In preparation for my upcoming trip to Europe, I have temporarily forsaken George R.R. Martin and David Mitchell to learn a thing or two from the Frommers – Arthur, Hope in Frommer’s France 2008 and Pauline Frommer’s Italy (1st edition – 2006).
Up first is the elder Frommers’ France 2008 which I got on sale (since it’s already 2011, but I’m hoping things haven’t changed that much in France in the last 3 years). Frommer’s France 2008 is actually written by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince who divided the book into 22 sections. The first few chapters are devoted to the essentials of planning a trip to France, including the hows, whats, whens, whys, and wheres, a top 10 “Best of France” list and suggested itineraries for short and long stays. There is also a brief lesson on the evolution of art and architecture in France and how to tell te difference between one artistic/architectural period from another (useful to know when spending the day in a museum or in an architectural wonder – or just to show off to your friends by telling them that, no, in fact, the French did not contribute that much during the Renaissance…).
The book then starts off with Paris followed by 16 chapters devoted to different regions in France such as Normandy, Brittany, The Loire Valley, all the way down to Provence, the French Riviera, and so on.
Like most guidebooks, it contains information on accommodations, restaurants, modes of transportation and road conditions, famous sites and landmarks, shopping, night life, tours and other activities. It also shares some of France’s do’s and don’ts, and gives useful tidbits of information to make tourists feel more comfortable in their new environment and to look less like the guidebook-toting, picture-taking fools that they are.
Unfortunately, I will only be going to certain regions in France, so I have carefully marked the sections of the book relevant to my itinerary. Frommer’s France is proving to be quite useful in terms of describing the physical layout of the different cities for orienting oneself and in presenting the different options of getting around. The book also gives helpful tips on how to save time and money by availing of city passes such as metro/bus/railway passes and museum passes.
The section on where to eat and where to stay is also helpful because it lists down establishments based on affordability, categorizing them as ‘very expensive,’ ‘expensive,’ ‘moderate,’ and ‘inexpensive.’ It also goes on to tell you if a place is considered a unique “find” or if it is a shameless tourist trap.
Though Frommer’s listed restaurants and hotels according to affordability for people on a tight budget, it made no mention of very cheap living quarters such as youth hostels, campsites, and cheap eats such as boulangeries and neighborhood restaurants patronized by locals.
In a way I felt that Frommer’s is assuming that since I’m reading their book, I’m probably going to France, and if I’m going to France, I can probably afford it. It’s an assumption I find a bit unfair since I actually prepared (read: saved) for over a year to make this trip. Though the book did warn me in the beginning that:
France is a very expensive destination.
Like all things, there are pros and cons of reading a guidebook before visiting a particular place. Guidebooks are designed to help travelers visiting a place for the first time – to give them helpful advice on how to get there and what to do when they get there. Guidebooks also highlight important things about the city and give tourists a heads up on what not to miss.
Though guidebooks may be good for helping travelers make the most of their stay given a short period of time or a limited budget, guidebooks can also limit the things a traveler can see or do in a city. Writers of guidebooks usually highlight the things a city is famous for but sometimes exclude less dazzling, albeit important parts of a city’s history. In telling travelers what to do and what to see in a city, guidebooks discourage them from actually exploring and thinking for themselves.
Of course reducing a city/country to its famous sites and activities can’t be avoided when writing guidebooks – one can only include so much in a book meant to be carried around in a backpack while walking around a city (which makes me wonder why guidebooks are always so thick given their purpose…).
Having read most of the parts of France 2008 relevant for my trip, I can say that I learned a lot of things about France I never really knew before. Some of the things I learned are useful for my trip, some of them not, but still nice to know.
All in all, I think travelers should take time to read guidebooks before visiting a city/country, just to familiarize themselves with the place and to help them get their bearings upon arrival. But in the end, guidebook suggestions are just that – suggestions, and travelers should carefully pick and choose which ones to ignore and which ones to follow, and to discover things on their own.