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The Bad Guide to Vienna

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Having just come back from five days in Vienna with the Knopf Guide to Vienna as my Baedeker, I can say authoritatively that this book was worth its weight in combustible materials if I’d been pinned under a fallen tree in the Vienna Woods in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, since I was wandering around the city in the spring, it was pretty much useless.

The book is the height of a normal book but only half its width, thus making it easier to leave wedged behind the cushions of a couch owned by someone you don’t like. The cover is mainly green, with an illustration of an equestrian statue in front of some yellow piece of architecturre. I tell you this so you can avoid buying it by mistake.

It looked quite reasonable. Handsome, in fact. I bought it thinking that in addition to the usual information in a guidebook, its pages on the contents of various museums would enrich my art-viewing pleasure. But not only don’t the comments about particular artworks go further than the signs next to them, the book doesn’t have the usual information in a guidebook.

Start at the beginning. The book’s table of contents is arranged by area. So, of course it begins with an overview of the city’s districts. Well, first there are 11 pages of bird and squirrel illustrations. Pretty but not the first thing we need to know. But then we finally get to the layout…never. At no point does the book say something along the lines of: The city is divided into districts. The first district is the historic downtown. There’s a honking big river called the Danube, but before you get to it, you’ll cross over a smaller river that’s actually the Donaukanal that you’ll take pictures of thinking that it’s the Danube…etc.

After making your way through richly illustrated sections on the history of Vienna, the Viennese dialect, and Vienna as seen by painters and writers, you’re ready to see Vienna yourself. So, you open up the book to the section-by-section guide. Each has a thumbnail of a big map showing you exactly where each area is located. Now if you could only find the big map that the little one refers to. And each section has a closeup map of the area, but the few street names that are marked had us looking up the German word for “magnifying glass.” Seriously. And while the text takes you through each of the notable buildings with gorgeous photos and adequate text, it fails to mention little items of context such as that the central district is dominated by pedestrian-only streets. Nor does it coordinate its way of dividing up the city (“From Secession to Musikvereinsgebaeude”) with the way the citizens do (“Third District”).

Or, let’s say you want to see some paintings by Gustav Klimt whose work is featured in countless tourist brochures. The inadequate index will take you to a two-page spread on Klimt with maybe 100 words of text. You may even guess that because the spread interrupts the description of the Lower Belvedere, some Klimts are to be found there. Close! They’re in the Upper Belvedere, a mere few hundred yards away. And, sure enough, if you read the Upper’s descriptions, it mentions that most of the Klimts are to be found there. Congratulations! You’ve won the treasure hunt!

Now it’s on to finding the Lipizzaner Horses, which you won’t unless you know to look for the page titled “The Spanish Riding School,” which you won’t find in the index unless you know to look for “Spanische Reitschule.” Then, for extra credit you can choose between explaining why many pages are divided in half, with the bottom half printed upside down, or why in the section on food the book devotes two full pages to an illustrated recipe for Tafelspitz but never bothers telling you what type of food the Viennese like. Ok, there are a couple of skimpy, small-print paragraphs buried in the back under “Practical Information,” but there the book manages to avoid telling us how to use the amazingly good subway system (buy a ticket from the vending machine and get it time-stamped before you enter) or that it’s an amazingly good subway system. And how much should we tip? And what do the Viennese have for breakfast? And when do they eat dinner? And are stores open on Sunday? And is there really asparagus in asparagus wine?

The book is beautifully illustrated. It’s got lots of information about the history and culture of the city. It just stinks if you’re there and trying to use it.

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About David Weinberger

  • Take the baedecker. That’s always a sure choice. Only the picture of the subway system is a bit muddled and tiny. Otherwise it’s perfect.