The best of 2004: travel books reviewed

A taste of adventure on the road to Utopia

Hugh Thomson
Friday 03 December 2004 01:00
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This year has seen travel books flex their muscles, taking on all comers from politics and food-writing to the Taliban and the philosophy of utopianism. Like the best of film documentary, travel writing has the licence to mix genres and view the world from some unexpected and refreshing angles. Naturally, the Middle East has drawn a great deal of attention. Justin Marozzi brings his considerable skills as a historian and political journalist to the timely Tamerlane (HarperCollins, £25), which guides the reader through the medieval Tatar dynasties of Central Asia as well as modern Uzbekistan, where the old warlord has been adopted as a symbol of nationalistic resurgence. The British are more familiar with Marlowe's portrayal of the monstrous Tamburlaine the Great, the one-dimensional "scourge of God". Marozzi sets the real "Temur the Lame" against the complexities of his own time, resurrecting him from the blue-ribbed dome of his tomb at Samarkand."

This year has seen travel books flex their muscles, taking on all comers from politics and food-writing to the Taliban and the philosophy of utopianism. Like the best of film documentary, travel writing has the licence to mix genres and view the world from some unexpected and refreshing angles. Naturally, the Middle East has drawn a great deal of attention. Justin Marozzi brings his considerable skills as a historian and political journalist to the timely Tamerlane (HarperCollins, £25), which guides the reader through the medieval Tatar dynasties of Central Asia as well as modern Uzbekistan, where the old warlord has been adopted as a symbol of nationalistic resurgence. The British are more familiar with Marlowe's portrayal of the monstrous Tamburlaine the Great, the one-dimensional "scourge of God". Marozzi sets the real "Temur the Lame" against the complexities of his own time, resurrecting him from the blue-ribbed dome of his tomb at Samarkand."

In the most striking debut of the year, Rory Stewart travels The Places in Between (Picador, 17.99), a not so short walk in the Afghan mountains between Herat and Kabul. Stewart pays tribute to literary predecessors like Eric Newby and Robert Byron, and indeed the Mughal emperor Babur, who once walked this way and kept a diary. But what makes the book sing is his quiet empathy with the villagers who give him shelter and help. Not for the first time, the simple ability to speak a language and cover ground patiently on foot - and in Stewart's case, bravely - pays off rich dividends.

Spice (HarperCollins, £25) is Jack Turner's magisterial account of the way the world has been shaped by merchant venturers in quest of new tastes for the European palate. Others have nibbled at this subject before. Turner gives us the full banquet and, with classical erudition, shows how our appetites led us by the nose. A book that oozes enjoyment, and similarly sees an author following his taste-buds, is Eating Up Italy (Fourth Estate, £16.99), Matthew Fort's sybaritic tour from lunch to the next antipasti. He manages to stay sober enough to write down the recipes which he includes in his gastronaut's view of Italy, a welcome corrective to the pomposities of the River Café version.

A mention in dispatches should also go to Kari Herbert's luminous account of the Arctic, The Explorer's Daughter (Viking, £18.99), to Mark Mazower's history of Salonica: city of ghosts (HarperCollins, £25), an elegy for ecumenical harmony in the Aegean, and Nicholas Shakespeare's Chatwinesque In Tasmania (Harvill, £20) ( above). The most richly idiosyncratic book of the year must be Toby Green's Thomas More's Magician (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), a learned and quixotic account of an attempt to establish a 16th-century utopia in Mexico.

For those who want a book actually light enough to travel with, Adam Nicolson's Seamanship (HarperCollins, £12.99) is a model of concision and fine writing. Not many writers could be vomiting overboard on one page and riffing about Odysseus on the next, but Nicolson pulls it off with aplomb as he makes his difficult way up Britain's west coast. He has the rare gift of being able to stop a moment in its tracks. And he never loses sight of the Homeric truth that we travel so as to come home again; it is the homecoming, and what we have brought back, that matter.

Hugh Thomson's 'Nanda Devi' is published by Weidenfeld

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