This is travel writing the way it was meant to be - Informative, concise and illuminating.
Kaplan relives his journeys from many years ago as he first travelled through the Mediterranean struggling with being a free-lance writer. Most of the book is recollections from more than 20 years ago although there are comments from recent trips back to some of the locations and a wonderful recent interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of A Time of Gifts, and other well-known travel books.
The down-side of reporting on these decades-old journeys is that some of the spontaneity and opinion is lost. I find that sometimes I learn more from disagreeing with a travel writers' hasty opinion than in boring, well-edited neutral reporting. However, in this case, I think that the elapsed time has given this account nuances and a filtered content that add to the writing. It's as if the ensuing decades have concentrated the meaning and subtleties of the journey.
The part on Tunisia was replete with history of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Berbers, and Carthaginians. Sicily was filled with the Greek influences on this place. Dalmatia, in previous Yugoslavia, and Greece were well-represented.
I confess I particularly enjoyed the recent encouter with Patrick Leigh Fermor who in his 80's is working on the last book of the trilogy about his travels in the 30's on foot from Holland to Constantinople. If you haven't read his first two, you need to.
Kaplan also includes a list of books that he considers essential to understanding these regions. It is excellent and is a good start to understanding these areas in depth.
Overall, excellent and gripping - which is hard in travel writing.
on June 16, 2004
I have become quite accustomed to reading insightful and throught provoking works by Robert Kaplan, but this one caught me by surprise. This work is an amazing achievement. Technically the book chronicles Kaplan's first venture into the Meditteranean, but it does much more than that. We see the Mediterranean through the eyes of a young man on eager to discover the world. What we also get however is the insight of a man who made this region his base for many years. The prose of journalist who has honed his craft for over twenty years. The reflections of a scholar who seems to have absorbed everything ever written in the english language about the places he visited.
We learn a great deal in this book. As is always the case with Kaplan we get an historical understanding for why a certain people are the way they are. It is astounding how much is commented upon and discussed in this slender volume. Kaplan has packed every page with his observations and reflections and while they are complex and replete with references to other works he somehow manages to keep his prose light and fluid. It is difficult to explain, but if you buy the book you will know what I am talking about.
Read this if you love the Mediterranean. Read it if you are fascinated by history or if you really enjoy profound lyrical prose.
on April 19, 2006
One of Kaplan's most recent works is an excellent read, suitable for a lazy Sunday morning when one is noshing on a bagel and daydreaming about traveling the southern 'fringe' of Europe.
The prose is captivating and lyrical, particularly in Tunisia and Dalmatia. It is also a fascinating look at the development of the man as he makes his leap from 'travel writer' to 'current events' writer and journo.
One point in the book stands out in my mind. This is Kaplan's encounter with a West-hating North African, who nonetheless comes to develop a wary friendship with the author. Over time, Kaplan's aquiaintance grows out of his radicalism and acquires a middle-class lifestyle, with a job and a mortgage. (Which development followed the other is left up to the reader to decide.)
I only caution that those who approach Kaplan's work from his hard-hitting current events books might be slightly let down with this effort. One can certainly see the beginnings of the memes and keen insights that Kaplan sprinkles liberally throughout his other work. However, this is a book about history and the 'deeper' pleasure of travel, not a meditation on the state of things to come.
on April 30, 2006
This is a delightful piece of travel writing by one of the genre's masters as he wanders through some of the most history-rich real estate in the world. Covering both sides of the Mediterranean --in winter, no less -- Kaplan weaves into his narrative the historical heritage and significance of each place he visits. At each stop he shares his personal impressions, as well. One of the most endearing qualities of this book is the tribute he pays to other travel writers who covered the same ground over the years, ranging from the Homeric era to modern day. For me, the book ended perfectly, as Kaplan concludes his trip at the Greece home of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the legendary travel writer and war hero, whose books chronicling his walk across Europe as the storm clouds of WWII were gathering, remain travel writing classics. Kaplan has paid his dues as a journalist, with his years of visiting mostly third world countries, staying in ratty hotel rooms, surviving on boiled eggs, and spending endless and boring hours on buses to nowhere. This has given him rare insights into our world and its people -- insights he generously shares with us. It's like taking a trip with a master traveler. A masterpiece.
on April 2, 2005
Robert D Kaplan's latest book, "Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and Greece," is written in the tradition of what was known in the 1930's as "landscape companions." The most well-known practitioners of this lost art were Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice, Lawrence Durrell, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.(They were all children of the British Empire.) This book recounts a journey Kaplan took shortly afer graduating from college in the mid 1970's. Kaplan writes: "With this journey, I acquired the habit of searching books linked to landscapes and seascapes through which I traveled. Reading became surgery; a way of dissecting the surrounding landscape and may own motivations for being there."
This is not the tourism of our present age, which is an escape from the drudgery of work; this is travel as work. Every landscape, every ruin suggests a book or an author. Every train trip or boat ride fills another notebook with observations and reflections. Travel teaches us about history - the rise and fall of civilizations, the ebb and flow of empires.
Kaplan's prose is on overdrive when travels through northern Tunisia. He recalls on a bus trip: "...the sculpted, liver-hued steppe of northern Tunisia and the pinks of the southern deserts, with their vast blotches of salt; interior tablelands racked by lonely, bone-chilling winds and the grave, museum light of late afternoons; the smoking and hacking coughs of the other passengers wrapped like ghosts in their caftans in the pre-dawn darkness, drooping woolen sleeves concealing their hands; the comforting smell of tea, fresh bread, sharp cheese, and harissa at half-empty cafes where the bus stopped after sunrise, with their loud music, scabby walls, and bitter espresso served in whiskey glasses only a third full; the just-boiled eggs that would keep my hands warm in the bus, bought at a cafe or given to me by a friendly passenger with whom I might share may sunflower seeds."
Kaplan has said elsewhere that waited until middle age to write this book in order to avoid the purple prose of youth; however, there are some delightful moments of recidivism.
In Tunisia, Kaplan uncovers the layers of history of this north African country, focusing mainly on the Carthaginian era and the subsequent conquest by Rome. Rome is still everywhere present in the landscape of Tunisia, from the roads and aqueducts to the Colosseum at El Djem, and Kaplan illustrates this vividly.
Also fascinating is his journey through Sicily. In Sicily, he sees the legacy of the Crusades. In the 1100's, two brothers from Normandy, Robert and Roger of Hauteville, conquered Moslem Sicily and created a modern multicultural state, in which Normans, Latins, Greeks, and Arabs could live together and prosper. The historian John Julius Norwich describes this era in depth in "The Kingdom in the Sun."
Kaplan then travels to Tivoli, east of Rome, where he explores Hadrian's Villa. "Hadrian's Villa was the Versailles of the ancient world." This was the subject of Eleanor Clark's 1950 book, "Rome and a Villa." To his villa, Hadrian brought thousands of books, statues, and reconstructed landscapes to remind him of all the cherished moments of his past. Kaplan compares him to Jefferson and his Monticello.
After leaving Tivoli, Kaplan sails to Split on the Dalmatian coast. Here he ponders the life and times of the emperor Diocletian, while walking through his palace: "If Hadrian was a romantic aesthete who encouraged the arts, Diocletian who ruled the Roman Empire 150 years after him, was a nuts-and-bolts pragmatist who spent most of his life in military camps." Diocletian was the first Roman emperor to rule the empire from the Balkans. It was not long until Rome was sacked in 476 and the Balkans were annexed by Justinian to the Byzantine Empire. After Byzantium, there were invasions by the Slavs and the Turks. Kaplan is very good when describing the mixture of people and civilizations that inhabit this part of the world; it was the subject of one of his previous books, "Balkan Ghosts."
The book ends with an entertaining visit to a spry 88-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor, a fellow literary traveler and adventurer, living on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. "The last pascha of the Mediterranean" was working on the third volume of his memoirs of a journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to what is now Istanbul. We can only hope that Kaplan is still traveling and writing when he reaches this stage of life's journey.
on September 9, 2005
As in "Balkan Ghosts," Kaplan writes with great clarity and intelligence, weaving a fine travel narrative founded on extensive historical research. He writes with a unique and creative eye, and tends to focus on important yet little-known locales. He philosophizes quite a bit, but it is an intriguing, pleasurable philosophy. The following quote from his section on Greece crystallizes for me the special appeal of this type of writing, "...travel writing, rather than a low-rent occupation for the Sunday supplements, could also be a means to explore art, history, literature, and statecraft..." Precisely! Bravo, Kaplan!
Reviewed by David Lundberg, author of Olympic Wandering: Time Travel Through Greece
on March 4, 2005
This historical essay by Kaplan which flows along a geographic journey from North Africa, to Sicily, Italy, Croatia, and Greece is a great read for anyone interested in the history of the Mediterranean. The book is part travelogue, part history, and part philosophy. The key test I have with this type of writing is whether the book leaves the reader with a nice roadmap for further in-depth exploration of the subject matter or some nice sideroads for further exploration...and this book gets five stars because it excels at just that. For example, I may be showing my ignorance but although I was aware of Lamb, and Byron, I had never heard of Fermor; although having read Norwich on Venice, I was ignorant of the Norman invasion of Sicily, etc. There is probably something like that for every reader who is not an expert in mediterranen history. It's easy to read, flows nicely, and worth one's time.
on March 8, 2011
Mediterranean Winter is not the book to begin with in reading Robert D. Kaplan books. It lacks the energy and presence that some of his other books have. John Julius Norwich in his Byzantine books covers much of this territory, and he obviously loves history. Kaplan loves travel more than history, and it appears difficult for him to reconstruct old travels from his journals.
These comments should not prejudice you against Kaplan's books. Start with Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power and you will be rewarded with energetic and informative travel writing that includes the history of the area in an enlightening way.
Then the reader will be in a position to choose from the other Kaplan books.
on December 14, 2015
As an owner of 8 other Robert D Kaplan books, I was very excited to order this book. Kaplan is both a highly rewarding and frustrating writer. Rewarding in the many interesting insights he cram into each page; frustrating in his penchant for providing his intelligence using obscure references, and openly eurocentric views.
Both sides are on display in this book, unfortunately it trends more towards frustration - especially places as interesting as Tunisia and Sicily. In fact, I bought the book for those two regions and was sorely disappointed. Kaplan seems to believe we are more interested in ancient history than the here and now. Tunisia may have been home to Carthage and the site of the Punic Wars, but he easily glosses over most of the Islamic era and French colonialism. Sicily likewise lacks depth as he gets mired in sea battles from 2,500 years ago.
Of all the chapters, those on Greece were by far the best. His discussion of Byzantine influence and how it is more important than Classical Greece explains so much of contemporary Greece. Its surprising then that Greece gets the balanced treatment, whereas other places are merely a chance for him to flex his knowledge of ancient empires.
We know exactly where Kaplan went - ruins and churches. We are left wondering what he actually felt. Aside from literary heroes, the commonfolk are treated with a broad brush, mere scenery for him. At one point, his girlfriend is with him, in another chapter, she's gone with no explanation. As someone who likewise explored Europe and North Africa primarily in Winter, I was baffled by his editorial choices. We are different people of course, but where are the real experiences? Did he mostly just visit ancient ruins, palaces, and churches? Or was there something more real? Maybe the experience of trying Tunisian food for the first time? Kaplan is very erudite, but he is often cold. Maybe it's no coincidence he traveled during Winter.
on July 6, 2011
I'm not more than 25 pages into this delightful volume but know it already to be among the best "travel writing" I will ever encounter. It's the perfect mixture of personal detail, historical information, local settings of architecture, agriculture, food and weather, compounded with the right touch of literature and literary recommendations. I think it a wise book.
Now more than half way through the book, my admiration for it has only increased, and only today did I discover the recommended reading list at the end, which is an education in itself. What a book! Why can't they all be this good?