Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Guidebook Monogamy

I have a few questions for Rick Steves, but I’ll start with: How do you write a guidebook to Spain and not even mention Valencia, the country’s third largest city? Yes, I read the front matter disclaimer that you’re presenting only the best of Spain and that of course, it’s just your opinion, but Valencia might have at least merited a minor mention and perhaps a note about why you decided not to expand on it, non?

Joe and I have been fans of the Frommer’s travel guides ever since we first started using them as country-specific companions to our Let’s Go Europe back in the 70s, and long before I knew I would become a close friend and colleague of Danforth Prince, one of the guides' legendary writers. Before we left Paris last month, we visited the WHSmith bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli to pick up a copy of Frommer’s Spain. Unfortunately, they were all out, so we settled on the blue and yellow volume by Rick Steves. We’ve long enjoyed his TV shows, Europe Through the Back Door, so we decided to give his books a try.

We’re going back to Frommer’s. The first mark against Mr. Steves is what I alluded to above: it appears that he simply ignores entire cities and areas of a country he either doesn’t deem important or in which he has no interest. We had read an interesting New York Times article about the Costa Brava and its beaches that extend north from Barcelona to the French border. The article praised the rugged coastline and its hidden gems of deserted coves and authentic fishing villages. We were anxious to see what our new guidebook had to say about the area but were astounded to discover that it wasn’t even in the index -- not a word about the Costa Brava or Girona, it’s principal city. Our next search was on Barcelona and while the book helped us find exactly the kind of hotel we wanted and guided us expertly on a walking tour of the Barri Gotic, it was sorely lacking when it came to eating out. One of the highlights of traveling for us is experiencing the food and restaurants of other lands and our Rick Steves guide gives epicurean pleasures short shrift. As just one example, Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona and frequented the now famous Els Quatre Gats (literally, The Four Cats, but figuratively, The Four Dudes) cafe where he met with other artists like Utrillo, Casas and Gaudi and staged his first individual exhibition. Why would Rick Steves not include this former hangout of the bohemian Barcelona set in his book? Els Quatre Gats is mentioned several times in background notes and artwork descriptions at the Picasso Museum. Even if Mr. Steves doesn’t like this cafe, shouldn’t he at least list it for historical reasons and for those wanting to pay homage to the Spanish masters with a beer or glass of wine?

A friend graciously passed along multiple green Michelin guidebooks before we left for our trip and we used many of them in France. I’m afraid that for the most part, I found the writing style cold and without personality and the books indecipherable because of how they were organized. It’s almost as if travelers need to know exactly where they’re going first in order to make the books of any use. If Rick Steves is overly selective, Michelin is excessively comprehensive. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees! I wasted more time than I care to remember just trying to figure out what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go because absolutely everything was covered. Michelin does use a star system to indicate what they recommend, but I found that in many case the un-starred sights were covered more fully than those highly recommended. And the index was useless. I would often look up a town or a monument we had read about elsewhere and not find it in the index only to unexpectedly discover it later when flipping through the text. There is little if any mention of food and restaurants (they have a whole separate series of red guides for these details). Call me crazy but I want all my travel info in one handy resource. Until we left France, I had lugged along several additional Michelins that covered other countries we’ll visit, but I lightened my load substantially by leaving them all behind in Puylaurens, hoping they’ll be adopted by someone else whose traveling style they better suit.

Does the reference we enjoy using when we travel simply come down to familiarity? Do we like Frommer’s because we’ve always used Frommer’s and are used to the friendly writing style and easy-to-understand two-color layout? Perhaps familiarity plays a role, but I’ve also realized that guidebooks have personalities and what works for one traveler may not work for another. We love Frommer’s because like Rick Steves’, the writer’s personality shines through, but unlike the latter, Frommer’s includes all the sights, restaurants and hotels you’d expect and provides opinions, even if it’s something like “the place is overrated and overpriced, but you may want to try it because it’s a legend.” Rick Steves would simply not include it and Michelin would give you Micheneresque detail on the place’s history that would eventually put you to sleep. We have Frommer’s Morocco to guide us through this country that we’ll visit at the end of the month and it provides us right up front, “The Best Of...” Every book in the series lists its favorites first thing, and our Morocco guide includes “Best Unforgettable Travel Experiences,” “Best Kasbahs and Medinas,” “Best Authentic Culinary Experiences” and “Best Natural Morocco,” among others. We always find these superlatives invaluable as we plan our trips to take in as many as possible. Frommer’s covers a wide range of budgets and includes plenty of splurge options, should you want to spend a little extra. But Rick Steves sticks with the basics and although he may mention “somewhere special,” he gives it only a cursory description. If I’m going to celebrate with a stay at a special hotel or a meal at an exquisite restaurant, I want my guidebook to wax poetic and get me excited for the event.

The good news out of all this is that I’ve learned something valuable. Travel guides, like spouses, wine and cheese, are not interchangeable. They have distinct characters and you have to find what works for you. I strayed for a bit and had flings with Rick Steves and Michelin, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m committed to Joe, Sancerre, époisse and Frommer’s: I’m back to being a monogamous happy traveler. 

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