What Can Today’s Travelers Learn From Frommer’s $5 A Day?

A Guidebook Digression

Book Cover: Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a DayDestination: Europe

Book: Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide, (NEW April 2012) by Doug Mack

Everybody has to have a gimmick.  Doug Mack‘s gimmick is to flout the hot trends of SE Asia, Eastern Europe and adventure travel and get back to basics. Using a 50-year-old guidebook, he tours plain old Europe.  In writing Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide  (a silly and misleading title that does not do justice to the book), Mack had no expectation of spending only $5 a day–even allowing for inflation that had pushed the 1963 $5 to about $34.50 in 2011.

He also realized from the start that most of the specific hotels and restaurants that Arthur Frommer recommended in the classic Europe on $5 a Day would no longer exist, but as he goes “Frommering” the most important principle is to stay true to Arthur’s spirit. Spend as little as possible, see the high points, discover the “real” city.

Last day in ParisAlong the way, we get not only the impressions of a young, first-time European traveler, but ruminations on the history of travel and tourism and the ringing semantic arguments about whether those terms are different.  Mack credits Frommer with the invention of travel for the nervous masses (“Don’t be afraid.” “They’re really just like us.” “You can, too, afford it.”), a role today usurped by Rick Steves.  Except that Frommer wanted American tourists to carry their guidebook and proudly stand out as an American tourist, whereas the fashion has changed to strategies to slip into the foreign country so that no one knows you are, well, foreign. Lots of luck.

Mack has another guide along, besides $5 a Day. His mother and her best friend traveled through Europe in the early 1960’s and she kept her letters home, as well as letters from her fiancé (Mack’s father), who stayed behind.  This sometimes gives the book a bit of a split personality.  Who are we following? The guidebook writer or Mom?  More often, though, Mom becomes the personification of Frommer’s audience and we can compare her reactions to cities with those of her son.

For Frommer’s traveler, the world consisted of European cities, including Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Zürich, Vienna, Venice, Rome and Madrid.  Nothing in the countryside, no countries on the edge of, let alone IN Asia.  No mountains to climb. No camels to ride. No bungees to jump. Mack explains:

My journey was going to be arguably more treacherous one, a voyage into the heart of straight-up, cliché-ridden tourism, a path seldom taken by more bold travelers for the very fact that it is so well beaten.

Enough with the road less traveled.  This would be a full immersion in the modern tourist experience.

Uffizi Courtyard, Florence
Uffizi Courtyard

He, of course, being a cynical twenty-something who ‘knows’ that all of these cities have been oversold, expects that disappointment awaits the starry-eyed.  And then he arrives in Florence–and goes all starry-eyed.

When the bus rolled into Florence’s historic city center, the authenticity high turned into an enrapturing overdose at the up-close sight of the winding cobblestoned passageways encroached by ineffably Old World architecture: arched doorways, elaborate cornices and corbels, massive shutters, and, on every wall, the perfect golden-hued, slightly cracking faux finish–er, wait, no not faux.

Florence, he decides, is much more perfect than that apex of faux perfection…Disneyland.

I remember reacting to Florentine art in just the way that Doug Mack did. After the overload of Uffizi, we cued up  in a drizzle outside the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David inside. Frommer had said that the statute “may alone be worth your entire trip to Europe“. His mother pronounced it magnifico. So naturally he  prepared for a let-down.

Well…it was wonderful, magnifico, not at all cheesy.  Though tourists did indeed swarm around him like groupies to a rock star (swooning and all), I cannot offer a single snide comment about their behavior or exclamations because I was too busy staring at the Man of Marble in his perfectly lit corner.

And I remember, like Mack, rather rushing through the rest of the Accademia, and thinking as he did:

The other rooms were jarringly empty of visitors, and I felt a twinge of sympathy for any obscure Renaissance artist whose only extant work was in some back corner of the Accademia, ignored by all but the most intrepid, dedicated art aficionado…

It was descriptions and insights like these that got me hooked on Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day. Later in the book, when it bogged down a bit, and became way too self-focused and self-pitying, I remembered the chapter on Florence. And then just when I was thinking, “He really is just a backpacker at heart,” he would  come up with an unexpected musing.  Like the way that we expect foreign food to be like the food from that country that immigrants have adapted to our own country–forgetting that there are immigrants in Italy setting up falafel stands.  Or he considers the amount of luggage carried by an upper class traveler like Fielding (author of the establishment guidebooks that Frommer rebelled against) and compares it to today’s traveler’s need to be constantly plugged in to e-mails and blogs and concludes that both indicate the comfort of carrying “home” with you.

Merchants of Venice
Merchants of Venice

He totally won me over once again, when we agreed on Venice, a city you have to see because it is one of a kind, but that doesn’t make it lovable. To prove we are in good company, he quotes Virginia Woolf..

…who wrote to Vanessa Bell in 1913. ‘I’m glad to find that you dislike Venice because I thought it detestable when we were there, both times.’

I recoiled at the constant hawking of dubious goods made anywhere but Italy, and he talks about billboards obliterating historic gems–both evident in this picture. On the other hand, that victory column in the background demonstrate that Venice has always been grabbing stuff from other places and always been most interested in making a buck.

In recommending this book for your travel library, I’m stepping outside my usual boundaries in two ways. As I said at the beginning of this series,  I don’t usually talk about guidebooks. (This is not, strictly speaking a guidebook.) And I don’t usually talk about books that cover several different destinations. (To Frommer and most Americans in 1960, Europe WAS one destination.)  At any rate,  I make an exception,  for this book. Funny, well written, and even informative, this brand new take ona 50-year-old guidebook–gimmick or no– will bring you a lot of enjoyment.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a book for my review, but that does not guarantee they get favorable results. I writes ’em the way I reads ’em.

The first photo, a typical tourist shot, comes from Flickr, with a Creative Commons license. You can learn more about the photographer and see more of his work by clicking on the photo.  The other two photos are my property, and I appreciate your respecting my copyright.

How important is it today to hit the major cities that Frommer covered in Europe on $5 a Day? How many have you visited? I have  missed Berlin and Brussels (choosing Bruges over Brussels which I still think was the right choice.)

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “What Can Today’s Travelers Learn From Frommer’s $5 A Day?

  1. All credit to Doug Mack for a novel idea. I love the descriptions, attitudes and thinking from old travel guides (I have bought a couple from boot sales etc). I think one of the key elements is that travel back then was seen as a rare opportunity and with little info available (no TV, few documentaries of any description), people did and were encouraged to see the main sights of the main cities and not explore off the beaten path.

    1. Boot sales is Aussie for trunk sales, right? Although when we say trunk sales, we are talking about things sold out of a trunk (like you carry on a cruise around the world–not the trunk of a car). Perhaps the equivalent in U.S. English is closer to “yard sales” or “garage sales”.

  2. Thanks for the review; I’ve read several references to this book, and really like his premise. I’ve gathered (and I hope I’m correct) that he delves into the historical side of things. So many young travel bloggers these day are good at getting places, doing it cheaply and transmitting updates quickly, but they too often lack or completely miss any historical, political or cultural context. (Copy/paste from wikipedia doesn’t count.)

    This has inspired me to try something similar this year during two or three visits to Paris: reread both ‘Paris France’ by Gertrude Stein (1940) and Paris Was Yesterday, a collection of Janet Flanner’s New Yorker columns written from 1925 to 1939.

    1. If by “historical side” you mean fairly recent history, yes, because he is discussing a 50-year-old guide and trip. He does compare travel stats from then and now. While there’s a little about the history of the places he visits, not so much.

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