Over the past few weeks, OK, months if you really push it, I’ve been immersed in guidebooks. They range from the DK to Blue Guides to Cultural Guides to general “what to see in” volumes, some with pictures, some without, in German and English. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, and I’m starting to get some very strong feelings about what I want (and don’t want) to see in “Ye Random Penguin Purple Guide to Someplace.” Feelings that I fully intend to inflict on anyone who reads farther on. 🙂 What I like: History, a little architecture, good maps of both the region and larger cities/towns, some food info, some culture info, a moderate number of photos, and a small section with contact information and hours of the major attractions. A couple food/hotel/pub notes is also OK but not really necessary.
What I don’t like: pages and pages of shopping information, a total lack of maps, hundreds of photos at the expense of text, too-much emphasis on big tourist attractions (especially if the guide doesn’t let you know that it is focused on that), zero cultural context, and a lack of information about access (can I take a train, or bus, or hike there, ferry-boat only, road closed in winter/summer?)
The DK guides are nice for architectural detail of major churches and castles, and if you want pictures, and web-info and hours. The hotel and restaurant guides in the back are also useful. But if you want more context, or details about the things between here and there, you are out of luck.
The Blue Guides, when available, are probably the top English-language cultural references. They are arranged around driving, and include every little hamlet, chapel, castle ruin, and small museum. Alas, no photos, and they have been out of print for a number of years. Now, churches and castles usually don’t relocate that often, but there can be other considerations. And if you are not driving, getting around to all the locations of interest is a real challenge in some districts. And they are fat, heavy books, like the DK (thin, shiny, heavy books).
The Rick Steves guides are OK but too cute and pop for my taste. If you are going to Europe or Turkey for the first time, I suspect they are great. But I have the tee-shirt, so I want something a little beefier.
Last fall, I found a German language guide to Carinthia in a bookstore in Vienna. I bought it, packed it away, and rediscovered it once I got home. Lo and behold, it is the exact thing I wanted. I ended up getting a second one for Styria. I’d like more, but they are not inexpensive over here, even used. They are a cross between the picture-heavy DK-style guides and the Blue Guides, with lots of history, geography, architectural info, and bits like “this is very popular with families with children” or “the church is not of much interest, but the private tobacco museum around the corner has some great stuff and its free on Tuesdays.” Also helpful is “the butcher shop has a nice cafe that serves home-made sausages and is a lot less expensive than the resort restaurants.” That sort of thing. The guides lack architectural drawings, but assume that you know what rib-vaulting is, or what a Roman grave marker looks like (in general).
You can guess what I used to help sort out the most recent European trip. And what I will be bringing along so I can study up the night before and look as if I know a lot more than I do. 😉