The Dutch philosopher and theologian Erasmus considered learning about the world a major point of our existence. “The world is my monastery,” he once wrote. What he meant was that the entire world belonged to him, was his to learn about, his to study, his to see. I feel much the same way. I want to learn about and see what I can of this great world of ours, both its past and its present. I want to participate in history by learning as much as I can about a place or a thing and then go see it. There is nothing quite like reading about D-Day and then wandering Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery just up on the bluff, nothing quite like studying the role of Christianity in the rise of the West and then spending some hours in Chartres Cathedral.
Good travel begins with this kind of desire. But if you take off without the kind of preparation mentioned above then Erasmus’ monastery will be closed to you. You will be just another tourist wandering around wondering what it is you are supposed to be looking at. Preparation is the key to a great tour of Europe. Your trip will be rewarding, educational, and a lot more fun if you will take the time beforehand to study, to plan, to dream!
One of the best investments you can make in your trip is to purchase and study a couple of good guidebooks. People often balk at this idea because a good guidebook can cost upwards of $20. But think for a minute – you are making a major cash investment in this trip, and it is penny wise and pound foolish not to spend a few dollars on a good guidebook that can give you great information and turn your trip into a million dollar experience. A good guidebook well studied in advance is priceless preparation for even the shortest of trips abroad. Good guidebooks offer a wealth of information about what you really must see and do as well as some of the obscure, overlooked gems that can help make your trip so very memorable. The provide suggestion on what and where to eat, where to shop, where to find a bathroom (always a challenge), laundry facilities, opera tickets, and opinions about what to avoid. Equipped with a good, well read guidebook or two and a good plan your trip will be most wonderful!
There are lots of guidebooks out there. There are even guidebooks about guidebooks! Before you rush out and buy one, take time to browse through the options. Go sit in the travel section of Barnes and Noble and thumb through the various types. Which ones do you like? Do they have the kind of practical information you want about sights and services? Too much historical information, or not enough? Will you study this one and use this one, or is that other one with all the pictures more to your liking? Compare the brands to see how they differ.
There are two or three brands that I quite like. The Michelin Guides are great. They are heavy in the kind of historical information I like, and they have good maps. For the traveler who wants to learn a lot, the Michelin guides are tough to beat. They are a little light on practical information, however.
Eyewitness guides and pricey and popular due to their unique format – lots of color pictures and illustrated birds-eye views of each featured town section by section. I find they cover the modern culture of the cities quite well, with great cafŽ and restaurant information, nightlife, and music options.
Rick Steves of Public Television fame has written some very good no nonsense guidebooks that focus only on select major sights and a few out of the way places, with frank, opinionated information about the relative worth of each place. In his own words; “I have been very selective. There are plenty of great countryside palaces in England. I recommend just the best one.” He has great restaurant information that will help you save lots of money and eat better than most tourists, and he has great self-guided tours of many of Europe’s great museums and city walks. I highly recommend his books, but don’t expect glitz.
Read books! You know where you are going, and a little reading of history won’t hurt you one bit. Talk to those you know who have traveled through Europe before or who may have lived there. Talk to a World War II veteran. Go to the library. Take notes. Dream! If you have not made some plans regarding your free time you will spend those hours sitting in your hotel room contemplating your navel. Don’t let Europe idly pass you by because you didn’t do some preparation before you left.