Going places? No need to vacate the armchair, unless it’s to fetch one of this year’s best travel books. Faraway places will fly to your lap, with a sight, a sound, a taste, a story to embed you in the exotic, and feed nostalgia for places past or quicken your longing for somewhere new.
The Wandering Vine by Nina Caplan (Bloomsbury, £16.99) ticks umpteen boxes, becoming a vineyard crawl through much of western Europe. Yet it is also a philosophical book, (“Wine is alive, ageing and changing, but also a triumph over death.”) Caplan writes beautifully, bringing her family, past and present, into amusing and moving focus. There is exile and survival here as she leads us from Kent to Champagne and south through Burgundy to the stunning River Rhône encountering others whose lives are governed by the bounties of food and wine. The trek staggers west, zig-zagging from Spain to the toe of Italy, without ever losing poise, Caplan relishing every glassful.
Also among the finest multi-destination books is The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps (Nicholas Brealey, £12.99) by Ben Coates, in which Coates’s itchy feet peddle him steadily (after disaster in a rowing boat) on two wheels from Holland, (sleeping in dunes), past Utrecht to the German border, (Arnhem, redolent of war in A Bridge Too Far), to sleepier Bonn.
History shimmers across his hinterland, contested in two world wars, and his curiosity – Coates’s great strength – unearths the ways in which the river shaped the destinies of those who made its ever changing banks their home.
Readers preferring their tales more rooted, domestic and personal will appreciate Adam Thorpe’s Notes from the Cevennes, (Bloomsbury, £16.99), bringing us travel as real life lived in provincial France. Never over-indulgent, his narrative covers 25 years of settling his family into dilapidated comfort, creating a life (as well as a living) as a first-rate novelist, tasting the piquancy of “foreignness” and selecting telling memories to bring it superbly to life.
For Scottish travel, it doesn’t get better than North Coast Journey: The Magic of Scotland’s Northern Highlands by Brigid Benson (Birlinn, £16.99), an eco-friendly, common-sensical, well-researched foray around the locale of the North Coast 500 and beyond. Benson travels with senses alert, beyond the obvious – whether delving through Clava Cairns or the Black Isle’s stunning Fairy Glen or to Skerray Bay – all the time prising nuggets of lore from the landscapes she encounters, dividing the trip into ten very manageable stages for those who follow.
Similar diligence is a hallmark of Strolling Through Florence, (IB Taurus £12.99), Mario Erasmo’s paen to the often-visited, yet insufficiently explored “Renaissance City.” From Etruscan times through the Roman era, and onward to its medieval revival, the site on the Arno bridged by Florence has been a lure. This erudite, colourful exploration leaves nothing unnoticed, whether you’re seeking out great art or fabulous architecture, history or fashion.
Brilliant description is the currency of My First Summer in the Sierra, (Canongate £8.99), John Muir’s re-released classic account of three months penetrating the vastness of California’s Central Valley in 1869: “I gazed and gazed and longed and admired until the dusty sheep and packs were far out of sight,” he writes in his journal, here reproduced. Religious awe and powerful terrestrial awareness mark his prose in what is essentially a song to nature’s marvels and to our humanness of being.
Viewing travel as inspirational is also embedded in Island Gardens, (White Lion, £25), where Shetland-based Jackie Bennett leads her readers through a journey from the gardens of the Scilly Isles via the Hebrides, Orkney and Holy Island, south to the Isle of Wight. Farther flung is Paradise Gardens: The World’s Most Beautiful Islamic Gardens (Two Roads Press, £35) by Monty Don and Derry Moore, which brings us versions of heaven on earth in Spain, Morocco, Turkey, India and Iran, as well as Somerset and Bradford.
Lonely Planet’s Ultimate EatList (£24.99) shows us how to adventure on our stomachs, in 500 dishes, and takes us to tastebud-teasing locations, pinpointing cafes, vendors and restaurants and creating a slipstream of tempting aromas across 300 glossy pages. A gift to give after Christmas dinner when hunger is quelled. - Tom Adair