hidden europe 11

The gentle art of travel writing

by Nicky Gardner


hidden europe reviews some of the finest travel writing of the last hundred years and more.

When the tireless Mr Eames set out a few years ago to travel by train from suburban Sunningdale in England to Baghdad, he took with him a keen sense of history and a few quintessentially English notions about travel. Happily, he was alert to the importance of blending in, and quickly identified the importance of street cafés. However humble the place, the traveller secures a measure of invisibility by sitting down.

But if merely sitting down were an infallible prescription for blending in, many generations of travel writers would have had a much easier time of it. Take one of our favourite writers, Isabelle Eberhardt, who, after an early dalliance with anarchism, converted to Islam and became an acute observer of the Maghreb. That she perished tragically young had nothing to do with her ability to blend in while travelling in remote regions of North Africa at the start of the last century. Rather she found herself uncomfortably trapped in a flash flood at Aïn Sefra in western Algeria. She died in October 1904, just twenty-seven years old. Her grave in Aïn Sefra has rightly become an important place of pilgrimage for travel writers.

To secure acceptance among the Arab and Bedouin societies which she documented, Isabelle Eberhardt usually travelled in disguise as a male. Under the assumed name Si Mahmoud Essadi, this improbable desert fox learnt fluent Arabic and forsook a comfortable life in Switzerland to smoke hash, explore the Sahara and pursue her calling as a devout Muslim. That didn't stop Eberhardt out-drinking the French legionnaires who would often turn to her for advice on local issues.

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Editorial hidden europe 63

Is there not a measure of absurdity in all our lives today? We have discovered that it’s hardly possible to plan anything. And yet there is a certain liberation in simply not trying to plan, in just receiving with simplicity all that might come our way. This may of course be the secret of enjoying travel, as and when the day comes when we can start exploring Europe again.

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Editorial hidden europe 46

Welcome to issue 46 of hidden europe travel magazine. In this issue we walk through Lisbon and take the ferry to Iceland's Vestmannaeyjar. We also explore the Suffulk coast of England and visit the Danube wetlands and the Scottish Cairngorms.

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The warm shadow of Isabelle Eberhardt

Many years ago, I spent a long hot summer in and around a sleepy ksar on the edge of the Sahara. I read many books that summer, but it was 'Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam' that tugged and tugged again, urging me to return to its pages. That book was my introduction to Isabelle Eberhardt, a writer who — perhaps more than any other — has influenced my life and my thinking. This summer, so far from the desert and in a country where the most charming of all oases is my garden, I turned to Sharon Bangert’s English translation of 'Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam'. It appears under the Peter Owen imprint in a pocket-sized paperback.