In 1933, the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on a three-year journey, walking across Europe, starting in the Netherlands and arriving in Istanbul on New Year’s Day of 1937. His travels, documented in two books, became cornerstones of travel writing. Fermor – once described by a BBC journalist as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene” – galvanized a generation of eccentric expatriate authors such as Lawrence Durrell, Willian Dalrymple, Freya Stark and Bruce Chatwin, who in their rejection of the sodden confines of their homeland were, ironically, very British.
These authors reinvented the genre of 20th-century travel writing with an Anglocentric style that, while still tinged with the fading embers of the British Empire, was preoccupied with the modern need for a journey to be a discovery of the self as well. The worst tended to write about “natives” as an adjunct to the landscape that they had to endure, seeming unable to connect the modern-day inhabitants of Cairo, for example, with the majestic ancient civilizations that they so revered.
But the best travel writers from this golden age of travel – not just the canonical names like Graham Greene and Paul Theroux but more recent ones like Michael Palin, Bill Bryson and Sara Wheeler – deserve to be read and re-read despite the limitations of their perspective, because they transcend the genre and are literary classics in their own right.