Travel Writing: Our Top Picks

Katie May Huxtable – The Island, Victoria Hislop

Travel writing presents itself to readers in numerous different forms. Whether it be fictitious tales of unseen places or a non-fiction anecdote of seas since travelled, the best kinds of travel writing are books containing language that holds the power to transport you to another place entirely.

The Island by Victoria Hislop is a book that does just that. Set in Crete, The Island shares an insight into the fate of leprosy sufferers through the build-up and eventual climax of the Second World War in Greece. It both captures the essence of the country whilst poignantly retelling a heartbreaking history that still haunts the specific spot of Greece to this day.

The story tells the tale of the Petrakis family, spanning across four generations through interwoven tales of past and present. Starting at its end, in the year 2001, Alexis Fielding visits the small fishing village of Plaka on the coat of Crete in the hope to uncover her family history. Whilst there she questions an old friend of her mothers, who shares with her the forgotten secrets of her ancestors. Through this, she hears a detailed account of their lives on Spinalonga, the home of Greece’s main leper colony from 1903 to 1957.

The story is fictional, yet has historical facts sprinkle within its pages. The leper colony of Spinalonga is the central aspect of the story, and the book attempts to break prejudice and provide a greater understanding of the disease. The vivid detail of life on Spinalonga leaves the reader with empathy for its previous inhabitants, along with a greater insight into Cretan life.

When reading this book, I happened to be on holiday at the exact location the story spoke of. If I were to step out onto the terrace of our small holiday apartment and lookout across the water, I could see the island of Spinalonga with my own eyes. This, undoubtedly, added to the magic of the tale. The novel needn’t transport me to the location the words spoke of, as I was already there. This took Hislop’s imagery to an alternative level, for when I put the book down I myself was sat under the basking rays of the sunny sky she had so often described.

Although a trip to Greece via literature might not be as vivid as the reality of walking its streets, it certainly makes a good compromise when you’re stuck in the rainy days that Britain has to offer.


Marcus Yeatman-Crouch – Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski

While it may not stick firmly in the core genre of travel writing, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun is by far one of the most insightful books on Africa and its culture. The book is formed through memoirs by Polish journalist and foreign correspondent Kapuscinski, written across almost 30 years of travelling in various African countries including Ethiopia, Senegal, and Rwanda. While it may seem like a travel book on the state of countries in the past is not relevant today, this is far from the truth. 

Kapuscinski was a man who claimed he had to see everything for himself. This led to him going down paths that no foreigner – and certainly no white man – had ever travelled before, relaying incredible sights and stories hard to experience anywhere else. Shadow of the Sun dances through different narratives each chapter; we read about Kapuscinski’s fevered battle to defeat a king cobra with a friend while en route to Uganda, a country they are desperate to reach with word of liberation in the air. Once there, it is revealed that he has developed cerebral malaria. Only a few pages later, he is cured, but contracts TB. In another chapter, Kapuscinski writes of his Lagos apartment, where he deals with constant break-ins before being ‘accepted’ as part of the neighbourhood, whilst being scrutinised by the European population of the city as a madman. Each chapter, and each page, is part of a whirlwind journey across 30 years of African experience. 

One unique aspect of Kapuscinski’s style is his pension for magic realism, whilst still writing about totally true, real-life things. Sometimes, the lines are blurred between what is real and what is fiction thanks to his incredible descriptions of the sights he has seen. It can be summarised by his description of an oasis he saw whilst parched, with a broken down car, in the middle of the desert; in which his detailing of the false images in his addled mind are so vivid one might think they were real. This mixing of real-life and fantasy works well for a book that details all the hidden parts of Africa, adding flashes of mysticism to an already interesting environment, and only drawing the reader further in, seeking more secret wonders.

Ryszard Kapuscinski experienced 27 revolutions and coups across the world, and most of them came in Africa. He knows the story of every brutal dictator in his time, and digresses from his recollections of his own adventure to detail theirs as well, leaving no fact out. This adds to the content of the book significantly: his tangents and opinions on the various dictators, or even his entire chapter dedicated to the history of Rwanda in the build up to the 1994 genocide. It is not necessarily related to his own experiences or travels, but in writing about Africa, Kapuscinski feels the reader should be informed as he was, and this leads to marvellous snippets or whole pages of digression and sub-stories, pulling away from the fleeting characters of his own journeys to contextualise those figures and locations that have made a greater mark on history.

The Shadow of the Sun has too many stories within its pages to truly summarise it all in one article. Ryszard Kapuscinski delivers in this book a comprehensive, personal memoir on a developing Africa that is full of information despite leaving out some key countries like South Africa and Mozambique, whose stories he speaks of instead in his shorter book, Another Day of Life. The incredible description and imagery with which Kapuscinski writes has earned him accolades from both the fiction and non-fiction sides of the literary world, and his can truly be considered a unique account of events with his ‘see it to believe it’ attitude. The Shadow of the Sun is an essential piece of historical travel writing that sheds light on the paths less travelled in Africa, giving lessons and insights into the melting pot of cultures that hold up even in the modern day.