Monday, 28 July 2014


“The traveller was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing’.” - Daniel J. Boorstin

It is Tuesday and the theme for the day is literature. As I am yearning for a holiday and since I have not been away for a couple of years, although I love travelling, I thought today I would write something about a type of literature that has a long history and relates to peregrination, adventures and travels to places distant from one’s home.

Travel literature is that literary genre that concerns itself with the people, events, sights and feelings of an author who is travelling in place away from his own place of residence for the pleasure of travel. Other words that describe such a genre are travelogue or itinerary, but because so many people nowadays travel for pleasure, the latter word especially has been hijacked by the travel agents who use it to describe the list of places you visit on your travels, with details of where you stay, what to visit, etc.

Travel literature must have certain characteristics in order to be called such, rather than a diary or a log, which may only contain the bare bones of what was visited, when and for how long. Generally to be literary, such a work must contain a definite coherent narrative thread, it must contain certain insights and thoughts, and be written in a way that is inviting to a reader, possessing the usual literary devices that are found in other literary genres. And I guess that excludes travel brochures from this genre, also...

One of the earliest such works is Pausanias’ (Greek: Παυσανίας) “Description of Greece” (Eλλάδος περιήγησις), a long work that describes ancient Greece from his own first-hand observations. Pausanias lived in the 2nd century AD (when Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius were emperors in Rome). He was an avid traveller and geographer and his work provides a crucial link between modern archaeology and classical Greece and classical literature. Pausanias writes carefully, in a no-nonsense style and is generally honest about his travels. He does not confine himself to the famous sites and monuments, but also takes trouble to visit less grandiose places and buildings and comments on obscure rituals and customs. Here is a pdf edition online, with a parallel ancient Greek and English translation text:

Marco Polo (15/9/1254 – 8/1/1324) was a Venetian trader and explorer who is famous for his pioneering travels to the East, which he recorded in his book Il Milione (“The Million” or “The travels of Marco Polo”). Marco Polo, together with his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, was one of the first Westerners to travel the Silk Road to Cathay (China, as it was called then) and visit the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan). Polo in his book describes so many wonders of the advanced civilisation he saw, that his book was mocked as being a fabrication, people saying was filled with “a million lies”. You can read it yourself online:

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch: 20/7/1304 – 19 /7/1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and early humanist. He left us with an account of his ascent to the summit of Mt Ventoux, Provence, in 1336. He writes that he climbed the mountain for the sheer pleasure of seeing the top and for the view. He criticises his companions who stayed at the bottom for their frigida incuriositas (“a cold lack of curiosity”). He then wrote about his climb, making allegorical comparisons between climbing the mountain and his own moral progress in life.

Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552 – 23/11/1616) was an English writer, famous for his travel book “Voyages”. It provided William Shakespeare and many others with material for their works, and was a foundation for this travel literature genre. It is interesting that the Hakluyt Society was founded in 1846 for printing rare and unpublished voyages and travels, and continues to publish two or three volumes per year. Haklyut’s works are available on the Project Gutenberg site:

The genre has been enriched since then with many more accounts of travels and impressions of foreign lands, people and customs and provides a piquant and vicarious way with which to indulge your love of travelling without ever leaving your favourite, overstuffed reading armchair…


  1. One of the first in this genre that I read and loved was "The Casale Pilgrim: a 16th Century Illustrated Guide to the Holy Places". I think it fulfilled the criteria you set out - it must contain a definite coherent narrative thread, it must contain certain insights and thoughts, and use the usual literary devices to be inviting to a reader. Plus the illustrations are detailed.

  2. Would you not consider including Bill Bryson in this elite group?
    His writing may be accessible, but therefor no less valuable and perceptive.
    And I agree with you that reading can take the place of vicarious travel. Especially for those who for physical or psychological reasons cannot do so themselves.