Journeying to Byzantium

A BYZANTINE JOURNEY by John Ash (Random House, $25, photos and maps).

The Byzantine Empire lasted 1,200 years. From its birth as Roman Empire/East in 286 to its conquest by the Turks in 1453, it was a pinnacle of civilization. The capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), was a center of learning and magnificent churches. (Western crusaders were astonished to see Byzantine aristocrats use table linens and forks.)

In 1991, writer John Ash spent five months visiting the ruins of Byzantine civilization in present-day Turkey. The resulting travelogue combines commentary on the architectural and decorative merits of various sites with a recapping of the empire's flamboyant and bloody history.

Sultans, emperors, crusaders; Mongols, Turkomen, Seljuks; Beyazid the Thunderbolt, Nicephorus the dwarf. It's Byzantine in the extreme and I suspect most readers will be hopelessly lost after a couple of chapters. However, "Journey" can be quite engaging if you accept it like a piece of Byzantine art, as a mosaic of anecdotal pieces.

Surprisingly, considering Ash's extensive historical research, the most burnished pieces are of his contemporary experiences. Consider his description of the little resort town of Kizkalesi:

"It was October and the whole town was falling asleep like a drunk at the end of a party. Vast swarms of mosquitoes descended at dusk, and most of the buildings seemed to have been improvised in the course of an afternoon."

Or this observation about storks in the city of Iznik:

"They are discriminating birds, naturally attracted to the oldest and most architecturally distinguished buildings in town. Truncated minarets and early Ottoman domes are capped by the big, untidy turbans of their nests."


MEXICO: A Travel Survival Kit by John Noble, Wayne Bernhardson, Tom Brosnahan, Susan Forsyth, Nancy Keller and James Lyon (Lonely Planet, $19.95, paper, photos and maps).

During a 3,000-mile bicycle trip around central Africa, doughty Irish traveler-writer Dervla Murphy visits Lake Victoria's Bugala Island. It's about as far from an ordinary tourist destination as you can get. She goes to the island's only guest house to find, to her horror, that 25 backpackers have beaten her to it. All of them, she sneers, "seem to be coming from or going to the same places and using the same guidebook--the 'Lonely Planet'. . . ."

Let her scoff. In the past 20 years, Lonely Planet guides have become indispensable to any traveler with adventure in his soul. Initially, LP specialized in exotic destinations--Myanmar, Yemen or Indonesia, for example. Their catalogue now has 170 titles that, along with their "survival kits," include walking guides, travel atlases, city guides and phrase books.

This is the fifth edition of their "Mexico" guide (they also have Baja California and La Ruta Maya guides). It's about as complete as an all-purpose guide can be. Political, social and archeological histories are compacted nicely; special attention is paid to restaurants and cuisines; markets and local handicrafts get their due; it's filled with phone numbers and addresses.

As with all LP guides, "Mexico" is geared toward the budget traveler (though they do have "middle" and "top end" hotel categories). But that doesn't mean LP is just for backpackers. Everyone needs straightforward, practical information and LP guides are as free of boosterism as any published today.

Take LP on Puerto Escondido, an increasingly popular tourist town on the Oaxacan coast. Here is part of an entry under the heading, "Dangers & Annoyances": "Stories of knife-point robberies, bashings with bags of stones, even stabbings, were rife a few years ago. One reader even told us of her knife-point mugging on a sparsely populated Playa Bacocho at 1 p.m. When last in town, we noticed a slight easing of the problem. . . . But you should definitely stick to well-lit areas at night and to populated places by day to avoid any threat."

"Mexico" isn't perfect, but if I could take only one guide on a long trip there, this would be it.


ROUTE OF THE MAYAS (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, paper, photos, maps, illustrations); IRELAND (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, paper, photos, maps, illustrations).

Historic and modern photos, cutaway illustrations, pull-out drawings, paintings, maps, slick paper stock and kaleidoscopic color have made this series the publishing equivalent of a music video.

Though Knopf guides list restaurants and hotels, they aren't guides in the conventional sense. The aim of these graphic explosions is to capture the life--maybe even the soul--of a place by layering up a phenomenal number of semi-related facts and visual images. It's a kind of reverse archeological excavation.

Much of the emphasis is on history and sociology as conveyed by artifact. The Ireland guide, for example, illustrates urban planning in the Georgian era with photographs of gaily painted Dublin doors. In the Mayan guide, brightly colored beetles walk across pages devoted to the ruins at Chicanna. Gorgeous words, too, get preference over more plain ones. Poet-politician W.B. Yeats gets 11 mentions in the Ireland volume, reformer-leader Charles Parnell but three.

The vibrant pages are enticing. There are delicious tidbits--how thatched roofs are put together on a traditional Irish house--but, like MTV, there's less than meets the eye.

The enthusiasm to cram in another factoid or another cutout photo, discourages coherence. For example, two pages in these slim volumes measure 8 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches. Over one such spread in the Mayan guide on the ruins at Chichen Itza there are four rectangular photos, three rectangular drawings, two cutout photos and one cutout drawing. Result: more vertigo than verity.


LIFE IN THE SADDLE: Writings and Photographs edited by Gretel Ehrlich; VOICES IN THE DESERT: Writings and Photographs edited by Lawrence W. Cheek; WOMEN IN WILDERNESS: Writings and Photographs edited by Susan and Ann Swinger (all by Harvest Books, $19.95, paper). A coffee-table series combining nature photography with short essays, most excerpted from books or other collections. Some of the authors are well known: Frank Harris, reminiscing about cowboy life in turn-of-the-century New Mexico; John Steinbeck crossing the Mojave with his four-legged pal, Charley. More in this series are scheduled for publication next year.


LET'S PARTY: Europe by Sam Khedr, Mark Maxam, Jessica Fernandes, Kim Soenen (Vagabond Publishing, $12.95, paper). About 40 European cities (or Greek islands) in alphabetical order. Each party spot gets an intro full of bad jokes and exclamation points. Then come listings of pubs, discos, cafes, beaches and districts where the action supposedly is. A rather depressing book. Maybe it's the forced jollity; maybe it's because a few decades have passed since I wandered footloose in Europe and needed such a guide.


ALL ABOARD!: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide by Jim Loomis (Prima Publishing, $15.95, paper). It's safe to say that Jim Loomis loves trains. While this guide has practical stuff--capsule descriptions of long-distance routes; lists of excursion trains and railroad museums--it's about the romance of the rails. Boxcars, tanker cars, whistle signals, laying track, rail spikes and locomotives--Loomis explains it all enthusiastically. "Why travel by train?" he asks rhetorically, then answers, "Because it's civilized. "


Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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