»  A Not-So-Grand Tour of Europe with a 1963 Frommer's guide.

Train station photo booth in Madrid.



This is the tale of what happens when an inexperienced traveler decides to tour Europe and its overrun sites with a hopelessly outdated guidebook, a 1963 edition of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day.


And why would I do a not-so-wise thing like that? Well ... Let's start at the top.


It began as most things in my life do: awkwardly.


It was an October morning and I was at a book festival in downtown Minneapolis, killing time before meeting my mother, Patricia, with whom I was going to attend one of the readings. As I browsed through a table of musty secondhand volumes, I chuckled at all the ridiculous titles, things like The Tao of Tea Cozies and How to Get Rich in 2,451 Easy Steps. My eyes landed on one called Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Right, I thought. Good luck with that.


I’d heard of the book before, of course, and I knew, in the abstract, that the promise of its title was once feasible. Now, though? Now it seemed about as laughably outdated as those medieval maps with the areas outside of Europe unmarked but for the warning “here be dragons.”


I soon learned that this book, first released in 1957, essentially invented the modern guidebook—leading the way for the likes of Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Rick Steves. It also coincided with a tipping point in tourism—in the late 1950s, Europe welcomed (or at least tolerated) some 800,000 American visitors annually, a number that rose to 4 million by the early 1970s and to nearly 9.8 million in 2010 (down from a peak of 12.3 million in 2007).


One of those early tourists, as it happens, was my mother, who in 1967—the UN’s International Tourist Year—set off with a copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day to explore the continent for ten weeks. She and my father exchanged dozens of letters and postcards, all of which they have kept stashed in shoeboxes for four decades.


As I paged through that book and those letters, it all seemed so laughably outdated: the low prices, the surreal-sounding nightclubs, the Cold War undertones, the breathless wonder and delight with which both Frommer and my mother described European travel on what we now call the beaten path, the tourist trail.


So. Off I went.


Guided solely by my parents’ correspondence and my obsolete guidebook--no modern guides, no internet research--I sought to re-trace the old hippie backpacker route, to see how far I could get using those documents and nothing else, to connect the dots between that era of travel and my own, to understand just how the beaten path got so beaten.


Predictably, this led to more than a few misadventures. I got lost in “the Piazza della Sketchiness” in Florence and crashed the world’s largest human mosaic in Madrid. I discovered the Louvre is no longer free on Sundays, and the guards aren’t pleased if you try to sneak in. In Vienna, I got stalked by men in Mozart costumes; in Rome, I stayed in a hotel in Rome that is the very definition of lost glamour, a place where Elizabeth Taylor stayed in the 1960s, but which is now a shabby shadow of its former self.


But I also discovered the surprising joys of staying firmly on the beaten path, how to find the hidden, unexpected delights in the midst of the crowds, and how to just stop worrying and love the cliches.


Spanning eight countries and spending far more than five dollars a day, Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day is the tale of my journey into the Brave New Old World of the modern European tourist experience and examination of how that experience has changed—and has stayed exactly the same—in the last generation.


BY THE NUMBERS: Truly bizarre nightclubs Frommer recommends in Berlin: at least 3 ... Number featuring horses you can ride on the dance floor: 1 ... Number still open today: 0 ... Level of my relief when I realized I would not, therefore, be required to ride a horse in a nightclub: immense ... Times Lee made me consume seriously weird foods/drinks out of "spirit of adventure": at least 5 ... Languages mangled (not including English): 5 ... Average number of languages used in each of my typically-flustered attempt to order pastries: 3 ... Example of such ordering: "Deux croissant und ein jugo de naranja, please."





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