September 23, 2008

Paris with a Baedeker

In preparation for a month long working visit to Paris in July (yes I know, it’s a hard life), I did what any self-respecting tourist would have done a century ago, and snaffled up a Baedeker. There are loads of these old travel guides floating about, and I acquired my 1898 edition of Baedeker’s Paris and Environs for about six quid.

Paris has not changed so much since 1898 to render Baedeker’s street maps obsolete, and I found them very useful (despite the absence of any Metro stations). It would have been a different story, of course, if I’d been dealing with a guide to pre-Haussmann Paris. But I like causing difficulties for myself, so I also took along a print-out of the 1552 ‘Plan de Bâle’. Despite the name, this is in fact a map of Paris. It might as well have been a map of the town in Switzerland though, and my attempts to walk the medieval streets of Paris in the modern city were not very successful – even when I tried to triangulate by means of a copy of Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.

You can read a good account of the history and mythos of the Baedeker guides here. It recounts the no doubt apocryphal but appealing tale of Kaiser Bill taking pains to time his public appearances so as not to disappoint Baedeker’s eager readers. It also relates the less palatable but probably equally apocryphal story that the Nazis relied on Baedeker’s maps for their invasion of Norway, and that Hitler commanded the Luftwaffe on bombing missions in Britain to ‘flatten everything to which Baedeker gives two stars’.

It appears Baedeker did not much like France or the French, and that this is the reason why he delayed so long in publishing the Paris guide. This dislike seldom comes through in the text, but Baedeker (and here I use the name to refer both to the man himself and to the subsequent updaters of his handbooks) is a discriminating guide who has little time for anything that does not meet his exacting standards. Here, for example, he advises travellers to avoid the towns of Northern France, whose scenery is ‘seldom so attractive as to induce a prolonged stay’ and whose identikit collections of boulevards, jardins des plantes and cafés are ‘feeble reproductions’ of their Parisian models, making them ‘mere repetitions of the metropolis on a small scale’.

I think Baedeker is right to say that the architecture that resulted from the ‘vast schemes of improvement carried out in our own days’ (the old Paris was still a recent memory), though imposing, ‘exhibit[s] an almost wearisome uniformity of style’. But I’m not entirely sure that I agree with his estimation of the French character, when he says that the Parisian, ‘accustomed by long usage to [the presence of tourists], is skillful in catering for their wants, and recommends himself to them by his politeness and complaisance.’

Baedeker complains that the tranquillity of the central quarters of the city is often rudely interrupted by the discordant cries of the ‘“old clothes” men’, the ‘crockery-menders’, and the ‘dog-barbers’. Fortunately, these persons are for the most part ‘self-respecting and devoid of the squalor and ruffianism which too often characterise their class’. I was however compelled to disallow the female members of my entourage to accompany me on a stroll around Montmartre, since Baedeker explicitly states that the establishments to be found there are not suitable for ladies.

But my purpose is not to point and laugh at the quirks of our forebears, naïve children that they were and ignorant of the lessons of maturity to be learned by their future and our present. (As if.)

I love the fact that among the many charts and lists included at the back of the book is a lengthy index listing ‘the most important Artists mentioned in the Handbook, with a note of the schools to which they belong.’ You don’t get that in Lonely Planet. And in spite of the desuetude of some of the practical information, one sometimes chances upon pointers in the guidebook that appear to have swung full circle through irrelevancy and back again: for example the instruction that ‘smoking is generally prohibited at the cafés unless there be chairs outside’. (Since the introduction of the smoking ban last year, Parisian café culture now seems to take place more outside than in.)

Included also, in a section entitled ‘Distribution of Time’, is a fiendishly complex table whose calculations derive from arcane algorithms which take into account length of visit, days and times of opening for the various attractions, and estimated expenditure. This was clearly of great use to Baedeker’s readers, and in my edition (whose past owners include a certain K. F. Robinson, and a G. J. Ingles of Whiteladies Road, Clifton) there are marks by two different hands to show which attractions the users intended to visit. These are the only marginalia to be found in the book, unfortunately.

Baedeker will tolerate no half measures, as is apparent from his advice to theatregoers: ‘An intimate acquaintance with colloquial French, such as can be acquired only by prolonged residence in the country, is absolutely necessary for the thorough appreciation of the acting; visitors are therefore strongly recommended to purchase the play to be performed, and peruse it beforehand.’

The Baedeker ethos is pretty far removed from the attitude prevalent among today’s Lonely Planet travellers, whose badge of honour is awarded for having ‘done’ as many countries as possible, as quickly as possible. There is an intensity of purpose that may seem strange to us in Baedeker’s insistence that tourists have a sort of moral obligation not to passively enjoy mere superficial pleasures, but to invest all of their intellectual energies in their experiences.

Speaking of which, I’m reading the great Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books on Greece at the moment. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about them in due course, if anyone’s interested.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful thoughts about the old Baedeker - pleasure to read! I particularly appreciate the comment on moral obligations of tourists to invest their intellectuual efforts into their experiences. Baedeker was, of course, not the only exponent of such thoughts, but rather expressed typical ideas of his time. I am sure that these ideas not only are not 'old-fashioned' but really should be revived in order to oppose the present trend of 'shopping, dining, having fun' which is all about consumerism, and not about intellectual, emotional, spiritual effort and appreciacion of other cultures...
Thnak you!