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THE NEW TRAVELLERS' BIBLES
Slightly fuller version of the article published in COUNTRY LIFE, 15-22 December, 2010

The all-embracing guide-book was an ubiquitous feature of travel in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a time when commercial publishers, such as the AA, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Cadogan Guides, Dorling & Kindersley created world-wide lists, competing for shares in an expanding market-place with ever more lovely isometric sketches, detailed maps, impeccable research and authoritative advice about absolutely everything. Having travelled with a notebook on behalf of many of these companies, I have nothing but gratitude for them, though there was always something of an Oscar Wilde curse about the nature of the work, (destroying the thing you loved) by helping turning a charming old café beloved by locals into a tourist-ridden photo-opportunity, or pointing out the way to an unspoilt mountain village or undeveloped beach..and its ultimate destruction. The process heated up even further when clever British publishers started selling foreign language editions, creating television documentaries, CDs, travel magazines and exclusive deals with chain book stalls to reinforce their big-business brands.

Then nemesis struck, or rather crept-in, in the form of the web ­ providing up-to-date information, even menus and photographs of hotel rooms, and offers of bargain rates - all for free. So over the last decade the sale of guide-books has been declining, by about ten per cent a year, year after cumulative year. Which turns out not to be such a bad thing after all. For the branded guide-books tended to created rat-runs and tunnel vision, pushing tens of thousands of tourists and back-packers towards the same destinations, the same shops and hotels. Whilst the ungovernable worldwide web offers up endless choice and the opportunity for small, family-run businesses to make direct connections with their customers. At the same time there has also been a gentle re-emergence of the passionate, amateur guide-book writer who knows (and cares for) their chosen area like the back of their hand. They care not a whiff about hotels, let alone a gift shop or a tourist information office, and there can be something of the unworldly scholar about them ­ but as you will see below, that again is not such a bad thingŠ

Philip Kenrick, TRIPOLITANIA (Libya Archaeological Guides) as published by Silphium Press, £15, ISBN 978-1-900971-08-9 Having led over a dozen expeditions to look at the classical and Islamic remains of Libya, I was ready to rip into any errors when I was first asked to review this 224 paperback, but instead became a devoted fan. Kenrick gets everything right, knocks over some hoary old chestnuts on the head in the process and wins your trust with his depth of experience, on-site knowledge and open-hearted enthusiasm. A worthy successor to Haynes (our man amongst the Roman ruins of Libya back in the 50s) he is currently involved in creating an Arabic version (so that Libyans can learn to love their classical heritage) with companion volumes eventually planned for Cyrenaica (Greek-influenced Eastern Libya) and the vast expanses of Libyaıs Sahara.

Kent R Weeks, The Illustrated Guide to Luxor ­ Tombs, temples and Museums, AUC (The American University in Cairo Press) ISBN 977-424-800-7 I was at first rather dismissive of this book, which looked too much like a souvenir ( as it is thick and hefty with a gorgeous spread of colour photographs ) but when I noticed that our lecturer kept dipping into it before giving us an evening talk over cocktails ­ whilst we floated up the Nile on a dahabiya ­ I began to pay closer attention. It is in fact a wonderfully succinct, unpompous and precise guide to the bewildering amount of information that your eyes will be bombarded with in middle Egypt. For in terms of quantity, let alone quality, Luxor contains at least half the still standing treasures of ancient Egypt ­ but beware, for some reason it is rather difficult to track down copies of it when in Egypt. Kent Weeks brings extraordinary authority in his wake, for he has been working as an Egyptologist for some 45 years, arguably even longer if you start from his childhood conversion to the subject ­ aged 8.

Ross Burns, Monuments of Syria Not a new book it is true, but recently updated ­ and Syria is very much in favour with the chattering, travelling Country Life reading classes at the moment. It has far too much information for a first-time fleeting week-long tour of Syria, but if you get addicted to the country, you will find Ross Burnsıs detailed, albeit it dry, coverage of all the classical sites, completely invaluable. He achieved this on the side, as it were ­ from his day job, which was Australian ambassador to Syria and Lebanon between 1984 and 1987. An interesting enough time in itselfŠthough since retiring from the diplomatic service, he has plunged himself even further back into the classical history that he read as a young scholar at Sydney.

Peter Strafford, Romanesque Churches of France, published by Giles de la Mare, isbn 1-900357-24-0 How do you avoid the crowds in France - without turning your back on one of the fascinating, interesting and delicious places on earth? Certainly not by following the Michelin guide into the burbling Babylon of a three star site. But this summer, armed with Strafford, I returned to a part of France I thought I knew well (after 16 years of summers in my father-in-lawıs villa) and discovered an enchanted other landscape of unvisited churches, covered in frescoes and carved writhing monsters, even if at times I had to borrow the keys from old farmers wives surrounded by her cow herd. Like having Simon Jenkins all to yourself - and there is a sister volume on Spain on its way soon, created by a journalist who after 30 years as a correspondent for the Times, hasnıt stopped digging for the truth.

The Holy Land, Jerome Murphy-OıConnor, Oxford Archaeological Guides. The problem with any book about the Holy Land, is that it very soon becomes obvious which version of Holiness is being promoted ­ Jewish, Muslim or Christian (with each of the three faiths seemingly riven into 73 antagonistic branches). Somehow Murphy OıConnor, though a Catholic priest and a Professor of New Testament, rises above all the contention and the politicized history. Remaining respectful of all faiths, neither gullible nor yet cynical, with his feet firmly placed in archaeology with a lifetime of local knowledge and quiet pride in his adopted homeland.

Mary Miers, The Western Seaboard ­ an illustrated Architectural Guide, The Rutland Press, RIAS, ISBN 978-1-873190-29-6 There are literally hundreds of beautiful coffee-table books on the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ­ but the facts about this tumultuous region, scattered with ruined castles, roofless crofts and 19th-century shooting lodges are notoriously difficult to pin down. That is until this thirty-year long labour of love and scholarship was published just two years ago. It is like a Pevsner in authority, but with all the good bits - the oral heritage of wit, wisdom and clan murders left in. Such as the complaint of a new bride to her chieftain-husband that Œher fatherıs hens were better housedı and how the castle that he subsequently built for her Œwas destroyed by fire on the day he was mortally wounded at Sherrifmuir in 1715.² Since publication of the Western Seaboard, she has also edited a collection of the poetry of place of this region, all whilst holding down a day-job in London, at one of Britainıs most prestigious weekly magazines, and continuing to live in her Highland home.

Nigel McGilchrist, McGilchristıs Greek Islands, published by Genius Loci This is the sort of achievement that in any other country would earn you a medal, a complete island-by-island survey of all the historical monuments in the Aegean. Making use of every known source, but ultimately trusting only his own eyes. You can just acquire the island guide that you are interested in, whilst paid-up Hellenophiles can get all twenty in a box set. I havenıt had the opportunity to check it on the ground yet (it has literally just been published two weeks ago) but a chance browse brought up this description of Grammata, Œnamed from dozens of votive inscriptions, mostly ancient, but some Byzantine and Medieaval ­ scratched on the rocks by mariners who took refuge from stormsŠ.they are one of the strangest and most evocative ancient sights in the Cyclades.² And McGilchrist should know, after thirty years as a Professor of Art-history living, swimming, studying and lecturing in the Mediterranean, who having updated the Blue Guide just carried onŠeven he ultimately had to set up his own press, Genius Loci, to achieve it.

Richard Goy, Venice ­ An Architectural Guide, Yale University Press, £14.99, isbn 9780300148824 Only a brave or a foolish man would try and jostle himself in amongst the presiding champions of Venice and her long history. You only have to whisper the mantra, ŒJohn Julius Norwich, Jan Morris, Hugh Honour and Guilio Lorenzettiı to understand the competition. But by stripping back on galleries and art history, and focusing his principle attention on a walking tour of architecture (and the social history of the buildings) Richard Goy has added a wonderful depth of knowledge to that most written about of all cities and that most pleasant occupation of all - a street-strolling flaneur of Venice.

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