Alice Wyllie: 'We played frisbee in lukewarm weather two days in a row and ate some bad chips'

WHEN it comes to holiday reading, I have very specific tastes. I loathe chick lit, side-step historical fiction and run screaming from the Dan Brown aisle in the WH Smith at the airport.

Instead I like nothing more than poring over a travel guide book. I skip past the boring bits about where to find the nearest pharmacist, try to ignore the uncomfortable fact that almost every major European city has both a Museum of Erotica and a Museum of Torture and plan an entire itinerary around the recommendations of a handful of Lonely Planet travel writers.

There are plenty of people out there who hate travel guides. These are the same people who concern themselves with blending in with the locals and doing everything possible to avoid being identified as a tourist. It's this behaviour that's foreign to me. What's the point? Everyone is a tourist everywhere but their home country, so you might as well embrace it. And that means sandals, sun cream and yes, guidebooks.

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My friends don't share my feelings. At best, they tolerate my rabid "itinerising", at worst they resent it. Yet, irritatingly, they tend to forget all about it when, months later, they're reminiscing about "that wonderful gallery in New York" or "that incredible truffle restaurant in Tuscany" which they've led themselves to believe they just happened upon, but were carefully chosen by me from my research.

On a recent weekend away visiting friends, I decided, as an experiment, to avoid making a single suggestion, thus leaving any plans entirely up to others. We played frisbee in the park in lukewarm weather two days in a row and ate some bad chips. Obviously it was wonderful to catch up, but I knew that the weekend would have panned out very differently had I taken the reins.

My love affair with guide books began a few years ago in Florence, when I found a well-thumbed tome on a bench outside the Ufizzi. Until this point on the trip, I'd eaten bad food, visited bad bars, and stumbled across not one "hidden gem". Within 15 minutes I was dining in one of the best places in Florence to eat on the cheap; a quiet canteen which served incredible grub with a glass of Chianti and a smile for less than ?5. The few smug tourists there had the same guidebooks poking out of their pockets.

My argument has always been that one never stumbles across the gems.

One stumbles across overpriced spaghetti and dodgy shellfish. One queues at bad museums and argues over which bar looks most "authentic". Proof can surely be found in the fact that if you look at a guidebook to your home city, all your favourites will probably be recommended, while the tartan tat and tourist traps will obviously be left out.

However even leaving it up to the locals can be dodgy. One friend asked a German taxi driver to take him to a good nightclub in Berlin. The driver asked if he liked young women to which my friend answered in the affirmative. The driver took him to a youth club disco.

The following morning he put down the Da Vinci Code and picked up Time Out Berlin.

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