A Week In Books: Urban strolls for armchair travellers

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The Independent Culture

This is the time of year when many of the world's great cities are better read about than visited. Not mild midwinter Sydney, of course; nor ever-balmy Rio – but, on this side of the Equator, the crazy logic of the tourist cult dictates that the crowds gather just as almost every grand metropolis puts on its dustiest and harshest face.

This is the time of year when many of the world's great cities are better read about than visited. Not mild midwinter Sydney, of course; nor ever-balmy Rio – but, on this side of the Equator, the crazy logic of the tourist cult dictates that the crowds gather just as almost every grand metropolis puts on its dustiest and harshest face.

Readers who, in August, would rather plan or dream than languish in the heat are never short of options. Books about cities multiply like the throng around a Leonardo – or a Vermeer – but they generally fall into two self-contained camps. On one side stand factual primers of the Rough Guide or Time Out stamp (both reliably excellent), with local culture supplied as an extra spice; and on the other, the literary pilgrimage that includes such classics as Robert Hughes on Barcelona or Jan Morris on Venice.

Mixing the two genres is a surprisingly tough task. In travel writing, as elsewhere, the beautiful and useful seldom coincide. The venerable "Companion Guide" list managed to fuse style and solidity with some aplomb, but now these titles show their age. Even with some light updating (eg, 17 lines on Tate Modern), the new edition of John Piper's elegant guide to London (Boydell & Brewer, £14.99) reads like a better portrait of Virginia Woolf's city than Zadie Smith's. Which, of course, will be exactly what some of its readers crave.

One recent series that successfully mingles ancient grace with modern pace is the "Cities of the Imagination" series published by Signal Books. After excursions to Buenos Aires (by Jason Wilson), Oxford (David Horan) and Mexico City (Nick Caistor), Signal now has two impressive additions to its itinerary: Madrid by Elizabeth Nash, and Venice by Martin Garrett (£12 each). For actual visits, these "cultural and literary companions" would need a little help from an orthodox guide, but they do tell you plenty about the street life as well as the statuary.

Inevitably, Garrett dwells more on the sumptuous history of the stagnant Serenissima, and its interpreters across the arts, while Nash revels in the fast-moving madrileño here-and-now. Impeccable when it comes to the Tintorettos, Manns and Ruskins, Garrett's volume fails to mention Don't Look Now, which may be taking purity just a splash too far. And its next edition could find room for Vikram Seth's An Equal Music in the fine chapter on literary Venice.

Elizabeth Nash never neglects the illustrious dead as she keeps us up to speed on the fortunes of Real Madrid, the films (and pals) of Pedro Almodóvar, or the origins of Hola! in the Francoist ice age. So Velázquez and Lope de Vega still enjoy their place in the sol. But, since she reports from Madrid for The Independent, we ought to prove our professional vigilance by finding a bone or two to pick. Well, she overlooks the charming faded grandeur of the Círculo de Bellas Artes at the bottom of Gran Vía. Also, in this cheekily cockney city, you might do better than translate the street-smart, inner-city chulo as a "lad". "Geezer" is the word, I think.

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