Books Every Traveller Should Read vol.1

Reading has always been a way to take yourself on a journey. For periods of otherwise boring days, you can be transported to magical lands, far off galaxies, or in the case of travel novels, all over this beautiful planet of ours. The best travel writers are the ones who can take you on the journey with them and ignite a fire to get back out there and visit somewhere new. Over the years I’ve read my fair share of books, especially travel-related, both the obscure and the must-reads. Scholars of travel writing will know these to be classics, however, they are classics for a reason and therefore I feel they are an essential place to start.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

There is something so elegant and civilized about train travel, especially in this day and age. Stunning rail stations conveniently located in city centres, lacking the aeroplane style boarding and with no need to wait for baggage at the other end, rail travel is the epitome of ease. Paul Theroux’s travel diary published in 1975 tells the story of train travel from the UK to south-east Asia and back again. Some of the world’s most famous rail lines, some of which don’t even exist anymore, are described in a compelling story that evokes the imagination of readers and makes you want to get on a train headed anywhere. My copy of this book is often a fixture of my weekend pack, often read on a train journey headed somewhere new, with anticipation for the next adventure on my mind and the view of the countryside speeding by.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” 

– Paul Theroux

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The original American travel novel, first published in 1957, evokes a tale of self-discovery and carefree adventure across the US. Many travel quotes you find scrawled across hostels, maps and journals worldwide originated from this book, many of them prophecies to what today’s world of travelling has become. This story is not one of the conventional aeroplanes, hotels and restaurants, but one of the experiences of the true adventure of setting out on the road without even a destination in mind.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”

– Jack Kerouac

What Kind of Life by Jon Thum

This one is less of a widely considered classic but is my favourite of all. Jon captures perfectly the feeling of restlessness that encaptures a traveller as they return from home, pouring every effort they have into getting to the next adventure. His transparent storytelling conveys an honesty and an openness that even the best travel writing occasionally will omit. The book carries you through the early travels of his youth and into middle age as he struggles to leave the nomadic life behind, an all too relatable and emotionally conflicting experience.

“What great fortune it is to have such times in your life to reflect and take stock! How important it is to make way for it! 

Yet how few people, when burdened with the day to day or hand to mouth, can say with all honesty that this is something they possess? How many of us will keep marching onwards with no real grasp of the where or the why?”

– Jon Thum

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

In truth, nearly any one of Bryson’s books could be on this list. From A Walk in the Woods which details his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US to his all too honest Down Under which details his (mis)adventures and observations throughout Australia. Neither Here nor There is a travelogue story that interweaves his first experience travelling through Europe after college, and his attempt to recreate it twenty years later. All of Bryson’s stories are told with brilliant observations and witty humour with a sense of adventure in-between.

“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.”

– Bill Bryson

Anyone of these reads will inspire you to set off on your next adventure and are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel writing that is essential reading. I will be making these a regular post as I come across more books, articles and stories that I think every traveller would enjoy. If you have a suggestion for writing you think is a must-read, comment and I will happily check it out!

– Ryan

60 under 30 #5: Portugal

Off the beaten path.

It doesn’t mean necessarily to go where no one has gone before – not everyone can be Captain Kirk – but to go where most people don’t. Sometimes it means going where the locals are and sometimes it just means skipping the tourist attractions in search of something a bit more authentic.

If you key in the word “travel” on Google you will end up with an endless result of “Top 50 beaches to visit” or “Can’t miss sites to visit in Berlin” and more city and country guides then you could imagine. These guides inevitably feed into the open top bus driven, audio guided, fanny pack wearing tourism industry that generates an absolutely whopping 9.8% of the world’s GDP which equates to roughly 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.

Going off the beaten path is, by its very definition, among the minority. While 9.3 million people are lining up for the Louvre annually, there are a small percentage of travellers out there who are intent on finding something more. As you can imagine, as previously unexplored areas get discovered, slowly but surely the tourists move in. Many travellers will tell you that In many cases this has proven that to go off the beaten path is something that has to be earned, it is no longer as simple as walking a few miles down the beach to the lesser inhabited stretches. If it is that easy, you can assume it has been done before.

But what if it that isn’t necessarily true? What if it was possible to explore the same areas as the tourists but find hidden gems among the signs advertising “authentic” local cuisine and expensive day trips. Every city has locals that have their favourite restaurants, bars and ways to spend their days not at work. I grew up fifteen minutes from Niagara Falls, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada, and I can tell you I was not spending my weekends eating at T.G.I.Friday’s on Clifton Hill.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the best way to find out where the local hotspots are is from a local. What does take some creativity is figuring out how to find a local that can show you. Enter these guys. We Hate Tourism Tours are an outfit of locals in Lisbon founded on the very idea of an off the beaten path experience. They offer a variety of tours ranging from having one of their guides actually cook you an authentic Portuguese lunch in their home to customized tours of Lisbon and the surrounding area catered to suit.

The first time I visited Lisbon a year ago, I missed out on getting to check out the world famous surf of the Atlantic coast so this time around I was determined to test out my skills on the waves. The tour we (we being myself and two friends from back home Chloe and Marty) decided to check out after Marty found the company online was the Lisbon Surf Experience. We liked what we read about the philosophy of the company and after a few e-mails back and forth we were all booked.

The tour met early in Rossio Square in the heart of Lisbon, and having done several organized tours previously I was pleasantly surprised to find that out tour group would consist of only ourselves and two others plus our guide. Pedro, a local from across the bay in Caparica where our tour would be headed turned up and immediately we knew we were in for a good day.  Piling into the van, the obvious culture of the company became evident. The back ofthe driver’s seat had printed on it “The driver sucks but this van is cool”. Right from the get go we got a sense that not only was the company true to it’s idea but it was easy to tell that Pedro truly enjoyed showing us his city.

“The driver sucks but this van is cool”

Most surf lessons out of Lisbon take you north of the city to Cascais, a well known tourist area and full of surf schools. Our day however was to begin to the south of Lisbon just outside the beach town of Caparica. Anyone who has visited the Iberian peninsula can attest to the fact that the locals are not typically early risers. This was made abundantly clear as we rolled up in our van to the beach around 9:00 to find it completely deserted with the exception of the locals running the surf school we would be participating in. Our experience was all the more authentic as our lesson was occasionally required to be translated from Portuguese to English by Pedro if our instructors words and charades-esque demonstrations didn’t quite get the point across.

In no time at all we were in the salty Atlantic getting battered by the ocean as we learned the hard way what a breaking wave does to an unattended surfboard. Eventually we pushed past the break and out into the swells where we were afforded a break from the struggling and allowed to relax for a short while. Now the true test came. The three-step motion from flat on your stomach to standing and riding a wave seemed so easy on land, yet somehow when you are attempting the same feat on a crashing wave one’s brain has a tendency to revert into state akin to a deer in the headlights. After a few attempts each, all three of us managed to ride at least one not-so-spectacular wave nearly all the way in without falling off. Considering this a success, the time called for a cold beer.

Our “we caught at least one wave” surfer pose

It was at this point that the true benefit of a tour such as ours was made abundantly clear. Pedro had taken the time to get to know us a bit and instead of a set itinerary, he was able to suggest a few options for the afternoon. Perhaps it was the vast amount of salt water we had ingested, but food was very much a priority. It was decided that we would venture back into the town of Caparica to dine at a local favourite called A Merendeira. The restaurant serves up a delightful special of stone over baked bread filled with chorizo alongside a local soup of the name Caldo Verde. I can’t say I’ve ever had a Portuguese meal that I didn’t like but this one was especially delicious.

The afternoon consisted of a drive down the beach road to a small fisherman’s village where we explored the small side streets that zigzagged in among the houses and enjoyed a glass of the famous Portuguese “vinho verde” graciously provided by our guide as we lounged on a beach on the edge of town. With the exception of a few locals, we had the beach almost entirely to ourselves. Here we were on one of the nicest beaches we had ever set foot on, with not another tourist in sight. In those moments, it is impossible to feel anything but relaxed and I must say I had one of the most serene naps of my life. 

The last stop of the day was a personal favourite. No matter where I visit I feel the need to find a high point to get a proper view of the area I am exploring. Pedro did not disappoint as our van turned a corner and suddenly we were on top of the world. Here we were, truly off the beaten path as we had a view that most tourists would kill for, all to ourselves. After a half hour to revel in the beautiful sight before us and reflect on what a great day was had experiencing the area as only a local could, we loaded back up into the van one last time and headed back to Lisbon. Along the way Pedro provided numerous recommendations for places to eat, bars to visit and lesser known sights to see. Although I ran out of time on this visit, I made sure to note each one, knowing I would be back to check them out. 

Panoramic view of Caparica from the last stop of the tour

Portugal is a country that I have fallen in love with, and I would recommend a visit to any person travelling through Europe. The people are some of the friendliest in the world, the food is to die for and from the beaches of the Algarve, to the surf of the Atlantic coast and all the way up to the wine country surrounding Porto, there is something for anyone and everyone. But once you’ve tried a pasteis de nata, sipped a bit of port wine and danced the night away in Bairro Alto, put down the guide book and take a step off the beaten path.

You won’t be disappointed.

Athens and Mykonos Days 9-16 in Greece.

Yet again, I find myself sitting on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic unable to believe that the last few weeks are over already. I fell in love with Europe all over again, adventures with friends old and new.

Spain will forever remain one of my favourite places, with Madrid now added to the list. However Greece far and above exceeded my expectations. I guess I partially owe this to news reports of refugees and debt crisis having dominated the headlines as of late. The important thing to remember while travelling is that there is beauty in every part of this world if you are able to look for it.

We arrived in Greece late sunday night after a short flight from Barcelona. Within a half hour of landing we were immersed in the culture of the city in the usually fashion on the Metro. An elderly gentleman and an elderly lady spent nearly the entire hour long journey passionately arguing about who had taken the other’s seat. I am not sure if any of you have heard two elder Greek people yelling at eachother but we were certainly scared of them both.

For our few days in Athens, we spent the time meandering through the city, hiking to the top of the mountain and the Acropolis and generally getting ourselves back into some sort if semblance after a wild few days in Spain. The food was a particular highlight, especially to Shawyan. I for one am always a fan of a good hike up a mountain to see a city from above. I find a sense of peace with being above the hustle and bustle and it allows me to take in the beauty of a city. I will post another blog later about specific things we learned while in the city.

Before we knew it we were shipping off to Mykonos, leaving Shawyan to depart from Athens for Brussels. 6 hours on a ferry later, Stephen and I arrived.

Or should I say we arrived in Paradise. I cannot imagine a better way to relax and drink a few cold ones than on a beach in the Greek islands. No internet, no phones, just a few friends, old and new, the notion that you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to, and the most beautiful coastline i have ever seen.

Our time there was rather uneventful in the context of my usual type of travelling, but also a worthwhile experience in many ways. By arriving late in September we had missed the legendary Paradise Beach party scene that Mykonos is known for. I for one was not too upset having spent enough money in the bars in Barcelona. We spent our days relaxing by the beach, interacting with the locals and exploring the coast surrounding our beach. The nights were spent as usual in search of a place to party in and people to party with. There is a certain skill a lot of people my age lack, and that is the ability to interact with another human being without a screen. At least to meet new people that is. But once you take away those luxuries you are thrown into a sort of sink or swim situation. Either stay introverted and shy and waste the opportunity, or overcome it and reach out. Stephen and I certainly excelled at this over the course if the trip, having made new friends all along the way. Mykonos was no exception as nearly the entire time we spent chatting and partying with people from all over the world. As our last days wound down and we prepared for our final trek home, naturally we both became nostalgic for the experiences we had over the past few weeks. Personally all it has done is added more fuel to the fire inside of me to continue to explore the world and the experiences it has to offer.

Selfishly I look forward to seeing Stephen grapple with the travel bug alongside me as it is quite clear he has been bitten as well.

Europe 2015, you were quite the ride. Here’s to what 2016 and beyond has to offer.