Letter from Europe

The Baedeker legacy

Issue no. 2010/14

Summary

"Kings and governments may err, but never Mr Baedeker," wrote the English humorist AP Herbert in the libretto for Offenbach's operetta La Vie Parisienne. Baedeker was the brightest star in a constellation of nineteenth-century guidebook publishers that also included such redoubtable names as John Murray and Thomas Cook.

Dear fellow travellers

Kings and governments may err, but never Mr Baedeker," wrote the English humorist AP Herbert in the libretto for Offenbach's operetta La Vie Parisienne. Baedeker was the brightest star in a constellation of nineteenth-century guidebook publishers that also included such redoubtable names as John Murray and Thomas Cook.

Baedeker's distinctive star system, so often emulated by other guidebook writers since, helped shaped the notion that there was a traveller's canon - a collection of 'sights' that constituted the very best that Europe had to offer. Places that, come what may, must be seen.

It is an idea that still has some currency, so much so that travellers who defy the quiet authority of the guidebooks lay themselves open to suspicion. We are often judged to be rather philistine if we admit that, in several visits to Paris, we have never visited the Louvre but prefer instead to spend our time wandering the back streets of Belleville, sipping mint tea in the garden of the Paris Mosque or strolling the Promenade plantée - a stretch of disused railway line along a viaduct that has been converted into an elevated walkway, a leafy route through the twelfth arrondissement that affords a wonderful perspective down onto the street theatre enacted below. Three star stuff, in our book, but Mr Baedeker would probably not have approved. Not much high culture and no three star sights in our Parisian wanderings.

The sights judged deserving of stars in Baedeker's books varied through successive editions of the guides, so much so that they now serve as a record of changing notions of culture and good taste. Old guidebooks, and not just Baedekers, make for marvellous reading, so often telling us more about the values and social aspirations of their compilers than about the places described. We picked up an old Baedeker to Italy last week, published for the German market. It is a volume of excruciating thoroughness, a book that reduces travel to a science, but enlivened by wonderful tinted maps and some fine prejudice. Commenting on accommodation options in Liguria, Mr Baedeker cautions his German readers that they may find some hotels rather too full of English travellers for comfort.

Students of travel history will certainly enjoy Nicholas Parsons' witty and perceptive book Worth the Detour: a History of the Guidebook. Parsons' book, published in 2007 by Sutton Publishing, reminds us that guidebook writing is as much about ideology as about inventory, something that is as true today as ever it was in Baedeker's day.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Our newsletter has been published for over five years, generally about thrice monthly. You can see over 180 back issues of our e-brief in our online archive. You might also be interested in the regular notes for travellers that are available on our website. Published at least weekly, often much more frequently, they are short briefings on some aspect of European culture, life or travel - often with a topical flavour. This week's notes have included reports from a small town in Serbia, airports in Iceland still afflicted by a cloud of ash and a community in northern Russia with an aging nuclear power plant.
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