It is the season of the traveler's friend: the guidebook. Doug Mack is a writer who picked up an old guidebook at a book sale, Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer, published in 1963. He took it home and discovered Europe on Five Dollars a Day was the travel Bible his mother used on her unforgettable first trip abroad in 1967. The guide and his mom's wide-eyed adventures with it sparked an idea, which became Mack's book, Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What got to you about this guide, Europe on Five Dollars a Day?
Doug Mack: At first I was just interested in the family-history angle. This is a book that my mother had used. But as I started paging through the book and looking through my mom's own letters and postcards, I thought, "You know, this is a really interesting snapshot of life and travel in a very different era." I was just amazed by how much things had changed -- or in some cases hadn't changed -- in just a generation.
LRK: What did you do about it -- you were curious, but what happened?
DM: I decided to go to Europe using only this 1963 guidebook and my mom's letters -- no Internet research, no modern guidebooks, nothing else -- and reclaim that sense of wide-eyed innocence and try to become a 1960s traveler in my own way with the limited information that was available back then.
LRK: What happened?
DM: I got lost a lot. Many of the hotels, restaurants and things were closed, but in each city I found a handful that were still open. I had these magical moments of discovery: "Wow, this isn't just some boarded-up building, there's an actual place here," and it's in many cases exactly how Arthur Frommer described it. That was great.
LRK: Like 40 years earlier?
DM: Oh, absolutely. There was a cafeteria in Rome that fit Frommer's description to a T. It was like stepping into a time warp. It was fantastic.
LRK: What did they serve? What was it like?
DM: It was just sort of working-class, Italian food and you would order at the counter. But there weren't a lot of other tourists there. If it ever had its tourist heyday, that has since passed by. Now it's just a quiet, local place that I happened to discover with my old guidebook. It was lovely.
LRK: Was there a food experience from Frommer that you then followed up 40 years later that surprised you?
DM: Absolutely, there were several of them. The most notable one was in Madrid, a place called Casa Botin. Frommer describes it in my guidebook: He says that it's a place that's mentioned in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but the restaurant doesn't really mention that, it's very discreet, and he's surprised by that. He's surprised they weren't exploiting that Hemingway connection even back then, and he says that probably won't last. But the reason you go there, from Frommer's view, is you sample this food, which is sort of the traditional Spanish food. There's this thing called cochinillo, which is a roasted pork dish, which he describes as really delicious.
I went there and of course the Hemingway connection is exploited to the full extent. There's a big painting of him in the window and they absolutely market it to the tourists. But what was wonderful to me was the food was still absolutely magnificent. They have this oven that they've been using since the 1700s and that's still where they cook their pork. It also holds the distinction from Guinness World Records as the world's oldest restaurant of interest; there's a certificate in the window in addition to the Hemingway painting.
To my mind, even though lots of other tourists are there and have been there, it's still wonderful. I can experience this thing in my own way and all the rest of the world, all of the trappings of the tourist stuff, all of the Hemingway stuff, all of that falls away and suddenly it's just you and this plate of food or sometimes it's a work of art. It doesn't matter that it's famous, that is inconsequential. It just matters that it speaks to you in some really intangible way. I hate to use the word "soul-stirring" because it almost seems like a cliche, but I think that it's true. There are these moments and these times when you get to this thing. I have felt the same way about the David statue in Florence, where you hear about it and you hear about it, but then you get there and it's just magical. There's nothing like being in the presence of the actual thing and experiencing it for yourself.
LRK: Then maybe that's what Frommer was going for.
DM: Absolutely. I think that is what Frommer is going for -- you need to go see these things on your own.
LRK: Have you heard from him?
DM: I haven't heard from him directly, but we were back-to-back guests on a radio show. I was terrified about what he was going to say, because I was on first and I knew he would be listening the whole time. I was nervous because here's this book that I had written about this guy. I actually didn't listen to it live myself because I was so nervous, but my mother was sending me text updates the whole time.
But I need not have been nervous because it turned out that he loved it. He was overjoyed that I had talked about his legacy, how he had influenced travel and how he had opened it up for the masses. I have a lot of respect for him. That's exactly the story I wanted to tell with my book.
Each week, The Splendid Table brings you stories that expand your world view, inspire you to try something new and show how food brings us together. We rely on you to do this. And, when you donate, you'll become a member of The Splendid Table Co-op. It's a community of like-minded individuals who love good food, good conversation and kitchen companionship. Splendid Table Co-op members will get exclusive content each month and have special opportunities for connecting with The Splendid Table team.
Donate today for as little as $5.00 a month. Your gift only takes a few minutes and has a lasting impact on The Splendid Table and you'll be welcomed into The Splendid Table Co-op.