Author retraces old guidebook
50 years later, tourist draws live up to Frommer’s description
When Douglas Mack unearthed an original 1957 copy of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day, he had an idea: Retrace the path through Europe’s major cities using the book as a guide.
The result? Mack wrote his own book, Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day: One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide (Perigee Trade, $15), which comes out next week. We caught up with the author, 30, at his home in Minneapolis.
Q: When did you start this project?
A: I went to Florence and Paris in 2008 as a test of the concept, then went back and did the rest of the travel (to nine other cities) in 2009.
Q: Was the concept to recreate the $5 a day experience?
A: The original idea was to retrace the paths of my father and mother (who used Frommer’s guidebook on their 1960s trip through Europe). I knew the budget would be tricky. Obviously $5 a day is not a realistic budget anymore. Because I was trying to stay in the same places featured in the book, and because most of those areas are now much more on the beaten path than they were 50 years ago, I knew the budget would be more, if the places were open at all.
But the guidebook led me inadvertently to new places that I would not have discovered on my own.
Q: Was there any place you were thrilled to find was still open?
A: Yes, well, thrilled may not be the right word for it. In Paris there was a restaurant called Le Grand Colbert. Frommer spends half a page describing it, going on and on that it is a classic, very cheap Paris bistro, locals only. So I went there. In the decor and general atmosphere, it was exactly as Frommer had described it. The tricky thing there was that it is now very much on the beaten path. It was an awkward experience because it’s fancier than I had thought it would be. Q: Another example? A: It is clear that some places have accrued recommendations over time, whether through Frommer or another guide book. In Rome there is a particular gelato stand that Frommer said, you have to go there and have this particular specialty of the house, but a lot of people don’t know about it yet. I went there and the gelato — chocolate with cherries — had its own special section on the menu with a fancy border and flowery paragraph describing it, and it was quite overpriced. It’s clear they were coasting on their long reputation.
Q: You mean the book itself was used by so many travellers it ended up shaping the traveller experience?
A: Absolutely. You certainly see that these days. The second any guidebook tells you someplace is undiscovered, it will be discovered by everyone in about five minutes. If anyone says a place is “off the beaten path,” that will not last longer than it takes the ink to dry on the page.
Q: You retraced your parents’ path, and they loved Venice. But you hated it.
A: The thing about Venice is, it is so touristy and there is no such thing as off the beaten path there. In Venice, the tourist volume was cranked up to 12.
A lot of restaurants Frommer recommended were still there. They just weren’t very good. I had a lot of gluey pasta meals.
Q: One limitation of the book was that it only described restaurants or hotels. Did you use it for a guide of what to see?
A: Montmartre in Paris. I didn’t know anything about it or why ’d you want to go. His description was basically a couple lines of things to do in Paris, which included “Montmartre at dusk.” So without any expectations, I went there and had a wonderful time.
Q: What did you find had most changed in Europe since Frommer’s original guide?
A: In modern Europe, cities have attracted people from other continents and experienced a lot of immigration, so a lot of people write off these cities as not authentic. I feel the opposite. A lot of cities offer new authenticity and vibrant diversity in their complexity and messiness. Today in Europe, the most common street food you get is falafel.
Q: Are the major tourist draws in Europe still the same?
A: Not all of them. One example is Barcelona. Back then, during the Franco years, Frommer called Spain an impoverished backwater. . . . Prague is similar. . . . But back then, Frommer didn’t go there, couldn’t go there.