Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toíbín

51awdagmeml._sx328_bo1204203200_I’ve been to Barcelona once, when I was a teenager. It was interesting enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I know it particularly well or (to be honest) really loved it. I found parts of it a little sleazy and I’ve been discouraged in going back by the rather aggressive over-tourism debate.  Irish novelist Colm Toíbín lived in Barcelona in the late seventies, and moved back to write this book in the late eighties (then updated it a decade later). Parts of it encourage me to take another look at the city, but others fall flat.

I wasn’t fond of Toíbín’s personal memories (that sounds awful – I’m glad he had a good time!). Living in the city soon after Franco’s death and experiencing the revival of the Catalan language must have been quite an experience, but I didn’t feel I learned much by hearing about his clubbing hotspots and the places he picks as crime hot-spots are quite possible outdated. Some travel writing tends to a sort of generic blend of multiple eras through different visits and revisions of the book. Not so good for a guide book, but very atmospheric. This was very specific to location, time and the experience of the writer, leaving me with the question: why should I care about that specific time and location, and whether a Catalan writer (or longer term resident) would be a more illuminating guide.

For me, the bits that work are generic history – chapters on Gaudis, Dali, Picasso, Pau Casals and so many others that have lived, worked and been inspired by the city and the culture. The rise of Catalan nationalism and the resurgence of the language and culture doesn’t always make for a sympathetic read and Toíbín does feel balanced – showing the repression the city suffered (under Franco, and before) but remaining critical. There’s plenty of references for further reading and plenty of avenues to explore (quite literally for visitors to the city). Toíbín’s writing is good: clear, crisp and nice to read. It’s a decent, but perhaps dated, account of a city that obviously captured the author for a period.

Venice by Jan Morris

41ygbzxrwul-_sx315_bo1204203200_This is a strange book in a temporal sense.  Morris originally wrote in 1960 and returned to revise it in the seventies and eighties.  My (library) edition is from the early nineties.  As Morris describes the people, places and behaviours of Venice, it isn’t clear what is from when.  This gives a feeling of a city that is both timeless and in perpetual decline.  There are plenty of details but many feel quaint and out of date – whether they are or not.  But despite it feeling easy to get lost in them, those details are well written and often entertaining.  Morris, like so many, clearly has a passion for the city (and I can see why).

Really, there’s a theme here about the death of local societies.  Morris describes elderly women who have visited the same green grocers that their family has used for generations.  That wasn’t in evidence when I visited, and (from other readings) it would seem to have died out – but that isn’t unique to Venice.  Perhaps the magical world of Venice just seems to amplify the processes that happen elsewhere.  Specifically to the city itself, my favourite chapter was one two thirds of the way through that discussed proposed futures for the city – kept as a museum of sorts, turned into a hive of craft industry or demolished as a futurist stunt.

She loses me slightly in the last third of the book, which offers a look at the decline of and the sights of the other islands of the lagoon.  Islands like Murano and Burano should be interesting, and there are good anecdotes sprinkled throughout, but I found the whole section a bit of a dreary end to the book.  On the whole though, I like the book.  I’m not entirely sure what it is meant to be: not history, not a guidebook, not exactly a travel journal – but it does conjure up a certain image of the city.

Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘.  This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.

With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered.  Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds.  As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough.  Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on.  Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.

Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north.  Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since.  Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice.  Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland.  As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb.  The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.

The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful!  It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.

We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation.  It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.

The Empire Stops Here by Philip Parker

Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World.  Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region.  The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders.  Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes 51ymhrzutkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_with great colour.

Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples.  It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.

There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs  – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century.  On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up.  You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.

Overall there is a grand sense of scale.  The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus.  The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality.  The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.