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Remembering the creator of possibly the finest guidebooks in the world

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I am sure many of you, like me, feel a quiver of excitement when opening a good map or guidebook for the first time. We can trace the contours of a mountain, follow the course of a river or seek out a quiet cove. Depending on our interests, we may make a list of museums to explore, churches to visit or bar opening times.

Karl Baedeker died 150 years ago this weekend. He was not yet 58 years old and had published guidebooks for over 30 of those years. Baedeker was born into a publishing family in Germany and in 1827 started his own business in Koblenz. One of his first publications was ‘Rheinreise von Mainz bis Köln’ (Travels along the Rhine from Mainz to Cologne).

As railways and steamships developed during the 19th century people were encouraged to travel for pleasure. Baedeker saw the need for accurate information on routes, timetables and accommodation rather than airy romantic descriptions of exploration and adventure. He was also one of the first publishers to use stars to indicate items of special interest and reliable hotels.

Baedeker began with guides to Germany but most of Europe had been covered by the time of his death. Baedeker guides were instantly recognisable with their gilt lettering and distinctive red covers. Editions published in the 19th and early 20th century are highly collectable now.

Karl Baedeker was passionate about accuracy and detail. For example, he visited Milan’s cathedral during 1847 to collect the necessary data for a new guidebook. He was told that he would have a good close-up view of the cathedral’s decorative carvings from the roof. Baedeker counted the steps as he climbed. He was seen to place a dried pea on every 20th step and then on the way back down he collected each pea to crosscheck the data for his book.

The company’s files were destroyed during the 1939–45 war but the business was revived by Baedeker’s great-grandson. He began publishing motor touring guides in the 1950s. Today, Karl Baedeker Verlag is part of the Mairdumont group based near Stuttgart and publishes guidebooks that cover destinations all over the world.

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