The Problem With Guidebooks, Or How I Came to Hate Lonely Planet On A Sunday in Crete

anogiaHave you ever been so annoyed with a guidebook that you wanted to track down the author and bludgeon them to death with a rusty hatchet? Neither have I, but yesterday I came close.

I almost always invest in a guidebook when I take a trip. But I’m not sure why, because I’ve been led astray on so many occasions. After arriving in the Greek isles at the start of a six-week trip, my wife and I bought the Kindle edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands.

I’m generally very high on Lonely Planet but this book is awful. For example, yesterday I convinced my family to make a day trip to Anogia, a remote village in the mountainous interior of Crete, on the basis of an enticing description of the place in the book (see photo above). The author described the village as “memorable” and “known for its rebellious spirit and determination to express its undiluted Cretan character.” (Whatever that means.)He or she went on to say that the town’s cafés were “frequented by black-shirted mustachioed men, the older ones often wearing traditional dress,” and claimed that the town was sought out by “foreign travelers in search of rustic authenticity.”

I was also drawn in by the author’s vivid description of the town’s reputation for lawlessness and its history – villagers sheltered Allied troops in WWII and the Nazis murdered all the men in the town in retaliation. I knew it would be a trek from our base in Plakias, on Crete’s south coast, but based upon the author’s recommendation, I didn’t want to miss the place.

Google maps claims the trip should take one hour and 27 minutes each way, and I’m a fast driver, but it took us two hours on windy, torturously circuitous roads to reach the village, largely because we were constantly getting caught behind slow moving cars and trucks that were impossible to pass on the curved roads.

Here I have to admit, in full disclosure, that my adorable, yet sometimes highly annoying, 2- and 4-year-old sons also contributed plenty of stress on the drive, what with their quarreling, whining and intermittent demands for snacks, movies, entertainment and pleas to get out of the damn car.

I was exhausted by the time we arrived in the town, which, by the way, is at least an hour drive from anywhere that travelers might be coming from. But I was still ready to dig the place. The day trip had been my idea and I was eager to prove it had been a good one.

Anogia has two sections – a lower town, which has 2-3 cafes, a church, restaurants and 20 or 30 widows dressed in black aggressively peddling rugs, and an upper town, which has 2-3 empty hotels, two forlorn restaurants and a smattering of homes and other businesses. The cafes in the lower town were full of old people but none were dressed in traditional outfits and only two men had impressive moustaches.

Perhaps the village-folk had received warning that a Lonely Planet author was coming to the town and they all prepared by growing stashes and getting gussied up in traditional Cretan outfits? Or perhaps the last Lonely Planet author to actually visit this town passed through in 1974 and everyone else has just used their description for subsequent editions since then?

old person sleepingAnogia is not an attractive town. If I had to describe it, the words I would use are: unremarkable, modern, remote, ugly, forlorn, impoverished, touristy and avoidable, among others. The town may have an interesting history but we saw no museums and none of the elderly people we met in the village spoke English. It’s the kind of place that’s fascinating to read about but not very interesting to actually see. How dead was this little village? I think this photo of an elderly woman taking a nap with her door open (right) says it all.

After deflecting offers from about two dozen carpet sellers, we’d seen all we needed to see of the upper and lower towns, both equally forgettable. Like gluttons for punishment, we decided to take the LP guidebook authors advice on a lunch recommendation and sought out a place called Ta Skalomata, which they claimed had “home baked bread” and “great grills at reasonable prices.”

In six weeks of travel around the Greek Islands, I’ve had exactly one bad meal and this was it. We took the waiter up on his recommendation that we try their fresh grilled lamb, but it was pricey and was about 85 percent bone, cartilage and fat. Revolting.

The torturous two-hour ride back to our base was filled with recrimination, along with a tremendous amount of whining coming from the back seat, and I felt terrible for killing our day on such a boondoggle. If we had a month in Crete, it would have been a pity, but with just a week, it felt like a criminal waste of our time.

The information you find in guidebooks is often just one person’s opinion and it has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Why had I led my family to a remote village in Crete, a place loaded with beautiful and interesting places to visit, solely based upon an enticing entry in Lonely Planet?

We’d already been burned by this book on more than one occasion. The authors told us about a “world class” Mexican restaurant in Naxos that was a joke. In Kos, we took a one-hour-and-20-minute ride on a public bus out to a town called Kefalos, based upon a description in the book, which claimed that it was a “traditional village” that was a good place for visitors looking for someplace “a little more authentic.”

When I read the words “traditional village” and “authentic” I conjure up images of a nice old town, with a square filled with cafes, pedestrian streets and old stone houses. Kefalos has none of those things. Like Anogia, it’s a very ordinary, modern town with little charm and nothing to see. Worst of all, we had no car and would have been stuck there for six hours, thanks to the limited bus schedule, if we hadn’t been given a ride by a very friendly pharmacist in the town.

There is no way to adequately cover all of the most interesting sites in all of the Greek Islands in one book. But what’s maddening about this one is that they devote tons of space to places that barely deserve to be in the book at all and gloss over or completely ignore other places that are really quite interesting.

For example, the book has a very slim chapter on Naxos, but inexplicably features a four e-page long description of a jewelry shop in Halki, another mountain village they over-hype as “one of the finest experiences” on Naxos, when in fact the place is eminently forgettable.

Likewise, there is no mention of San Michalis, an absolutely gorgeous place on Syros and the book gives short shrift to the beautiful western half of Samos and to some of that island’s amazing hikes to medieval churches and monasteries.

The problem with this and indeed many guidebooks is that the authors try to make nearly every place seem interesting and so travelers who don’t have time to see everything are left guessing which places they should visit and which they should skip. They delve into the town’s history, which is interesting, but what you really want to know is: what’s the place like and is it worth my time?

Guidebook authors are out in the towns they visit doing the research and meeting people who have a vested interest in attracting tourists to the place. It’s only human nature not to want to turn around and write that a place is an unremarkable hellhole after having made friends and contacts. But that’s a shame because travelers have limited time and need help prioritizing.

As for my disastrous outing in search of Cretan “authenticity,” I’m as much to blame as the author of that section of the guidebook, because I’ve been traveling and getting burned by guidebook advice for decades and I should have known better. The next time I read about a place that’s very “authentic,” I’ll be sure to give it a miss.

[Photo by Dave Seminara]