To celebrate finishing my latest book, Backpacker Confessions: Girl vs Europe, I thought I would take a stroll down memory lane to share some of the non-fiction travel books that have inspired me.
I’ve included a mixture of my favourites, in order to encompass different types of modern travel writers as well as a spread of the world’s countries.
1. Holy Cow
Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald is one of my favourite travel books, I read it while I was in India and it really opened my eyes to the things I didn’t know about the country and it’s many religions. This book is a fascinating account of her spiritual journey and I respect that she really delves into Indian culture, which is something which can be complex for a foreigner to understand. She doesn’t shy away from covering conflicts as well as festivals but she also has a very bad time with her health. This book is alarming and life-affirming in equal measure.
When I was growing up, a lot of the travel books I read were by men. This is still very much the case, even though the amount of solo female travellers has increased. This didn’t put me off as I still drew inspiration from books written by men and I enjoyed Peter Moore’s amusing take of overland travel from London to Sydney. He follows the sixties ‘hippie trail’ and lets things happen to him along the way. He sees 25 countries and he has to endure a lot of discomfort and reality along the way. This book will appeal to overland travellers everywhere as we all know how tough it can be at times.
Tony Hawks has been on quite a few purposely random journeys in his life, and then he shares them with us. Hawks makes bets with people and then deals with the consequences. In this book, he is challenged to play the Moldovans at tennis, so he does, even though this takes him into perilous territory at times. He also took a fridge around Ireland with him, but that’s another story. I chose this book because it’s about Moldova and not many people write about or visit this part of the world. Moldova has a lot of wine, a state that wants to be independent and interesting traditional culture so it’s worth writing about. I’m glad Hawks did, even if his reasoning is bizarre and possibly set-up.
Lauren Juliff is a travel blogger like myself who wrote her book while travelling the world. She chronicles all the thrills and spills that she encounters in Asia. I could relate to her as a millennial woman as she had crippling anxiety and an eating disorder. It’s a funny read and I felt for her as a naive backpacker as I was totally the same. Travelling definitely has the power to heal and I think this book helped her to create a narrative around her problems and laugh at them. One to watch.
As I’m from the North of the England, I couldn’t not include the homeland. I often saw Stuart Maconie when I worked at the BBC in Salford so it was nice to put a face to the writer. He’s originally from Wigan and he uses his journalistic tendencies to seek out interesting characters and traditions from the North. The North isn’t all about pies but it’s definitely not written about as much as it deserves. Most travel books from this region are about walking and wildlife and while that’s great, it’s nice to have a new perspective on Northern-ness from a Northerner.
I met Bill Bryson at a book signing many years ago at Buxton Opera House while I was still at uni. I hadn’t yet been to South America and Backpacker Confessions was but a twinkle in my eye. He told me to travel anywhere that I could, sound advice that I would have followed regardless of whether he’d given it to me. I like all his books but I prefer Walk in the Woods as I think that was an example of him facing a real challenge with his friend, Stephen Katz, when they hiked the Appalachian Trail. Travelling around Europe or the UK by train is easy, and while I loved his books on both, the real humour comes in adversity. This book also got made into a film, just like our next one.
When your life gets made into a film, you know you’ve written a decent book. This is exactly what happened to Cheryl Strayed after she hiked for 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in the USA. She undertakes the challenge to heal her memories of her mother who died from cancer and the husband that she was divorcing. I would be afraid to walk alone, and she has no experience but she does it anyway. This is more than a travel book as she hikes for her sanity, and that’s the greatest reason to go on any journey.
I’m a sucker for a travel anthology, and this one features the writers Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, TC Boyle, Karen Joy Fowler, Pico Iyer, Torre DeRoche, Blane Bachelor, Rebecca Dinerstein, Jan Morris, Elizabeth George, Jane Hamilton, Alexander McCall Smith, Keija Parssinen, Mridu Khullar Relph, Yulia Denisyuk, Emily Koch, Carissa Kasper, Jessica Silber, Candace Rose Rardon, Marilyn Abildskov, Shannon Leone Fowler, Robin Cherry, Robert Twigger, Porochista Khakpour, Natalie Baszile, Suzy Joinson, Anthony Sattin, LH McMillin, Bridget Crocker, Maggie Downs, Bishwanath Ghosh, Jeff Greenwald, James Dorsey and Tahir Shah.
These stories cover a breadth of travel, by different people, in different places at different times. A great book to dip in and out of, especially when you’re on the road. People want so many different things from travel and that’s the thing that is fascinating about travel writers.
Helen Russell sets out to uncover the secrets of the world’s happiest country when she moves there with her husband. She shakes off the misery that she felt living in London and starts a new chapter in her life. After exorcising London from her mind, she manages to get pregnant and learnt how to fill her free time as you get so much more of it in Denmark. She discusses the highs and lows of Danish life without romanticising it, as we are ever so slightly fascinated by the Scandinavians. After reading this book, I have a renewed desire to revisit Denmark and find a little bit of hygge for myself.
10. Pole to Pole
Michael Palin is seen as a national treasure, so people tuned in when he was paid to travel the world with a camera crew. Palin has written several travel books, but this one stood out as not many people have the money to visit both poles. He says meeting people is the greatest revelation for him, and I think that shows in his work. His interactions with people are key, as he is a performer as well as an explorer which makes for an interesting travel tale. I once heard him speak at my work and he comes across as a thoroughly nice man. Pole to Pole is a tale of extreme temperatures and characters – he met both Santa and Lenin on this trip. He may have the privilege of a white male explorer but he has a real passion for people, which is essential to travel.
Backpacker Confessions: Girl vs Europe: A Tale of 43 Countries
It’s been a long road as it’s taken me ten years to visit the four corners of Europe with any spare time I had, I also wrote it while working long hours on kids shows, after being burgled, through the grief of losing a loved one, through my partner being ill and after my partner was robbed in India. I’m not resting as Girl vs South Asia is now in progress and I’m 10,000 words deep. Writing on the road isn’t easy, but I love it. It’s a Christmas miracle that I finished it in time.
Anyway, Backpacker Confessions: Girl vs Europe: A Tale of 43 Countries is now available:
Jennifer loves figuring out the puzzle that is Europe. From the ages of 18 to 30 she travelled around 43 countries and fell deeply in love with all the corners of Europe.
In a time when Britain has chosen to leave the EU, Jennifer reflects on her feelings about Europe and all the things it has taught her. The most important one being not to have sex in the sea.
Whilst travelling she avoided being spat at by a geyser, explored the Chernobyl exclusion zone, survived an earthquake, enjoyed ‘late night’ opera, visited a church of bones, watched dolphins, climbed a volcano and patrolled the penis museum.
She also stroked a lot of stray cats, had a panic attack in Toulouse, went to a rave in Brussels, slept through Europe’s most beautiful train journey and wrote some very bad poetry which she’s kindly included.
As well as these adventures, she fell in love with her boyfriend. These are her European backpacking confessions.‘
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Let me know your favourite travel books in the comments below!
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