19 April 2011

A guidebook for the forgotten tourists

This article from the Times is several months old, but new to me:
For almost three decades beginning in 1936, many African-American travelers relied on a booklet to help them decide where they could comfortably eat, sleep, buy gas, find a tailor or beauty parlor, shop on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, or go out at night. In 1949, when the guide was 80 pages, there were five recommended hotels in Atlanta. In Cheyenne, Wyo., the Barbeque Inn was the place to stay.
The story also provides an interesting example of guidebook as snapshot of a particular historic and cultural moment--because they are, in a sense, a how-to manual for everyday life, they can provide all kinds of unvarnished insights into the cultural norms of an era ... for better or for worse. In this case, the Times headline gets at the underlying story: "The Open Road Wasn’t Quite Open to All." Read the whole article here.

On a related note, one interesting thing I learned in my book research was that, even through the 1950s and 1960s, there was a strong tradition of middle class African-American tourists traveling to Europe not just to see the sites but because they knew they would encounter less racism, and be able to travel more freely, across the Atlantic. For more on that ... you'll just have to wait a year for the book (and then turn to the Vienna chapter). Or check out Christopher Endy's Cold War Holidays.

11 April 2011

Questions, answers, alpacas, graphs ...

Hello to everyone who got here from my Q&A with travel writer Alexis Grant on her blog. Thanks for stopping by.

And if you haven't read it, well, head over there and see what I said. Topics include how I got my book deal, why I think writing voice is so important, the joys of the beaten path (but of course), the graph that guided my entire writing process, and alpacas riding unicycles. Kind of. Well, they're mentioned, anyway.

Go. Read.

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: Berlin edition

Lee and I took a walking tour of central Berlin, which started near the Brandenburg Gate, on the former East Berlin side. Our meeting point: a Starbucks. Right next door to the Museum Kennedy.

The plaza on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate feels like just another European central square, teeming with tourists and street performers and souvenir-vendors (in this case, a guy dressed as a WWII Russian soldier, selling WWII-related trinkets; you can see him the the second photo below) and random costumed characters of unknown significance. It's a classic example of Berlin's split personality and seeming inability to decide if it wants visitors to focus on the memorials and museums and reminders of the city's tangled, sometimes-terrible history ... or just to overload on the standard tourist schlock.

Some not-so-flattering photos of the Gate and the adjacent plaza:

And here's another interesting photo of Berlin. See the odd line of cobblestones cutting through the parking lot and running into the Marriott?

Or rather, in this small version of the photo, see the orange arrow in the lower left corner? Okay, now see the thing it's pointing to, the thing that looks like it could maybe possibly be a line of cobblestones? Just trust me: that's what it is.

That's the former line of the Berlin Wall.

04 April 2011

The European Tourist Trap Finals

In honor of tonight's NCAA men's basketball championship game, I present to you a different sort of bracket: the European Tourist Trap Finals, featuring head-to-head match-ups between the finest-slash-tawdriest the Old World has to offer. Click for the large version.

Here's a close-up of one of the regions:

Round-by-round recaps:

First round
Over in the Art (Or Something) Region, two major favorites faced off in our very first match-up: Michelangelo's David, always a solid contender, versus press darling Mona Lisa. All that recent attention must have gotten to Mona Lisa's head, though, because she just couldn't stand up to the valiant war hero, though it was a close match-up. Meanwhile, tabloid star Manneken Pis had his way with oft-ridiculed Glockenspiel, making the most of the crude-but-innovative form that got him here in the first place.

Hofbrauhaus was the early favorite over in Food & Booze, and it played the part in its first-round challenge against Alt-Berliner Biersalon. This one was never close—Hofbrauhaus just has a deeper bench and a huge advantage in the intangibles: the tubas, the lederhosen, even the sports drinks. Casa Botin also lived up to its reputation, stopping stuffy Parisian comer Le Grand Colbert; this one turned pretty quickly into Death in the Afternoon, as the Spaniard was unstoppable.

Among the Big Ol' Monuments, many expected an impressive run from Checkpoint Charlie, on the strength of having overcome so much adversity in recent years. The Colosseum had other plans in mind, however, and showed off its gladiator spirit in the win; it also seemed to be carrying the extra weight of an entire city, as the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain both fell in enormous upsets in earlier rounds. The Italians had less luck in the other regional match-up, however, with Florence's Duomo falling to late French resistance and the Eiffel Tower's deceptively intricate efforts.

Finally, in the Public Space Region, Vienna's Prater couldn't take advantage of its towering star in the middle—the rest of the team looked like a bunch of clowns and carnies, to be honest—and fell hard to Montmartre. And in an intriguing contest between two waterway-based public spaces, Amsterdam's Red Light District made all kinds of questionable decisions, basically rolling right over and submitting to Venice's Grand Canal.

Second Round
The action resumed with a classic David-versus-Urinating-Toddler contest. Advantage: the Wee Whizzer, Manneken Pis, although he had continued foul trouble throughout. In a huge upset, Casa Botin beat out Hofbrauhaus, which many had expected to go all the way. Casa Botin credits its age and experience, as well as its cuchinillos. The monument showdown featured two of the biggest names out there, with the Colosseum cracking quite a bit as time wore on but barely eking out the victory over the Eiffel Tower, which too many times squandered its height advantage by failing to elevate quickly. Montmartre continued its strong run, and though its match-up with the Grand Canal featured several highlight-reel shots, the Parisians had the upper hand.

Man-oh-Manneken Pis!! The “irreverent little chap” just kept surprising us with his cheeky play and jaw-dropping creativity and ability to do anything and everything—this kid seems to wear all kinds of hats, and wear them well. Casa Botin superfan Ernest Hemingway had to be escorted from the premises mid-way through the competition for reasons unknown. Solid-but-not-flashy Montmartre kept doing well for itself in the other semifinal, showing off its own spunk and standing proud like a quiet but sacred city on a hill. A powerful showing.

Parisian stalwart Montmartre had the best stuff in the end, starting with a solid foundation, a great outlook, and overwhelming crowd support. Manneken Pis ran out of his supply of tricks, but returns a hero nonetheless. He'll be back, no doubt, although someone really needs to help him fix his dribbling problems.

On that note, thank you all for being a part of this amazing competition, and we'll see you next time on the beaten path!