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European Travel Guides & Resources  (2008)

 

GPS
   
We began using GPS (global positioning system) maps in 2008. It was a very steep learning curve but worth the effort.   
    Garmin is the brand to buy if you might travel widely with your system. Garmin's product line doesn't include maps of Slovenia, Croatia, and the adjacent countries in their selection but a third party does. The reason to use a Garmin system is that the software readily available in Europe is only compatible with the Garmin systems.
 

 

GUIDE BOOKS

 

The Best Guide Book:  We are still in search of the ideal guide book for us but have yet to find the perfect match.

 

Lonely Planet: With all of its many imperfections, Lonely Planet is the series we keep returning to for the following reasons:

Ready Availability & Huge Range of Destinations

We usually travel in Europe and know that if we get to the capital city or a major city in almost any country, we can find a good to excellent selection of Lonely Planet's in English. Since we may visit as many as a dozen countries in a year, being able to buy the guides overseas rather than haul them all with us for a year is a huge savings in our weight and bulk carried. And if our itinerary is subject to a radical change en route as happens about half the years, we can support the new plan with guide books.

We've found Lonely Planet's for nearly place we've wanted to go, though we did try a different company for our visit to Serbia as Lonely Planet was unavailable.

Friends have raved about the Rick Steve's guide books and we haven't used them because they aren't readily available overseas. I do love his language phrase books and do bring 1 or 2 of them from home each year.

The Best for Planning a Journey

From time to time we've bought Michelin, Foders, and Frommer's guide books and find that they are much more difficult to use for route planning. Michelin is organized alphabetically, which destines them to be used as a reference book rather than a planning guide. Frommer's focuses on the bigger towns and cities, leaving the in between sites out that are important to us as cyclotourists. We also find Michelin's price point for lodging higher than ours and, like Lonely Planet, are more drawn to 'local charm' in rooms rather than the efficiency and functionality that we prefer.

Lonely Planet is Bill's choice over and over again for putting together a route for us. Lonely Planet is organized by region, so one can go right to an area of interest in the guide and then readily find out the interesting sites that are either day trips from the primary area or that can be seen along the way. No other guide that we've used facilitates our planning like Lonely Planet.

On our 10 week visit to Sicily in 2008 we used both a Michelin Green Guide and a Lonely Planet. The visit to Siracuse summed up another important difference, and that is the willingness to give candid opinions. Michelin oriented one to the archeological site by referencing the parking lots--revealing their motoring bias. Lonely Planet on the other hand oriented one to the site by saying the most interesting ruins were on the east side of the main road, the lesser sites were on the west side. Visiting the archeological site requires hours of walking and given we were going on a hot day, we were thrilled to know where to focus our energy first. 

Michelin does have a 1-3 star rating system of sites, which Lonely Planet lacks, and it is helpful in prioritizing one's trip. Both guides do have easy to use summaries in the front to help one sort out where you might be most interesting in going. Of course, having multiple guides so you can take the best from each is ideal, but we usually aren't willing to carry so many additional books. We did carry 2 guides in Sicily, in part to again evaluate the Green Guide and for the greater depth of historical detail that they provide over what Lonely Planet covers.

Advantages of Staying with a Single Guide Book Company

Using the same guide book series over and over has some wonderful efficiencies, as the layout doesn't change much even though the country you are reading about is different. I can pick-up any Lonely Planet and know right where to look for business hours or national holidays. Knowing the format and patter was extremely helpful when we weren't able to get to a large enough city to buy English versions when we made an abrupt change in plans and muddling through the available French and Italian Lonely Planet guides those times was easier because we knew the general Lonely Planet script; had we picked up another brand in a foreign language, it would have been much slower going.

Using the same company for different country's also allows one to calibrate themselves to the brand. Even though the authors change between Lonely Planet's, their editorial standards to create some consistency. We know for instance if Lonely Planet says a museum is good, then it's usually really, really good because we like more museums than they do. We also know that our taste in lodging is very different than theirs and that we are likely to be very happy in a room they describe as "modern, spacious, and sterile." Rooms that really tweak them are likely to be less appealing to us.

The Short-Comings of Lonely Planet

As was reported in the news in 2007 or 2008, Lonely Planet authors sometimes cheat and write about places they either haven't been or haven't been recently. We started noting those discrepancies early on and sent the Lonely Planet editors more than 1 note explaining why it was obvious the author was fabricating. But even knowing that some of the information was flat-out wrong, it was still the best overall guide for us.

We also have little patience for Lonely Planet's preoccupation with beaches and bars and wish the space on the pages was directed towards topics of more interest to us.

One of our ongoing disappointments with Lonely Planet is that every guide presumes the given country it is reviewing is a 5-start destination and doesn't give realistic evaluations of the sites. In 2009, this was painfully clear with the Montenegro guide. They gave mention of museums in places like Stari Bar and in Ulcinj that we sought-out only to discover that they were poorly stocked, 1 room affairs that weren't worth searching out as we did. The finds in the museums may be important to inform historians but the sorry fragments don't inform the visitor. The opening page of the coastal region section extolled the beaches of southern Montenegro and yet when I read the details later in the chapter the comment was that those beaches weren't particularly nice. We find that we have to work very hard with each each country's guide book to calibrate to the author's standards--a calibration that is usually only complete after weeks in the country.

City Maps

We also appreciate Lonely Planet's cryptic little city maps. They do focus in on the most tourist-oriented parts of a city and we heavily rely on them, especially for our first hours in a city. And they are usually very straight-forward and to-scale, unlike some tourist information maps.

Electronic Editions

Lonely Planet is slowly making electronic versions of their guides available for about the same price as the printed version. In addition, they sell cheaper, partial versions of their guides in the electronic format. Bill has been chomping at the bit waiting for the European guides to be available electronically and as of September 2008 most or all are. Though the printed guides are compact and soft bound, an average book weights 1.5 lbs and Bill often has 3 guides plus a slew of maps in his pannier. Oh, to eliminate the bulk and weight......  Of course, when we have significant computer problems as we do about every other year, that additional electronic reliance will add to the intensity of the computer crisis. These electronic versions are also downloadable onto our PDA's.
    Bill downloaded an electronic version of Lonely Planet's guide to Croatia onto our laptop and onto his PDA just before our laptop crashed for the last time in 2008. The PDA version was quite helpful but had its problems:
    ..the page numbers didn't display so locating specific information left us guessing
    ..the small size of the city maps made them hard to use
   ..occasionally the text from 2 different topics were shuffled together in half dozen word segments creating a challenging
     decoding game. We assumed this happened on pages with boxed text.
    The PDA version would have been more workable the way Bill had envisioned using it which was reading the maps and text in the laptop and only checking details on the PDA in the field.
   

Early in 2009 we began exclusively using the electronic versions of Lonely Planet and started off with Montenegro, Croatia, Malta, and Italy, which were our destinations for the first several months. Bill did load the Montenegro guide onto a zip drive and we printed specific pages out at internet shops when we needed the walking tour map of a city or other such detailed info. Having the hard copy was a delight in these situations.
    Using the electronic versions of the books is substantially more tedious than having hardcopies. The guides aren't set up for moving around easily on the screen, creating quite a guessing game. To read about a city one must first go to the index to find the range of page numbers needed, then one must open another file to look at the table of contents to see how the book is organized and make a guess as to which chapter the specific pages will reside. Then one opens a third file and starts scrolling through the pages looking for your city, hoping you guessed right. Of course the whole process speeds up once you get familiar with the organization of a particular guide, but it is frustrating if you were hoping to grab a tidbit of information on the fly.
    Additionally, each of the guides we purchased behaved a little differently on the screen than the next. Some guides were easy to scroll through, page by page; others suffered from 'popping' around in a less sequential manner.

   
In 2010 Bill switched from using a Palm Treo PDA to an iPod-Touch. He also purchased an i-Pod app called Goodreader for reading PC-compatible pdf files. Finally the electronic versions of Lonely Planet behaved properly, including the maps.
   
However in 2010 I broke-down and bought a hardcopy of Lonely's book on Morocco as I found doing a grand plan for a non-bike tour too difficult on the electronic edition. Bill usually does the bike route planning in stages, so looking at successive sections of the electronic version is workable. I was essentially skimming the entire Morocco book, underlining, making notes in the margins, and flipping back and forth between different sections and maps to decide on the entire route for our 3 week visit. I'll probably restore to hardcopy editions again for that style of route planning. We took the hardcopy with us on the trip.

 

COUNTRY-SPECIFIC LODGING REFERENCES

 

Austrian Bike Route Lodging

Austrian regional Tourist Information Offices have great booklets that often provide very good information for finding B&B type accommodations. We've learned to love these establishments as they often provide our best value in lodging for the year. Bill tumbled to scanning for the places with satellite TV as a quick way to select the more recently updated or newly established abodes. In 2007, we could sometimes get a spacious room in a quiet neighborhood with private bath, a refrigerator, a hot pot, and a private balcony for around 30 for the 2 of us. And of course, a satellite TV. Indoor bike storage, usually in the family garage, was a given. We usually wrangled a reduction in the price to take the room without breakfast to keep ourselves on a leaner diet.

 

Croatia

The Tourist Information Offices generally have great guides for selecting accommodations.

 

France

We reluctantly buy the Michelin Red Guide for lodging when in France. Their price point is higher than ours and like Lonely Planet, Michelin prefers traditional ambiance over function when it comes to recommending places to stay. And that hard covered Red Guide adds another bulky item to Bill's already bulging panniers. But Lonely Planet doesn't cover France in the detail we need for slow bike travel, so it alone is insufficient.

The free guide book for the Logis de France establishments is a big help for finding lodging too, though we aren't thrilled with their standards either. Their sense of local charm usually registers as ratty looking to us and the all-important comfort of the beds at these places often comes up short. But sometimes they are fine places to stay and we turn to them as a second choice.  http://logis-de-france.fr   or http://logishotels.com Tel: +33 (0) 1 45 84 83 84.

We also collect booklets for the many chain hotels and motels that cluster near freeway interchanges in France. Freeway interchanges aren't where we prefer to be at the end of a riding day, but that's often where we have to go to find lodging in France.  The Ibis Hotels and the Campaniles are the better of the 2-3 star places and they also sometimes have city center locations, especially Ibis; their poorer cousins are very cramped but significantly cheaper.

- Hotel Premier Classe www.premiereclasse.com.

- B&B Hotel chain at www.hotelbb.com is comparable price-wise to Etap's (www.accorhotels.com)  but a little nicer.

- Campanile's at www.campanile.com are similar to the higher-priced Ibis's though often have outdoor room entrances like US motels rather than indoor corridors like hotels. We usually could keep the bikes in the room at Campanile.
        -Ibis Hotels have great beds and soundproofing. www.ibishotels.com or www.accorhotels.com

-l'auberge everHtel is a new chain in 2008 with only 8 locations open, mostly in western France www.everhotel.com.
  

Germany

The BikeLine route books we buy for cycling, have lists of lodging establishments for the towns along their route.  

 

Italy

While in Sicily in 2008 we discovered the booming B&B industry that has been stimulated by EU financing since 2000. We usually selected 3 star B&B's that ran about 60 for 2 in the off season. Almost all were fresh, lovely, and upscale by Italian standards and a much better value than the hotels.  There are B&B's in some other regions of Italy also. (see Country Details/Italy-B&B's)

Some regions of Italy have closed their tourist info offices and the ones that remain often have very limited hours, but when they have lodging guides, they are very helpful. The autonomous regions of northern Italian pretty consistently still have booklets and we rely heavily on them. For booking a vacation apartment in the Dolomites, we rely on the online versions that are organized geo-politically by valley (see Country Details/Italy-Dolomites).

 

Spain

The Espaa: Gua oficial de hoteles Espaa 2008 (or current year) published by Instituto de Turismo de Espaa is an invaluable lodging guide for Spain. The paperback is available in bookstores for around 14. We've always resented the bulk of the inexpensive book, but its completeness is compelling. Not absolutely every establishment is in the book, but it includes most places and a lot of specific information. For us, just knowing that there are a number of places vs none at all in a town is a huge help in route planning.

When Bill picked up the 2008 edition he was delighted to discover a CD inside, even though there was no mention of it on the cover. Accolades came pouring out as soon as he loaded the disk as it ran quickly and he labeled it the most user friendly reference of its kind that he had ever found. Having hardcopy pages in the handle bar bag is much easier for finding lodging than having an electronic copy so he tore out the pages for the region of Spain we'd be visiting in 2008 and pitched the book. We'll use the electronic version if our plans for Spain change in 2008.

If you have a favorite place to stay in Barcelona, we'd love to hear from you. We reluctantly keep staying in the 'burbs at an Ibis chain hotel for the price, comfort, and quiet.

 

 

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