If you’ve read E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, you may remember how despondent Lucy Honeychurch was upon entering a church without her trusty Baedeker (a guidebook), because without it, she could not “tell […] which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful.”
As Nicholas T. Parsons explains in Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook, Forster’s “irony is directed at [the guidebooks] misuse as a surrogate for thought and a dampener of spontaneity.”
Lucy loosened up quite a bit over the course of the story, but the question remains: Should we travel with a guidebook, real or virtual , or just wander around, letting our eyes and chance guide us?
I admit, I am a bit like Lucy. I like guidebooks. I buy a lot of them. The cover photo shows just a few guidebooks from my collection.
I also rely heavily on TripAdvisor (“the worlds largest travel site“) to decide what to visit and where to stay, putting on the top of my list the places that other travelers praised, and on the bottom, those that are not as highly rated, though I admit I might be missing some interesting places by doing so. For instance, while I admit that Boston Public Garden is a great place to see, I’d suggest to visitors of Boston to go on a DuckTour and to the Prudential Skywalk Observatory, rather than the Museum of Fine Arts or the Boston Symphony orchestra (as amazing as they are). (Though I do admit that the Skywalk Observatory is rather pricey, even if it includes the Acoustiguide audio tour, multimedia Skywalk Theater and Dreams of Freedom Immigration Museum, in addition to the views.)
So I’d say, guidebooks are useful, and nowadays, thanks to the Internet, and the ease to start a blog on WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr, you can find travel accounts and tips on visiting places from around the world not only from established guidebook publishers, but also from a multitude of strangers, who like to write about their trips, just like we do.
A bit of guidebook history
Interestingly enough, according to Parsons, one of the first “documents having elements of a guidebook is the […] report on Palestine ordered by Joshua after the death of Moses and loosely reckoned to have been undertaken at the end of the thirteenth century B.C.”
Fast forward a few centuries of guidebook history, skipping past Pausanias’ Periegesis Hellados (Description of Greece), written between 143 and 161 AD, the anonymous Itinerarium Burdigalense, a Bordeaux 333 AD account of travel to what came to be known as the Holy Land, the hugely popular in its time but discovered to be a fake The Travels of Sir John Mandeville of the 14th century, and the the Grand Tours accounts written by the ladies in the mid-eighteenth century, and we arrive in the nineteenth-century, a time when the middle class started traveling as well, with a Murray or a Baedeker in hand.
John Murray’s firm, founded in 1768, published, among others, Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and Charles Darwin. But in addition to publishing these works, the company also had a strong list of travel guidebooks, starting with the Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: Being a Guide to Holland, Belgium, Prussia, Northern Germany and the Rhine from Holland to Switzerland. (You can also read this book online or download it to your Kindle.)
Kalr Baedeker’s family had been printing books since the seventeenth century, and had been printers to the Prussian court, but came to true fame with its travel guides, first of which were published in German in 1839, then in English in 1861.
As Parrsons points out “Baedeker borrowed [from Murray] the format of numbered routes, and […] the star system (asterisks) for highlighting important sights” but his guides “appeared to be more impersonal, less subjective, and […] more concise than Murray’s somewhat longer-winded texts.”
It is these books, the Murrays and the Baedekers, that tourists toted with them in the nineteenth-century wherever they went, though challengers to the Murray and Baedekers dynasties sprouted up as well, including a series of cityguides Was nicht in Baedeker steht (“What’s not in the Baedeker”).
If you’re more interested in the history of Baedekers, read “The Guidebook That Went To Hell,” or “Have Baedeker, will travel” which also includes several beautiful photos of these vintage guidebooks, like the one on the right.
Contemporary guidebooks and their online presence
Fast forward a few more decades, and we’re in the time of Fodor‘s (founded in the mid-twentieth century), Lonely Planet (founded in the 1970s byTony and Maureen Wheeler), and DK Travel Guides (launched in 1993), to name just a few.
Out of these three, only DK Travel Guides does not have a robust travel web site, but merely lists their travel guides on a DK page (though I have to admit their full color travel guides are spectacular, and I’m glad they have a guide for my next year’s destination – Cracow – while Fodor’s and Lonely Planet do not).
Lonely Planet, which has a very attractive home page, has a “Destinations” section, a “Bookings” section, and a “Thorn Tree Forum” (launched in 1995). And you can follow Lonely Planet on Facebook and Twitter as well. Lonely Planet is also active on Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, and Vine. In addition, it runs photo challenges on Flickr, and has dozens of videos posted to its Lonely Planet YouTube channel.
Fodor’s not only sells its books on its web site, but also has a “Destinations” section with articles on popular destinations, a “Deals” section, and “Travel Talk Forums.” You can also follow Fodor’s on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram.
However, while they might rate their attractions on a “star system” in their guidebooks, and have very attractive web sites, none of them have an easy to review online rating system, like TripAdvisor does, and that might be their drawback.
It’s just so much faster to look for a hotel on TripAdvisor, review the ratings, and book it straight from the site. No wonder TripAdvisor, a relative newcomer to the travel industry, founded in 2000 by Stephen Kaufer and Langley Steinert, and present only online, is so hugely popular.