands of ruthless bankers and money-hungry landowners, caused my innocent young heart to clench. But I was thrilled by the promise of adventure as they set out in their laden truck, by the idea that a whole family could reinvent itself somewhere new, some place more forgiving. Steinbeck’s Route 66 was a migrant highway streaming with families fleeing the drought, defying the Great Depression, escaping the tyranny of debt.

Yet it was also a metaphor for the paths we all take, the many forks that appear in the road as we make our way through life. Despite the tragedies that befell the Joads as they journeyed along America’s main street, I was captivated by its potential for deliverance, by the infinite possibilities that always seem to lie at the end of a wide open road.

Many years later, during the GFC – when American bankers were being bailed out and working-class folk were losing their homes – I finally set off along Route 66, from its official starting point on Chicago’s Jackson Boulevard. My husband and three children were with me. My original copy of The Grapes of Wrath – the one I read as an 18-year-old – was tucked into the cubbyhole. I invoked those Joads every step of the way: in Oklahoma, where the newly-paroled Tom arrived at his parents’ house only to find it abandoned; along stretches of empty, desolate road where the evicted tenants camped; crossing the Mojave Desert where Granma, too heartbroken to go on, died.

It took us almost two weeks to pick our way along the buckled, exhausted original route. Eventually, we pulled up at its official endpoint beside Santa Monica pier. I’d traversed the road Steinbeck conjured for me all those years ago, and felt a sense of accomplishment denied the characters in his singular novel – those people whose souls the grapes of wrath had filled until they were heavy, the writer warned, heavy for the vintage.  THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The best travel books aren’t travel books at all: they’re stories about people shaped by the places they live in and the countries they’ve come from. In The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan transports the reader from San Francisco to pre-revolutionary China and back again, tracing the impact of cultural identity on a group of first-generation Chinese-American women.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

To really understand a country, one needs to burrow far beneath its skin. This is what George Orwell does in his debut novel, Burmese Days, loosely based on events that occurred during his five-year stay in Burma while serving as a policeman under the British Raj. The book’s beauty lies in its ability to contextualise all these years later the complex, confounding country that is modern-day Myanmar.

Oh, the places you’ll go! by Dr Seuss

There’s no book that better captures the thrill of exploration and the messiness of life than Dr Seuss’ Oh, the places you’ll go! Ostensibly a children’s book, it’s really a blueprint for anyone wishing to live without fear, nurture a sense of adventure, and accept that something is bound to go awry along the way. AGATHA CHRISTIE’S DEATH ON THE NILE Brian Johnston 

When I was a teenager, I was inspired to travel not by travelogues but by novels such as Graham Greene’s Travels with my Aunt and Frederic Prokosch’s​ The Asiatics, which featured geographical movement and exotic locales. Two Agatha Christie murder mysteries in particular fired my imagination. Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express share the same conceits: murder, a closed group of scheming suspects, and a mode of transport that carries the characters and the reader ever onwards towards an improbable yet deeply satisfying denouement.

Although I’ve yet to ride the Orient Express, Istanbul (its final destination) was one of the first cities I ever visited solo. It took me longer to get to Egypt, but it had always been in my sights. Agatha Christie novels have never been highbrow, and are now terminally old-fashioned and strewn with embarrassing 1930s racial and social stereotypes.

Still, Death on the Nile is one of her best and a clever classic of the mystery genre. It has tension – no murder is committed until halfway through the book – and, as the passengers float along the river on a Nile cruise, jealousy, high emotion and gossip unfold. I was equally entranced by the 1978 movie version that starred Peter Ustinov as detective Hercule Poirot, alongside a host of stellar suspects: David Niven, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, Angela Landsbury and a brilliantly grotesque Bette Davis.

The book has little to say about its Egyptian location, focusing instead on the ensemble of shipboard characters, but Egypt is always in the background. No surprise, then, that when I finally got to Egypt a Nile journey was a must. I found an old-fashioned cruise ship and, though fortunately murder-free, the polished brass, tinkling teacups, backgammon games and retired Etonian types satisfied my search for that Agatha Christie moment.

I finished my cruise in Aswan, actually the starting point for the book. Early scenes take place at the Cataract Hotel (now the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan), an impressive red pile built for 19th-century British travellers. Agatha Christie, whose husband was an archaeologist, wrote much of the novel in the suite that now bears her name. It was beyond my budget, but I had afternoon tea on the terrace, which overlooks the Nile River.

I’m well over Agatha Christie now, but I have to thank the book for providing one of my top travel moments as I nibbled on cucumber sandwiches and enjoyed the splendid view over the Nile as it slides between giant boulders and the desert, then on past gaping tombs and tumbled temples, until swallowed up by the sunset. THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS

In Turkey I am Beautiful by Brendan Shanahan

This is a travel book for those who think the genre is only about sunset cocktails and lavender fields. Aussie author Shanahan sees Turkey rather differently, as a country beset by religious, social and political issues and home to a melancholy people, not least his drug-addled friend Tevfik. It’s thoughtful, humorous and very personal.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

This 1975 story of a journey by train from London through Europe, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia and back on the Trans-Siberian is as vivid as ever. Theroux is wonderfully adept at largely leaving the places he visits undescribed, while creating character, passing conversations and casual episodes from his journeys.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I used to dismiss Bryson as lightweight, but have recently discovered his brilliance. This look at Britain, written when Bryson was about to return to America after 20 years, avoids all the classic tourist destinations but portrays the British character and life in modern Britain with wit, fondness and considerable insight. JOAN DIDION’S GOODBYE TO ALL THATLance Richardson

“When I first saw New York I was 20, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild  temporary terminal in a new dress,” writes Joan Didion in her classic essay Goodbye to All That, collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. When I first saw New York I, too, was 20, and it was spring, and I got off a 747 at the old American Airlines terminal in a new shirt bought especially for the trip. I carried Didion’s book in my bag like a Bible. I was hardly the first aspiring writer to bring it to “the mirage,” as Didion calls New York, though I know now that I hardly understood a word of what she wrote.

Didion’s essay is a love letter. Or at least it seemed that way when I read it on the plane, infatuated with her choice of details – the peach on a street corner, Christmas trees up Park Avenue – which seemed to presage “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month”.

New York was a dream place, and here was the most exquisite portrait of it by the writer I wanted to be. It read like an affirmation of what my life would be like when I lived here myself, on the island where “nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach”. Of course, I was ignoring the ending of the essay during that first visit.

At age 20, I skimmed over the bit where Didion becomes disillusioned, explaining how she realised that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair”. The first half of the essay was exhilarating truth; the second half beautifully written but impenetrable. How could the “golden rhythm” ever be “broken” in a city like New York? Impossible.

And yet it is amazing how a work of art can, over the course of your life, change its meaning entirely. That 20-year-old me, standing stunned in the glittering excess of Times Square, would have been delighted to peek into the future and see that he would indeed move to “Xanadu” (another Didionism), just eight years later. But maybe he would have been less delighted to see how the fantasy would break in the process; how Didion’s love letter would come to feel even more true for its ultimate resignation.

“It never occurred to me that I was living a real life there,” Didion writes. I first interpreted that line as pure encouragement. Now, having faced the city and endured its challenges firsthand, I see her line has a double meaning. Now Didion’s essay is even more precious: a codebreaker helping me to decipher the confusing place I  now call home, though maybe not for much longer.   THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen​

Taken at face value, this book appears to diarise a journey in the Himalayas, with Matthiessen on a science trip to study blue sheep. Really, though, it’s about grief and the search for meaning. Matthiessen’s kaleidoscopic book is a masterpiece of self-observation.

Sydney by Delia Falconer

Anybody trying to get a handle on the enigmatic strangeness of Sydney should read this book, a lyrical essay that seeks out the ghosts hiding amid  the surf and sunshine. The best portrait of the city since Jan Morris wrote her version, also entitled Sydney, before the 2000 Olympics.

On the Trail of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope

A young Australian packs up his life and spends three years crossing the Eurasian steppes on foot and horseback: What could be more compelling than that? But it is Cope’s ability as a writer, equal to his gift as a fearless explorer, that make this a modern classic. JAMES A. MICHENER’S THE DRIFTERSAlison Stewart

At 21, straight out of university in the mid-1970s, I set off alone to hitchhike around Spain and Portugal, with only a handful of pesetas, and a powerful need for clear air. Enrichment, delight in new cultures and people – these are all potent reasons to travel. Mine at that time was escape – from my birth country, South Africa and its hideous apartheid regime. At least I could escape.

And what inspired my journey? Among all the exquisite writing about alienation from fellow South Africans that engaged me through my university years, it was a less literary book that captured the zeitgeist, and me – James A. Michener’s The Drifters set in the revolutionary late ’60s.

I identified with Michener’s six disenchanted young runaways who fled the Vietnam War and the old world’s traditional values. They made their separate ways to Spain and specifically, wait for it, Torremolinos! It later became a much parodied package-holiday dive, but was briefly an exotic, weightless place.

Their hedonistic pursuit of drugs, pleasure and disengagement took them from Torremolinos to destinations like Pamplona, Ibiza, the Algarve, Mozambique and Morocco. But the place they sought was illusionary and gradually their utopian world dissolved into tragedy.

I didn’t care. I wanted what Michener offered. I could escape like his characters, shedding the beloved, despised country. So I booked a passage on a ship for Barcelona, taking only a few clothes and a journal. I wanted no baggage, literally. In the dying months of Franco’s Spain, alone or with fellow travellers, I hitchhiked, picking up scraps of work. Travelling for six months in the hottest summer for years, I made it to all Michener’s places and further.

I was robbed in Pamplona, slept rough in Ibiza and the Costa del Sol, camped with strangers at Algeciras​, Seville and the Algarve, fought off an abduction near Vilafranca del Penedes,fell ill in San Sebastian and was sometimes so hungry I frequented restaurant bins. I met many good people and some bad, took a few risks and terrified my family.

Liberating though it was, it became clear that I was also in search of a non-existent utopia. I wanted the different landscapes to change me. If only.

The Drifters’ time has passed, but for a brief moment, it opened a door to a world that promised something that wasn’t quite there. Travel it seemed didn’t make you better, or worse, just a little older and only marginally wiser. THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKS

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by A.J. Mackinnon

A wonderfully eccentric travel book by Australian author “Sandy” Mackinnon, who has the batty idea of leaving his teaching job at a Hogwarts-style Shropshire school and sailing away in a dinghy “just to see where I got to – Gloucester, near the mouth of the Severn, I thought”. Totally unprepared, he bumbles along various waterways, eventually crossing the English Channel and carrying on to the Black Sea. Remarkably, he stays alive to tell the tale.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bryson, like Paul Theroux, can be curmudgeonly, but his engaging, self-referential style and mastery of dialogue is mesmerising. I think this book is Bryson’s best – his funny account of walking the Appalachian Trail hike skilfully explores the challenges of the journey and the grand intransigence of the landscape (and his travelling companions). Thanks to Bryson, I too want to walk in the woods – just without the bears.

Old Serpent Nile by Stanley Stewart

Stewart’s book is travel writing at its best – insightful, witty and elegant. Bernini’s sculpture in Rome, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers), inspired Stewart’s dangerous journey from the Nile Delta to the Mountains of the Moon in Eastern Equatorial Africa. When Bernini made his artwork, the Nile’s source was unknown.  READER’S DIGEST, THE WORLD’S LAST MYSTERIESBy Ute Junker

Growing up, I made many wonderful discoveries in my parents’ bookshelves, from Tolkien to Gunter Grass. The book that had the most lasting influence on me as a travel writer, however, was not a literary classic, but a quarto-sized tome from Reader’s Digest entitled The World’s Last Mysteries.

Over more than 300 pages, it explored the world’s vanished civilisations through the monuments they had left behind. From the standing stones of Stonehenge to the temples of the Khmer, I was drawn in first by the striking images, then by the detective stories that lay behind them.

Like any young child,  I was entranced by the majesty of the moai of Easter Island and grandeur of the Egyptian pyramids. As I grew older, I pored over the detailed text. The Egyptian chapter, for instance, included descriptions of how workers transported heavy loads on sledges, pouring water in front of it to help smooth the ground, and accounts of the many obstacles placed inside the pyramids to block the efforts of tomb robbers.

Although Egypt was my favourite, I devoured the other chapters as well. I learnt about the Nazca​ of Peru, who moved tonnes of stone to create gigantic images of birds and animals; the ancient stone city of Great Zimbabwe; and the ziggurats of the ancient Sumerians. More importantly, I learnt that the world was an enchanting place full of wonders that could be explored by anyone willing to make the journey.

It was this knowledge that turned me into a traveller. Top of the to-visit list was always going to be Egypt, where we went on a family holiday when I was still a teenager. Since then, I have worked my way through many of the destinations I encountered in the book, from the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu to the temples of Siem Reap and the cities of those other great pyramid-builders, the Mayans.

I pulled the book from the shelves again recently, and solved a mystery of my own. Visiting the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, I had been struck by the delicate gold statues created by the Scythians, the ancient warriors better known for their bloodthirsty habits – and by a vague feeling I had seen them before. Flicking through the pages, I found a chapter devoted to the Scythians, with the same exquisite statues I had admired in St Petersburg. They had slipped from my mind, but I had caught up with them anyway.  THREE MORE FAVOURITE TRAVEL BOOKSCity of Djinns by William Dalrymple

The novels of Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry​ made me want to see India, but it was William Dalrymple’s that made me fall in love with a city I’d never visited. His vivid book includes a colourful cast of characters – Sufi mystics, eunuchs, pigeon fanciers – and explorations of Delhi’s past.

Venice by James Morris

This book is definitely dated – Jan Morris was still James when it was written – but that is precisely its charm. Venice in the 1950s was very different to the Venice of today, and James is the perfect tour guide, filled with fascinating stories and able to capture revealing snapshots in beautifully crafted paragraphs.

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

A laugh-out-loud book that will have you alternatively cringing with recognition and crying with laughter. Written in 1869, it proves that despite air travel, email and apps, travel hasn’t changed all that much.

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