Culture, Travel & Sport

Travelling through Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Five essential reads

Is great travel writing one of the dying literary arts? Our editor (once a travel writer himself) has a few thoughts on the subject here. What’s certain is that over the past century Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia have spurred numerous great authors to put pen to paper, creating a vast repository of travel writing dedicated to a region where compelling stories are never too difficult to find.

We’ve whittled our library down to the five following five books, all available in English, which should serve as your initial literary companions on any trip through the winding streets, across the vast plains, and into the heart of the cities and villages that define the region. These five books (part of our Five Essential Reads series) are not mere travel guides; they are portals to the very heart of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us, by Francis Tapon

A revelatory exploration of the region that once lie beyond the Iron Curtain. Tapon’s three-year journey through 25 countries is chronicled with a blend of humour, insight, and a keen eye for the idiosyncrasies that define each nation. The book is a treasure trove of cultural nuances, historical context, and personal encounters that paint a vivid picture of a Europe that many travellers seldom see. Tapon’s evocative narrative immerses readers in the warmth of Bulgarian hospitality, the architectural splendour of Krakow, and the untouched wilderness of the Western Balkans.

Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Part of a legendary trilogy, Between Woods and Water continues Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s. This particular volume, which covers his adventures from the Hungarian plains to the Romanian Iron Gates, is widely recognised as a masterpiece of travel literature. Fermor’s prose is both lyrical and graphic, capturing the essence of the landscapes and the spirit of a Europe on the brink of monumental change. His encounters with the diverse peoples of the region are recounted with a deep affection and an erudite charm that is both infectious and enlightening.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West

Rebecca West’s monumental work is both a travelogue and a cultural study of the Balkans on the eve of World War II. West’s keen observations and profound understanding of the complex history of the region make this book an essential read for anyone interested in the Western Balkans. Her narrative weaves together personal experiences, historical analysis, and philosophical musings, creating a vivid picture of a land marked by conflict and resilience. The book’s rich descriptions of the landscape, people, and customs of the first Yugoslavia provide a timeless insight into the soul of the Balkans.

Photo by Abdullah Aydin on Unsplash

Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea, by Claudio Magris

A literary voyage along Europe’s second-longest river, a central artery that flows through the heart of the continent, including Central and Eastern Europe. Magris, an Italian scholar and writer, takes readers on a profound and reflective journey that transcends mere geography. The book is a rich mosaic of history, literature, and philosophy, as he encounters various cultures along the river’s course, from Germany to the delta in Romania. Danube is a celebration of Central and Eastern Europe’s complex identities, a must-read for those who wish to understand the depth of the region’s influence on European culture and history.

Sovietistan, by Erika Fatland

Norwegian anthropologist Erika Fatland takes an immersive and eye-opening journey through the five Central Asian countries that were once occupied by the Soviet Union. With a keen eye for detail and a deep curiosity about the region, Fatland explores the complexities of these nations, delving into their history, culture, and the challenges they face in the post-Soviet era. Through her storytelling and personal encounters, Fatland paints a nuanced picture of each country, capturing the unique characteristics that make them distinct. From the grandiose monuments of Turkmenistan to the rugged landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, she offering readers a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people she meets.

Top photo by Podu Stricat on Unsplash

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