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Books of the Marvels of the World – My Top 21 Best Travel Books of All Time (1-5)

For me, quality travel literature goes beyond a travel journal or a simple list of dates and events.

The “travel-adventure” genre is WAY overdone and generally quite boring to me. Travel literature is writing of high literary value that sets down for posterity the experiences of a man or woman traveling in a land and/or culture significantly different from the author’s home.  Travel literature is contemplative, thoughtful, aesthetically pleasing and significant for future historians.

Below is a list of my twenty-one favorite travel books. I realize this list is, by nature, incomplete. First of all, I haven’t read all that is out there.  I’ve stuck to only what I’ve read. On top of that, some of the greatest travel accounts may simply no longer exist!

What I wouldn’t give to read Pytheas of Massalia and Skylax among others. But these are, for the most part, lost to history.

I’ve chosen the below then for the historical significance, cultural descriptions and insights and, in the case of several, for stylistic reasons.

In the comments, feel free to fill me in on your top travel books of all time!

1. The Odyssey. Homer

Homer British Museum.jpgNeedless to say, part of the canon of western literature. A sequel to the Iliad, this poem was composed near the end of the 8th Century BC, in Ionia. The story centers mainly on the Greek hero Odysseus and his ten-year journey home following the fall of Troy, sometime around 1100BC.  At times tedious to read and at times thrilling and all absorbing.  Should such clear mythology REALLY begin my list?  Its just one of the greatest travel tales every told, real or imagined. (HEADS UP: the Fitzgerald translation is my preferred).

2. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms.  Fâ-Hien

A record of the Chinese monk’s travels in southern Asia, Sri Lanka and India from
399-414AD.  There is no information on Fâ-Hien other than what he himself tells us in his book.  He was on the trail of the Buddhist Books of Discipline and trailed the legendary footsteps of Buddha. For those curious about the details of Buddhist traditions of the time its chock full of details.  I was less interested in those aspects of the book than the keen observations made about ancient cultures and the excitement of the travelougue.

3. Rihla. Ibn Battuta

Leaving his home of Morocco in 1325, Ibn Battuta first traveled to Mecca and never looked back. He visited India and China and deep into modern Russia along the Volga
River valley as well as far south into Africa to Tanzania. He visited Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Spain.

I know, I know…who am I to criticize the “greatest travelerThe Travels of Ibn Battuta: in the Near East, Asia and Africa, 1325-1354 (Dover Books on Travel, Adventure)
of pre-modern times”? Well….allow me to a small complaint here.  Ibn Battuta didn’t chronicle his twenty-some years of travel until well after he had settled down and his memory had faded somewhat. So, the book often times comes off as a simple list of names and places with a little historical background. It can be lacking in the detailed
observation of culture and customs I had hoped for. Nonetheless, the journey
itself is extraordinary and the mosaic of the Islamic world of time makes it well worth the read.

4. Books of the Marvels of the World – The Travels of Marco Polo. Rustichello da Pisa and Marco Polo

Controversy aside, perhaps the greatest travel account of all time. This 13th-century travelogue was written down by Rustichello da Pisa apparently from stories related to him by Marco Polo while they were prisoners of the Genoese in 1299. The book describes the travels of Polo through the lands of Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia during the years 1271 and 1291. Polo wasn’t the first, there were of course André de Longjumeau and William of Rubruck among others (and Ibn Battuta covered far more territory), but the
impact of Polo’s account changed maps and heavily influenced Columbus.

5. Naufragios. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

I remember laying under the covers at night with a flashlight obsessing on this book when I was about ten years old.

In April, 1528 Pánfilo de Narváez brought armored men to the west shore of
Florida.  Cabeza de Vaca was one of Narváez’s men. Narváez landed his army and sailed his fleet for the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas (Rio Grande).  The
two forces were meant to meet several months later to create a colony at the mouth of the great river.  He never found the river and sailed back for his men.
But they were gone.  Three hundred men had disappeared between the forest and the sea.

Only Cabeza de Vaca and four others survived.  They walked for seven years to reach the safety of the Spanish colony in Mexico.  They walked from Florida to Oklahoma, through
Texas to New Mexico.  From there they walked south through Sonora, Durango and Sinaloa to Mexico City.  Cabeza de Vaca’s account was published in 1542 as La Relación.

6-10 coming up next week!

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