A Canon of “Must-Sees”

Guidebooks (GBs) have set the sightseeing agenda for millennia. They defined the “7 Wonders of the World,” now groups of sites – ancient, modern, architectural, and so on. Herodotus’ travelogues (5thC, BCE) remain among the most popular guidebooks ever written. GBs established Jerusalem as the new Delphi for medieval pilgrims. They instructed young noblemen grooming for careers in politics or diplomacy on the do’s and don’ts of the obligatory Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century. GBs’ made the Cathedral at Santiago de Campostella the final resting place for St. James. It is now a multi-billion dollar tourist destination, though by all non-fiction accounts the Apostle never got close to the place. Credit GBs, too, for convincing us that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is the world’s most treasured piece of art, when they capitalized on the wild publicity surrounding its theft in 1901.

Guidebooks tell us what to do, how to dress, where to go, eat, and stay, and what to see. They turn us into planners instead of wonderers. GBs take us away from the “Tao of Travel” (my term), the serendipitous joy of a surprise discovery, an encounter, an epiphany. In his marvelous, endlessly interesting and erudite Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook, Nicholas Parsons says:

Guidebook authors do sometimes resemble the mythical Oozlum bird, able to fly backward, not knowing where it is going, but where it has been… Guidebooks can miss the real countryside… taking us to heritage sights and sanitized museums…

Trying to experience guidebooks’ implied promises of romance or adventure or heightened self-awareness is like “trying to escape death.” Parsons takes us on GBs’ journey through the centuries, affirming guidebooks’ fundamental premise, one R. L. Stevenson succinctly summed up: “There are no foreign lands. It is only the traveller who is foreign.


–– Tucker Cox

After working and living in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo and managing a small, high tech company, Tucker Cox taught marketing at The University of Georgia. He recently completed a Master of Liberal Arts at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Tuck’s lifetime travel goal is 100 countries and 7 continents. His current status is 87 and 6, Antarctica excepted.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Movies and the Mafia | Z e t e o

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