Category Archives: Travel Writing

Crisis averted: what to do on the plane!

Since the US and UK banned laptops and tablets from the airplane cabins on flights originating in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, I’ve read some really daft articles addressing the desperate question: what can I do on the plane?

Here’s one, from Bloomberg: Hacks to Survive a Twenty Hour Flight – without a laptop or tablet!

One answer might be: read a book. Revolutionary? Perhaps all first class travel could look like this?

Here’s my list for travellers coming out of Turkey:

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

The latest novel by the wonderful Elif Shafak, who first burst onto the scene with her punchy, funny and tragic novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Elif writes about women negotiating their power and their position in a man’s world, and she does it with sly humour, tenderness, and a wonderful feel for historical time and place. The action kicks off when a beggar snatches the handbag of a wealthy Turkish housewife on her way to a smart Istanbul dinner party. Out drops an old photo… and with it, a life and love that Peri has tried to forget.

Istanbul: Poetry of Place, edited by Ates Orga

Packed with poetry and a little prose, all set in the former capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, Istanbul: Poetry of Place brings you the voices of the city’s inhabitants, from sultans to modern-day feminists.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Complex, fragmentary, unreliable and poetic, this thoroughly postmodern novel abounds with puns, ironies, double-takes and imponderable conflicts of love, faith and social justice, reflecting not only aspects of the human condition but also of 20th-century Turkey’s preoccupations with secularism, religious freedom and revolution. In the city of Kars, a young journalist, Ka, comes to investigate a spate of suicides relating to the wearing of headscarves – and opens up a kaleidoscopic world of claims, counter-claims and conflicting priorities.

Turkey: a Short History by Norman Stone

A fanfare for modern Turkey and a vivid, provocative, often funny, always insightful account of how it came about. Stone pulls together his accomplishments as a philoturk, a philologist, controversialist and narrative historian to sweep his readers along a short crash course in Turkish origins, their history and current challenges. If you don’t really know why a portrait of Ataturk hangs in almost every shop in Turkey, read this book.

Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel

The definitive history of the city from 1453, by one of our finest historians, also explains how a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire was controlled by a single dynasty for more than 600 years. Mansel mines a vast range of sources to bring the fashions, pomp and politics of this ancient world capital to life.

Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières

I keep picking this up – and putting it down again, because I can’t quite face the onrushing tragedy. Needless to say, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between Philotei and Ibrahim, as relations between Greece and Turkey collapse in the First World War; prelude to the massive population exchange of 1923, which ended Greek settlement of Asia Minor. Gallipoli is in it; so is Ataturk; so are some characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. De Bernières insists this is the better book and I believe him.

Eothen by AW Kinglake

The title, which means “from the east” is, as the author points out, the hardest thing in the book, a sly travel account purporting to be written by a Victorian hooray which makes for spectacularly funny reading. Jonathan Raban has described the narrator as having the “sensibility of someone who is a close blood-relative of Flashman”: witness his thoroughly waspish account of a meeting with Lady Hester Stanhope. Typical, too, is his insouciance towards the plague in Cairo, which claims his heroic doctor while the narrator survives unmoved.

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The three volumes of his magisterial history, boiled down into one, may seem too condensed at times, but Norwich deftly and entertainingly outlines the often outrageous story of an empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days. It is as good on Byzantine art and church matters as on the peccadilloes of the emperors – and their triumphs.

Rebel Land by Christopher de Bellaigue

Caught up in a journalistic furore after his mention of the Armenian massacres that occurred in the dying days of the Ottoman empire, de Bellaigue decided to find out for himself what may have happened. He settled on – and in – the town of Varto, which once had a huge Armenian population. Without delivering any final answers, de Bellaigue’s beautifully written account of his experiences with locals, secret policemen and even exiles still sheds light on this intractable issue, if only to illuminate the complexity of the situation both then and now.

The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

The first of the Kamil Pasha detective stories, set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, kicks off with a body on the beach. Kamil Pasha, the Anglophile Ottoman detective, must draw together the threads of this murder and of an older, unsolved crime, sifting through the murky waters of late Ottoman politics and society. Sequels are The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief.

Yashim: Don’t forget that all five Yashim novels are available as a set from and from – and in dozens of languages, too. Meanwhile The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone are published in Turkey by Pegasus as Yeniceri Agaci  and Yılanlı Sütun

Istanbul, mon amour

Cumhuriyet Kitap, Turkey’s answer to the TLS or The New York Review of Books, recently ran an essay I wrote on Istanbul. It was translated and introduced by Selçuk Altun, whose novels include The Sultan of Byzantium. Here’s the English version, with a few illustrations added:


It was an Irishman who introduced me to Istanbul, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He had never been, himself: he never got further east than Ravenna. But he thought of Constantinople as the Holy City where, for a moment in the early days of Byzantium, art and action, feeling and intellect, had been fused into a single, graspable Truth.

That is no country for old men...Yeats wrote, in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

His belief had nothing to do with Istanbul; yet the outsider’s view cannot be disqualified. Istanbul has always been, in part, a figment of the imagination. The emperor Constantine, who founded the city in 330 AD, envisioned it as the New Rome; and it was as Romans, Romanoii, that the Greek-speaking rulers of the city faced their nemesis 1100 years later. The rough Frankish knights who turned the energies of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople in 1204 saw the city as a painted harlot; the Venetians, meanwhile, as their California. The Vikings called it Micklegard, the Great City. The Muslims, who first attacked it in 668 AD, called it the Red Apple. Osman, whose descendants were to capture it in 1453, saw the city in his dreams, and even today, on the walls of old mosques and mansions throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, you may find it wistfully represented, a city of hills and kiosks, trees and minarets rising gracefully from the water: a glimpse of an earthly paradise.Some of these illusions may even survive an encounter with the physical city, too.

The young in one another’s arms…

I first came to Istanbul on a wave of youthful romanticism, making my own Haj across eastern Europe, on foot, treading woodland paths from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. I was 26 years old. I stood beneath the dome of Aya Sofia like those ambassadors of old who said: ‘We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.’ Outside, old men waved us to share their café chairs. The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals. Walking across Europe was like a fairy-tale adventure; Topkapi was a fairytale palace; and the streets of Istanbul seemed tinged with gold. Of course I fell in love.

I married the girl who shared the journey: and in a way, I married Istanbul.

It was a city where you could bump your shins on history, eat well, take a ferry, ride a tram, and travel from one civilisation to another in ten steps. It took me a while to get to know Istanbul. I began like a jealous husband, raking up the past, combing through the stories people had told about her over the years. It helped that I had decided to write a book on that very subject: Lords of the Horizons, A History of the Ottoman Empire.

I wrote it to explain the Ottomans to myself. In Cracow, we saw some of the war tents captured at Vienna in 1683. In Hungary, we walked past a beautiful minaret, in a dusty town square. Who were those Ottomans? Where had they gone? I discovered there were many answers to those simple questions. For four years I immersed myself in books. There was something in the Ottoman style I liked – a gracefulness, a grandeur. As the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, the old Ottoman settlement seemed less arbitrary, perhaps more merciful. My source for many stories was not in Istanbul, but at a private circulating library in the heart of what was once fashionable London, near Piccadilly. Among millions of books, all cloth-bound in library bindings, with stamped titles, I fell on the dusty memoirs and reminiscences of travellers and diplomats.

Some were fools. Some were wits. Charles White collaborated with Ahmet Vefik Pasha to write a three-volume description of the city in 1846. Eduardo de Amicis spent only six weeks in Istanbul, to write Constantinople (1878). They described the texture of daily life, which Istanbullu of the period seldom bothered to record. Everyone knows London, from Dickens or Sherlock Holmes: Istanbul never had that sort of chronicler. Those foreigners, amazed by everything they saw, wrote for posterity, creating prose pictures for their friends at home in an age before photography. They wrote down the mundane details of Ottoman life, and that is how I got to know Istanbul.

In time, of course, I discovered my city, not through the eyes of other lovers, but through my own. I came back three, four times every year, making new friends, visiting new places, tramping the streets of the city. My friends took me to places I might never have guessed existed, like Sinan’s bents in the Belgrade Forest. I liked ferries; forgotten parts of the old Genoese walls in Pera; hammam towels (but not hammams); mouldering hans; Istanbul Modern; smoking in taxis; and the certainty that there would be something extraordinary, memorable, perhaps invisible, within ten metres of anywhere I stood.

I liked Istanbul’s energy.

Perhaps it infected me: I started to write novels set in the city I knew from books. My detective hero Yashim investigated a coup attempt in the reign of Mahmud II, and a murder in Topkapi. Fiction gave me another way of telling an Ottoman story, another way of looking at Istanbul. The Janissary Tree won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel, and I felt encouraged to write more, trying to bring Ottoman Istanbul alive for readers all over the world.

One way was through the food. When Yashim wants to be quiet, and think, he goes home and cooks simple Ottoman-inspired dishes. Soon my readers were asking for recipes, and now I have collected and improved them, and added more, to make an Istanbul detective’s cookbook: Yashim Cooks Istanbul. So even when I am not in Istanbul, I can taste the city, and dream. It always was, partly, a figment of the imagination.


By the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Yashim walked slowly across the Hippodrome, towards the obelisk that the emperor Constantine had brought from Egypt 1500 years ago. He wondered what they meant, those perfect birds, those unwinking eyes, the hands and feet incised with unearthly precision on the gleaming stone.

He stopped for a moment in the pencil of the obelisk’s shade, and touched its base. Trajan’s column stood fifty yards beyond, a slender bole of rugged stone, weathered and clamped with great bronze staples, its base carved with a Roman emperor’s Balkan triumphs, helmeted legionaries crammed together with their short swords drawn; the stamp of horses, the abasement of chieftains and kings, the flinging of bridges across rivers, and the lament of women. The scenes were hard to decipher, too; the stone had been softer.

Beneath it, Arab traders had pitched a wide green tent on poles. A string of mules went by, and as Yashim lowered his gaze to watch them pass his eye was caught by the twining stalk of the Serpent Column, hollow and broken like a reed: a twist of ancient verdigris no bigger than a withered palm-tree, set in a triumphal axis between the obelisk and the column.

It had been made over two thousand years before, a miracle of craftsmanship to celebrate the miracle of Greek victory over the Persians at Plataia, with three fearsome snake’s heads supporting a great bronze cauldron. It had stood for centuries at the oracle of Delphi, until Constantine seized it and dragged it here to beautify his new capital. The centuries since had been unkind to it. The cauldron was long gone; the heads, more recently, had disappeared.

Yashim had known the Serpent Column for years before he first saw the bronze heads in Palewski’s wardrobe. He had imagined them to look like real snakes, with broad jaws and small, reptilian eyes, so he had been shocked by the monsters whose cruel masks he had explored by candlelight that evening. They were creatures of myth and nightmare, fanged, blank-eyed, seeking to terrorise and devour their prey. Malevolence seeped from them like blood.

Yashim leaned over the railing, to peer down into the pit from which the Serpent Column sprang. The other columns stood on level ground. Was it because the snakes emerged from somewhere deeper, some dark, submerged region in the mind? He shuddered, with an instinctive horror of everything cultish and pagan. From above, the coiling snakes looked like a drill, a screw digging deeper and deeper into the fabric of the city, penetrating its layers one by one.

If you turned it so that the coils bit deeper into the ground, if you traced the sinuous curves of the serpents’ bodies from the tail up, you would bring the fanged monsters closer. And eventually you would find yourself staring into those pitiless hollow eyes and the gaping mouth, into the dark side of myths and dreams: terrorised, and then devoured.

Yashim glanced back at the Egyptian obelisk. It seemed cold and reserved, careless of its fate. The Roman column was nothing but a platitude: empires decay.

But between them, the green-black coils of the brazen serpents referred to a dark enigma, like a blemish in the human soul.

From The Snake Stone


Jeremy Seal has made a useful assessment of the current travel situation here.

The Baklava Club

The fifth – and final? – Yashim adventure is now out in Estonia (where we held the premiere in Tallinn a week ago) – and in the English-speaking world, too.

The gorgeous US edition

I am delighted with this charming review from Huon Mallalieu in Country Life:

I have yet to visit Istanbul, but when I do it will be after reading or re-reading Jason’s Goodwin’s five Yashim books as well as his Ottoman history. He has a great gift for conjuring up the spirit of place, smells and sounds as well as sights, and Yashim, his immensely sympathetic sleuth in mid 19th century Istanbul is a thoroughly agreeable guide. As a eunuch (impotent, but not incapable, so to speak) Yashim is able to take us into harems as well as markets and mosques. His culinary skills are educational and moreish – it is good to learn that a Yashim cookery book is planned.

   Naturally Yashim is given a sidekick, but Count Palewski, ambassador for the vanished Kingdom of Poland, is no mere foil against which the hero may shine; he has his own schemes and strengths. The Baklava Club serves up the expected banquet of convoluted plots, many, but not all, deriving from the post-1815 division of Europe between autocratic reaction and liberal revolution. Matters are further complicated for both Yashim and Palewski by the involvement of beautiful young foreign women, not to mention the love of books and manuscripts.

   A little while ago Mr Goodwin was making Conan Doyle-like noises about killing off his creation. The reaction of his readers at least postponed that sad day. I hope that it is no spoiler to say that the end is not necessarily yet.


Reader, I married her

Apologies to anyone who downloaded On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk toIstanbul to their Kindle and discovered that it was

squashed up

against the left hand margin

rendering it all

but unreadable!

It has been fixed, and I believe the Kindle will update your copy automatically. Maybe you have to push a button, but that’s it.

of cover

If you don’t know, it is an account of a trek I made from Gdansk to Istanbul in the Spring of 1990, walking for almost six months through the villages and landscapes of eastern Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and finally Turkey. It was the journey that kindled my fascination with the Ottoman Empire, as we walked through a world touched by its lingering influence – a minaret, say, in northern Hungary, or an encounter with a fierce shepherd dog, or a gulp of very strong black coffee, or the sight of gypsy women in glorious swirls of coloured skirts Istanbul, or Constantinople, was in the music, and in the orthodox churches, and in the air.

My companions were Mark and my girlfriend, Kate. Mark, understandably, decided to head off on his own, on another route, about half way through the trek; but Kate and I walked into Istanbul together. The book ends there; but the story continues…


Albanian Rhapsody

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I visited Albania, in 1996, the imam at the Tirana mosque very kindly invited me to accompany him up the minaret. I shuffled my feet nervously onto the balcony while he issued the call to prayer, gazing down over the roofs of the city, and away to the encircling mountains. Far off, high on the mountain flank, I could just see Krujë, from where Scanderbeg defied the Ottoman forces in the 15th century for almost thirty years.

Albania is a mountainous country of about 4 million people, which was all but closed to the outside world from 1945 to the early 1990s, when its secretive communist regime finally collapsed. It’s a land of ancient ruins, glorious terraced hills, unspoilt Mediterranean beaches, and really hairy driving conditions. Here’s a gypsy playing his bagpipe – a reminder that Byron thought the Albanians were close to the Scots, with their kilts and their clans. He, of course, had himself painted in Albanian dress (above).


And here’s the wonderful trailer the Albanian publisher produced – 52 seconds of true Albanian atmosphere!

Once conquered, the Albanians did a reverse take-over of the Ottoman Empire. Their horizons, bounded by the mountains and the seashore of their own small country, expanded. Albanian devsirme boys went on to dominate the Janissary Corps. The Köprülü provided a dynasty of Grand Viziers. Mehmed Ali ultimately seized control of Egypt, founding a royal line that fell from power in 1956. So when I spotted Ataturk’s double in the street outside my hotel, everyone shrugged: Mustafa Kemal was Albanian, they assured me.

tirana mosque

Now a site has been cleared for a new mosque nearby, but the delightful roccoco building erected in 1703 is in immaculate condition, decorated inside and out with floral panels and these delightful glimpses of an Ottoman paradise.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

Here’s my review of Artemis Cooper’s biography for Country Life Magazine.

In 1933 ‘a rather noisy boy’ with near-empty pockets and a head full of poetry set out from the Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. Paddy Leigh-Fermor was eighteen years old, fizzing with romance, curiosity and animal high spirits – eager, as his biographer explains, to  step away from a fractured childhood, a chequered school career, and a remote suggestion from his even remoter father that he should try chartered accountancy if the army didn’t appeal.

As he tramped across the Low Countries and down through Germany to Bratislava, two letters of introduction hoisted Paddy out of the hedgerows and into a half-forgotten world of castles and old libraries. Margraves and counts cheerfully passed him along, with hunts, and gallops, and long nights talking by the fire, and friendships forged, in the Ruritanian twilight.

That world was swept apart by the war, and it would be forty four years before Paddy related the first part of his journey in A Time of Gifts, followed seven years later by Between the Woods and the Water. Artemis Cooper reveals what Paddy left out, changed, or never quite wrote – including his tumultuous love affair with a beautiful Romanian countess, and the final leg of the journey, which took him beyond Constantinople to Greece, the country that was to shape his life.

He was in Moldavia, and in love, when war broke out. Too wild and singularly gifted for a regular commission, he fetched up in occupied Crete, where in 1944 he carried out the daring kidnap of a German general, an exploit unpicked in one chapter of this biography; the story entered popular legend through the book Ill Met by Moonlight, written by his companion-in-arms Billy Moss; in the film Paddy was played by Dirk Bogarde.

Paddy’s own rich and energetic writing was an extension of the life, of a man who seized the world around him and shook it till it rattled. What dropped down in late nights and laughter, liquor and lovers, were the gems and diadems of his life and prose.

He had eight languages and friends in all of them, from Cretan shepherds to waitresses, Vlachs to Duchesses, gypsies and kuss-die-hand German aristocrats. Some friends were lovers: horrid old Somerset Maugham, brooding on some perceived slight, defined Paddy as a middle class gigolo to upper class women, a mean twist on Paddy’s cheerfully seductive generosity. ‘Most men are just take, take, take – but with Paddy it’s give, give, give,’ said Ricki Houston.

They could be generous in return – above all Joan Rayner, his lover and amanuensis, whom he married in 1968 (‘I don’t believe in long engagements’, he remarked; they’d been on and off since the War). Maurice Cardiff was astonished when Joan dropped money on the table at a Nicosia café, ‘enough if you want to find a girl.’

The books came slowly, growing through layers and revisions inspired, perhaps, by a 3000-word magazine commission: Paddy drove editors crazy. In The Traveller’s Tree, P L-F anatomised the islands of the Caribbean; A Time to Keep Silence explored the monastic world, through which he often derived peace and solace; but it was with Mani and Roumeli, in a projected series that would cover the whole of Greece, that his intense and multi-layered fusions of style and passions emerged at their fullest extent.

The style – turreted like Guelf fortifications, bristling with knowledge, speculation, humour and keen observation – was the fruit of deep learning, which he wore lightly and absorbed freely, with dazzling leaps of imagination. His verbal dexterity sprang from a mind filled with ‘poems and songs, puns and riddles, limericks, sonnets, lists of hats and stars, and verses by the yard.’  As his mother had translated ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ into Hindustani, so Paddy put ‘Widdecombe Fair’ into Italian.

Until Joan and he built a house at Kardamyli, on the Mani peninsula, in 1965, his abode was never fixed for long: a succession of places lent or rented as need arose – a castle outside Rome where the rats attacked the butter, a cottage in Devon, a Greek villa, a small hotel, an Irish house, palaces and hovels in Spain, France, but of course especially Greece.

For the wandering scholar Kardamyli was the answer. It contained what John Betjeman called ‘one of the rooms in the world,’ filled with books and stoked with friendships and drink, overlooking the sea. Everyone came, of course: Chelsea and Grub Street, toffs and dilettantes, drawn by Paddy’s gift for friendship and surprise; Bruce Chatwin moved in next door. Joan allowed stray cats to wander about ‘as free as air currents’: they ran their claws over the divans and Paddy found the right expression: he called them ‘born down-holsterers.’

Not everyone got it: some people resented his bumptiousness and ebullience, and he could have a tin ear for the mood at times, as Cooper tells us.  But Paddy left most people feeling stronger (bar a hangover), their prose enriched, their humour and sense of wonder sharpened; and this marvellous biography, aptly named An Adventure, has the same tonic effect. Paddy’s exuberance could have overwhelmed his biographer, but whether describing a night attack on Crete, a love affair, or the political tensions over Cyprus that poisoned Anglo-Greek relations after the War, Cooper writes with a cool hand and clear head. Her book lives up to the majesty of the man, who died this year, at the age of 96.


On Foot to the Golden Horn

It’s rather strange to revisit a book after a long gap – especially one you’ve written yourself. Going through the proofs for the new Kindle edition, I couldn’t help making a few small edits; but I didn’t want to change much. The voice is the voice of my younger self.

When the book won the Mail on Sunday/JLR Prize – an annual award given to a writer under 35 – I received a cheque for £5000, a commission to write a travel piece for the Mail (I chose Venice) and a piece of advice from Bernice Rubens, who was on the judging panel. She suggested I should write fiction – not because I’d made things up, I hasten to add, but rather because the book read in many ways like a novel, with a novelistic sense of pattern and rhythm. It took a good ten years for me to take that advice.
The prize was awarded at a lunch at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, and at the end of the lunch I suddenly discovered that I’d lost the cheque. Panic! Eminent novelists searching under tables, poets turning out their pockets etc. It was a waiter who finally presented it back to me with a flourish: £5000 covered in coffee grounds and gravy where he’d fished it out of the bins.
Some episodes in the book are funny, some sad, some gloomy; and it’s perfectly un-PC. The TLS called it ‘one of the truest portraits of present-day Central Europe available’, and though so much has changed in these twenty years I think it does convey something of the atmosphere and history of those fascinating European hinterlands. I hope so, anyway.
Perhaps I’m proudest of the fact that it’s very different from The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels Through China and India in Search of Tea. Neither of these books were written for money or prizes, just out of curiosity and for the sheer pleasure of travelling and writing.

Free book!

Phew! Just letting everyone (and everyone’s wife, husband, child, neighbour) know that my first book, The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels through India and China in Search of Tea, is available on Kindle for free this weekend.

The weather looked a bit dodgy, so I thought I’d give the book away instead of doing the garden…

Download it – share it – and if you enjoy it, please don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon…

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

In Istanbul, at any rate. So much changes as the years go by: it’s prosperity, of course, which does it – and the corrosive ways of global finance, which encourages people to get rich by trashing things we like.
Now that the Pera Palace has had a facelift, I’m shifting my bags along the road to the Grand Hotel de Londres, partly because the name is so evocative, and partly because it has what some call faded glamour (and others depressing plumbing). It’s here:  Note: they take bookings without taking a credit card number! How’s that for old world politesse?

While we’re at it, are there any places like that which you’d recommend to us all? I can think of some in India, like the Ooty Club; and I remember staying at the Peace Hotel (nee Cathay) in Shanghai, when the old men played jazz downstairs and your room could swallow a London bus. There was a Greek cafe, Makarios, on Jermyn Street in St James’s till a few years back where you could get a dish of mussels for, I think, £4.50; it was full of minor civil servants and the old waiter had a voice like molasses running over gravel. Now, pimped up, overpriced, Italianated and lost, it’s like this:

Still, all is not yet lost – so take a moment to share your nostalgic travel treats with the rest of us, below – if you can squeeze a photo in, so much the better!