Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Two new series of books, one from Oxygen Books in the UK and the other from Duke University Press in the USA impel us to reflect on a growing public appetite for anthologies of good literature about places in Europe.

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Time was when travellers heading off for a few days in a foreign city would pack a guidebook. In the late nineteenth century names like Baedeker, Murray and Cook communicated an authority that reassured the traveller. Their books were barometers of good taste, but each publisher gave his own gloss on this or that town or curiosity.

There was Karl Baedeker, sometimes a little too assertive for English tastes (especially when he warned his German readers that they might find a particular Ligurian hotel rather too full of English guests). Then there was John Murray, ever the avuncular companion, who encouraged travellers to take in their stride whatever privations they encountered on the continent — from cholera in Bavaria to brigands in Spain. “An Englishman,” burbled a reviewer in The Times, “trusts to his Murray as to his razor,” a reminder that nineteenth-century travel was essentially a male enterprise. And then there was Thomas Cook who had such implacable faith in railways as to see them as an agent of moral renewal. Baedeker might manage a quote from Goethe, and Murray often threw in a line or two from Byron; Murray was after all Byron’s publisher. Cook would boldly feed his travellers great dollops of Ruskin, though possibly the more canny traveller just skipped a page or two to find quite which hotel it was that Mr Cook commended as being free of bed lice and thieves.

In essence Baedeker, Murray and Cook all produced manuals, and the documentary approach that these guidebook pioneers brought to their publishing endeavours was exemplified in the early Murray title “Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent of Europe.” The notion of the guide as handbook set the seal for a century and more of successful travel publishing with each of the main imprints systematically ticking off countries and regions across Europe.

There is not a lot of virgin territory left in Europe. Bradt Travel Guides have left their mark on such out of the way spots as Spitsbergen, Kosovo and Belarus. Move further east and some uncharted lands still wait to be mapped by the encyclopaedic enterprise. As far as we know, not one publisher outside Russia has issued a guide to the Komi Republic, an area of Europe that is considerably larger than Germany.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 32.