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Books: Beneath Athens, Irish Castles

A treasured ritual of French life, writes Edmund White in The Flâneur (Bloomsbury, $16.95), is collecting and sharing les bonnes adresses—the best spots in town. But White does more than turn over his little black book: as he strolls past Paris's unfamiliar restaurants and celebrities' apartments, he relates grand tales of French history. Particularly poignant is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, which houses an impressive art collection and also tells the tragic story of one entire family lost to the Holocaust.

Athens: The City Beneath the City (Abrams, $65), published in conjunction with the Museum of Cycladic Art, proves that Boston's Big Dig has nothing on the Greek capital. While excavating to build a new subway system, workers unearthed massive troves of artifacts: ancient pottery, coins, and glassware. Archaeologists also pulled from the rubble the foundations of houses erected 500 years before Christ.

We love Knopf's smart new CityMap Guides ($8.95): small enough to stash in your pocket, they open to reveal highly detailed yet easy-to-read plans. Each one is divided into neighborhoods, so instead of unfolding an entire Venice map to find the Piazza San Marco, you can just flip up the corresponding grid, which comes with restaurant, bar, and shopping picks. Other editions cover London, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, and New York.

One of Ireland's oldest and most beautiful castles is celebrated in Ashford Castle Through the Centuries (Cadogan, $40). Irish writer Olda FitzGerald reveals Ashford's storied past, which dates back to 1228. Through the late 1800's and the early part of the 20th century, the castle was home to various titled types (including Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness—yes, that Guinness). Its current incarnation is a luxury hotel that coddles its guests like royalty.

"Forgive the traveler these sudden lyrical flourishes," says the unnamed narrator of Journey to Portugal (Harcourt, $30) as he loftily describes a flock of birds wheeling above a chapel. Such delicious bursts of prose illuminate this nonfiction work by Nobel Prize—winning novelist José Saramago, who crisscrosses his native country to explore the Algarve, mountain monasteries near the northern Spanish border, and cities like Oporto, with its gilded churches and twisting streets. In observances both wry and soulful, Saramago makes this travelogue a true page-turner.

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