Danube by Claudio Magris (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17). Travel at its most serious creates a bibliography. Exquisite landscapes lead you to books about their history, which lead you to other books. Magris' book is the preeminent classic of this genre. While traveling the full length of the Danube, he reflects on art, history, literature, and much else.
Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell (Axios, $12). Durrell is best known for the novels in his Alexandria Quartet. But this book about the 1950s in Cyprus is a finer, more restrained, more muscular work. It demonstrates how travel writing can easily be combined with political analysis; it inspired me to go in the same direction.
Mani and Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor (NYRB Classics, $16 each). These are companion books, about Fermor's travels in southern and northern Greece. Here we have the quintessence of 20th-century travel writing: landscape descriptions so perfectly drawn that they belong in a time capsule, plus disquisitions on art, religion, and ethnography that would pass the test of any academic specialist.
Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker (John Murray [London], $16). This book from 2009 is an extraordinary story about a young Englishman's adventures in one of Europe's last paradises: the land of the Gypsies, or Roma, in the Maramures region of northern Romania. He falls in love with their way of life and with one of them in particular, and thus enters their world to a degree almost impossible for foreigners.
Athene Palace by R.G. Waldeck (Univ. of Chicago, $17). An obscure classic, this memoir written by a sharp-eyed journalist describes the Nazi entry into Bucharest as she witnessed it from the capital's luxury hotel, where German officers mixed with Western reporters and spies. Waldeck's account also paints a delicious miniature portrait of Romanian manners.
Watermark by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $14). You say nothing original can be written about Venice? Think again. Brodsky, the Russian-American Nobel laureate, wrote a prose poem about the city in winter, and it's severe, unflinching, and beautiful in a black-and-white, photo-negative sort of way.
—Robert Kaplan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, is a former Pentagon adviser and author of 16 books on foreign policy and travel. In Europe's Shadow, his new work, claims the Romania he's known can be a key to decoding Europe's future.