The Joy of Guidebooks

I was at the Minoan ruins of Phaestos, in Southern Crete, and it was scorching. Whilst waiting for the bus, I got chatting to a local man who was telling me about his time fighting for the liberation of Crete from the Germans at the end of World War II. Just as he got to the end of his story, I asked him where to catch the bus back to town, the last bus of the day.

Crete 2003

“The bus?” he said. “I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t realise you were waiting for the bus. It’s already gone. It left ten minutes ago. It leaves from over there.”

The man pointed across the dusty road. The sun was beating down and there was nothing to see except for a silver lizard scuttling into some wretched yellow leaves at the side of the path.

I was stuck.

Just then, a taxi appeared and a rather large tourist with a tiny moustache squeezed himself inside. Thinking quickly, I rushed up to the driver and asked if he could take me too. Of course, he said ‘yes’, and I shot into the back seat next to the flabbergasted tourist who had ordered the cab.

The thing is that I knew from my Lonely Planet guide, that in Greece, taxis are not just for one customer. An Athens taxi driver will keep picking up passengers as long as there’s space and they are going in the same general direction as the other people in the car.

I knew this but my fellow passenger did not and he huffed and puffed all the way back to town, his face getting redder all the while. Thank you, Lonely Planet.

Smart phones are the app to end all apps. We don’t need cameras, GPS devices, maps, alarm clocks or dictionaries because our smart phone can do it all for us. They can also access Trip Advisor and similar sites at the push of a button, so what hope remains for the guidebook?

If they are going to go extinct, I for one will be sorry.

I love guidebooks – I’ve always loved them. Where else can you stumble upon great ideas and weird and whacky locations that you would never have dreamed existed? They’re far more than just a reference book. Sometimes they have some lovely writing too, like this description of the remote island of Alicudi from the Rough Guide to Sicily:

The path soon peters out beyond the hotel and power station, but the rocks offer a sure foothold as they get larger the further you venture. The water is crystal clear and, once you’ve found a flat rock big enough to lie on, you’re set for more peace and quiet than you’d bargain for. The only sounds are the echoed mutter of offshore fishermen, the scrabbling of little black crabs in the rock pools and the lap of the waves.

The flipside of this is that many guidebook authors are terrible snobs. They will rant and rage about any mildly welcoming tourist resort. Their advice is inevitably to walk for miles over jagged rocks to find a tiny strip of sand which you can call your own, far from other people, without any of the facilities that make a trip to the beach comfortable.

In other hands, the humble guidebook can become a literary chamber of horrors. Whenever you go on holiday, nervous family members can be guaranteed to grab hold of the guidebook and read out the ‘dangers and annoyances’ section in a quivering voice:

“Don’t go walking in any rice-paddy fields when you’re in Japan, because it says here that there’s a risk of catching schistosomiasis, which you get from parasites in the water. And whatever you do, don’t …”

Having worked as an editor, I can also now see these books with new eyes. The work that is involved in putting one of these books together is simply staggering. This is especially true of the Dorling Kindersley Travel Guides, and their amazing illustrated maps. To put a page like this together and to do it accurately, takes a huge amount of work (this is from their guide to Japan – highly recommended!) :

DK guide to Japan

So despite knowing that I’m antiquated and out-of-date, I’m not giving up my guidebooks just yet. I will continue defiantly to pack them in my suitcase no matter how close they push the scales to going over my baggage allowance.

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20 responses to “The Joy of Guidebooks

  1. I’ve been, sort of, that other tourist. I used to do a fair bit of work in Athens. One time me and the person I was working for (I was a junior at the time) were trying to get back to the airport. We were short on time as our meeting had overrun, so booked a cab and emphasised that we were in a hurry as we had a flight to catch.

    On the way back, no matter how much we argued, he stopped to dry and drum up business from passers-by, asked tourists if they also wanted to go to the airport, tried to chat up some passing women…

    We huffed and puffed all the way to the airport. We should have brought a guidebook…

    • Fantastic! I hope you caught your flight. Another one is Russia, where every car is a potential taxi. You see people by the side of the road flagging down any and every passing car to get a lift into work!

  2. I think I’m antiquated and out-of-date too because I love having the information I need (when I need it) without worrying about my phone crashing or having to find a socket if I run out of battery…

    • …and never mind having to spend more on a few days internet access (in a foreign country) than you’d normally spend in a few months. And when I say internet access, I mean the chance to attempt to connect to some internet access if there’s any nearby.

      p.s. I love to use ephemeral paper as bookmarks.

      • Here in Barcelona you would be in luck as we have free WiFi all over the city. I can’t believe how hard (and expensive) it is to connect to WiFi elsewhere though. It costs a fortune in London. So there is hope for the paper book yet!

    • Mmmm, the smell, and I thought I was the only one… I also use bus, museum and ferry tickets as bookmarks and I love it when you find them stuck between the pages years later and remember the day when you…

  3. You’ve left me a nice, non judgemental and accepting place to confess my love for the elusive atlas and road map. What would you have done if that taxi wouldn’t have been an option? This is a great story, Alastair. I tend to think those danger and annoyances sections can be great comedic relief in testy situations, but that’s what I do…I keep the grumpy passengers laughing.

    • If I hadn’t found the taxi, I think I would have had to walk back to the nearest town. I did think about it but the road was long and the sun was still high in the sky, and I think only a mad dog or an Englishman would have attempted it. There were no taxis anywhere and no phone numbers for taxi companies either so I would have been well and truly struck! By the way, the driver dropped off the guy who had ordered the taxi first, and me second, so he did get top billing.

  4. Enjoyed that.

    I love guide books as well, and we’ve got a small collection of ones from DK – ones we’ve used (Istanbul, Barcelona & Catalonia, etc.), and ones we hope to if only the gods would deem to send us some cash (Japan, Australia, etc.).

    • Oh yes, me too! I have the Rough Guide to Australia and Mexico sitting gathering dust on my shelves after a decade of non-use. I even have the Lonely Planet guide to East Timor. Now that really was wishful thinking…

  5. Books still win over phones, the battery won’t die on a book and some of the quirky things written down in them is interesting for comparing and contrasting my own experiences. It feels more real with a book, like doing real research and not skimming Wikipedia or such.

    • For me it’s the stumble on factor. It’s much easier to flick through a book and find something by chance that you never knew existed before. Did you take any guidebooks with you on your trips to the USA?

      • I forgot them both times which was dumb of me although with taking over a shed load of books last time any guide books may have taken me over my limit, apparently I was ‘teetering on the brink’ which made me sound dangerous. I do like the randomness of flicking and finding little snippets of awesomeness.

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