Recently I came across an old Baedeker travel guidebook, published in 1912. Sporting a red cloth cover with "Baedeker's Southern Italy" stamped upon it in gold, the 508-page volume encompasses Naples, Sicily, Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii and points in between.
According to its preface, the book sets out to "save the traveler many a trial of temper, for probably nowhere in Europe is the patience more severely taxed than in some parts of Italy." As you can see, guidebooks were not as culturally sensitive then as they are today.
German publisher Karl Baedeker, born in 1801, once set the standard for authoritative, reliable guidebooks. He was the first to include practical information for the traveler, giving specifics for accommodations, transportation, restaurants and such. Baedeker guides were famously detailed -- it certainly seems as if every fresco, mosaic, statue and marble column in southern Italy is accounted for in this book.
The guides were published in several languages and updated often -- this volume is the 16th edition of "Baedeker's Southern Italy."
Here's a look at the advice given to vacationers in Italy, circa 1912.
On public transportation: "The donkey-drivers have an unpleasant habit of inciting their animals to the top of their speed when passing through a town or village, and it is as well to warn them beforehand that their 'mancia' (tip) will suffer if they do not go quietly through the streets."
On eating well in Italy: "Italian customers have no hesitation in ordering away ill-cooked or stale viands, and they often inspect the fish or meat before it is cooked and make a bargain as to the price."
Or, not so well: "Restaurants of the first class do not exist in Southern Italy; even in Naples good French cookery is to be found only in the large hotels."
On packing light: "Travellers who confine their impedimenta to articles that they can carry themselves and take into the (rail) carriage with them will be spared much expense and annoyance."
Much of the information is presented in a walking tour format, and the author is always with the reader: "At a large red house we turn to the left into the lane called Vico Alberi and ascend through an olive grove to the church of Alberi."
And then there are the interesting glimpses of early 20th-century Italian life: "The herds of goats which are driven into the town every morning and evening will attract the stranger's interest. The animals enter the houses and sometimes ascend even to the highest story to be milked."
Despite the quaint language and disdainful view of the Italians themselves, some of the book's advice still rings true today: Don't wander down lonely alleys after dark, learn a few key words of the language, and know that if you visit Sicily in the middle of August, you will experience "the fierce rays of an Italian sun."
One thing certainly hasn't changed: Italy is still an enormously popular vacation destination, and travelers continue to stroll the piazzas of Rome and museums of Florence, guidebooks in hand. Contrary to 1912 perceptions, today it's hard to find a bad meal in a country known for its wonderful cuisine. And, as far as I know, Italy is now free of lead-footed donkey drivers.
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