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Travel books for the inquisitive

Playing down the usual vacation fare, these guides encourage travel to satisfy historical, architectural, and ecological curiosity.

By Norman WeinsteinContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2009



Bookstore categories can be deceptive, particularly when it comes to travel guides. Store shelves or websites can be teeming with typical vacation guides that sell briskly as summer beckon, and then disappear into thrift stores as next year's editions roll out in the fall. But there are travel-oriented books that have lasting value, whether for "armchair" travelers or those desiring an alternative to well-beaten paths of rest, relaxation, and haute cuisine. Here are five sterling examples that are just as captivating about other subjects – history, architecture, and ecology – as travel. And they are certain to appeal to anyone who enjoys "the road less traveled."

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ANCIENT ATHENS ON 5 DRACHMAS A DAY (Thames & Hudson, $18.95)

Suppose you could imagine yourself planning a journey to the Greece of 2500 BC? British historian Philip Matyszak has created a comprehensive – and deliciously hilarious – travel guide to ancient Greece utilizing all the modern categories of lodging, dining, recreation, and cultural sightseeing. For example, shoppers are advised that "Shopping itself is remarkably basic. The Athenians are not great materialists, and their homes are surprisingly, well, Spartan." By cleverly shifting historical frames of reference, he advises that "While Athens is not much bigger than an average 21st century market town, a truly incredible amount of brainpower is currently packed within its walls." Celebrity watchers are told how to spot Socrates, and there's a guide to useful phrases in Greek, including a classic by Aristophanes on the requirements to be a politician: "horrible voice, bad breeding and a vulgar manner." Beyond the value of the guide's great historical overview, a traveler to today's Greece would derive delight in discovering how much the democratic ideals of ancient Athens have endured.

ISLAMIC MONUMENTS IN CAIRO: THE PRACTICAL GUIDE (REVISED EDITION) (The American University in Cairo Press, $27.95)

The striking interpenetration of past and present found in today's Athens is plentifully apparent in contemporary Cairo. Middle Eastern historian Caroline Williams, building on the foundation of historians Richard Parker and Robin Sabin, has penned a finely detailed overview of Cairo's extraordinary concentration of sacred Islamic architecture. For any reader interested in Islam as both a religion and a channel for monumental artistic expression, this culturally sensitive guide is essential. Although only a few color photographs, line drawings, and simple maps supplement the text, Williams has an uncanny knack for making you feel that you're actually reverently and perceptively traveling across centuries as you enter ancient mosques or turn your gaze heavenward, sighting stately and ornately designed minarets.

POCKET GUIDE TO LOS ANGELES ARCHITECTURE (W.W. Norton, $22.95)

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