Before you go somewhere, it is a good idea to know something about it. It is also a good idea to do some research while you are there, so that you don't get home; find out about something you have missed; and think, "I wish I'd known about that."
What you want to know, and how you find it out, will depend a great deal on where it is and why you are going there. Then there are maps and dictionaries, which are dealt with at the end of this article.
Monastery, Thari, Rhodes
Over the decades, we have come to classify destinations into three categories. The first, of course, is those we have always wanted to visit. The second is those we don't particularly want to visit but have to go to on business (yes, even our business travel is conducted on a semi-adventurous basis. Why not, after all?). The third category, the places we visit most, and often enjoy most, are the ones that look interesting and are reasonably accessible and affordable.
The first category includes all sorts of romantic destinations such as Tibet, the Sahara Desert, the Taj Mahal, the South Seas, Machu Picchu and so forth. To tell the truth, we haven't been to most of them, usually for reasons of cost but also, to some extent, because our fantasies are grounded in books read decades ago, and written even more decades ago. In other words, the places that exist today are not the places we read about in our youth (if, indeed, they ever existed in the form described).
Dawn on the Ganges
Sticking with the first category, as we get older, we realize that in many cases, we'd rather go somewhere cheaper and easier. For years we had planned to return to Guanajuato for our silver wedding anniversary; but from rural France, the journey looked increasingly like hard work, and when the time arrived, we just didn't bother. It's a good idea to keep an eye on your fantasies, and ask yourself if you really want to go somewhere all that badly. There's more about this, later.
One of Frances's more entertaining experiences, for example, was going to Switzerland for the first time in her 30s. Her image of the country had been shaped by an 1880s Baedecker that had belonged to her great-grandmother, and a number of novels written for little girls in the 1920s and 1930s. The country was not quite as she had imagined.
As for the second category, there's not much to say except that as often as not, our prejudices have been confirmed or deepened when we get to places we had no great ambition to visit. This applies even when they are are held up as dream destinations, such as Constantinople, or China or Venice. We may get excellent pictures, but we don't necessarily enjoy ourselves very much.
This leaves the third category, the places we think might be interesting and that we can get to. Increasingly, these are places we have already visited, or places that friends recommend, though there are still plenty of places where we think, "Oh, yes, that might be interesting, let's give it a try." It may be somewhere we've read about; somewhere that a friend's family comes from; somewhere there's a cheap short-notice package holiday; somewhere en route to somewhere else; or pure whim.
All of us, in our childhood, have by chance latched onto somewhere we would like to go. It might be as a result of a movie or television programme we have seen; a book we have read; a tale told by a relative or a family friend; or even, it sometimes seems, of a past life.
Certainly, when Frances landed in India, never having been there before, her first thought was "I'm home." She has felt nothing to contradict this in over 25 years since, and there are a number of inexplicable occurrences that add weight to her suspicions: such as reading a sign in Kannada, a South Indian language she has never studied and which uses its own unique alphabet. When she was a little girl, she used to look in the mirror, wondering why her eyes and hair were the wrong colour, and there were recurring dreams (including fever-dreams) set in India.
By the same token, Roger is uncommonly at home among Tibetans. Whether the 'past lives' theory is real, or pure fantasy, it is an excellent illustration of the way that our childhood perceptions can shape our adult ambitions and dreams -- including travel plans.
Not just childhood, either. Plenty of people become fascinated -- even obsessed -- with various destinations later in life, from the same sources: movies, television, books, stories.
As already indicated, though, it is as well to keep an eye on these fantasies, to see how realistic they are. Roger's feelings towards the South Seas are a good example. Many of his images of this part of the world were formed by books and stories written in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, often of events long before. Of the latter, Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands is a superb example, set mostly in the second decade of the 20th century. As a boy, or even as a young man, Roger could imagine himself in Grimble's place, and indeed passed the necessary examinations to join the Foreign and Colonial Office. But in the 21st century, the South Seas are a different place, and he is a different and much older man. The Gilbert Islands would almost certainly be an (expensive) disappointment.
This does not mean that all dreams should be dismissed as idle fantasies. Lhasa remains a priority for both of us. We may go there even if it continues under Chinese occupation; if Tibet is free in our lifetimes, we would give up a very great deal to go there.
Thangka painter, Dharamsala
Mainly, this means guide books, tourist office information and the internet, though all kinds of other things can provide background information: histories, biographies, even novels set in a particular place; subject, as ever, to the warnings above about out-of-date information.
This immediately brings us to the paradox that a book from decades or even centuries ago can sometimes be more useful and up-to-date than a web-site that is only a few months out of date, let alone a year or two. Puffendorf's Introduction is a good example.
For example, here is Puffendorf on the English (or Englifh -- the long 's' is endemic in our 1728 edition):
but after all, they are fomewhat proud, and Lovers of Eafe, and fpend every day fome Hours in walking and fmoaking Tobacco, which is the Reafon that they do not fo much work as otherwife they might ; and yet they expect to be paid for their idle Hours as well as the reft : Which is the Reafon why they sell their Wares at a higher Rate than others, and that they envy fuch French handicrafts-men, who live among them, and are feldom diverted from their daily Labour by any Pleafures.
Which gives a pretty good idea of how fome Europeans fee the Englifh to this day.
Puffendorf's Introduction, 9th edition, 1728
The most useful guide-books, we find, are often the ones with the least specific information on hotels and restaurants, because the ones that are most specific date far too quickly and are often somewhat casually updated. There is also the point that a mention in Lonely Planet or the much superior Guide du Routard (in French only) can transform the fortunes of a humble establishment, raising prices and leading to hopeless competition for rooms. That is assuming that the mention is based on any more than the most casual inspection. We have tried to do this sort of thing in the past, and frankly, we just don't believe the level of detail that some of these books pretend to go in to.
The best general series of guide books we know are the Blue Guides from A. & C. Black, because they give you a solid but not indigestible history, properly researched, with a very fair assessment of what there is likely to be to see. They are all but unillustrated; their nearest illustrated equivalents are the Insight Guides from APA, beautifully illustrated but less comprehensive because you can fit in a lot more information with words than you can with pictures.
There are also lots of individual books, ranging from the excellent to the appalling, available locally at your destination. For example, the Guia Turistica de Aragon (Prames, 2nd edition 2004) is a good guide to that region, though it has been overtaken somewhat by the explosion of ski resorts since it was written. Also, it is in Spanish. If you can read other languages, you will often find a guide book that is closer to what you want, as compared with reading English only.
On the other hand, a guide book with prices has its uses, though it need not necessarily be terribly recent. An internet comparison will give you a good idea of how prices (and exchange rates) have changed since it was written. Changes in exchange rates can be extremely important. For example, when we first went to India in the early 1980s, there were 17 rupees to the pound sterling. A quarter of a century later, it was more like 80. Over the same period, the pound/dollar exchange rate has ranged from near-parity to well over $2 to the pound.
Puffendorf is an extreme example, but all books age: our Malta by Frederick W. Ryan (London, Adam and Charles Black, 1910, with illustrations by Vittorio Boron) is now pushing 100 years old, though it was only 44 years old when Roger's mother bought it. There are however plenty of good guides from most of the 20th century. If they are just general guides to what to see, after all, you can make a very good guess at what is likely still to be standing -- though (for example) a pre-WW2 guide to Plymouth or Dresden might not be much use, given the scale of the bombing. Look in charity shops, second-hand bookshops -- anywhere books are cheap. There is often very little distinction made in price between an all-but-worthless hotel and restaurant guide, hopelessly out of date, and a timeless travel book.
Do not neglect specialist books on history (including archaeology), natural history, bird-watching or whatever other special interests you may have. Often, these will be illustrated to varying degrees, which may inspire ideas and interests that are not covered in more general guide books. For example, D.H. Trump's brilliant (but poorly bound) Malta: An Archaeological Guide, Second Edition, Progress Press Co. Ltd. Valletta 1990 (revised edition of 2000 consulted).
Troglodyte dwelling, 'Clapham Junction', Malta.
This varies enormously in value, and availability. For example, the Indian Tourist Board produces innumerable superbly detailed lists of hotels, descriptions of places, and other information, but a lot of it is quite poorly printed on cheap paper and you can't always get it. By contrast, many Southern European tourist offices are regarded as suitable employment for well brought up young ladies (and a few languid young men) and have beautifully produced brochures in several languages, though often very badly translated, and almost completely devoid of information.
A useful trick when you pick up a badly translated brochure is to ask for the same brochure in the native language. No matter how bad your French, Italian, Polish or whatever, if you have a parallel text, you can often use it to wring more out of the execrable translation -- especially if, as we recommend below, you have a dictionary.
Ever fewer tourist offices will actually send out information, relying on the internet instead, so mostly it is a matter of calling in and picking things up. This is as true of a national tourist office in a capital city as of a small regional tourist office that is only open for a few months in the summer, like the one in our village.
On the bright side, one of the qualifications for working in most tourist offices in Europe is a command of at least one other language, and the first choice is normally English. If you are lucky, too, there will be a local at the tourist office who not only knows where to find a bed for the night, but will telephone them for you.
Village tourist office
Not much to say here: you're already on it. But there are three observations worth making.
The first is that an awful lot of traffic is either package-tour oriented, or adventure-on-a-shoestring stuff. There is comparatively little for the semi-adventurous traveller.
The second is that it is very rare for reasonably-priced hotels (the sort we normally stay at, and recommend) to have any significant internet presence. Not that this matters, as we heartily recommend picking up rooms en route, as described in the article on choosing a hotel.
The third is that as ever, an awful lot of the forums are overpopulated with people who have almost no experience of any culture other than their own, but think they know everything. Surprisingly often, their information is grievously out of date, too.
Maps are a bit like novels. The best are a pleasure to read; the worst are a penance. If you are travelling independently, you generally need the largest-scale atlas you can conveniently find, typically around 1:250,000 or a quarter-inch to the mile or bigger. Anything less than 1:400,000 (6 miles/inch) can be inconveniently general, though even 1:1,000,000 (16 miles/inch) can be fine for long-distance driving if you don't want to explore too much. For detailed exploration on foot, 1:25,000 or 2.5 inches/mile is probably about ideal, though 1:75,000 or around an inch to the mile is good too.
In any country, there are good and bad maps. Throughout Europe, the Michelin series are our fall-back position (if they exist) but there are often better choices, such as the IGN in France or the Ordnance Survey in the UK. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is good but sometimes casual about updating man-made features such as roads: one of their staff once said coldly to us, "We are a geological service, not a road-map company."
We heartily recommend that you try to buy a map before you leave, as maps are absurdly hard to come by in some countries (Portugal springs to mind -- we use the Michelin Spain & Portugal atlas), but there are some places where the only choice for good maps is locally. The mAZe is a good example: it's not so much a map of Malta, as a street-map of the entire island. It can be hard to follow from one page to another, but once you are on the right page, it is superb. Even so, we are still trying to find the quarter-inch Ordnance Survey map of the island, last updated (as far as we know) in 1959.
Overall, although atlases and maps may look expensive, if you look at the time and frustration they can save you, and cost the time wasted in pounds, dollars or euros an hour, they can look like extremely good value. That is quite apart from the enjoyment you can derive from poring over them and planning your routes, along with possible detours.
We have never bothered with Satnav, for three reasons. The first is that getting creatively lost is a part of semi-adventurous travel. The second is that we reckon we are uncreatively lost (i.e., we wish we knew where we were, but don't) for no more than a few hours a year, so it's not outstandingly cost-effective. The third comes back to the parallel between a map and a novel. You can pore over a map, imagining different routes, looking for features. Satnav will get you from A to B.
Then again, several of our friends who are at least as technophobic as we are have bought Satnav and speak very highly of it, so maybe we'll get one yet -- as long as it has good GPS and isn't just a map of the surfaced roads.
On the shelf in Roger's study is about a metre (over a yard) of translating dictionaries: German, French, Spanish, Polish, Maltese, Dutch, Czech, Portuguese, Russian... Our own belief is that for the semi-adventurous traveller, dictionaries are all but essential, at least if you can read the alphabet and know what order the letters come in. They mean that you can avoid such embarrassments as ordering oral sex and chips at a restaurant (unless that is what you actually want, and assuming it is available) or, conversely, that you can find out what you are ordering. It also helps you understand Road Closed signs, or that in German, 'nur' is 'only' and not 'not', so 'nur fur...' is 'only for...' rather than 'not for...'
The economics and logic of buying dictionaries are much the same as for maps, but they have two further advantages. Even if you speak only a few halting words of someone's language, they are much more likely to treat you as a traveller, a person much like themselves, rather than as a rich tourist to be fleeced. And if they can hear how bad your Greek or Spanish is, they may be more inclined to use their own poor English.
Elias' Practical Dictionary
You can turn up almost anywhere, speculatively, without knowing a thing about the place. But the more you know (within reason), the more likely you are to find the things you want, and to have a good time. Besides, finding out background information can be part of the pleasure of planning a trip.
Legend, Map, Tibetan Border
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks