ENTER THE TRAVEL writer on a bad trip. Tim Moore's self-deprecation slides into loathing at Sydney's InterContinental Hotel. Stars of the Sydney Writers' Festival, Booker Prize winners and best-sellers, mingle nearby. Most met at a pre-festival retreat. None of them knows Moore. While they networked in the Hunter Valley wine region, Moore was schmoozing Eurovision Song Contest competitors in Kiev. As the wine flowed again at the festival launch on Sydney harbour, Moore sat alone watching the Champions' League soccer final. Now, with only a few hours' sleep since the final, he has to endure an interview. His first chance in years to be an ordinary tourist - 'without the pressure of registering everything that's happening around me' - has become work. Being funnily glum is part of the 'beleaguered Brit abroad' act that has made Moore a rival to Bill Bryson. 'It's easier to write about things when you're having a bad time,' Moore says. 'It's hard to write interestingly when you're being treated like a king and everything's wonderful. You're just writing advertorial. I wouldn't read it.' He's almost happy to hear that the paperback for his fifth book, Spanish Steps: One Man and Ass on the Pilgrim Way to Santiago, is just out. Most writers beg to have their words festooned in a hardback. Moore likes his books dog-eared. When publisher Jonathon Cape rewarded his popularity by releasing Spanish Steps in hardback, the 41-year-old thought the point had been lost. 'It's a book to stick in your backpack, not to treasure forever on your shelves.' Spanish Steps follows Moore on a 770km trek along the west of Spain. Millions of medieval pilgrims walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela to cleanse their sins. Today, the middle-aged borrow from the Middle Ages, using the trail to re-evaluate. The book hints at Moore's need to rediscover the joy of travel. He says the yoga teachers, divorcees and backpackers on the camino are part of a crusade 'for something beyond the typical tourist routine - an antidote to the vacuous consumerism of contemporary travel'. To connect pilgrims and punters - and turn the experience into another comic travel book - Moore walked the camino with a donkey named Shinto. He concedes that a large part of Shinto's appeal was his ability to break the ice with fellow pilgrims and serve as a hook for the book. Gimmicks, he says, can be passports for the modern traveller. Moore's career started when his grandfather, Martin Moore, a war correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph newspaper, bequeathed GBP3,000 ($42,500) to each of his grandchildren, on the condition it was spent on travel. Then 25, Moore bought an old Saab and took his girlfriend around Eastern Europe. Travel pieces he wrote about the trip for the Independent newspaper attracted HarperCollins. 'Up till then I was writing TV reviews for the Record Mirror, which was about to go bust,' he says. 'The editor asked if I was familiar with the works of Bill Bryson. I wasn't. I thought I could do it. Sadly, I can't. Otherwise, I'd be far, far more successful.' His first book, Frost on my Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and Loafer, had Moore, the shabby backpacker, recreating the 1856 voyage to Iceland and the Arctic Circle by the Marquess Dufferin. For Continental Drifter, Moore took a dilapidated Rolls Royce across Europe as though on a Victorian jaunt. He traced London's history by visiting the places on the Monopoly board for Do Not Pass Go and put elite sports into perspective by cycling the route of the Tour de France for French Revolutions, in which he provided the epitaph for every sports fan: 'I might never leave my mark on the Tour, but that didn't matter. It has left its mark on me.' Even when he deigns to write about five-star travel, Moore takes his four children along to fulfil Shinto's role in comic relief. 'I had to thrash them just as hard,' he says. 'I think about the way to do the journey, as well as the journey itself. I'm far too feeble to hack into the rainforest or cross a shark-infested swamp. I go to cosy places and try to have some fun with it. 'Traditionally, travel writing was hairy-chested. People liked to read about exotic locations that were out of their reach. These days, you can book a trip to just about anywhere. People now quite like the idea of reading about a place they've maybe been to two or three times, but in a different way. 'I can't deny that there's a flippant element of 'I'm taking a donkey because I can't be arsed carrying a rucksack'. But mainly I felt that because it was a pilgrimage this was a way of taxing myself - taking a hair shirt - to make it a more spiritual undertaking.' Religious epiphanies were hard to come by. However, the idea for his next book did strike him from above: the television in a Spanish bar. Moore suddenly saw behind the kitsch of the Eurovision Song Contest when Britain scored zero in 2003. 'I remember feeling, 'Oh, crap, that's not supposed to happen to the UK',' he says. 'We normally like to laugh at the rest of Europe scoring zero. It's the benchmark of badness.' He then noticed that the rest of his homeland reacted just as badly to the competition established 50 years ago to counter cold war antagonism. Eurovision is more polished today, although no one would call it art. Since the judging system changed to allow Europeans to vote by phone, it has turned international relations into reality TV. 'After scoring nil pointe, we questioned everything, from our mastery of pop music to whether we'd lost our place in Europe. There was a lot of 'Europe hates us' and talk about the Iraq war backlash.' Moore is tracking down as many nil-pointers as he can. While many viewers would agree with the French minister for culture who called Eurovision 'a monument to drivel', Moore says scoring nil pointe has wrecked lives. 'It's turned out to be more spiritual than I'd intended. I thought it would be a bit of fun.' Moore's research took him to Thailand, where he tried to woo Norway's 1981 nil pointer, Finn Kalvik, out of a caravan. Kalvik spoke for three days about why he left his wife and baby to escape the attention he still receives in Norway. He crossed the US on a Harley Davidson and developed a fixation for Ernest Hemingway, which led to him firing a rifle too close to his ear on a hunting trip. Kalvik now suffers severe tinnitus. 'It's agony for him to listen to music, which for a musician is not ideal.' Two decades after Kalvik's Eurovision performance, a satire on the main Norwegian broadcaster started a skit called The Finn Kalvik News. 'The joke was: 'Ha ha, there's no news because he hasn't done a thing and he's lost it.' It went on for two years. That pushed him over the edge and gave him a nervous breakdown.' Moore's anxiety over showing Kalvik respect is worse than the prospect of getting stuck in the lift with festival stars Alan Hollinghurst or Jared Diamond. 'I can't be flippant about people who've had their lives ruined,' he says. 'It's going to make me write in a way I've never written before.'