Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Case for Leaving Guidebooks in the Bookstore

For many historic sites, an entry into a guidebook such as Lonely Planet could add thousands of visitors to their per annum. International visitors often turn to these guides as they plan their visit, and many view the carefully worded entries within as hard and fast truths in which they can place the utmost trust. But as many of us realize, either gradually over the course of a string of trips fatefully planned by one of these books, or abruptly in the middle of touring a site that falls far short of expectations, these “travel bibles” are often unworthy of the faith we place in them. Sure, they tell us the best place to eat for under USD 10, or the most reputable antique shops, and they are even (mostly) factual in terms of general information related to an attraction. (Need to know the price? It’s listed, even the children and senior discounts. Operating hours? Check. Occasional snarky commentary? Most definitely.) But the content of a historic site is often poorly reflected in the wording of these catchall guidebooks, especially when compared to the similar books put out annually by English Heritage and National Trust.

Take, for example, Whitby Abbey. It is worthy of perhaps four sentences in most Great Britain guidebooks, and even then these focus mostly on its association with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. English Heritage (the owner/operator) dedicates two pages of its annual handbook to it, placing the Abbey in historical context and perhaps more importantly, highlighting some of the actual components of the site. Visitors take away from the English Heritage handbook a real sense of what they will experience, and they are thus able to make a more informed decision of how to spend their time. (Admittedly, there are occasions when less is more. Take, for example, Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. Meriting a mere two sentences, it mentions all of the highlights: the 664-year-old cat and the musical stones.)

And sometimes, even a handbook like National Trust’s gets it wrong. Both Lonely Planet and National Trust extol the virtues of the Treasurer’s House in York, with its fine furniture and period rooms. I was so excited for a journey through two thousand years of history. So imagine my surprise when almost everything dates from the 17th and 18th century, and I saw very little in terms of exquisite furniture and none in terms of paintings. I came away with no greater insight regarding the “periods” the rooms were supposed to portray. In truth, if I had had to pay admission (members of the National Trust do not), I would be a very unhappy visitor.

So when planning your next trip, do not let these guidebooks dictate your travels. I suggest looking to blogs for reviews, and a site’s webpage for more specific information. If you must, do your perusing in the bookstore and then leave it be, and use the extra weight allowance on something more important, like a new pair of shoes.

-Katharine Thompson

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