Book Review: A very Rough Guide to Germany
Yep, we had a hunch we might be making a mistake when we did it. One should never throw away old guidebooks. But our bookshelves were indeed getting too full, and the office manager somehow had a point when, having taken a long hard look at our workspace, she moved straight to the point: “I can see why you need the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Germany, but why, oh why, do you still need several obsolete editions too?”
So, when the latest Rough Guide to Germany was published earlier this year, we very reluctantly allowed some old editions to go to that peculiar corner of literary Heaven reserved for guidebooks which have outlived any practical purpose.
Ever better with Bradt
We regret this move. Some guidebooks get better and better with each new edition — and just last week we sung the praises of Bradt Travel Guides in this respect. Their books evolve through successive editions, and one has a real sense of authors revealing an ever-more-intimate understanding of the areas they are describing. But with Rough Guides that is not always the case.
The Rough Guide to Germany is a book with a long history. We have enjoyed using successive editions over a quarter of a century. Under the stewardship of author Gordon McLachlan, the book grew in size and stature. With the 1992 edition, the book topped 1,000 pages, and with the 2004 edition it expanded to a whopping 1,104 pages.
Three new Rough Guide authors at the helm
Times have changed at Rough Guides. New authors are at the helm, and we very much like their writing. James Stewart, Neville Walker and Christian Williams make a superb team, and their confident, authoritative style has brought a real makeover to a well-established title. There is sensitivity for history, a real delight in quirky detail and a passion for German life and culture that combine to make this book an absolute delight to read.
No space for smaller communities and rural regions
That’s the good news. What we are less wild about is that Rough Guides are evidently now trying to skimp and save at every turn. The 2012 edition of the Rough Guide to Germany is so cut-down from the editions of yesteryear and so full of silly errors that we now much regret having discarded the old editions.
These are surely not gripes that can be laid at the door of the authors. The trio of writers who picked up the baton from McLachlan have done Rough Guides proud. We sense the issue is more one of editorial management and attention to detail as the text is fed through to publication.
The page count has been slashed by 192 pages over the last years, and that has been achieved by cutting the descriptions of small towns and rural regions across Germany. The tragedy here is that the material cut by the editors covers precisely those regions which make Germany different from other countries in Europe. Gone are the beautiful accounts of the Frisian region and the Eifel, gone too are the descriptions of smaller communities like Brandenburg-an-der-Havel, Jever, Monschau, Rottweil and Kulmbach.
A very urban Germany
We know that James, Neville and Christian would surely have written with enthusiasm about these places. But presumably the accountants and editors at Rough Guides had other ideas. What we have is a very rough guide to parts of Germany — and it is overwhelmingly a Germany of big cities.
Cut to the detail and we really feel that the writers have been ill-served by their editors, fact-checkers and layout team. Too many threads are left hanging. Oldenburg is commended as a day out from Bremen, but the section on Oldenburg has been cut from the book.
Mischievous advice on travel
Too many facts are fuzzy and misleading. For those keen to escape Bremen on a day trip by bus, the guide advises (on page 747) that there are four or five buses each day to Worpswede. Later in the same chapter, it reminds travelers that there is a frequent bus service from Bremen to Worpswede. The truth lies in between the two renderings. Buses are generally hourly during the week (but with some longish gaps at times), but every two hours at weekends. So neither of the bus details is really correct.
The word frequent is used of selected bus and rail links and can evidently refer to a vast range of service frequencies: anything from every ten minutes to just four times a day.
Missing rail links
The transport information in the new Rough Guide to Germany is often weak. The book suggests rail journeys where none exist and utterly misrepresents the pattern and frequency of train and bus services. It purports to show direct rail links from each major city described in the book, but these are very often plain wrong. So the guide suggests that there are hourly trains from Trier to Frankfurt, Speyer, Stuttgart and Worms. There are simply no direct trains from Trier to any of these cities.
The latest Rough Guide to Germany suggests that no train services exist where there is very good provision and elsewhere, on maps that are woefully out of date, indicates rail routes that closed 20 years ago.
What can we reasonably demand of a guide? Surely, we would expect that those responsible for the details know the difference between east and west. The problems do not lie with the principal text, but in the fact box additions. So Niebüll is described as being northwest of the port of Dagebüll (which would place it in the North Sea). Niebüll is in fact to the northeast. Readers are advised to travel east from Dresden to Radebeul (to catch the train to Schloss Moritzburg). But Radebeul is in fact due west of Dresden.
Reversing the flow of rivers
There are some gems that have been carried forward from the McLachlan era. Those old editions were never perfect (what guidebook ever could be?). McLachlan always had the Rhine flowing from north to south through the Rhine gorge, and that’s an error perpetuated under the new regime. Does no-one at Rough Guides HQ realize that the Rhine flows downhill from the Alps to the North Sea and not vice versa?
On page 534 of the new 2012 edition we read that “Upstream from Rüdesheim, the banks of the Rhine gradually rear up to form a deep, winding 65 km-long gorge.” But no, that gorge is downstream from Rüdesheim, not upstream. Similarly, the guide commends the journey down the Weser River from Hameln (of pied piper fame). The river, advise the authors, “forges south of Hameln.” Actually, the Weser flows northwest through the celebrated gap in the hills at Porta Westfalica. This is one of Europe’s great geographical landmarks. Though one not judged as worthy of even a mention in the Rough Guide to Germany.
Is it any wonder that the guidebook industry is in a mess nowadays? This book has three first-class authors. But we feel they have been let down by their publisher. And we’ve now learned to hang on to old editions of guidebooks.