Classic Travel Books

There is something peculiarly fascinating about old travel guide books…

A Wayfarer in Belgium by Fletcher Allen (1934)

During the doldrums of an unusually rainy Winter here in Belgium which has been an anathema to any motivation to hike and finding myself lacking in material for my blog, a recent surge of inspiration has led me to devote a portion of my blog to pay homage to what I consider to be a backbone of my love for travel and the narratives of my blog. It has nothing to do with beer or breweries, but something I call the Classic Travel Book. A rather generic name, I know, and not one which I am rushing out to trademark or claiming achieves my personal creative high-water mark. What it is can easily be literally translated. It is a book. It is old. And it has something to do with travelling. Were that all it is, then this post could end right here. Click the back button on your browser and be done with it. But I would not be sitting here whiling away a chilly, frosty Saturday writing about it, about them, if that is all they were.

What is a Classic Travel Book?

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a quaint cafe, outdoors in a beautiful European square, your eyes scanning the buildings and façades admiring the old architecture, the decorative towers and turrets with their provocative little shuttered windows which seem to hide secrets and storybook little rooms behind them, and then your eyes scan at street level and you see a Burger King or a hair salon or a shoe store? Then you sip your beer and the beer has been presented to you as if it has been around as long as the cafe and the cafe has been around as long as the buildings and the buildings have been around as long as the city and somewhere in this chain of logic, everything starts to dissolve and what you are left with is that the charm you have been experiencing suddenly has a new companion, called questioning authenticity, and the marriage of these two leads to curiousity and brings you to a higher level of consciousness of time and place and is in fact the first step towards truly connecting with your travels. Does this even sound familiar at all? Well, the Classic Travel Book is for me a conduit of this consciousness.

Let’s be real. Sitting at a cafe in a European square in view of a Burger King does not make it unauthentic. That is the authenticity of the modern tourist experience. But it may not feel authentic to you. What is it that you hope will happen when you visit a place like Bruges, for example? That you will see charming buildings and little cobblestone streets and pretty canals and what? What does it all mean? How we connect with our travels is almost as individual as our music tastes. The movie In Bruges is the perfect example of this. The filmmaker based the movie on his personal experience visiting Bruges, being wowed by the cuteness of it and then quickly becoming bored to death. This is represented by the two main characters, one who spends his time in Bruges giddily visiting all the sites with his guidebook and savoring a beer like each sip contains the very essence of Bruges history, while the other is completely annoyed by the whole place. The experience I look for is to exist in the modern world but visit the place in another era… as a tourist. I don’t want to be dropped into the middle of a battlefield during a war or experience life in a castle in the Dark Ages, but I want to see that battlefield or that castle as tourists saw it 100+ years ago. I want to see what someone saw as they were sipping a beer at the predecessor of that cafe as they were looking around that square. What was the authentic tourist experience before things changed? What things you may ask? The main tipping point for me is World War I. As an American or as one of the Allies in both World Wars, a good part of our identity, at least down to a certain age group probably, is associated with the outcomes and roles in those wars of our respective countries. Who were we before then? What were the historical highlights that tourists from America or Great Britain took interest in when they visited places like Belgium before you had Flanders Fields, Ypres, the Normandy landings, and the Battle of the Bulge? And who were the Belgians before there was Duvel and Westmalle Tripel? Postcards are a pretty nice way to get glimpses of what tourists would have seen long ago, and I do have a small modest collection. But it is the Classic Travel Book that puts flesh and bone to an era gone by.

What is a Classic Travel Book… in a literal sense?

Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, naturally it would not have been as easy for the average citizen of the world to travel abroad as it is today. The authors of these books tend to have a scholarly or artistic profession or be involved in some government position (or married to one). These are not guidebooks with recommendations or ratings and spoon fed history. In today’s Information Age, a travel book typically condenses the mass amount of available information into digestible and handy nuggets. The books of Rick Steves are great examples of this. Whatever is missing can be easily looked up elsewhere. But a Classic Travel Book from the aforementioned era resulted from the author immersing themselves into a culture and describing everything including history and art in great detail. In a way, they have a journalistic sensibility to them as if their purpose was to put these places into words for all posterity before they are lost. Guidebooks as we know them today with hotel recommendations and timetables and short blurbs about each site also existed in those days (e.g. Baedekers). These helped a traveler get around and know what to see, but for someone back home in the USA or Great Britain, guidebooks like that wouldn’t give you the sense of being there. And where else was there to look? These Classic Travel Books would have been the ultimate armchair travel experience. I don’t know what the sales of these types of books were or whether a typical housewife in Kansas ever picked one up dreaming of the opportunity to one day travel to these places. Maybe these books only circulated among the wealthier population who themselves had the means to follow in their footsteps. But I can say, for my purpose, they are invaluable to connecting with my travels and are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for my blog writing.


With every Classic Travel Book that I will present on this blog, I attempt to disseminate whatever information I can about what clues it gives about drinking culture. One characteristic I find fascinating about many of these books, particularly those about Belgium, where today the beer culture is a huge part of its persona, is how little is actually described about drinking and where to drink. (To be fair, tales of fries, chocolate, and waffles are not mentioned either). For sure, these authors sat down at a cafe and had a beer, tea, or coffee during their travels. But it seems like this type of experience was not significant enough to elaborate, as if every place that sells beer has only “Herberg” or “Estaminet” on the sign and nothing else to distinguish itself from the next watering hole. Maybe that was true in Belgium back in the day. This is in stark contrast to England where there are many books just on the subject of the names of drinking establishments alone. In lieu of drinking culture, these Classic Travel Books are devoted to other subjects. Of course, there are a lot of observations about other aspects of society. Some enlightening and some stuck in the mindset of the era. One example of the latter is the rush to judgment that many of these authors make in generalizing an entire society based on the observed behavior of a few, which would not be welcome (I hope) in any travel book published today. This can make these books from this era sometimes have a prejudiced vibe, particularly when the observations are in a negative light. However, the appreciation for history and art, especially in relation to subjects which today would seem obscure, comes across with a genuine enthusiasm. These authors would have been part of the privileged few who were able to visit the places where this history happened and that sincere interest comes out when names such as Charles the Bold or Margaret of Palma are evoked in a manner so matter of fact as to be well-known historical celebrities. Today, these names would drain thru the sieves of our brains instantly when we read them from an information panel. It is these differences in the touristic experience that are so compelling to me and why these Classic Travel Books are a companion to my journeys. They always ensure the next time I am discombobulated by a fast food joint in a historical location, I can pick one up, smell the musty pages, and step back in touristic time.


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