‘The average Englishman will probably find the chief discomforts in the dirt of the city streets, the roughness of the country roads, the winter overheating of hotels and railway-cars (70-75 Fahr. being by no means unusual,) the dust, flies and mosquitoes of summer, and (in many places), the habit of spitting on the floor, but the Americans themselves are now keenly alive to these weak points and are doing their best to remove them.’ So, J.F. Muirhead, M.A. advised in his 1899 Baedeker’s New York, published just 13 years after the Brooklyn Bridge was built.
Guidebooks are often at their most fascinating a few decades – even a century – further on. Those that write them are the unsung heroes and heroines of literature; practical, diligent but above all, encouraging.
New York is a place of wonder to Muirhead and not just for Brooklyn Bridge although it is ‘equally interesting as a marvel of engineering skill and as a model of grace and beauty.’ Muirhead encourages his readers to note the furriers and clothiers around Canal and Grand Street and even venture into Chinatown and Mott Street: ‘Visits may be paid (in the company of a detective) to the Joss House at No.16 and the Chinese Restaurant at No.18, to the Theatre at 18 Doyer St., and (if desired) to one of the Opium Joints.’
The author is, however, more scathing about other entertainments. ‘The so-called ‘Dime Museums’ can scarcely be recommended, and visitors should also steer clear of most of the ‘Concert Saloons’’, warns Muirhead elsewhere.
With Eastern Europe on a Shoestring, published in 1989 by Lonely Planet, the author David Stanley saw all his diligent research demolished by the fall of the Berlin Wall just six months later. It’s a time capsule of hard currency exchange problems in Hungary, the difference in Czechoslovakia between the Czechoslovak Socialst Republic (CSSR), the Czech Socialist Republic (CSR) and the Slovak Socialist Republic (SSR) and taxi inflation woes in Poland; ‘Taxi meters have difficulty keeping up with inflation. At last report taxis charge twice the meter fare.’
Collecting old guidebooks is also one of the most affordable hobbies for bibliophiles. Even my beloved Eastern Europe on a Shoestring comes in under $5 on sites such as Ebay or Abebooks. My Baedekers are reprints from the 1980s from David & Charles (U.K.) and Hippocrene (U.S.) and cost me less than $30.
Even recent guidebooks have their joys. In the ‘Cutting edge cuisine’ section of my 1997 Time Out Guide to London is an entry for the newly-opened St John ‘… a rather eccentric venture. Jellied tripe, lambs’ brains on toast, roast bone marrow salad and ox tongue have put in regular appearances on Fergus Henderson’s non-nonsense menu.’ And so, without mentioning it, marking the start of the nose-to-tail eating movement Henderson pioneered.
In 1928, Baedeker’s experts – who weren’t named or credited – scoured Egypt and the upper Nile that is now Sudan – to make it easier for the wave of tourists that came in the wake of the Egyptmania of the early 1920s.
Practical hints abound: ‘Sun Umbrellas and Smoked Spectacles are advisable precautions against the glare of the sun. Ladies who intend to ascend the pyramids should dress as they would for mountain climbing.’ A small medicine chest is also advised, with permanganate of potash suggested for snake-bites. It gives the train fares from London to Cairo – first class, £32, 12 shillings and sixpence (with a sleeping car supplement of £11, 3 shillings and 1 pence. But there’s also an extensive and scholarly section on the the tombs around Luxor and beyond into Sudan.
In Cairo though, Shepheard’s Hotel is regarded as the best hotel in town, with 350 bedrooms (150 of which, it notes) have their own bathrooms. It helpfully breaks down the cost of horse-drawn cabs and motorised ones, how to gracefully decline to give money to beggars and the best place to buy antiquities. ‘The prices demanded by the dealers for ANTIQUES are absurd, though many travellers are foolish enough to pay them.’
Second-hand copies of guidebooks come with extra benefits. The best – whether your own or once belonged to other people – might have bus or museum tickets still tucked inside or be circled with the names of restaurants. Good guide books are like antique furniture; good ones show signs of use and have the glorious patina of age.