City-Hopping with Books through Europe

Julian Barnes' England

Can’t you just picture it? You, looking casually stunning at a café table on a busy European avenue, sipping the local brew, taking in a scene that makes quitting your job and becoming a permanent adventurer sound like a good idea. What’s that? You can’t afford to chuck it all and go city-hopping around Europe? Well, these books—that take you from Iceland to Romania, down avenues both fictional and non—are the next best thing. But you might want to start saving for a plane ticket. The stories here will give you travel fever:

Amsterdam Stories, by Nescio

This captivating collection of fiction was written by a middle-aged father of four reflecting on all the folly and glory of being young in Amsterdam. It’s a sweet and sometimes raunchy tribute to the city of canals, and the beauty of the Netherlands.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway captures an enchanting moment in time—Paris in the 1920s. He lived there with his first wife, Hadley, and their son, Jack. But the stories here include other famous expats, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Anyone who has been to Paris can see the truth in this famous quote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

England, England, by Julian Barnes

Sir Jack Pitman, tycoon, invests big in an amusement-park version of England on the Isle of Wight, where tourists can shop at Harrod’s in the Tower of London and visit Princess Di’s grave site. Inevitably, Pitman finds this harder to build than he imagined. Barnes’ novel reminds us that there are two Englands: the one we think we know, where you can sit in a pub overlooking the white cliffs of Dover…and then there’s the actual England.

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

This amazing true story shows how two people saved hundreds of lives in WWII Poland. When Germany’s bombs devastated Warsaw, the city’s zookeepers, a married couple, kept up appearances. They maintained the grounds, but instead of housing animals (most were killed), they used empty cages and zoo attractions to hide Jews and smuggle them out of the city. And yes, the zoo and the main villa are still standing today.

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti

Paterniti moved his family to Guzmán, Spain, to track down the mostly true story of a magical, memory-restoring piece of cheese. Sound insane? Well, after reading The Telling Room, you might want to do the same. The longer Paterniti lives among the villagers, with their homemade wine and traditional Castilian ways, the deeper he dives into an ages-old murder mystery, in which even he becomes implicated.

Ireland, by Frank Delaney

Delaney’s epic narrative of Ireland begins with an elderly, traveling storyteller—a Seanchai—who trades legends for meals. The storyteller disappears just as mysteriously as he appears, but not before he captures the imagination of nine-year-old Ronan. Years pass, and Ronan discovers his own Seanchai talents, eventually launching his own journey to find the storyteller who inspired him so long ago. Through these two, we learn about Ireland’s cities and towns, its people, and its history.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Prince Vlad, son of Dracul, held a tenuous and bloody rule over Transylvania for 29 years. He has inspired thousands of vampire stories over the centuries, but none as popular as Dracula. The craggy Alps of Romania are a must-see destination for fans of Stoker’s immortal monster.

The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

In 1996, Venice was embroiled in controversy over the destruction of La Fenice, its 159-year-old opera house. Arson was suspected, and tempers raged. Three days later, Berendt arrived. Gripped by the decadence of Venetian culture, he lived there for a decade—more than enough time to report on all the city’s juicy details: her carnal side, her seedy characters, and, of course, her secrets…even the ones concerning La Fenice.

Pretty Birds, by Scott Simon

It’s 1992, and Irena Zaric is an average teenager in Sarajevo: she loves Madonna, basketball, and her friends. But when Serbia invades Bosnia, Irena and her family flee their home as refugees. An unexpected job offer stands to improve their lot, but the work—learning how to be a sniper—is daunting, and leads to some impossible choices. Simon’s novel gives us a clear look at Sarajevo both before and after the war.

Prague, by Arthur Phillips

Just so you know, this novel is not about Prague, the Czech Republic’s “land of spires and toy palaces.” It’s about five American expats who move to Budapest, Hungary, in the early 1990s to further their careers. Prague may be more glamorous, but they still discover love and life in their bullet-ridden exile.

Defiance, by Nechama Tec

Nechama Tec, herself a Holocaust survivor, tells the remarkable true story of the more than 1,200 Jews who not only survived the Nazi’s “final solution,” but launched a counter-attack from the forests and small towns of western Belarus. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Daniel Craig played their leader, Tuvia Bielski, in the movie of the same name.

The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood

This book comprises two stories, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin. These 20th-century classics inspired the musical Cabaret. It’s 1931 in Berlin, and Hitler is just coming into power. As alliances are formed in the city, history unfolds for its citizens against the backdrop of a beautiful and dangerous urban nightlife.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg

Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is part Inuit, living in Copenhagen. When she launches her own investigation into the death of her six-year-old neighbor, she becomes entangled with some of the city’s wealthiest, most corrupt operators, following their trail through the icy streets of Copenhagen to Greenland’s rocky shores.

Tales of Iceland, Stephen Markley

Let me say this up front: this is a book about a few American dudes who go to Iceland, party hard, and just have a freakin’ good time. They don’t learn the language beyond “skál” (“cheers”), but they do experience a country proud of its national identity. Running (apparently naked) with the Huldufolk in the permanent daylight? We should all have that much fun once or twice in our lives.

The Messenger of Athens, Anne Zouroudi

Zouroudi’s murder mystery immerses readers in the pristine beauty of the Greek islands, where the past is very much alive and outsiders are treated with suspicion. When a stranger from Athens shows up and announces that he’s going to investigate a young girl’s suicide as a homicide, the locals circle the wagons to protect their own.

Croatian Nights, Tony White

In the late 1990s, author Borivoj Radakovic began inviting other authors from Croatia, Serbia, and the UK to write about their lives in Croatia. Thus, the FAK—Festival of Alternative Literature (Knjizevnost)—was born. Croatian Nights, the anthology of stories from that first festival, gives us a peek at a modern Croatia few have experienced.

What’s your favorite book set in or about a European city?

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