my favourite bookish travels of 2021

This year, Anna Quindlen’s quote took on a whole new significance, “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” 

With the cold weather clouding our breath, and the onslaught of Christmas adverts everywhere we look, I thought I’d pull this post together as an escapist antidote, featuring some of the most transportive quotes and passages from books I’ve read this year. If you’re craving a spot of vicarious warmth, the sun on your face, the sand beneath your feet, or to dip your toes into the intoxicating enticement of far flung cultures, then this might be the blog post for you …

… and, who knows, it might even tempt you to add these fabulous books to your winter reading pile.


The View Was Exhausting
by Mikaella Clements & Onjuli Datta

At this time of year, the Côte d’Azur was a smooth wash of jewel tones, the deep, smoky blue of seaside air, the ocean spread out like a glossy carpet, the honeycomb cliffs and pastel-painted houses high above in the tangle of greenery. The sand was pale and silvery, warm to the touch, even as dusk caught fire across the water and the sun began to set.

Out the cabin window was Saint-Tropez’s aquamarine sea, scenes of luxury, yachts and fast cars beneath an impossible sky.

Instead of heading down, the elevator went up, and the doors opened onto the roof. It was even better than the balcony, with a salty breeze coming in from the coast. Beyond the loungers and folded parasols was a rooftop pool, larimar blue and glowing in the soft underwater lighting. The water rippled in the wind. Saint-Tropez looked almost cosy against the dark hillside, dressed up in dark velvet and sequins of orange light. It was rejected, a second city, on the inky surface of the sea.

click here to read my review of The View Was Exhausting


Who Is Maud Dixon
by Alexandra Andrews

Finally they approached the ramparts surrounding the medina  – the old city – and the Marrakesh of guidebooks appeared before them. The clay was a warm ochre colour that glowed in the afternoon sun.

They drove through Bab El Did, one of the busiest gates leading into the medina, and above them rose the towering minaret of Koutoubia mosque, carved with impossibly intricate fretwork. Topped by four guided spheres, one on top of the other, it was visible from everywhere in the city.

The roads here were more chaotic than the modern highways outside the city walls, but the cars, donkeys, horse-drawn carriages, and mopeds darted around one another without incident. The buildings had a delicate beauty. The geometric carvings and colourful telework looked extraordinarily labour-intensive, eschewing
the practical for the magical. Palm trees marked the facades with swaying shadows.

Finally, they turned into a dead end and saw an elaborately carved wooden door with a gold plaque announcing it as Read Belsa. The man swung a large brass knocker and the door was opened by a smiling, heavyset woman in a headscarf. She greeted them warmly and ushered them through a small courtyard into a larger, second courtyard surrounding a burbling fountain. It was filled with citrus and pomegranate trees, with lush, drooping branches. The floor and walls blamed with black, red and green tiles. She sat them at a table tucked under a knot of vines and then returned with a plate of dates and two small glasses of milk scented with orange-blossom water.

click here to read my review of Who Is Maud Dixon


Still Life
by Sarah Winman

Through the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, at the top of the stone stairs, they met the breeze. Swallows and swifts and bells on the air. Florentines out in their droves – it’s what they did in the summer months, here on in Cascine Park. To be away from the streets and the dust and the smells and the niggling disputes was everything in that moment. Time moved differently, as if it, too, had buckled with the heat, and past and present shifted into one sultry indomitable silence.

It was from that outside table at Michele’s that they eased into Italian life. Popular with locals and visitors alike, a jukebox played morning and night and photographs of cinema stars and Campari posters brought a touch of glamour to the nicotine-stained walls. Plates of food came and went under the scrutinising gaze of Giulia and gradually names became reconisable; things like farina – guinea fowl, and fiori di zucca – fried courgette flowers. 

The leaves are well and truly pff the trees and an occasional dusting of snow flies in from the Apennines. Florentine women don their furs and the smell of white truffles mingles with roasting chestnuts. A presepio, a nativity scene, arrives outside the church and a guitar player takes his blues away.

An afternoon walk walk in the Boboli Gardens proved a more sensible alternative to another carafe of red wine.  They walked slowly up through the amphitheatre, the once-upon-a-time quarry that had supplied the stone for Signor Pitti’s extraordinary palace. Up past Neptune’s Fountain and the terraces to the top. And there, Florence revealed her splendour. Golden light, the precursor to dusk, crowned them.

She wasn’t quick to her destination, sidetracked, as always, by trails of wisteria cascading over the walls of private villas or the shy splendour of a magnolia tree on the verge of blossoming. Art and life intertwined. The predominance of blue-mauve flowers in and around the city astonished her, a compelling stream from February to May. Violets, wisteria, iris … not forgetting the summer cornflower. The blue against a burnt umber or ochre wall

click here to read my review of Still Life


Palace of the Drowned
by Christine Mangan

The image that others carried of Venice was at least, in one way, preserved through the permanence of words. The idea that this now Doge-less city was not the same as it had once been, its celebrated past all but disappeared. And yet, through the words written about her, this image would always remain, captured as it were by the poetic musings of Shakespeare, of Otway, of all the artists that had been enthralled with the city throughout the centuries. Venice as she once was would never be truly lost, and though its visitors would continue to search for her, would continue to fail, those who understood where to find her would know she would always remain within the words, preserved against both time and the rising waters. And perhaps it was this reason she had come to love it, the city’s unknowableness. The idea that visitors who came expecting one thing often turned away, bewildered, when faced with a city that so vastly differed from the romanticised ideal they had been taught to expect.

She remembered how it felt when she first arrived, stepping from the water taxi and onto one of the city’s bridges. For a moment it was almost overwhelming, the splash of colours that comprised the city, made more moody still by the ever-present rain. The smell of the place, something old and musty and secretive; the small of a promise to be fulfilled.

Eventually they came to a stop on a bridge, its wooden curve rising up and over the water in a steeper incline than most. It was situated on one of the city’s wider canals providing an unobstructed view of the the water and the buildings in front of them. Everything was bathed in a deep blue, the lights of the buildings from the lampposts sparkling with an intensity that made them look otherworldly. Now she could understand the human inclination to believe in magic, to believe in things that could not always be seen by the naked eye. A hush fell over them as they stood, taking it all in. They weren’t certain how much time passed as they stood and watched the hues of blue transform before them, gradually growing a shade or two darker.  The blue hour.

click here to read my review of Palace of the Drowned


A Single Rose
by Muriel Barbery

Through the bare frame of the window, where a glass pane and its paper screen cover slid open, she could see the etched, trembling leaves of a maple tree and a more expansive vista beyond. There was a river, its banks teeming with wild grasses, and on either side of its pebbled bed were sandy pathways and more maples mingling with cherry trees. In midstream, amid a languid current, stood a grey heron. Fine-weather clouds drifted overhead.

And thus they entered an ancient world of wooden buildings with grey tile roofs. Before them stood strange tall pines set in squares of moss; stone walkways meandered past beds of fine grey sand where parallel lines had been drawn with a rake; a few azaleas had been invited. The pavilion with its graceful winged roofs seemed to be taking flight; farther away, the ponds with their quicksilver water, pine trees pruned as if they were birds prepared for flight, a few more azaleas; everywhere, age-old stones were surrounded by cropped, luminous moss and rooted in the embankments. Finally, the gardens wound their way to an esplanade where maple trees rustled in a cascade of lacy foliage, descending in tiers down the side of the hill.

It was an extraordinary place – temples everywhere, trees, moss, tall gates with curved wings. She walked to a huge gate with two roof levels, one story of paper partitions, and a cap of grey tiles. Through it, maple branches were visible, and, in the distance, in front of the temple, was a hug incense holder diffusing pale curls of smoke. It was windy and you could hear the clicking of the invisible bamboo; the air smelled of rain.

They were asked to remove their shoes and then invited to sit on cushions at a table with a little stove. Only one menu. She bit into a cube of tofu brushed with green sauce, was surprised by the flavour of soy sauce and an unfamiliar herb, and laughed for no reason.

… to the left, a bar counter with eight places; to the right, behind the oven, shelves sagging with dishes and various utensils above a small countertop; on a low buffet, bottles of sake stood against sand-coated partitions decorated with drawings of cats. … The Waitress set down before them a lacquered tray of little containers filled with unfamiliar food, as well as a saucer of sashimi, a bowl with rice, another with clear soup. She took a sip of ice cold beer and bit into a piece of white sashimi; ink fish. She took another sip of beer, tasted a red sashimi (fat tuna, he said) that set her senses reeling; so much pleasure born of such bare simplicity, she taught with wonder, as the waitress brought the grilled fish.

They climbed a few steps and followed a paved walkway lined with tall bamboo whose grey stalks and yellowish thatch were like a roof of flint and straw. On either side of the path, a strip of light sand streaked with parallel lines was like a mineral stream. They went up some more steps and found themselves facing the temple. In front of the enclosing wall, a patch of the same sand was home to a single azalea bush.

click here to read my review of A Single Rose


The Ex-Husband
by Karen Hamilton

Glints of white and gold sparkle off the sea and reflect off the vast assortment of yachts and sailboats in the marina. I stand on the jetty, enjoying the heat seeping through my bones after the plane’s air conditioning. I look around. A crane in the distance mars my perfect view. A slight wind blows the fronds on the palm trees  and an ice cream wrapper skitters along the ground near my feet. 

Beneath coconut palms, we are offered ice-cold towels form silver trays and coconuts with straws for the water.

The lagoons are heaven. Cool water sprays off the waterfalls as we are shown to our personal cabanas for the day.

We are rewarded with breathtaking views of a waterfall, a rushing cascade, its rainbow colours hovering above the mist. Coolness brushes my face as I inhale lush freshness. Below, a rock pool, the perfect swimming hole.

There is a breeze. The sails of a small sailboat flap gently. Waves lap against the shore. Holidaymakers lounge on their balconies or on the nearby silky, white beach.

click here to read my review of The Ex-Husband


The Storyteller of Casablanca
by Fiona Valpy

The first impression you get of the city is of chaos and grime and peeling façades. It’s only when you look a little more closely that you start to see the wrought ironwork, the old-fashioned signs on the shops and the beautifully crafted detailing that adorns the stonework of many of the neglected buildings. We bypass the medina, where I got lost. I doubt May’s car would fit down its narrow streets and alleyways. 

She points out the Quartier Habous with its Moorish archways, explaining how it was conceived and planned by the French when they colonised the city. It’s a newer version of the ancient medina, built for the tourists and the expats so that they can enjoy a similar experience, but with safer streets and a less bewildering layout of shops and stalls.

This is a city perched on the edge of an ocean of broken dreams, shabby and windswept, its once fine streets now down-at-heel. The Hollywood glamour of the days of Bogart and Bergman is long gone, nothing but a distant memory now.

In the French nouvelle ville the streets are wide boulevards, the ubiquitous date palms interspersed here and there with plane trees that at this time of day cast concentrated pools of deep shadow onto the pavement directly beneath their branches. But as you move towards the ocean the streets become narrower and the buildings lower, drawing you into the tangled heart of the medina, the old Arab Quarter. Beyond that is the sprawl of the docks. 

click here to read my review of The Storyteller of Casablanca


The Meeting Point
by Olivia Lara

The moment I get off the bus, I know this place is unlike any other I’ve ever been to. It reminds me of those made-up towns in movies that are fully constructed in a studio. The houses look like they’ve been drawn by an artist with too much imagination and a weakness for fairy tales. They’re tiny and quirky and each of them has a plaque on the front with a name: The Sailboat, Souvenirs, Seventh Heaven, Sans Souci, Casablanca, Sea Horse.

I take my time, walking and basking in the sun like a lizard. On the left side pretty houses, on the right side the ocean and a white-sanded beach like I’ve always dreamed of. The temptation is too strong. I take my shoes off and walk in the sand.

We head east on Ocean Avenue toward San Carlos Street and then California 1 South. At first, all I see is the highway, but all that changes quickly. On the right side, the ocean below and a sprawling beach with beautiful, perfectly white sand. I let out an excited squeak. … And what an amazing road. It follows the ocean, and the views are breathtaking. 
If it wasn’t for the occasional cars from the opposite direction, I’d swear we’re the only people on this coastline; it feels cut off from civilization but in a good way. The landscape is wild. The deep blue ocean is truly magnificent seen from up here, and the narrow winding road through the mountains is spectacular. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something so awe-inspiring.

click here to read my review of The Meeting Point

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and feel inspired to seek out some of these books for your own winter reading!
… xxx …

6 thoughts on “my favourite bookish travels of 2021

  1. What a wonderful, unique idea for a post! I haven’t heard of many of these books before but lots of them have caught my eye. I’m especially keen to read Palace of the Drowned because Venice is top of my bucket list! 📚❤️ X x x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Florence! Your comment means a lot to me. I’m really pleased I’ve tempted you with some of these books, especially Palace of the Drowned. The author, Christine Mangan, has previously written another SUPERB book called Tangerine which I recommend SO highly x


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