The World According to Baedeker’s
While few dare to travel these days, there are ways to travel virtually.
Some are going online and planning out luxurious and decadent vacations – but with no intention of booking them. Others gaze at the world through live webcams, a kind of voyeuristic peek into cities we wish we could visit.
One night we logged in a webcam for the Rialto Bridge in Venice and watched a few sleepy gondolas drifted by. It made for a wistful night.
Vintage Baedeker’s are a chance to travel to familiar places, but in a different time altogether.
But there are other ways to travel, even back in time thanks to a well-worn vintage Baedeker guide book.
For the uninitiated, Karl Baedeker was a German publisher who, in 1827 developed diminutive travel guides to countries and cities around the world. Before that, international travel was only for the rich, but thanks to the expansion of roads, steamships, and trains, the middle class was able to see places they had only heard of.
A vintage Baedeker can unlock the secrets of streets, landmarks, businesses and attractions that no long exist.
Several generations of the Baedeker family would go on to expand their travel publishing empire.
The signature little red books – debossed in gold with the name of the city or country – are filled with a bounty of highly detailed maps not to mention step-by-step guides to major museums. Peppered throughout are Baedeker’s out-of-date advice and suggestions about where to stay, eat, and what to avoid. The fun is seeing what still exists and what doesn’t — or discover that the hotel where you once stayed was called something else.
The romantic notion of ruins was a fascination for those taking a “Grand Tour” of Europe. Baedeker made it possible to do so without the need for a guide.
While Baedeker’s guides are still published today, collectors seek out the oldest volumes for their charm, and because they offer a unique step back in time.
In a volume on Switzerland, Baedeker advises travelers on the precise thickness of tweed for hill walking.
Consider that many European cities underwent drastic new master-planning following major world wars, which means a vintage Baedeker can unlock the secrets of streets, landmarks, businesses and attractions that no long exist. Some editions even feature detailed descriptions of works of art in museums which have mysteriously vanished (that certainly happened under the Nazi Regime.)
When not poring over the sometimes dozen or so maps that are neatly folded within each volume, readers can enjoy Baedeker’s quaint recommendations for health and safety when traveling.
It really wasn’t until Karl Baedeker and his guide books that the middle class felt the courage to travel. Here, 19th Century tourists visit the pyramids in Egypt.
For instance, in a volume on Switzerland Baedeker advises travelers on the precise thickness of tweed for hill walking, and warns the elderly about the damp chill in old cathedrals. “As everybody knows, it is harmful to bring an overheated horse to its stall and it is no better for men.”
Those traveling in the tropics are warned not to eat too much fruit and to carry castor oil and charcoal tablets in the event of indigestion.
Some travelers, like Mark Twain, questioned the accuracy of whether Karl Baedeker could really have reached a remote peak above Lake Lucerne in three and a half hours (he was joking, but Baedeker didn’t laugh. He prided himself on his ruthless attention to detail.)
There was one city that took Baedeker years to visit: Paris.
Vintage Baedeker’s are famously filled with minutely detailed maps, sometimes nearly a dozen or more.
Baedeker was virulently anti-French, but of course the City of Light was on everyone’s list. When Baedeker got there his first priority was to see the famous cemetery at Père Lachaise. He was shocked to discover that no one had bothered to map out the famous boneyard, so he set to work to create a detailed tour of the permanent quarters of its famous residents.
The 1929 Egypt edition is considered one of the most collectible because it offers a rare monograph on hieroglyphics. As for the pyramids, Baedeker recommends that the best way to ascend them is by “using three Bedouins, one holding each of your hands and another pushing from behind.”
With World War II, Berlin was a shadow of its former self. An old Baedeker’s allows one to see the city as it was.
I once visited Berlin armed with a 1923 edition of Baedeker’s Berlin and from time to time, used it to find our way through the city. It was a fascinating opportunity to discover just how much Berlin had changed after two World Wars, the second of which nearly leveled it entirely.
With guide in hand, I felt I was simultaneously in the present and the past: for in-between the covers of that book there was no Berlin Wall, no Führer and his bunker or Stasi police. Just Europe’s most cosmopolitan city, full of light and sophistication; elegant cafés and bawdy cabarets. It was another world, one which was innocent to the darkness that would change it forever.
>> Visit the Collector’s Library to see the Baedekers we currently have in stock.