Baedeker, German Reiselust, and vacation days

Baedecker book cover

The traditional Baedeker guidebook, like this 1911 English-language edition, sports a red hardcover with a golden embossed title. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

In both German and English, the term “Baedeker” (BAY-day-ker) is synonymous with “travel guidebook” (Reiseführer). Although the German Karl Baedeker (1801-1859) did not invent the travel guidebook, he certainly perfected it. After publishing his first travel guide (Rheinreise/Journey along the Rhine) in 1838, Baedeker went on to refine his product by being meticulous about the facts and information he included (with carefully detailed maps), and inventing the “star” ranking system for outstanding attractions (1846). The German word Erbsenzähler (bean counter, nitpicker) is said to have originated with his method of counting the exact number of stair steps in a cathedral tower by leaving a dried pea on every 20th stair as he went up, and collecting/counting them on his way back down.

Kings and governments may err, but never Mr. Baedeker.
– A.P. Herbert, in his 1929 English libretto for J. Offenbach’s operetta La Vie Parisienne[1]

The red Baedeker guidebooks[2] are still published today, and still have a reputation for sober factualness and lack of embellishment, especially compared to most contemporary travel books. And it is the Baedeker and other tourist guides that bring us to my main topic: German Reiselust (love of travel).

Sometimes called “wanderlust” in English, the German propensity to travel is better named by other, more modern German words, Reiselust and Fernweh being the two most common. Perhaps Fernweh is the one we want here: the longing for travel to distant places. Some cynics say this Germanic desire to go off to faraway places has to do with the German saying “Da, wo ich nicht bin, da ist das Glück.” (“There where I am not, there’s where happiness is.”) — but I think not. It has more to do with Germanic curiosity and information-gathering, not to mention a desire to find the sun and escape the frequent gloom of northern Europe. Ever since Goethe went on his Italienische Reise (Italian Journey) in the 1780s, the Germans have been among the world’s greatest tourists — with Baedeker in hand (since the 19th century). You also may have seen the Baedeker in the hands of Lucey Honeychurch in the film A Room with a View (also in the original 1908 E.M. Forster novel).

But Austrians, Germans and the Swiss also have something else important for travel: paid time off in order to enjoy it! Europeans are shocked when they first discover how little vacation time Americans are granted. In fact, workers in the U.S. get less vacation time than in any other modern, industrialized nation. While by law employees in the EU generally get between 20 and 30 days of paid vacation (not counting paid holidays!), the average U.S. employee is lucky to enjoy eight to ten days of vacation time, and it’s not by law, but out of the kindness of their employers’ hearts. Many workers in the “land of the free,” especially low-wage and part-time workers, do not receive any paid vacation days at all.

Even more shocking to Germans and other Europeans (or anyone who bothers to think about it), many American workers fail to take the little vacation time they are entitled to! According to one source, U.S. employees forfeited about 421 million vacation days in 2005 — either because of their heavy workload or the fear of losing their job. But they are also endangering their health, which is the main reason Germany and other European countries require employers to provide paid vacation time — and enough of it to allow a person to fully recharge by getting away from it all for up to six weeks.

Baedecker verse

From the classic German Baedeker editions.
See English translations below.

More often than not, Americans can only use a Baedeker (or Fodor, Frommer, Steves, etc.) to take a vicarious vacation or dream of faraway places, while Germans are off actually using their guidebooks in Australia, Canada, Greece, Italy, Turkey, the U.S. or other foreign lands.

In any case, when we do get time to travel, it is always wise to follow the advice of Philander von Sittewald (see German above), actually Johann Michael Moscherosch (1601-1669), whose instructions are included in the old German Baedekers. Here are two English versions:

Poetic translation
To travel well
Don’t too much tell.
Take steady step
And little scrip.*
Set forth in morning air,
And leave at home dull care.
– from the Dictionary of Quotations by Lilian Dalbiac, 1906
*An archaic word for “small bag.”

Prose translation
He who wants to travel
(should) remain nice and silent,
walk steadily,
take not much along,
set forth early in the morn,
and leave his cares at home.
– prose translation by Hyde Flippo

In closing, it is worth noting the truly ironic fact that Karl Baedeker died as the result of overwork at the age of 58 in 1859.


1. Other than its title, the English libretto by the British poet Sir Alan Patrick Herbert (1890-1971), who wrote under the name A.P. Herbert, has virtually nothing to do with the original French words by Jacques Offenbach.
2. The original pre-WWII Baedeker guidebooks were noted for their trademark red covers and gilded titles, first introduced in 1846. Some of the rarer editions now sell to collectors for between $100 and $500. The 1911 Austria-Hungary Baedeker pictured above is desired by collectors because it was the last edition to be published before WWI ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The first English-language Baedeker (The Rhine) did not appear until 1861.

This edited GW Expat Blog post was originally published on 8 June 2009.