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Book Review: A very Rough Guide to Germany

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Brandenburg

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.

The Rough Guide to Germany

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.

Hameln and its pied piper survived the Rough Guide cuts. Photo © hidden europe

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.

Cardinal errors

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.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: A very Rough Guide to Germany”

  1. Really liked this article. Such a strong plug by Hidden Europe for three authors they clearly respect. Look what they said:

    “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.”

    So I bought the book, and then went off in search of other good prose by Stewart, Walker and Williams.

    What surprises me is the strong tone with which the authors of the book have responded to the original comments by Hidden Europe. Its tetchy tone makes those authors seem far from the confident and authoritative trio so nicely praised in the original article. That article raised doubts about the editorial direction of Rough Guides. The responses of the authors of the book in question rather made me resolve never again to buy a Rough Guide.

    Reply
  2. We have found the comments here interesting. It was not our intention here to “bash” the writers who surely give their all in compiling the Rough Guide to Germany. Rather, we saw the deficiencies in the book as reflecting a certain casualness on the part of the publisher. Rough Guides probably no longer has teams of in-house editors, probably no longer really “cares” about the accuracy of its books.

    In his thoughtful 5 November comment, Neville Walker ventures some defence for the shortcomings of the book (and he is in fact one of the co-authors). As Neville wisely observes, it is hard for a guidebook to compete against seemingly-free sources of online travel info. Yes, that’s true, but the only way they can compete is in the sheer quality of the information they provide and the quality of the prose in the book. in the latter respect, Neville and his colleagues have done a fine job in the Rough Guide to Germany. But too often the factual details are just plain wrong. That could prove to be a fatal flaw.

    We have both appreciated the various comments here. Thank you all.

    Susanne and Nicky
    editors / hidden europe magazine

    Reply
    1. Fatal flaw? Oh please. Surely if a guidebook has any real purpose it is in representing a destination faithfully and winkling out things a reader might not otherwise find. So, yes, there may be some silly directional errors but you couldn’t call any fatal to the book. Nor is some suspect bus info; hardly surprising when a guide attempts to provide info for a few thousand places and will by its nature date. Personally, i always felt providing frequency info for transport was a hiding to nothing.

      What is fatal for a book is misrepresenting a destination. So by all means stick with the old Rough Guide Germany. But if you do you’ll think Cologne is all about churches and will never find the Belgian Quarter nor its gay scene. You’ll never get to party in Hamburg’s rocking Schanzenviertel, never find its fab dining culture, and you’ll think Berlin was only orchestras and had never heard of clubbing. You’ll never get to visit places like the Darss-Zingst peninsula or the Erzegebirge villages, omitted from the original because they lacked interesting (sigh) churches.

      What you will do with the old book is wander through a Germany of medieval churches and frumpy schnitzel joints, not the dynamic modern country it is. That to me seems fatal, not 2 quibbles about river flow or a few silly directional errors in a 1000pg book. In fact you could say that makes the original book the Very Rough Guide not this edition.

      Reply
  3. Mr Walker: Do I detect a touch a defensiveness here? Perhaps even someone who works for Rough Guides? The article back in September was so generous in tone to the authors of RG Germany, and merely critiqued the publisher. I know this book well, and the factual info is dreadfully unreliable. Do fallible humans who care publish maps that are 20 years out of date? Of course not. It is just sloppy publishers. I hope the team behind this book can find a publisher who can do justice to their work. For, as the article made clear, there is some good writing. But the authority of the book is undermined by the input from RG (or lack or input).

    Reply
    1. Svengali: I’m one of the book’s authors, but I’m not (and never have been) a Rough Guides employee. And of course I would defend my work. I have never knowingly sent a reader the wrong way up a major European watercourse, and if an assertion can’t be proven against first-hand experience or current source material I will usually omit it from the update, even if I was the author of the original.

      As a mere author I don’t have final control over my copy, but when it comes to exasperating errors by the publisher Rough Guides are, in my experience, far from the worst. I’d name names, but I have a living to earn.

      I have some sympathy with what Susanne and Nicky say more generally about the way the industry is heading. The obsession with concision is frustrating. I could think of a dozen additional places in Hesse alone that I’d gladly include in a guide to Germany.

      The origins of ‘skimping and saving’ are, of course, economic. Guidebook publishers have been wrongfooted by the digital revolution and have yet to produce a convincing response to TripAdvisor and co. Lonely Planet were the first to put their titles through the wringer; Rough Guides promptly followed suit, in slightly milder form. Of late publishers’ lists are being squeezed too, stripping out country guides as well as regional spinoffs. Some publishers – notably the AA, for whom I’ve worked in the past – have given up the ghost altogether. As things stand, it’s difficult to see which mainstream publisher would commission a truly comprehensive, 1500-page guide to Germany. However splendid a book that might be.

      Reply
  4. All guidebooks contain mistakes, because they’re written and researched by fallible humans. And all guidebooks exclude. Even Mr McLachlan’s tome couldn’t find space in all its 1000-plus pages for Europe’s longest castle (at Burghausen, on the Austrian border) or for the pretty villages and excellent restaurants of the Deutsche Weinstrasse.

    Traditionally, guidebook publishers reserved a lot of the more offbeat, remote or rural sights for their regional guides, but these titles are gradually disappearing from their lists.

    You don’t have to look far to find the reason. An internet-savvy generation increasingly expects to get its travel information free. Tourist board websites are scarcely unbiased; crowd-sourced hotel reviews are not always what they seem. But you don’t have to pay for them. It’s very, very hard for a book to compete against that.

    Reply
  5. I work for another publisher and all I can say is ‘Hear, hear.’ Of course the authors of this piece are precisely right, and what they say of Rough Guides is true, in varying degrees, of other publishers too. The writers unpack some tough issues here, and do so in the most gracious manner imaginable. These points deserve a wider airing, but we in the publishing world have all become too defensive. Presumably the writers are not looking to write for Rough Guides???? Good that they spoke out (and, from what I gather, not just here).

    Reply
  6. wonderland without alice

    Nice one. So the guide mainstreams on bigger places – just the ones I could find out about online. Doesn’t make sense. Why don’t Rough Guides focus on rural regions and smaller towns that are less well covered online? That would make sense.

    Reply

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