SUMMER TRAVEL

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The Independent Culture
Roads to Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain, by Cees Noteboom, trs Ina Rilke, Harvill pounds 18. The great Dutch poet and novelist was first dazzled by Italy in 1953 when he was 20; after that, he found the harsher environment of Spain "a disappointment ... brutish, anarchic, egocentric, cruel". Which is of course why he shortly after learnt to love it deeply, and why he continues to love it still. "Spain is prepared to face disaster on a whim, she is chaotic, dreamy, irrational. Spain conquered the world and then did not know what to do with it; she harks back to her medieval, Arab, Jewish and Christian past and sits there impassively, like a continent that is appended to Europe and yet is not Europe, with her obdurate towns studding those limitless empty landscapes." Noteboom's Spanish journey traces accidental - and yet not entirely so - connections between ETA and Isabella, Cervantes and sopas de ajo, ecclesiastical architecture and the Spanish Civil War. It begins and ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, the Galician end-point of the ancient pilgrimage road, its marble columns inscribed with "deep impressions of fingers, an emotional, expressionistic claw created by millions of hands, including my own". The erudition, ambition and resonance are reminiscent of Claudio Magris's magisterial Danube. But the voice - and, as he has rendered it, the territory - is Noteboom's own.

Travels as a Brussels Scout by Nick Middleton, Weidenfeld pounds 17.99. This book is billed as "one man's view of life in the European Union", and certainly there's a little too much of the idiosyncratic travelogue to do the business. Middleton - a freelance geographer by trade - goes to Copenhagen, Paris, Lisbon, Brussels and Athens, among other soon-to- be Ecu-using towns. "The only Greek words I remembered ... were kalimera, which means good morning, and malacca, which if my memory serves me correctly, means wanker": that's the sort of point he likes to make.

The Last Pink Bits: Travels Through the Remnants of the British Empire by Harry Ritchie, Hodder pounds 17.99. "Third-rate power it may now be, but Britain is still an imperial one. Even after the loss of Hong Kong, it still possesses the largest empire in the world ..." and from the Falklands to Tristan de Cunha, Harry Ritchie has visited quite a few. As the title will suggest, Ritchie has a somewhat laddish sensibility - "I prepared to leave the following day while nursing a hangover," he tells us from Bermuda. "Fortunately, it wasn't a Samuel Beckett. Tedious, dim, with an undercurrent of gross lust, this was only a Terry-Thomas" - but he's sharp-eyed and clever with it, and writes behind a genuinely likeable mask. In St Helena, however, towards the journey's end, Ritchie's tone suddenly darkens into something extremely serious. The people of St Helena "have been denied the two prerequisites of a healthy and prosperous society - a fully functioning democracy and a free press - and they have been trapped, by meaningless passports and poverty, on an island in the middle of nowhere". And even they, as Ritchie points out, are better off than the people of the former British Indian Ocean Territory, handed over to Mauritius without their say-so, "into a ghetto and on to the dole".

Naked Spirits: A Journey into Occupied Tibet by Adrian Abbotts, Canongate pounds 9.99. It actually takes Adrian Abbotts and his wife Maria until page 112 to cross the Tibetan border: partly because the Chinese authorities don't want foreigners visiting "the Autonomous Region", but partly also because this is an unusually leisurely book. Abbotts uses the time to wander through various bits and pieces of Tibetan and Chinese history, from the relationship between Confucianism and Buddhism to Tiananmen Square; the Tibetan reportage is a bit reminiscent of the next-door neighbour's holiday slides.

The Invisibles by Zia Jaffrey, Weidenfeld pounds 15.99/pounds 9.99. In 1984, Zia Jaffrey visited her family in India "as an American". At a wedding in Delhi, she discovers the ancient caste of the hirjas, cross-dressing, sometimes castrated men, who scratch their livings by singing badly at other people's weddings, ostensibly bringing "luck". "Eunuchs in the 20th century?" Indeed. The known all-India count of hirjas is, apparently, around 50,000, although the true number, according to one of Jaffrey's sources, is closer to a million. "After all, how to categorise them, as male or female?" They are born male, and usually vote with their born names. They hear about weddings by word of mouth, and then turn up to do their bit. This is a fascinating memoir-cum-journalistic account of a practice which has mutated through history for centuries (with an early mention from Marco Polo in his 13th-century Travels) and still survives in the India of the present day.

From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, HarperCollins pounds 18. Since his magnificent In Xanadu, Dalrymple has been generally acclaimed as one of our best contemporary travel writers. In his latest, he travels the Silk Route of ancient Byzantium through the present-day Middle East from Turkey, tracing the AD 578 journey of John Moschos, the great Byzantine monk, traveller and oral historian avant la lettre. His aim is to uncover the human archaeology of Eastern Christianity. It is realised in meditative, sensuous prose.

Continental Drifts: Travels in the New Europe, by Nicholas Fraser, Secker pounds 15.99. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed," says Sir Norman Foster, commissioned by the Germans to redesign the national eagle motif for the restored Reichstag in Berlin. How to build a bird which is dignified, yet free of the Nazi past? Should it look leftwards or rightwards, east or west? "He decided that the moment required an eagle that faced both ways, depending on the side from which you looked at it": it's a wonderful image, and it is elegantly framed. Fraser is a well-read, reflective writer, unusually good at drawing morals from his anecdotes without over-egging them in any way. His chapters on Italy (Berlusconi), Paris (Bernard-Henri Levy) and "How to be European" (a tricky matter) are especially fresh and acute.

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