Karl’s Little Red Book

Fascinated by how travel has changed over the centuries, it is perhaps no surprise that we have amassed a small collection of antique guidebooks – everything from Murray’s Handbooks to the occasional Guide Bleu, a treasured Touring Club Italiano and numerous Baedekers.  When leafing through the dusty corner shelves of second-hand bookshops, there is nothing better than spotting the faded red cover of a fin de siècle Baedeker in the hope that it’s a title hitherto unpurchased.  There is a certain joy in opening a well-thumbed guide and pondering the lives and travels of the former users.  When you unfold one of the beautifully produced maps, your horizons melt before your eyes, only to swim back into focus decades before, as you conjure a formally dressed northern European couple in awe at the sight of a Greco-Roman temple or Baroque palazzo.  We say northern European because Baedeker, of course, was a German company.  Guides were produced before they started and a veritable plethora came after, but Karl Baedeker became so successful his name was almost synonymous with the genre.

Just what did these early guides make of Sicily?  How did they represent the island?  In the following paragraphs we’ll look at some of their opinions and recommendations.  We won’t confine ourselves to Karl’s little red books but widen the field to encompass more publishers including some mentioned above.  Not only are these books an insight into the modes and difficulties of travel in another era, but they are also, to a lesser or greater degree, a storehouse of societal prejudices, outmoded opinions and concerns that no longer seem relevant.  Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy and Sicily: Part II (1892) was as impressed by Mount Etna as today’s tourist.  The writers were content to quote from W E Gladstone’s diary: ‘the combination of features it [Etna] exhibited on this happy morning may well be termed one of the wonders of the world…’  The sight was even sufficient to ‘obliterate from recollection the vermin and the mules’, although not to the extent that Gladstone then refrained from committing that fact to paper.  In other words, Murray’s is tacitly telling the traveller to prepare for some discomfort.

Baedeker’s Southern Italy and Sicily (1880) – Map of Taormina

The introductory sections are often the most illuminating.  Under a section on mineral deposits, the same guidebook reveals that ‘sulphur is the most important branch of mining industry, and the chief source of wealth to Sicily’.  Not a mention is made of the physical hardship involved in extracting the mineral.  Mercifully, the harsh conditions endured by the miners are a thing of the past.  Clearly Murray’s didn’t want the Victorian traveller dwelling on the state of the workforce, particularly, we suspect, as many a British company had invested in Sicilian sulphur mining.

In full ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ mode, Murray’s tells us this about the climate after listing the highs and lows in Fahrenheit: ‘During the summer months the heat is almost as great, yet hardly so oppressive, as in the tropics; for it is tempered by the insular position…’  This is to a certain extent true, but the vibe here is redolent of an army captain returning from the Raj and sniffing at the prospect of an incoming sirocco as if it were a mere bagatelle.  Baedeker’s Southern Italy and Sicily (1880) takes a more measured approach stressing this about the summer months: ‘The scenery indeed is then in perfection, and the long days are hailed with satisfaction by the enterprising traveller; but he will soon experience the enervating effects of exposure to the fierce rays of Italian sun.’  Sage advice not to overdo a stroll in the countryside, but the pronoun used strikes the modern ear – clearly a genteel female of the species would not be so silly as to lower her parasol.

In terms of dangers and hinderances, the above Baedeker’s warns the unsuspecting traveller to ‘avoid the less frequented parts of large towns’.  Fair enough, most modern guidebooks will make similar statements, wherever in the world you happen to be.  Reassuringly, it tells us that ‘brigantaggio’ is now ‘almost entirely rooted out’ with ‘the only traces of it still found being in some parts of Sicily.’  If you happened to be travelling in these unidentified ‘parts of Sicily’, Baedeker’s advises against weapons as they would be a ‘mere burden’ for the ‘ordinary traveller’ in case of a ‘rencontre’.  Oh, and by the way, you need a licence.

Under the wonderfully titled section ‘Intercourse with Italians’, we arrive at a prime piece of northern European hauteur: ‘Travelling in Italy, and particularly in the southern provinces, differs essentially in some respects from that in France, Germany, and Switzerland, chiefly owing to the almost invariable necessity for bargaining with innkeepers, cab-drivers, boatmen, and others of a similar class.’  There is a lot to unpack here.  Firstly, there is the notion that the good burghers of northern climes would not lower themselves to try and rip off an honest tourist.  Although Britain is not mentioned here, travellers’ tales from various parts of the UK at the time would beg to differ.  Bartering may have been less common, but padding the bills was an oft mentioned practice. 

There is also the use of the words ‘others of a similar class’.  Two assumptions immediately spring to mind: 1) the traveller is deemed to be further up the social scale and, therefore, implicitly he or she (probably he) would be looking down at the menials providing a service 2) the first assumption supposes a Swiss cab-driver would not find himself confronted with his Sicilian counterpart – i.e. the plebs don’t travel.  When better and cheaper transport connections opened up travel for a wider selection of people, guides would have to modify their language in this regard.  It is perhaps not surprising that Italian innkeepers tried to up their prices when confronted with a haughty northerner armed with prior knowledge of potential malpractice.  The tourist is exhorted to resist ‘barefaced attempts upon his credulity’ because he would be more respected.  Of course, naïve innocence is not recommended either as travellers were targets, but treating every interaction as some kind of swordless duel must have led to some interesting conclusions. 

Thomas Cook was a name that became synonymous with cheap package tourism in England, but the company started out overseeing more wealthy patrons.  They also produced a guide series which included Cook’s Tourist Handbook for Southern Italy (1875).  The introduction starts with the surprising admission that ‘passports may not be required’.  It seems the Victorian traveller was in a better position than the impoverished post-Brexit visitor from the United Kingdom.  Cook’s also advises people from Britain and the United States to avoid too much largesse on the tip front as they are ‘far too lavish’ and therefore ‘much annoyance is caused to other travellers’.

Cook’s praises the Sicilian climate, in fact stating it ‘cannot be overpraised’.  A climb of Etna is recommended for September (not bad advice), but regarding Catania at its foot, the guide makes some curious observations.  The harbour is ‘unsafe’, but we are none the wiser as to whether this applies to boat anchorage or n’er do wells.  It is also apparently ‘a capital residence for invalids’.  This phrase is just left hanging with no further explanation, only to be followed by more data on the temperature.  Messina is lauded as having a ‘spacious harbour’ – this one is clearly not ‘unsafe’, which ‘is surrounded by the well-built town’.  Cook’s laments the many natural misfortunes that have devastated the city rendering it ‘signally devoid of relics of antiquity’.  Just 33 short years after the publication of the book, the 1908 earthquake would lay waste to the entire urban area.

Baedeker’s Southern Italy and Sicily (1880) – Map of Calatafimi & Segesta

Another in the Murray’s series, this time the earlier 1870 version, recommends the maritime charts of a certain Monsieur Davondeau as they are invaluable in the Straits of Messina as a ‘consequence of the errors he discovered in all previous charts’.  It would seem it took until the mid-1800s before this French marine engineer swept away the perilous mysteries of Scylla and Charybdis.  The Victorian gentleman crossed the Straits at his peril without providing his ‘boat-man’ with Davondeau’s essential maps.

Unlike Cook’s, Murray’s 1870 guide also considers it essential that the average traveller is fully acquainted with Sicilian history.  An admirable goal, except for the fact that much of the detail is provided in lists.  We learn all the Kings of Sicily under the House of Aragon and every Spanish Viceroy of the island from Gonsalvo de Cordova in 1503 to Don Luis de la Cerda in 1700 (ok, one of us really liked this!).  We finish the historical shopping list with the last Bourbons and this description: ‘In consequence of the misrule of the three last kings of the House of Bourbon, the utmost discontent had taken possession of all classes, and had attained a state of revolution in 1859…’  Lest we forget, this was very current history at the time of publication, a mere 11 years after these events.  It would be like opening a Lonely Planet guide and reading about the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Murray’s certainly wants you to know the history, but really wants you to avoid the locals: ‘Too much care cannot be taken in forming acquaintances with Southern Italians…’  It treats travel as a cerebral activity, but not one that can engage with the emotions.  Remove the population from the equation and you have removed the very people who have lived their own history, making the art, architecture and society surrounding the unwitting traveller.  Doubtless, however, Murray’s would have been happy had you been invited as a guest of the Florios.

We will finish with a look at The Harper’s Hand-book for Travellers in Europe (1878).  The Sicilian section features a spot of racial stereotyping when it quotes from a Mr Smyth, who must have acquired some sort of nameless fame at the time: ‘They are of middle stature, well made, with dark eyes and coarse black hair; their features are better than their complexions; and they attain maturity and begin to decline earlier than the inhabitants of more northern regions’.  Anyone who has travelled in Sicily will know this sweeping generalisation is, to coin a phrase, poppycock, not to mention offensive, even if the poverty and hardship of the era are considered.  Plus, most pale northerners are now envious of the ease with which a lot of Italians get a suntan.  Gone are the days when bronzed skin signified manual labour, although holes in the ozone layer are altering preferences once again.

In essence, these guides tell us as much about the intended audience as they do the places being described.  They abundantly illustrate the timeless beauties of Sicily, but also influence and reflect the prejudices and attitudes of the readership.  It is all too easy to be flippant, as we have, about some of these guides’ comments, but they entailed an incredible amount of work and in many instances a real affection for the location shines through.  Perhaps, they are also a lesson for the readers and writers of today who consume and produce material of a similar nature.  How will future generations judge our views of ‘the other’, of time and place.  If done well though, whether in actuality or on the page, travel really does broaden the mind in the best sense of the phrase.

Andrew and Suzanne’s latest book is Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean, which deals with the time the poet Coleridge spent in Sicily, Malta, Gibraltar and the rest of Italy.

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Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwardshttps://www.lettersfromthemed.co.uk
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

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