Photo: Montmartre at dusk

Doug Mack visits the popular Montmartre neighborhood of Paris in Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day.

Photograph by Pierre Adenis, laif/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, by Doug Mack

What a great idea for a book! On a whim, writer Doug Mack bought a dog-eared 1963 copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day at a secondhand bookstall. As it turned out, his mom had used a copy of that book on her own Grand Tour in 1967—and still had shoeboxes full of letters, aerograms, and postcards from that life-changing journey. Inspired by the book and his mom’s memories, Mack resolved to visit 11 cities in Europe in 2008 and 2009 using Frommer’s classic as a contemporary guide, and complementing it with his mom’s own notes from the road. The resulting journey, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day is, as Mack writes, “a voyage into the heart of straight-up, cliché-ridden tourism, a path seldom taken by more bold travelers for the very fact that it is so well-beaten.”

As an open-minded, enthusiastic tourist tracing a European all-stars itinerary—Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Venice, Rome, Madrid—Mack helps us re-appreciate why these destinations became famous in the first place: Montmartre at dusk, the Grand Canal at daybreak, and Michelangelo’s David are just three of the sights that inspire time-stopping awe.

Mack’s “Frommering” explorations uncover a few hotels and restaurants that are just as worth visiting today as in 1963—the Pensione Texas in Rome and the Casa Botin in Madrid, a Hemingway haunt, are exemplary standouts. They also lead to places such as Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, whose very significance is how it has changed in half a century. But more profoundly, his engaging odyssey reminds us how the beaten path leads today to layered global lessons, how its totemic attractions embody cultural idiosyncrasies and global commonalities. We should re-brand this path, Mack says, as the Crossroads of the World.

Refreshing in its intelligence, candor, good-humored self-deprecation, and insightful redemption of the much-maligned tourist, Mack’s account is a trail-reblazing testament to the transformative power of travel in the modern world, and to the enduring richness of those well-trod places where authenticity, history, culture, and fame compose their own never-ending narratives.

New Book Roundups

Francophone Wayfaring

Vivian Swift’s Le Road Trip is both the true story of an idyllic French honeymoon that winds from Paris through Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, and Chartres, and an illustrated road-trip handbook on topics ranging from “How to Vagabond” to “What to Wear in Paris.” In A Wedding in Haiti author Julia Alvarez recounts her long friendship with a young Haitian called Piti, who over the years had become like a son to her. Their relationship is tested when, in 2009, Piti asks Alvarez to keep her promise to attend his wedding, which is being held in a remote Haitian village an hour’s hike from the end of a dirt road. The resulting adventure is a glimpse into the heart of a complex country during a tumultuous time.

Stark Landscapes

A man builds a tree house by a river in preparation for a coming flood, a boy sets fire to a barn, a pair of itinerant laborers sit by a lake and talk while fighter-planes fly low overhead and prepare for war. In This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You, Jon McGregor uses short stories to depict life behind the lowlands and levees, fens and ditches of eastern England. In The Taliban Shuffle, journalist Kim Barker recalls with often self-mocking humor the time she spent as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune covering Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2002 and from 2004 to 2009. Her narrative brings to life places, such as Khost and Kabul, whose names are familiar from news reports but whose daily affairs are little known to people in the West. Alaskan Travels is award-winning Edward Hoagland’s memoir—published 30 years after the fact—of his run-ins with oilmen, Eskimos, trappers, drifters, and a beautiful and capable frontier nurse while exploring the land of the midnight sun.

One Last Thing

A Walk in the Park

For visitors and residents alike, one of New York City’s defining glories is Central Park. Whenever I visit the city, I always make time to go there: It’s a recharging swath of wildness—jagged rocks, unexpected ponds, rambling hills—among the sidewalks and skyscrapers. A new anthology, called simply Central Park, celebrates these varied riches. Bill Buford describes the terrors and marvels of spending a night in the park, Francine Prose recalls a transformative Nina Simone concert there, and Susan Cheever evokes the magic of carousel, bear statue, and fountain in her “little bit of country.” Editor Andrew Blauner has assembled 20 highly personal tales to reveal just how passionately this untamed oasis has become a central part of New York’s spiritual landscape.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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