Central & Eastern Europe / Literature / History / Travel


Do travel books really deserve a place in your luggage?

The whole idea of the travelogue seems like a left-over from our literary past.

Is there any form of non-fiction less necessary than the traditional travelogue? With their narcissistic (and often unnecessary) journeys, potted histories, and peppering of reported conversations with locals that we know have been worked up in retrospect in order to render them more interesting than they actually were? Coupled with the fact that there are few parts of a the world left in which anyone could actually pretend that they were a traveller (let alone an explorer), the whole idea of the travelogue seems like a left-over from our literary past, and that re-reading what Graham Greene, Dervla Murphy or Ryszard Kapuściński wrote decades ago might actually prove more enlightening than the latest tome by someone who decided to go on a really interesting trip from point A to point B and let us all know how it was for them.

Like everything else in the non-fiction world, however, a project's worth depends on the writer - and there are still plenty of good ones around. The ongoing hybridization of the non-fiction world has also brought us a wealth of new nature writing, place writing, environmental writing, take-the-train writing and de-colonial writing, all of which has enriched the travel bookshelves while also injecting new energies into the travelogue form itself. The pandemic also played a role in re-promoting the idea of the travelogue as something worthwhile - maybe books about journeys were a natural form of literature for an epoch in which - for a couple of years at least - hardly anyone went anywhere at all.

Whether it's worth packing any kind of paper travel book in your luggage (guidebook, travelogue or otherwise) remains an open question. Digital sources of information are becoming more versatile; guidebook publishers are arguably doing little to tweak the formulas that initially brought them brand success. A couple of major publishers have attempted to reinvent the guidebook as an inspirational coffee-table product, but have ended up with tomes that look like last-minute Christmas presents rather than a must-have inclusion in your rucksack. Genuinely original ideas are few and far between - although a more than honourable mention should be handed out to travel journalist Lottie Gross, whose Dog Friendly Weekends (and I say this as a lifelong non-dog person) brilliantly re-imagines the traditional guidebook format by shifting its parameters and finding a new audience. No dogs allowed aboard our satellite though, so no review in the modest fistful of recommendations that follows.

Tharik Hussain. Minarets in the Mountains: a Journey Into Muslim Europe. Bradt

“I hear people asking 'what does it mean to be European and Muslim?' We have been living as Muslims in Europe for centuries.” So says Ajdin, chief curator of Sarajevo's famous Gazi Husref Bey mosque when interviewed by London teacher and travel writer Tharik Hussain.

Minarets... recounts a holiday spent by Hussain and family in the Western Balkans that was also a voyage of discovery, uncovering the centuries-old Muslim presence in Southeastern Europe and taking stock of its civilizational impact. Visiting Muslim communities, looking around their mosques and talking to locals, it's one of those perspective-changing books that radically modifies one's views of what Europe actually is, and how so many quick-fit definitions of the continent's identity simply don't tell the full story.

The book was published in 2021 but has burned its way through critical success and popular consciousness in the ensuing months, becoming something of an emblematic title among those who want to restore Europe's Muslim heritage to its rightful position - a position from which it has frequently been written out, or reduced to the level of an oriental curiosity rather than a living culture that has long been part of the local fabric.

Hussain visits places that we have already heard of - Bosnian capital Sarajevo, for example, famous for its Ottoman-era city centre - and also places that lie well off the tourist radar. A good example of the latter is Novi Pazar in southwestern Serbia, a place that ought to be on every tourist's list if Hussain's account of its historic mosques is to be trusted. It's the sense of going on a journey with a serious purpose - and learning from local people along the way - that makes this a compelling travelogue. Hussain is in any case a good guide, enthusiastically communicating his fascination with old mosques, hammams and hans. He is constantly seeking out these old buildings, keen to nail down the history of European Islam and point up its architectural achievements. And importantly for non-Muslim readers, he explains Muslim traditions as he goes, filling in the knowledge that the guidebook writers who came before him probably didn't know how to provide.

A meeting with a candy-floss seller in Novi Pazar becomes an essay on kindness and a reflection on Muslim traditions, and segues perfectly into a discussion of the caravanserai or travellers' lodge, the Ottoman institution where people of the road - merchants and pilgrims -were given a free bed for the night.

It's refreshing to follow a writer whose rucksack reading list consists of seventeenth-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi and fourteenth-century North African explorer Ibn Battuta rather than the usual suspects (thank goodness this is one book about the Balkans in which Rebecca West doesn't get a single mention).  Indeed we often get the impression that it is the four-centuries-old texts of Çelebi that Hussain is following as his main guide, in preference to any Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. Çelebi may not be so reliable when it comes to restaurant opening times, but he definitely has the better stories.

One of the things Hussain gleans from Çelebi is the extent to which Ottoman-era Sarajevo was a place of many cultures, mixed faiths, a civilizational meeting point that was inhabited by peoples from all over the Ottoman world. The Ottoman imperial system allowed subject faiths a large degree of autonomy, cultivating a level of pluralism that was not always common to western-European states of the same epoch. This rediscovery of the Balkan city as a place of contact and mutual acceptance is one of the book's most important revelations - although it is tempered by the knowledge that a lot of this history has been brushed out by over-heated contemporary discussions of nation and identity.

Main agent in the spread of Islamic culture in southeastern Europe was the Ottoman Empire - which was present in the Balkans from the fourteenth century until 1913 - when it was driven out of all but a tiny wedge of European territory just west of Istanbul. Hussain has a tendency to be over-rhapsodic about the Ottoman Empire and its fostering of cultural tolerance and religious co-existence. It was after all an empire, which expanded, just like most other empires, through conquest, subjugation and land-theft. And by the early twentieth century, there were good reasons why the Ottoman Empire had to go. However Hussain is essentially right in portraying Balkan Islam as an organic presence with local roots and local peculiarities, a still-living tradition which continues to grow, develop, and work out its relationships with neighbouring faiths. The sections on Bosnia-Herzegovina are particularly emotionally powerful, focusing as they do on a Bošnjak people patiently and resourcefully rebuilding communities that were threatened with total destruction in the genocidal campaigns of the 1992-95 war.

One of the quirks that makes this book rather special is that it also contains elements of family memoir: Hussain is travelling round the Western Balkans with his wife and two kids in tow, and the fact that this is a family holiday brings a warmth and charm to the book that you don't always get from the macho explorer types who still dominate the genre. ("I heard my phone go off. It was [daughter] Amani sending me a list of the treats and snacks I was expected to buy" is one typical exchange.) Hussain's reflections on growing up in East London as the child of Bangladeshi parents are enormously illuminating, shedding light on his Balkan enthusiasms and the natural empathy he feels for those he meets along the way. Ultimately one gets the feeling that this book is an attempt to imagine the more tolerant, respectful world in which he wants his children to grow up, and it is this that makes it a rather unique piece of work.

Shafik Meghji. Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia. Practical Action Publishing

The thing that attracted me to this book was the fact that I'd never been to Bolivia and knew next to nothing about it. So it seemed like the ideal way of testing out whether the traditional travelogue was still relevant as a literary form. And in the hands of seasoned traveller and guidebook author Meghji, it most certainly is.

While rooting his text in the traditional travelogue repertoire of intrepid journeys, historical digressions and lengthy conversations with local guides, Meghji's account rather cleverly turns Bolivia into a platform for discussing where the world has been and where it might currently be heading. Centuries ago the country was central to the success of imperial Spain, a source of huge wealth that powered one of the world's first rounds of globalization. In latter years it has become the focus of environmental concern, home to vital resources like lithium and gas whose extraction poses major challenges to the natural balance. And whatever Bolivia's resources, its indigenous peoples have historically been those who have benefitted least from the country's riches, doing the work that has made fortunes for ruling elites.

Of central importance is the chapter on Potosí, the sixteenth-century silver-mining mountain where local indigenous tribes were set to work in slave-like, life-threatening conditions to make fortunes for the Spanish imperial elites. Potosí globalized the world financial system and turned imperial Spain into a hegemon, until the bubble inevitably burst.

The book goes on to investigate the massive environmental challenges faced by Bolivia today, and the ambiguities of local rulers who campaign for global green initiatives while, in a desperate attempt to improve export earnings, investing heavily in fossil fuel projects at home.

There's a lot of history and politics in this book (don't forget we get to meet Che Guevara along the way too), but Meghji is also a good scene-setter, with lyrical, time-to-dig-out-your-walking-shoes descriptions of Amazonian rain forests and arid Andean plateaus.

Meghji does his best to give local voices equal weight, aware that few foreign interlopers will ever fully 'understand' the country they have come to write about. As he says towards the end, you can only ever hope to scratch the surface. An "however far you travel, there's always further to go."

Mary Novakovich.My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia's Hinterland. Bradt

The more popular Croatia gets as a tourist destination, the more difficult it becomes to imagine that anyone could produce an original travel book about such an overwritten, over-travelled country. However it's a trick that Mary Novakovich, herself a commercial travel journalist who knows quite a bit about the thronging resorts of the Adriatic coast, has pulled off with considerable aplomb, producing a touching family memoir which also explores a starkly beautiful but little-visited part of the country. Although the author herself was born in Canada, Novakovich's forebears came from Lika, an area of mixed Croatian and Serbian settlement whose rustic villages stretch across an unforgiving karstic landscape overlooked by wild hills.

The Novakoviches (or more properly Novakovići) belong to the Serbian community. Like all of Lika's inhabitants, the family was turned upside down by the nationalist-driven tumults of twentieth-century history, producing a narrative of tragedy - and of survival and renewal - that Novakovich sets out to explore.

Describing several visits to Lika undertaken over the last few decades (indeed beginning with an idyllic summer holiday spent here as a child in 1976), the book is incredibly moving but never sentimental - her obvious pride in her Serbian heritage never becomes an excuse to take sides, and her account of the region's scarred history is scrupulously fair.

Lika's multi-ethnic fabric was torn apart during World War II, when the Nazi quisling regime installed to rule over Croatia launched a genocide against the Serbs. A measure of normality returned during the post-war Tito years (although many people, including Novakovich's parents, emigrated during this period for economic or political reasons). In 1991, with the Yugoslav federation rapidly fragmenting, the Lika was at the centre of a breakaway, Serbian territory that did not want to become a part of an independent Croatia. Croats were forcibly expelled from the region and became refugees in their own country. When the Croatian army took the Lika back in August 1995, Serbs were ordered to abandon their homes by their own political leadership, aware that their actions in 1991 had placed their own citizens in danger of reprisals. As a result, an estimated 200,000 Lika Serbs left towns and villages they had lived in for centuries.

It's Novakovich's desire to piece together family history (and find out what exactly happened to her family during World War II - a genocide that her mum and grandparents survived, but not without drama) that gives the book a poignant emotional core. A trip undertaken in 2009, the intention of which was to research family history with her mother, ends up as a bit of a disaster - largely because her mum ducks out of visiting the places that Novakovich needs to see, or avoids Novakovich's attempts to interview her about her past memories. (Indeed it's from this acrimonious trip that the book probably gets its title.)

However it is the pleasure of hooking up with relatives in the here and now that provides the book with a palpable verve. Novakovich's visits to Lika reveal that many have gone back to reclaim their properties in the wake of he exodus of 1995, patching up war-damaged houses and putting overgrown gardens back into some kind of order. Life in Lika can still be full of idyllic moments, and Novakovich's most engaging writing is devoted to the quality time she spends with her reconnected folks, consuming lovingly-prepared traditional food, downing the glasses of rakija that are always so hospitably offered, or swimming in Lika's clear-flowing rivers.

And when it comes to relations, Novakovich is constantly discovering armies of cousins she never knew she had; indeed she uncovers so many of them in the course of her visits that it's difficult for the reader to keep track of who is who. This profusion of cousins almost becomes a literary device, anchoring the book to the good things about big family clans, their supportive closeness, and more of that enthusiastically shared food.

Troubled past notwithstanding, Lika is lyrically evoked as a land of rural enchantment and plenty. Novakovich writes of "Lika's vast, sometimes overwhelming landscape. Orchards groaning with fruit, homemade cheeses hanging in muslin, ramshackle liquor stills gathering dust in cellars and barns.., loaves of bread the size of my torso..."

It's as the book progresses that the reader realizes that many of the people that Novakovich encounters have not returned to Lika permanently but are very much seasonal visitors, enjoying the glories of the countryside in summer rather than living here full time. The main fulcrum of their lives is now the Serbia they fled to in 1995, not the area they grew up in and were forced to leave. We begin to understand that, almost thirty years after the war, Serbs have not returned to Lika in as great numbers as you might think, their war-damaged homes have not been restored, help from the Croatian authorities has not come as easily as was promised, and many burned-out villages are still in the same abandoned state they were in 1995.

Maybe it's Lika's off-the-beaten track status that ensures that Novakovich keeps her travel-journalist persona out of the book for the most part, focusing on family memoir rather than trying to persuade us to go on holiday there. She rather cleverly uses the Plitivice Lakes National Park as a geographical reference point (Croatia's most famous natural attraction, it's the only place in or near the Lika that most foreign visitors would ever have heard of), but is otherwise happy to indulge the reader with the idea that Lika remains a rather bucolic back-of-beyond.  It might not stay like this for much longer. Home to Croatia's newest national park (named after the region's highest mountain chain, the Dinara, the park was set up only recently and doesn't yet have much in the way of infrastructure), Lika is increasingly being spoken of as an outdoor-adventure destination of the future. Ultimately, a large part of My Family...'s charm lies in the fact that it has captured the spirit of the region at a particular (almost frozen) time - like many rural areas of Southeastern Europe, Lika seems stuck in its ways, but could quite probably be on the cusp of major change.

Marc Casals. La Piedra Permanece: Historias de Bosna-Herzegovina ("The Stones Remain: Stories FromBosnia-Herzegovina"). Libros del KO

Well it may be in Spanish but it's still a strong contender for the best travel book of 2022 - and for a Southeast-European dweller such as myself it is simply far to good to be left out of this list. I have twisted the rules a bit to ensure its inclusion: it is more a book of place than a traditional travelogue, seeking to open up the unique spirit of the city of Sarajevo, and explore the magnetic fascination exerted by the complex, diverse, tragic country of which it is the capital.

Catalan-born writer and translator Casals spent ten years living in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo and this book is very much a response to a culture in which he immersed himself (and clearly fell in love with), and a tribute to the local friends he learned from along the way. Casals is frank about the orientalized love of the exotic that first leads so many foreigners to become fascinated with Bosnia-Herzegovina - it started for him with a road trip through Mostar on the way back to his then home-base in Bulgaria from the Adriatic coast. Gazing with wonder on the arched Ottoman bridge that spans the River Neretva, he tells himself "One day I am going to come back and live in this country."

And live there he did, working as a translator and writing shrewd, observant pieces about Balkan culture for the Spanish press. Introductory chapters aside, however, Casals keeps himself out of the narrative as much as possible, relying instead on the insights and fragments of personal biography shared with him by friends and acquaintances, with each of his 16 chapters focusing on a different individual, a different life story.

So it's not so much a book in which the author attempts to "explain" Bosnia, as a book about how his friends helped him understand Bosnia - Casals assures the reader that they all consented to having their stories told. But he doesn't always reveal how he met them, and their biographies are written up in narrative form rather than as interviews in quotation marks. It's a literary device that works, rendering the book as readable as a finely crafted collection of short stories - the difference being of course that none of them are fictional.

There's a lot about the 1992-95 war and the siege of Sarajevo. Casals's sympathies with the bombarded city are fairly clear, but he shows genuine empathy for people on all sides of the conflict who found themselves caught up in a war they did not themselves choose.

However its in the richness of its social insights and cultural digressions that the book really shines, and comes as close to describing the real and mythical identities of Sarajevo as any book so far published on the city. He uses the story of Šemsudin the baker to introduce the importance of the concept of the komšiluk, the distinct, tightly-woven residential quarter that serves as a fulcrum of neighbourly loyalty and mutual support. Elsewhere we learn about the 1984 Winter Olympics, the surrealist TV comedy programmes that used to be one of the local TV channel's trademarks, and the punk-pop energy of the so-called "New Primitives", who turned Sarajevo into a major focus of the Yugoslav music scene in the early 1980s. Indeed it's in the urban culture of the Eighties that we experience Sarajevo at its most legendary, an open tolerant city that represented Yugoslavia it its most multicultural, anarchic and creative.

We also get to learn about the other social forces that made Bosnia-Herzegovina what it was before breakaway nationalists tried to destroy it in 1992-95. The rapid post-war development that turned the republic into a powerhouse of heavy industry, the cult of President Tito (especially important here because he stood as guarantor of the republic's multicultural identity), a burgeoning consumer culture, and the chance to spend summer holidays on the nearby Adriatic coast.

In one of the latter chapters we read of two Serbian brothers, one of whom fights with the breakaway Republika Srpska, while the other stays in Sarajevo to support the idea of a united Bosnia. Neither of them survived the war. There must be numerous other families with similar stories. The picture of Bosnia-Herzegovina as an impossible ideal that nevertheless still just about survives as a country is hard to avoid, and the book is shot through with the poignancy that this status engenders.

An exhilarating journey through the multiple personalities of a state that still exudes a unique and powerful fascination, La Piedra Permanece is also that other rare thing - a book written by an outsider that gives you an inside track on a country and its contradictions.

© Jonathan Bousfield