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The world of travel is as likely as any other to be affected by trends; each January we find out the travel writers' tips for the must visit destinations for the forthcoming year, and a hit movie or an unexpected news event can see the popularity of a hitherto unknown location exceed all expectations. The reunification of Berlin has seen that city returned to the status of Germany's capital and, although it was already a large city with many worthwhile sights, since the fall of the Wall it's value in touristic terms has become huge. Not surprisingly a large chunk of the Rough Guide to Germany is given over to Berlin but with just over eleven hundred pages, does the book manage to cover the rest of Germany in such detail?
The answer is: that depends. Should you be interested in seeing the most obviously touristy places and the biggest cities, you are well catered for. However, as the cities of the former East Germany become more tourist-friendly and the number of airports that connect those cities to the rest of Europe by way of the budget airlines continues to grow, the entries for these places take up more pages and something has to give. In this case it's the omission of a good number of less well known but very picturesque and interesting smaller towns that could be considered to be little treasures that are a handsome reward for the traveller looking outside of the big cities or traditional tourist regions.
I own both the most recent edition (2009; authors are Neville Walker, Christian Williams and James Stewart) and this one, the 2004 edition by Gordon McLachan and I much prefer the earlier one.
This is a heavy book and is best left at home to be used for trip planning only. It might give you an idea of what you'd like to see and how long to spend in a particular place. The recommendations given for accommodation and restaurants cover, as always with Rough Guides, a range of budgets and tastes though, as usual, tend more towards the artistic and cultural than the physical in terms of activities (so if your plans involve a lot of cycling or walking in the countryside, this probably isn't the best guidebook for your needs).
One of the issues that I have is that some attractions receive a lot of attention with heaps of detail provided while others get much less and while this is not uncommon with a guidebook of this type, it leaves you in two minds as to whether or not to take the book away with you. On the other hand, it's just not practical to heave a tome like this around with you on the grounds that it has lots of information about the Reichstag, for example. There a plenty of good guidebooks out there that cover Berlin on its own and I would suggest that it makes more sense to invest (or borrow) one of these if you don't expect to be traveling to any other part of the country.
This book opens with a few pages of lovely colour photographs which not only represent some of Germany's most famous attractions, manmade and natural, but also provide an appealing snapshot of German culture. In the past guidebooks would have a page or two of such images dotted around the pages of the book but these days its increasingly the case that the photographs are all lumped together in a few pages at the front. I don't like this approach so much because I want to be able to relate to the pictures by region and by the time I've got to the section I'm interested in, I don't want to go back to see if there are any photographs relating to that part of the country. As a result of this layout, we get a few lovely colourful pages followed by over a thousand pages of text with a handful of cramped little maps and black and white photographs; it's hardly inspiring.
This aside, the text is well written and the enthusiasm of Gordon McLachan, author of the earlier editions, for his subject is plain to see. In the newest edition the voice is distinctly younger and less serious but it's still authoritative. There's plenty of historical background and lots of interesting detail about life in Germany, if you're likely to be spending a longer period in Germany, for work or study perhaps, the practical information will probably be vey useful. It's informative without being dry and this is to the authors' credit given the high number of pages. It should be said, though, that if you're looking for the hidden Germany, unusual museums or quirky visitor attractions, little gems that only an inside would know, then you'll be disappointed; probably for lack of space, it's really the mainstream that is covered here.
Although I've used this for trips to Hannover, Berlin, Dusseldorf and the Rhine Valley, I only took the book with me on that first trip to the Rhine Valley; this book is too cumbersome to be practical and the maps are hard to use when you're trying to stop the book slamming shut. You'd do better to head straight to the tourist information office and ask for a free map, most towns and cities have them and they have the several advantages of being lighter to carry, easier to use and show much more detail. For the other destinations I've visited I've used the guidebook to get some ideas of what's available, then made notes or picked up to date leaflets from the tourist information office.
I'd recommend using a slightly older edition of the book if you want ideas on where to go outside the biggest cities; that information is decreasing as each new edition is published. The same writer produced the first edition and has been responsible for updating all new editions so it is good that there has been continuity. By using an older edition you'll be able to get some ideas of places that could be considered off the beaten track, and still get the excellent background on culture, history and further reading recommendations that Rough Guides are renowned for. Although some of the detail will be less up to date, you can easily search on line for the very latest information.