Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 4, 2010

Fabled Shore (1973), by Rose Macaulay

A friend lent me this, and it’s an absolute treasure. Fabled Shore, from the Pyrenees to Portugal, by Rose Macaulay is a travel book like no other!

Rose Macaulay was a British writer who travelled along the southern coastlines of Spain and Portugal in 1949, not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War.  Touring alone by car, at a time and in a place where solo female travellers were a novelty and cars equally so, she explored the cities and towns she had read about in histories dating back to the fourth century.  She was extremely well-read and was knowledgeable about art and architecture;  she drew on a wide range of classical references and an eclectic assortment of travel writers who were her predecessors; and she coped with all the vagaries of travel with humour and aplomb.  She was a witty and elegant writer whose tales still bring the region so vividly alive that a modern reader can’t help but feel nostalgia for the vanished small towns and villages that have now been swamped by mass tourism.

I liked reading Fabled Shores for the same reason that I enjoy reading the travel books of H.V. Morton.  Morton died in 1979 aged 87 and his last original publication was in 1969 so his books are well out of date too, but he is so knowledgeable about the classical history of the places he writes about that they are still well worth reading.  Like Macaulay, he has keen powers of observation, a dry sense of humour and a perceptive interest in the people he meets on his travels.  I read In Search of London (1951) before I went there on my first trip to Europe with The Spouse, and A Traveller in Italy (1964) before my last trip in 2005.  I read A Stranger in Spain (1955) last year and I hope to get to In Search of Wales and In Search of Ireland before we set off this year. I would recommend any of these books to anyone who likes to learn about the history and soul of the places to be visited – you will learn more from Morton than ever you will from a Lonely Planet or DK Guide, useful as they are for finding hotels and restaurants – and this is why his books are still in print after all this time.

(Morton, in fact, is highly collectible (I have a dozen or so) and there is a society (to which I belong) which promotes interest in his work.)

Macaulay is still in print too, mainly her novels.   She has a lively style and a wry sense of humour.  Here she is writing about the state of the roads:

There are, it is true, some roads still vraimant impracticables for cars, parts of which seem to have been irrevocably pot-holed by the chariot wheels of the Romans and Carthaginians and barbarous Visigoths, and never adequately repaired. (p20)

Here she is at the beginning of her trip, on the shores of Catalonia:

The road, the old Roman road from Gaul to Tarragona, sweeps up from Port Bou in wild and noble curves, lying like a curled snake along the barren mountain flanks of the Alta Ampurdan, climbing dizzily up, darting steeply down into gorges and ravines, above deep rocky inlets where blue water thrusts into rock-bound coves, and small bays of sand where it whispers and croons in its tideless stir.  Points and capes jut boldly through thin blue air above a deep cobalt sea; rocky islets lie offshore; the road dips down to the little bay of Culera, where once throve a little fishing port, where now is an almost abandoned village, pounded to pieces by the bombarding naval guns of the civil war, which ranged down the Catalan coast with their capricious thunder. Here, in a quiet valley behind the quiet village of San Miguel de Culera, moulder more ancient ruins, those of a great Benedictine convent, one of those great monasteries to which Ampurdan gave its feudal allegiance in the Middle Ages. There is a little cloister left, some Roman arches, a few columns and capitals, three Romanesque apses; they and the church are twelfth century, built on the ruins of an older, probably Visigothic, convent and church; they have an air of having been there since the earliest Christian times, brooding, remote, fallen, but still dominating those bare, pine-clad hills where little vines sprout like cabbages out of the stony mountain sides. (p21-2)

Wonderful, isn’t it?  And the whole book is like this: erudite, entrancing, observant, compassionate and always alert to the human spirit behind the landscape and the buildings she describes.

Rose Macaulay died in 1958, aged 77.

Author: Rose Macaulay
Title: Fabled Shore, from the Pyrenees to Portugal
Publisher; Oxford University Press, (paperback) 1986
ISBN: 0192814834
Source: Loan (private)


  1. Wow, never heard of this book or writer, she sounds like a real character, will have to check if the library has it. The last travel book I read was an Eric Newby a while ago.
    All the best Stu


  2. Wow youself Stu, I’d never heard of Eric Newby and I’ll be hunting for *him* in the library! I looked him up on Wikipedia – and he sounds like just the kind of writer my father would like. (I’d love to see that BBC Travellers’ Century show too).
    British eccentrics definitely make the best travel writers!


  3. This sounds exactly up my street and I shall go and research it after I’ve posted this comment. The only Moreton book I read was In the Steps of St Paul and you’ve reminded me to look up him too. Eric Newby is a favourite of mine, but also in the same vein, Jonathan Raban who’s Shadow of the Silk Road provide a superb travel writing experience.


  4. PS – gosh, when I go to the Book Dep site and click on Google Preview I find that I can read quite a lot of the book online.


  5. Ah Google Preview, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? I love being able to get a taste of a writer, to sample before I buy!


  6. I join you in enjoying the writing of Rose Macaulay. I have just read and posted on one of her novels, Dangerous Ages:

    The theme of women’s lives at different ages is relevant to us all.

    Also, if you have not yet read Eric Newby, try A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. I know you don’t want to go there (the Hindu Kush), but Newby did.


    • I really like the way you’ve brought the Huxley and Macaulay books together, and now I am intrigued. I read Crome Yellow when I was a teenager, and I’m quite sure now from reading your review that at that age I missed the point of it all. I still have it somewhere and I think I should resurrect it and read it again from (a-hem) the vantage point of more mature years.
      Thanks for visiting again:)


  7. I’m gestating a post on RM’s novel. Rene Train so looked up this post of yours. She was an intrepid traveller (& woman!), and a great writer of sparkling prose. I see your commenters mention Newby: I’d add his autobiographical Love & Death in the Appenines- taut, poignant, not a travel book. Especially for me: my dad was an escaped POW there during WW II. Had some similar experiences re the kindness of locals to a starving fugitive


    • There was such courage among those who sheltered people fleeing the Nazis because the reprisals were terrible.
      I’ll add your suggestions to my wishlist, thanks!


      • That should read Crewe Train – autocorrect thought otherwise


        • Oh, auto correct, it drives me crazy. I’ve turned it off on my phone because I spent more time fixing its assumptions than I saved in time by using it.


  8. Have you read The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. It is a novel, but said to be based partly on Macauley’s travels. The famous first sentence in that book “Take my Camel dear, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” sets the scene well.


    • Hello and happ(ier) new year!
      This is the only Macaulay I’ve read so far but I found The World My Wilderness on the TBR and am always on the lookout for more.


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