- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Wherever Frances Mayes goes, the patter is familiar, the scene intimate. Alas, all too familiar. The author of “Under the Tuscan Sun” and three other books about Tuscany now has expanded her scope to take off for A Year in the World (Broadway Books, $26 , 420 pages). It’s an idiosyncratic itinerary, subtitled “Journeys of a Passionate Traveller,” the better to keep us guessing her next port of call. Seemingly without a care in the world, and certainly without any money worries, she goes from Italy, to Spain, Portugal, back to Italy again, Morocco, Burgundy, and on and on.

She spares us no details, even tedious ones about her husband’s health, so that much of the book seems to have been lifted directly from notes entered into a journal the end of each day. We are given a smorgasbord of information: Colette’s early life in Auxerre, the beauties of Wales, walking in Capri, and more than enough about food and drink enjoyed along the way. The bibliography is a welcome addition.

• • •

Britisher Lawrence Osborne, a New York resident, covets a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach signaled by his title, The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall (North Point Press, $24, 278 pages). He picks places that he senses soon will be overtaken by the tourist industry. He is an adroit writer and interviewer; the comic touches about such esoteric lands as Dubai — currently remaking itself into Las Vegas crossed by Disneyland — and a visit to the secluded Andaman Islands are hugely entertaining.

He can be thoughtful, too, when pondering the complications of being a tourist in these far lands, speculating on what the future holds when every distant and theoretically “new” tourist haunt has been discovered. Ross Island, a former British colonial outpost located between stops in Calcutta and Bangkok, strikes him as “exactly what the ruins of our own mega-resorts will look like in a hundred Years’ time. Ross had been a fantasy island, just as a Four Seasons island would be — the same exclusivity, the same illusion of tropical splendor carefully manicured and arranged.”

Pausing in his tracks in Calcutta, he asks himself about the roles he sees tourists play in foreign countries. “Which part of you is real and which is the part? … Because in reality no one is ever taken purely as an individual — look at the way Western anthropologists look at Indians or, more extremely, Papuans.” Reflecting on his own “Britishness,” he mentions the British fondness for islands as seen in the country’s literature — “The Tempest,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Lord of the Flies,” etc. “For us, the island is a source of wondrous dread — it has a psychology all its own.”

He wanders on, to Thailand, (“Hedonopolis” and “The Spa”), Bali (“Paradise Made”), Papua New Guinea (“The Naked Tourist” — not for the fainthearted), pondering in a world-weary way where he might end up next year. The book is a fast read and handy to have along when trapped in the doldrums of airport waiting rooms. No illustrations, unfortunately.

• • •

Far more esoteric and specialized is From Stonehenge to Samarkand: An Anthology of Archaeological Travel Writing (Oxford University Press, $35, 384 pages) by Brian Fagan, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It’s fascinating to the contemporary reader for, among other reasons, a look backwards at current hot spots of the world such as Baghdad. In 1766 that city was visited by Danish traveler Karsten Niebuhr when it was considered merely a “decaying caravan center.” Mr. Niebuhr was sole survivor of an expedition that went via Egypt to Persepolis, a place Mr. Fagan calls one of the architectural masterpieces of the ancient world.

The collection is an admirably well-produced survey of the personalities and accomplishments of those pioneering people eager to recapture past relics of human history. They range from Herodotus of Halicarnassus (now Bodrum in western Turkey) in 484 B.C. to present day promotors of “Travel As Commodity.” He dutifully acknowledges the drawbacks of package tours to archaeological sites that, by contrast, make his own researches all the more inviting. He provides excellent notes for each chapter, a few maps, and black-and-white illustrations throughout.

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Similarly, Worlds To Explore: Classic Tales of Travel & Adventure from National Geographic (National Geographic, $23, 437 pages) will give readers the itch to get out of their easy chair and embrace the world in all its madcap diversity. Edited by Mark Jenkins, with an introduction by Simon Winchester, this is another whirlwind survey of firsthand adventures by recognized explorers of note.

It begins with a rather grisly 1911 account by Theodore Roosevelt, who led what then was the largest safari ever undertaken in east Africa; jumps to outposts of the Russian empire and China; touches down in the Himalayas, the Far East, the Malay Archipelago, Alaska, a bit of Mexico; and includes in one too-true-to-believe chapter a trip on horseback from Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C., taken by Aime-Felix Tschiffely in 1929. A Don Quixote figure if ever there was one, he was not yet 30 when he bought two aging wild horses and made it through 22 countries, covering nearly 10,000 miles. The story of his journey, which was sponsored by National Geographic, became a bestseller in 1933.

• • •

Rory Stewart, in The Places In Between (Harvest Books, $14, 297 pages), an account of his walk across Afghanistan in winter 2002, proves himself to be the most intrepid of modern travelers as well as a fine writer with a splendid ear for dialogue.

This is tourism turned on its head. He can’t really explain the motive for such a harebrained idea, he says. Nor do we much care, either, as we follow him on his exceedingly exotic trail that began after an earlier 16-month-long trip he took on foot going 20 to 25 miles a day across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. Afghanistan, he says, was far more interesting than any of these, doubtless because all of his strange and dramatic encounters with a range of Afghani people for whom he feels great empathy and affection.

• • •

Finally, a mention of two very different but decidedly elegant “picture books,” both feasts for the eyes, with places, not people, the featured subject matter. Athens: Scenes from a Capital City (Editions Didier Millet, $25, 96 pages) is by architectural photographer John Cleave, whose previous work was a similar study of Washington, D.C. landmarks. Wide Angle: National Geograpic Greatest Places (National Geographic, $30, 501 pages), with commentary by Ferdinand Protzman, is a magnificent collection of 260 striking color photographs by that institution’s renowned professionals.

Ann Geracimos is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.

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