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Karl BaedekerEssential Knowledge
Baedeker Guides

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'Kings and governments may err, but never Mr Baedeker.'
AP Herbert, La Vie Parisienne, 1929

Dr Johnson said that 'a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from not having seen what it is expected a man should see.' Unaffected by this perceived inferiority, Johnson made only one trip outside the British Isles, a tour of France in 1775 shortly before his death. On his return he remarked that the continent made him appreciate England all the more.

An avid admirer of Johnson's famous dictionary, Karl Baedeker was born at Essen in 1801 into an established and prosperous literary family. After training as a bookseller in Heidelberg he set up a printing press in Koblenz at the age of 26 and soon established himself as a publisher of scrupulously researched, urbane travel guides. The English translation of his volume on Italy - which might have shamed Johnson - was one of the most acclaimed works. In a matter of weeks it became a must-have accessory for the Grand Tourist. (With a characteristic touch of historical accuracy, James Ivory puts it in the hands of Maggie Smith and Helena Bonham Carter as they scuttle round the Piazza della Signoria in his film version of 'A Room With A View'.)

The diminished but still formidable Baedeker empire is to this day the largest publisher of travel books in Germany. In its pomp, the company was revered for the 19th-century forerunners of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet series. The books even had an influence on rulers and statesmen. A chestnut of an anecdote describes how in the 1880s Kaiser Wilhelm would often break away from morning meetings at his Unter den Linden palace and observe the changing of the guard from a corner window. Returning to his guest he would excuse himself with: 'Yes, it's a terrible bore but Baedeker is on record as saying that I do this every day and I mustn't disappoint his readers.'

The books are characterised by crystalline but personable prose and are infinitely more accessible than a swathe of modern imitations. Their enduring appeal owes much to the author's human concern for his audience and devotion to its welfare. He sought to provide readers with a protected mode of travel, allowing them to dispense with paid guides.

Baedeker advises on intensely personal matters, recommending a precise thickness of tweed for hill walking in Switzerland and counselling the elderly on how to ward off chills when visiting continental cathedrals: 'As everybody knows, it is harmful to bring an overheated horse to its stall, and it is no better for men.' He was a devotee of tincture of arnica and enthused on its 'bracing, invigorating effect when rubbed on the limbs after much fatigue.' (As I write this piece, the impossibly smug resident GP on the BBC's 'Breakfast News' has dismissed arnica remedies as fraudulent quackery.) Baedeker frequently warned readers against eating too much tropical fruit and suggested castor oil and charcoal tablets as cures for indigestion.

In one of the very few debates over Baedeker's factual accuracy, Mark Twain questioned the author's claim to have reached a peak above Lake Lucerne in three-and-a-half hours. Twain's quibble is tongue in cheek; he had spent three days on the ascent and made two overnight stays, which he narrates hilariously in A Tramp Abroad.

From TS Eliot to TE Lawrence

The contemporary travel writer Eric Newby is enamoured of the maps, once describing them thus: 'made as if by spies for fellow spies.' Another author to have revered the guidebooks was the English philosopher Bertrand Russell who said that his literary models included John Stuart Mill, Milton and Baedeker. The volumes even prompted TS Eliot to write his obscure, and allegedly anti-Semitic, poem Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar.

As an archaeology student, TE Lawrence was inseparable from his guide to Palestine during field trips to the Holy Land and prompted his superiors to issue Allied officers with facsimile copies on the outbreak of WWI. This unauthorised edition raised a few eyebrows at headquarters in Leipzig but the founder's grandson was placated when the books were destroyed after the Armistice. Inwardly he probably appreciated the compliment.

The Shakespearean scholar, Gisbert von Vincke (1813-1892), was fond of relating a story which reveals the scrupulous nature of Karl Baedeker's research and the publisher's insistence on doing his own legwork. On his own Grand Tour in 1847, von Vincke climbed the seemingly endless staircase to the roof of Milan cathedral behind a wheezing but cheerful compatriot with mutton chop whiskers and a pronounced limp.

Von Vincke was curious as to why the tourist was placing a coin on every 20th step during the ascent. It happened that the two Germans found themselves on the same dinner table at the Palace Hotel later in the day and von Vincke asked his neighbour what he had been doing. Baedeker always travelled incognito in order to catch hotels and restaurants off their guard. With much reluctance he revealed his identity and explained his behaviour: 'I picked up the coins on the descent in order to check the number of steps. There is no room for inaccuracy in these matters.'

Baedeker's pet hates included Neapolitan oysters which he described as potentially lethal and village dogs. He usually repelled strays with a riding whip but confessed: 'Stone-throwing is perhaps still more effective.' The editor made it a rule not to comment on or describe anything he had not seen with his own eyes. This intractable approach led to a wonderful piece of self-control in a guide to Germany and the Austrian Empire: 'The writer of these lines made the steamer trip from Pola to Fiume at night. He regrets that he can report nothing about it.'

The postilion has been struck by lightning

I was introduced to Baedekers when my father presented me with a copy of the 1898 guide to Spain as he dropped me off at Gatwick for a trip to Madrid last November. I spent the flight flicking through the appendices that included a phrase book. Reviving schoolboy Spanish, I memorised invaluable sentences such as: 'Postilion, stop; we wish to get down; a spoke of one of the wheels is broken …' and 'Are the drivers insolent? Lightning has struck; the coachman is drunk.' I was working on my Castilian in the hope of being able to chat up women. At Toledo I was introduced to a bevy of charming and ostensibly available Carmen-look-alikes but being linguistically challenged, I drew a blank.

Baedeker's signature publication, Travels Along the Rhine from Mainz to Cologne, appeared in 1828. The bulk of the text had been acquired from another publishing house but the volume has many characteristics that would become trademarks. It is set in a serif type of no more than nine points but is remarkably easy on the eye. The popularity of this gilt-stamped volume on Dünndruck or 'bible paper', which featured marbled edges impregnated with Icelandic moss, extended to three acclaimed editions within 12 years, buoyed by a rising tide of tourism in continental Europe led by writers including Byron and Shelley on 'The Grand Tour.' Consummately modest, Baedeker immediately invited suggestions and corrections.

An avowed Francophobe, Baedeker delayed his visit to Paris until 1855. After observing street children singing 'Sur le Pont d'Avignon', transcribing the notation and making a few allusions to his beloved Schiller, he made straight for Père-Lachaise cemetery which he awarded two stars. He was appalled that there was no accurate ground plan so he spent two days traipsing over the cemetery's 110 acres creating a map while rapping out learned asides on the resting places of Molière, Chopin, and the 12th-century theologian Pierre Abélard. It would be interesting to know what Baedeker might have made of the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison.

Eighty-five years on, General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst found himself in charge of the Third Reich's plans to invade Norway. In March 1940, at notice of 24 hours, Hitler asked him to produce a set of maps. Von Falkenhorst sprinted down Berlin's Bendlerstrasse to a secondhand bookshop and bought a 1931 Baedeker. Reprographic technicians at the Lichterfelde Kaserne worked overnight and presented the Führer with charts at 9.00 a.m. In the following month a German convoy breezed through the Skagerrak unmolested. Two years later, as a reprisal for the RAF's misguided assault on the scenic but strategically unimportant Baltic port of Lübeck, the Luftwaffe launched a devastating attack on notable British cities. Hitler's instruction to his bomber command was simple: 'Flatten everything to which Baedeker gives two stars.'

The 1929 Egypt edition is still regarded as the finest guidebook produced by any publishing house to date. It is authoritative and erudite while remaining personable at all times. The introductory section mentions that there is an Imperial Airways service to Egypt from Croydon Aerodrome with stops at Paris, Genoa, Rome, Naples, Athens, Tobruk and Alexandria. (No mention is made of what must have been a hectic schedule of in-flight meals.)

The volume includes an outstanding monograph on hieroglyphics and sage advice on how to treat donkey handlers: 'The proclivities of the donkey-boys for prodding the animals with pointed sticks and urging them to gallop should be sternly repressed.' Baedeker suggests that the pyramids should be ascended 'using three Bedouins, one holding each of your hands and another pushing from behind.' He continues with these warnings: 'All requests for baksheesh should be refused and it is wise to keep an eye on your pockets.'

Urban myths

Karl Baedeker died of heart failure induced by overwork on 10 April, 1859. There is a story that an American hiker breezed into Koblenz a week later, guidebook in hand, to be confronted by the funeral party. He enquired of a bystander as to who had died and received a terse, Teutonic response: 'The man who wrote the book you are holding.' The legend is that the American took a place at the back of the funeral cortège, salmon pink volume in hand, without breaking his step.

Baedeker Handbooks can be great fun to collect and one does not have to unlimited resources as prices start at £20. From 1830-1943 there were nearly 1,100 editions published on over 40 countries in three languages. The guides provide a mine of information on social history, urban development, arts, archaeology, entertainment, sport and tourism and are ideal for the armchair traveller. Listed below are five unusual titles for the collector to find.

Indien, published in 1914. This title was only published in German just before the First World War and covers Burma and Ceylon as well as India. (£700-£900)

Russia (English language edition), published in 1914. This volume was the last one published by Baedeker to cover Tsarist Russia before the Revolution and the First World War. (£700-£900)

Mediterranean, (English language edition), published in 1911 - the only title in English to cover Constantinople and North Africa. (£70-£90)

Austria- Hungary, published in 1911 - this guide is devoted exclusively to the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the Balkan countries adjacent to it. It shows the Balkan countries before the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 but after the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. (£50-£70)

Germany: Handbook for Motorists, published in 1936. There was only one English edition covering the whole country. It was published to celebrate the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Some copies were even issued with plans of the Olympic Stadium inserted loose inside. (£130-£170)

 

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