Roger Ebert, Travel Writer

Roger Ebert travel writerLast week, the world lost one of the all-time great film critics, when Roger Ebert passed away at age 70. He was mostly known for his love of movies and long career reviewing them at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his witty and wide-reaching Twitter feed. Roger was first and foremost a journalist, and he applied his curiosity and ease of language to many things, including travel.

If you can’t imagine how a film reviewer can effortlessly evoke a place, start with a piece he wrote in 2010 on a changing London and a particularly Dickensian hotel at 22 Jermyn Street, later published in a shortened form for the Guardian‘s travel section. He writes of his 25 years of being a guest at the small hotel, many encounters are positively cinematic, such as meeting the hotel’s owner, who appears in his guest room proffering a drink and colorful anecdotes about the neighborhood’s characters. He worries about what the loss of businesses like the former Eyrie Mansion (established in 1685) will mean for the neighborhood: “Piece by piece, this is how a city dies,” and paints a rich study of a place and time.Ebert delved deeper into London with another essay on walking around the city with his grandson in search of the perfect hot chocolate (“You always need a serious objective when you’re walking.”), the essay itself a later version of a book he collaborated on in the 1980s, called the “Perfect London Walk.” In the essay, he parallels walking, writing and travel. “When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street…”

Ebert’s life and career took him many places from a Chicago movie theater, including South Africa and France. He published a book on the latter about his film festival experiences in “Two Weeks in the Midday Sun, A Cannes Notebook.” You can read excerpts from the book online, which provide some fun details on the glitzy, star-studded event, as well insights about culture clashes and what such an event does to a place.

Ebert’s other passion came through in a plea for more Americans to travel abroad, where he also reveals his long-time friendship with Paul Theroux, the famed travel writer. They debate the idea that travel broadens your mind and Ebert settles on the idea that “the way you broaden your mind through travel is to stop traveling and stay somewhere,” a good argument for slow travel. While it might be nothing new to the readers of a travel blog, imagine how it might have changed the thoughts of someone just looking for a review of the latest Bond film? Every traveler (and moviegoer, to some extent) can relate to “The bittersweet pleasure of being somewhere where nobody knows you, and nobody can find you.”

Ebert’s last movie review was, appropriately enough, for the film “To the Wonder,” which spans several continents, but he finds it to be covering a landscape between the characters rather than places. A few days before his death, he announced that he’d be scaling back on his regular reviews, taking what he called “a leave of presence.” This is a concept I’d like to keep in mind for my next trip: slow down, focus on what’s truly inspiring, reflect on the great moments of the past, and come back refreshed and recharged. Or at the very least, I’ll take time out to see a movie.

[Photo credit: Associated Press]

Travel Reads: ‘Eighty Days’ By Matthew Goodman

It is easy, without historical context, to mistake our own travels – and the documentation thereof – as some kind of bold act. We think ourselves grand for going around the world and we think our stories worthy of sharing merely because we can. But 150 years ago, this was just not the case. Travel was a big deal, women traveling an even bigger deal and women traveling solo, if not quite unheard of, certainly a long way from standard practice.

It was the Victorian age. Men – mostly men – traveled by steamship and rail. As for documenting said travels, that was the territory of men as well. Women were as unwelcome in the newsroom as they were in the pages those newsrooms produced, relegated to fashion and housekeeping and maybe the arts.

In to this landscape two bold women took it upon themselves to race one another around the world. One, an elegant and cultured arts writer – Elizabeth Bisland – the other, a scrappy go getter news hound in a checkered jacket – Nellie Bly.

Eighty Days” is the story of their adventure not just to succeed as great travelers, but to become well known and respected journalists as well. Off they go, propelled by their own will, two very different women on mirrored journeys. Nellie Bly invented the trip; Elizabeth Bisland was convinced to participate. Ms. Bisland packed for propriety and style, Ms. Bly anticipated the carry-on only traveler by over a century by insisting on taking nothing more than she could manage herself, lest she be delayed while waiting for her luggage.

They were both determined, bold, articulate and so brave. Looking back through history only magnifies the unusual nature of their travels.

The book is a terrific read, full of compelling characters – newspaper men, suitors, handsome sailors, exotic foreigners, missed communication, hunger and frustration – in short, all the stuff that makes up a good travel story. And it’s impossible not to admire these exceptional women, racing against time and against the standards of the day. Matthew Goodmans brings a heroic Nellie Bly to life in the first pages and Elizabeth Bisland’s grace and unexpected nerve are made real next. It’s impossible to decide whom you want to win. And finally, when one of the women does win, it doesn’t matter – the adventure has been completely worth it.

Arthur Frommer Will Again Publish Guidebooks

Arthur FrommerLast week, I wrote a lengthy tribute to guidebooks and the sad news that Frommer’s guidebooks would cease publication, and many readers here and on Twitter shared in my grief. Well, it’s time to remove the black armbands, because Arthur and his trusty guides are back! Don’t place your orders just yet; there’s still a lot up in the air, but the key news is that Arthur Frommer has reacquired his name brand from Google and confirmed to the Associated Press that he will resume publishing print, e-book and web content under the Frommer’s name. Google has retained all of the original Frommer’s content for its own Google+ and Zagat products, so Frommer will need to create all new content and find a new publisher for future books. Skift News has speculated on a few possibilities, as well as provided more details on the Frommer’s-to-Google migration. Long live Arthur Frommer, we look forward to what’s to come next.

Fear not, guidebook lovers; print isn’t dead.

[Photo credit: Darien Library on Flickr]

A Personal Lament To The Death Of Guidebooks

Death of guidebooks - Frommer's bookshelfIt was with a heavy heart that I read the news last week that Frommer’s guidebooks will cease to be printed. The guidebooks were purchased by Google last summer, and as of this year, the entire future list of titles will not be released. With the takeover of digital apps, social media, and user-generated content, we knew this was coming, but it still feels like the end of an era. It’s become fashionable for any traveler (especially for writers, including our own bloggers) to be dismissive of the printed guidebook, claiming they get all their tips “from locals on the road” or via social networks, possibly demurring to an occasional read of Lonely Planet. Let’s dispense with the tired traveler vs. tourist argument; we can all benefit from practical info for navigating a new place, and no matter how “local” you go, there’s nothing wrong with visiting the museums and attractions for which a destination is known. Even as an active member of the “new media,” I mourn the death of guidebooks like that of a friend.

The greatest gift of the digital age to the traveler is online trip planning. I’d never want to go back to the days of travel agents and phone reservations. I’ve spent hours on the Internet booking flights, reading hotel reviews and soliciting advice and recommendations from friends, but guidebooks have always been the heart of my pre-travel ritual. Each year, after we had narrowed down the destinations to a few (often places where American Airlines and Marriott coincided, back in the days where work travel generated a fair amount of status, miles and points for free vacations), my husband and I would spend a few hours at a bookstore, poring over the guidebooks for points of interest, relative costs of travel and local events that might happen during our travel dates. Back when I worked at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, my desk was next to the research department, making me feel like a kid in a candy store. Shelf after shelf of guidebooks, atlases and travelogues gave me a keen eye for what features are the most useful in a printed travel companion.In addition to having the most current information, I look for an efficient presentation (while I love travel photography, I don’t care for it in my guidebooks, taking up valuable real estate and showing me things I hope to see myself) with detailed maps, a short phrasebook and menu guide, as well as a point of view in a guidebook. I had always made fun of Rick Steves and his fanny-packed followers, but in Portugal, I discovered his “back door style” is really quite helpful for navigating crowded tourist attractions and distilling fun facts about a museum’s history (look elsewhere for nightlife advice, though). My respect for Mr. Steves solidified with his book “Travel As A Political Act,” particularly due to his advocacy for travel to Muslim countries and the importance of getting a passport. Time Out city guides offer a surprising depth of cultural sidebars in addition to nightlife listings. Occasionally, you might be lucky to stumble upon an indie series like the gorgeously-designed Love Guides to India or Herb Lester‘s guides to the “usual and unusual” in Europe and the U.S., but these were often only discovered once you reached your destination. Lonely Planet was usually a given, having the widest range of places and most annual updates, but my heart belonged to Arthur Frommer.

Frommer’s guides were never the hippest or most inventive, but I liked their no-nonsense and concise layout, stable of local writers and the personality that shown through the pages with “Overrated” tags and honest advice. I loved the history behind the Frommer’s brand, imagining how Arthur’s original “Europe on $5 a Day” changed the way Americans travel and opened up a world of travel daydreaming and practical trip planning. Writer Doug Mack recently published his own book, “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day” using Frommer’s 1963 book as his only guide. Vintage guidebooks are priceless slices of the past, whether it’s a reissued Victorian guide, or a handbook for your trip to the USSR (the later is now one of my prized possessions). In 50 years, what will people learn about how we traveled to Asia from Facebook photo albums and TripAdvisor reviews?

Destination and books chosen, I relished my New York commute armed with guidebooks before the trip. While I hated to ever brandish a guidebook while traveling, I didn’t mind being seen with it on the subway, where people might see me and think, “There’s a girl who’s going places! Literally, to Chile!” I imagined a stranger might strike up a conversation, offering their tips for their aunt’s restaurant in Santiago or their best friend’s guesthouse in Valparaiso (I was evidently envisioning a live version of Twitter). Even now that I do float travel questions over social media, I first try to research via a custom Google search that limits results to my trusted sources, ranging from travel writer friends’ blogs to big media like New York Times’ travel section and, of course, Frommers.com.

During a trip, I’d carry a book in my purse during the day, but I only removed it for surreptitious glimpses of a map if seriously lost. While in a museum, I might allow myself the luxury of reading the book in full public view. In the evenings, I might peruse the book before dinner, not for restaurant recommendations, but for hints on what neighborhoods and streets might yield the most options. My husband has always loathed making reservations, even in our own city, preferring to rely on instinct, menu/curb appeal and highest density of locals. At the end of the night, I liked going back to read more about the places we’d seen, learning about the backstories of a city, and understanding the cultural importance of the names we saw on statues.

Once I moved abroad to Istanbul in 2010 and constantly clutched a smartphone, my guidebook usage slowed, but I never fully gave it up. English books were expensive and travel plans were made much more freely (weekend in Budapest on Friday? Why not, when it’s a two-hour flight?), but I still tried to cobble together some basic info before going to a new country – stuff like: how much to tip, the best way to get to the airport and the going cost of a bottle of local wine. Basically, stuff that could be found in a guidebook. In many eastern European countries, I found the excellent (and free) In Your Pocket guides, produced by expats and natives, with tips on everything from happy hours to hidden Soviet murals. The guides are available in various digital forms, but I always preferred to find a paper copy, easy to roll up in a purse and read cover-to-cover like a magazine. I experimented with various Kindle books and documents and apps to collect the many links and tips I found before a trip, but found a lot of limitations: poor maps, advice from inexperienced travelers, lack of context and real “meaty” content. Especially when I was stuck with a lack of Wi-Fi, a dead battery or a setting where it would be unwise to flash any form of technology, I’d yearn for an old-fashioned book.

After I return home, I can’t say exactly what happens to my guidebooks. I don’t revisit places often, so I tend to pass on books to other travelers, leave them in airplane seat pockets, or recycle them when I have to purge books. I always liked the idea of keeping them on my bookshelf, a visual reminder of where we’d been, like passport stamps in your living room, but my shelf space can’t keep up with my wanderlust. Many travelers like a printed book so they can make notes and annotations in the margins, but I consider a book a sacred space to be left pristine, though my books are accessorized with receipts, ticket stubs and bar napkins. I keep these artifacts in duty-free bags and hotel envelopes, possibly for a scrapbook I will never make, or for future generations to marvel at the fact that we once paid for hotel Wi-Fi.

Now that we’ve reached the end of an era, what’s to come in the next? Now that anyone with an Internet connection can tap into a local network, or crowdsource restaurant recommendations, is Mr. Frommer and his ilk destined to become a relic of travel, like steamer trunks and airplane ashtrays? I’d say that until apps and social media can overcome the limitations of user-generated content, there’s a niche for printed guidebooks, but the choice of print over digital is more visceral. We need guidebooks as long as there are people who love browsing in bookstores, who appreciate a beautiful map, and who don’t give a damn about being a traveler or a tourist, as long as they are going somewhere.

[Photo credit: Gluten Free Mrs. D via Twitter]

Gadling Guide Review: Bradshaw’s 1862 Guide To London

George Bradshaw was responsible for the development of a series of railway timetables that were an icon of British Victorian travel – they’re mentioned by Sherlock Holmes, Phileas Fogg and there was a 1876 music hall song called “Bradshaw’s Guide.”

I reached my destination, and was going to alight
When she placed her hand upon my arm, and said with much affright
‘Oh Dear Sir, don’t leave me, all alone to ride
What shall I do without you and the Bradshaw’s Guide.’

If you’re fond of Baedeker’s Guides – the essential red, leather-bound book that’s also an icon of the Grand Tour years of travel – you may also find the Bradshaw appealing. You probably want a vintage one, sold for a pretty penny on eBay, perhaps, but for a mere tenner, you can pick up a reissue of “Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London and its Environs.”

A new version of this isn’t going to have the magical ticket stubs or marked pages that one that’s been used in the late 1800s would have, but it does have the pretty little engravings of London’s monuments. It’s got the cramped, hard to read type of 1800s guidebooks, exhaustive details and information that has zero value for today’s traveler – though it would be an amusing exercise to travel with this book as a guide.

What I love about it, though, is what I love about all old guidebooks – the practical information for travelers of another time. Current guidebooks put this stuff at the front; in the Bradshaw’s London guide, it’s all in the back.

There’s an entire section devoted to London churches, complete with the names of their ministers. There are several pages of postal regulations. The table of money for all nations does not include all nations by a long shot, but it does include Prussian, a nation, which no longer exists. There’s a list of “Dissenting Chapels,” begging the question: what is a dissenting chapel? The “Places Worth Seeing” section is alphabetical and lacks description, but opens with cemetery Abney Park. (I looked it up elsewhere; it does indeed seem to be worth seeing, still.)

It’s fun to open the book at random, pick a location, and then, turn to the web to see if it’s still in existence today. This reissue of Bradshaw’s Guide to London is not going to help you if you’re walking around modern London – it neglects to include even one map – but if you’d like to take a virtual tour and do some time travel as well, it’s good fun.

“Bradshaw’s 1862 Guide to London” is available on Amazon for about $10.

[Image: Crystal Palace, London, 1851 via Wikimedia Commons]