Review of Frommer’s Munich & The Bavarian Alps 8th edition (2011) by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince – and why a fresh pair of eyes might not go amiss.
It’s amazing how one little query can make you realise something greater is afoot. Sat on the train in Munich, I flicked to the section about the Olympic stadium in my guide book – the 8th edition of Frommer’s Munich and the Bavarian Alps by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince. Apparently Munich’s two main football teams – Bayern Munich and TSV 1860 Munich – both play their home games there. Hmm, I thought, I’m not sure about that…
Why the Frommer’s guide?
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I picked the Frommer’s guide out before arriving for a few reasons. Firstly, it was the most up-to-date guide on Munich out there. I can’t stand the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Guides as they’re for simpletons, while the Lonely Planet equivalent was released in 2008 and would be fairly out of date by now. I’m also acutely aware that I didn’t include Frommer’s in this post comparing guide book series, and I’ve since found out that a fair few writers I respect work for them.
Strengths of Frommer’s guides
There’s a lot to like about the Frommer’s guide set up. The books are unflashy – not filled with page after page of unnecessary photographs, and editorialise amiably. Where other guides just list everything and allow you to make your own decision, the Frommer’s ones give between zero and three stars as a scale of recommendation. It’s a good shorthand for getting to the best bits. The first section also narrows things down with bulleted lists on topics such as “favourite Munich experiences’, ‘best restaurant bets’ and ‘best hotel bets’. Practical detail is hugely impressive, schematic plans of major attractions are a great addition and some areas – especially hotels – are covered in admirable depth.
Weaknesses of Frommer’s guides
On the downside, the mapping system is annoying. Instead of putting hotels, restaurants, shops etc on the same map, the guide maps the same area over and over again in different sections of the book. In one section it has hotels marked on it, in another it’s attractions, in another it’s restaurants. This leads to having to endlessly flick between pages to see which attractions and restaurants are near your hotel, while bars, shops etc aren’t on any maps at all. Aside from an unusably huge scale city overview, there are no maps of outer areas that people might want to go to.
Olympiapark and football
The Olympiapark area is one that isn’t mapped. But this isn’t the only reason that coverage of one of Munich’s main attractions is poor. You can do an adrenalin-provoking climb across the roof, abseil from the top or whizz across for 200 metres on a flying fox. This is all really cool – surely it’s worthy of a mention?
It’s not mentioned, however. To give the benefit of the doubt, these may be very recent additions – and I’m not going to pick on a guidebook author because they’ve not covered something that didn’t exist before the print deadline. New bars and restaurants will always open, prices will change, refurbishments happen – that’s to be expected.
But another thing you can’t do at Olympiapark is watch Bayern Munich or TSV 1860 Munich play a football match. That’s because both teams play at the Allianz Arena – a venue which is not mentioned at all in the book. More to the point, they’ve both played at the Allianz Arena since August 2005. This is a staggering error, given that the 7th edition came out in 2009 and the 6th edition came out in 2007. One of the city’s major cultural draw cards (and yes, more English-speaking visitors will come to watch a football match than go to see an opera) has been spectacularly blundered.
This perhaps shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for a section that starts with “Like, and Brazil, is crazed over soccer” but it leads way to further inspection of what seems to be a deeper malaise.
Ancient and modern
One thing the book seems to lack is any sense of the here and now. Look at the history section, and the last thing specifically mentioned as happening in Munich (as opposed to Germany as a whole) is the 1972 Olympics. There’s nothing about recent local politics or newsworthy events that may have altered the character of the city. In the music section, the most recent Munich artist referenced is Lou Bega, whose one-hit wonder Mambo Number 5 topped the charts in 1999.
It’s like nothing has happened in Munich for years. There’s no mention of new trends, restaurants marked as ‘special finds’ can be found in squares full of other near-identical blatantly touristy restaurants, while the bar and pub section is feebly tiny. It’s also full of expat pubs and Irish bars.
At the front of the book, “explore trendy Haidhausen” is picked out as one of Munich’s top experiences. There’s no map of Haidhausen, and nowhere in the book is a single specific venue in Haidhausen mentioned.
Expertise versus new eyes
Look more closely at everything, and it seems as though the book is written for elderly North American travellers who will spend two or three days in Munich at most. There’s nothing, per se, wrong with that. But I don’t think that’s what Frommer’s want it to be.
A bit of further research shows that Darwin Porter was born in 1937 (Wikipedia – might be wrong). Danforth Prince is somewhat grey of beard (Google images). More to the point, they have written every edition of the book – the first of which came out in 1996. Age isn’t a barrier, but an inability to put yourself into the shoes of a large section of the readership is. And while 15 years of writing about the same place undoubtedly develops a strong level of expertise, unless you’re constantly hungry to make sure it’s absolutely up to date, it’s very easy to slip into the trap of writing about a place as you remember it rather than how it is.
Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes and a vigorous overhaul, checking everything that has gone as gospel for years, is better than regular visits and a strong connection with the destination.
Frankly, any 246 page guide to Munich that only has three sentences on Oktoberfest needs a shake-up for the next edition.