WHY I DON’T USE GUIDEBOOKS TO TRAVEL
Inspiration: The First Step to Trip Planning
When I plan a trip, first and foremost, I need inspiration. The exact itinerary and its logistics come after. I first need a story that is full of life and gives me a reason to visit a destination. At the end of the day, the world is full of pristine beaches, charming gardens, and lofty mountains, so how do you choose where to go? You need to experience something that spurs you on toward a beautiful beach instead of the charming garden. Some cosmic event needs to take place that creates a magnetic attraction drawing you to a specific location. But how does one step into such a happening?
Guidebooks: Mini Encyclopedias
Guidebooks are comprehensive and practical one-stop shops of a wealth of information. But, honestly, guidebooks are really not my kind of book. I have used them in the past, but I never really read them. This is because they have a way of making a location feel sterile and lifeless, like a history textbook that takes revolutionary events and turns them into charts and lists of dates, names, and locations.
You see, in a guidebook, a building becomes a pile of stones that have “this” and “that” characteristic. Subsequently you are informed that this pile of stones made of “this” and “that” should be among your Top 10 must-see attractions. Or, a museum is turned into a collection of names of people whom we don’t really know except that one celebrity who is only on the list because curators know it’ll catch your attention. Our eyes roam through the pages of the guidebook lost in between dates, lovely photos if we’re lucky (thankful for that!), names of unknown places we struggle to memorize, and an endless list of restaurants and hotels.
Let’s be honest, there’s no life in a guidebook. They shouldn’t be the starting point when you are planning a trip. Instead they should serve as useful tools to iron out logistics like the opening hours or address of a restaurant, prices for attraction tickets, and other practical information. Because guidebooks provide only a synopsis of experiences available at your destination, you should reference one only after you know what you want to do, see, and experience. Let me just say that guidebooks are not bad. In fact, having one puts you at a distinct advantage, as you now have access to an abundance of information. But I simply believe guidebooks shouldn’t be read, they should be consulted. They are mini encyclopedias and who wants to read an encyclopedia? Guidebooks are for consultation, not for leisurely reading or inspiration.
So, if I don’t read the guidebooks on my shelf for inspiration, what do I do? How do I become inspired for a trip? I select novels and writings about the place I am visiting. I will search my memory for authors who have written about a place I am traveling to. I look for new publications, like beautiful magazine articles or inspiring blog posts about my destination. To compile a well-balanced reading list, I love to also read classic and contemporary authors who write about my travel point (don’t forget to include biographies from classic writers, they’re great!). In a beautiful way, my reading list is never predetermined. Instead, it grows organically as I dive into one author who refers to another or one publication that sends you straight to someone else’s contribution.
Here’s a tip: know that your inspiration may come by way of different avenues. Artists and musicians may come into the picture, adventurers and explorers may wander in, and sometimes it isn’t a person who provides the inspiration, but instead, it is a painting, a church, or a legend that draws your attention.
An Illustration of Finding Inspiration: My Trip to Luxor, Egypt
Recently, I went to Egypt and started my trip planning by reading Letters from Egypt by Florence Nightingale. I began here because I remembered previously reading about Nightingale’s travels along the Nile River. I found that on her voyage she sailed in a dahabiya, a small shallow-bottomed sail boat. As I was perusing this as an option for sailing the Nile, I stumbled upon a very interesting article (Cruise the Nile) in Condé Nast Traveller by Anthony Sattin. I discovered that Sattin had much to say about boating on the Nile. I also found he had written A Winter on the Nile, a story about Nightingale’s travel to Egypt. As it turns out, in 1849 when Nightingale was in Egypt, Gustave Flaubert was also there. Amazingly, although they shared the same itinerary, the two never crossed paths.
This was significant because I now had another lead: Flaubert. I love Flaubert, but I couldn’t recall his travels to Egypt. The next obvious stop for me was then to browse through the copious correspondence of the French author in Madame Bovary and the Sentimental Education to discover his perspective on the country. This led me to check out the works of one of his companions, Maxime Du Camp who wrote Le Nil (Égypte Et Nubie). Du Camp was actually sent to Egypt on a photographic survey mission. As a result, he has an extensive portfolio of travel photography and his books were among the first to include photographs. Could I also not put my hands on a copy of his 1852 published Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie?
These developments were just the beginning of setting the tone for my trip to Egypt. By now I had decided I was going to sail the Nile and, inspired by my reading, I would visit archaeological sites along the river in the same fashion as previous European explorers.
Since a good itinerary is just as much about what you won’t visit as it is what you will, I decided to skip the pyramids and stay in Luxor, Egypt. I picked Luxor because it was the best location to begin a Nile cruise and would allow me to visit remarkable archaeological sites (temples, monuments, museums) described by past travelers. Luxor also offers famous burial sites of ancient Egyptian noble men and women. Thus, I decided to spend time in ancient Thebes, the place where Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End is set and the Pharaoh’s of the New Kingdom decided to be buried. But, because I skipped the pyramids, that also meant I would have to skip the city of Cairo. This was a sacrifice, as Cairo’s atmosphere is one I have longed to experience since watching The English Patient. Although the scenes of Cairo in the film were actually set in Tunis and Sfax, I still have a desire to visit this city one day.
I had also decided to stay away from tourist cruise ships because I wanted to experience the real and authentic Nile journey on a dahabiya as I visited sites that larger boats could not reach. Ultimately, I wanted to have a luxurious experience similar to that of Hercule Poirot in Christie’s Death on the Nile. Despite that he travelled via a steamer, I was still keen on sailing. So, I decided I would go for the same experiences of Monsieur Poirot, but on a dahabiya, to encounter what Nightingale so well describes below.
“And the Nile is the stream of Time; shall we call it God or an emblem of eternity, or rather of the perpetual succession of events amid which we live? Glide up it and the world rolls back; rest at anchor, and the time and events glide downwards past you in their course”.
To get a bit more into the atmosphere of what I was going to see on the trip, I opted to go on a self-guided tour of the Ancient Egypt obsession that hit England in the 19th century. This was the same obsession that led archaeological expeditions that uncovered various tomb’s including Tutankhamen’s (aka, King Tut). Naturally, my next reading was The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. When I finished I knew I would have to stay at the Winter Palace in Luxor and that I had to stand in the exact place where Carter announced the long-awaited discovery of the tomb. I also knew I must find the movie that made an impression on me when I was a child and fostered my early interest in Egyptology, sending me straight to museums in Turin to admire Egyptian treasures. I had to do some archaeological digging in my brain to remember the title. In a sudden moment of great realization, it came to me. The film was The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. Once I remembered, I watched the movie and had a different impression from the one I remember as a small child. Actually, it’s not a movie I would recommend for today, but I enjoyed watching it again after so many years.
By now the trip had taken full shape in my mind. It was inspired by many who had previously experienced Egypt and diligently wrote about it. Suddenly there was life in my list of temples, monuments, and museums. I continued to grow my connection with this country by indulging in movie marathons. I watched Cleopatra, played by the unforgettable Elizabeth Taylor, and The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston plays Moses and biblical Egypt is brought to life in an epic tale. The majestic landscapes on the screen filled my imagination and Herodotus’ Histories echoed in my ears. Finally, the journey I wanted to undertake was clear in my mind and the Egyptian experience I wanted to embark on was well formed. It was only in that moment that I could use a guidebook or even the internet to finalize trip details.
Travel by Inspiration
Travel is so much more than a list of places to visit. Find your inspiration for your trip and use that to design an itinerary that will result in experiences that feed your heart. Then, and only then, should you use a guidebook for consulting and refinement of your planned trip.
I hope my adventure in Egypt is a great example for you to learn from. If you are interested in visiting Egypt, but not interested in the authors and movies I selected for inspiration, know there is so much out there. Some fine examples include the entire Wilbur Smith series: River God, The Seventh Scroll, Warlock, The Questand Pharaoh. Or, if you prefer a more historical approach you can check out Christian Jacq’s fictional Ramses series: The Son of Light, The Eternal Temple, The Battle of Kadesh, The Lady of Abu Simbel, Under the Wester Acacia,and Nefer the Silent. Don’t forget also, Shakespeare had his say about Egypt. Fancy to go and watch a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to when I was trip planning, otherwise it would have been high on my list. For a more relaxed approach and to help the little one’s transition into trip mode, I highly recommend Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny too.
To read more about my Luxor trip and some additional mini guides, check out my blogpost: Three Days in Luxor