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If an article in last week’s Financial Times is to be believed then the end is nigh. Not of all life as we know it. The FT merely predicts that the days of the guidebook are numbered, as ever more travellers switch to online sources to get key information on destinations. The newspaper noted that digital content in real time is now all the rage and reports that new apps like Google Goggles will allow you to snap a pic on your mobile phone and unleash a cascade of information on whatever you happen to be gazing at just now.
Mainstream versus the offbeat
All well and good, if you are staring at the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal. But we wonder whether Google Goggles will be quite so adept at recognising a particular spot on the Russian steppes, the Hungarian puszta or on a remote stretch of Scottish coastline. Catching the essence of landscape, and indeed of most places we visit on our European travels, is about more than merely accessing a gigabyte of data on major landmarks.
What makes a place tick?
Guidebooks are certainly going through a tough time – facing competition from the more critical travel websites. The more innovative publishers are reinventing their products for a web-wise generation. But appreciating a particular place (or even a whole country) needs more than just facts, data and listings.
So it is interesting to note that while the sales of print guidebooks decline, narrative travel writing has gone from strength to strength. The reading public evidently has a considerable appetite for well written prose that really helps us understand what makes a place tick. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital gave us a completely new take on the M25 freeway that encircles London, just as Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus introduced us to 2000 miles of river and 5000 years of history, while Ian Thomson’s The Dead Yard opened our eyes to Jamaica.
The spirit of landscape
We still think it worth browsing a guidebook or two before leaving home. And casting an eye over some travel websites for information on accommodation and to get a feel for the range of reactions to a place is always helpful.
But for really getting under the skin of a region or country, some well chosen narrative travel writing is essential. Travel through southern Russia without a guidebook if you really must, but don’t so much as even think of venturing to the region without having read Philip Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers. Here, we think, even Google Goggles might have met its match.