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Czechoslovakia may have broken into its two separate Republics in 1993 But publishers of travel books still like to present guides to the Czech Republic and Slovakia within one volume. The pros and cons to this approach are obvious. I frequently fly into Prague and find a guidebook to that city invaluable; most recently I used Prague as a springboard for the Slovak capital Bratislava. Geographically nothing has changed: the Czech Republic and Slovakia are still neighbours and have a shared history, almost identical languages and more of a bond than perhaps others countries that have had a relationship thrust upon them (I'm thinking here of the so-called Baltic States, among others).
I recently splashed out on a new guidebook to the Czech and Slovak Republics, it being at least nine years since I acquired my previous book, which may not have even been new at that time. In buying the DK (Dorling Kindersley) Eyewitness guide I was straying from my usual travel guide territory; I've always been a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet user and I've never really got to grips with the heavily illustrated Eyewitness guides but a combination of price and newness of publication swayed my decision.
The most obvious thing about this guidebook is that, for its size, it's pretty heavy. It has a robust glossy card cover which overlaps the page size slightly and therefore offers protection to the edges of the pages, always useful when you're pulling the book out of a bag frequently. On the other hand, while the book is heavy, it manages to cram 448 pages into a thickness of 2.3cm without compromising on paper quality. The book is printed on quality paper with a slight sheen which allows the colour maps and other illustrations to look really bright. In contrast I would cite my later Rough Guide to Germany which is printed on a flimsy paper not unlike the old school toilet paper many will remember; I've found that if you need to refer to that book outside in the rain, even a few light drops with cause the paper to ripple and even if the page dries, the damage is done.
The Czech Republic is tackled first, then Slovakia. Within each country section, the land is divided into geographical sections. For the Czech Republic DK uses the pre-existing regions such as North Bohemia and South Moravia, and for Slovakia the country is split very simply into western, central and eastern zones; Prague and Bratislava, the respective capital cities merit sections of their own. A key on the flap of the front cover explains the colour coding given to each regional zone and this is mirrored with a coloured circle on the edge of each page which, in theory, should make it easier to find a particular section though in practice it's not the case because, due to larger illustrations such as maps, many pages don't have that coloured dot.
A note on the front cover says 'The guides that show you what others only tell you'. This refers to the large number of illustrations and relative lack of text compared with other guidebooks. After a brief overview of the country in question, DK launches into the practical guide and there's an emphasis on historical attractions and the built environment in this volume, at the expense of the natural landscape. DK concentrates on worthy cultural sights such as churches, palaces and museums. In the Prague section you'll find the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Dvorak Museum, but you won't find the Museum of Torture which, while undeniably less highbrow, is immensely popular with visitors to the city. No, this is a guidebook which should appeal to tourists who want to see the most important sights and who want easy to navigate information. Amazingly detailed drawings of key buildings - for example the Czech National Theatre in Prague - are great for identifying the areas that interest you most and directing you to them; if you've not got a huge amount of time you might be grateful to know which direction to head in to see what you want to see. On the other hand, the inset photographs of key features - an unusual sculpture, a painted ceiling or a unique architectural detail will either inspire your itinerary, or else spoil the impact of seeing such details first hand and for the first time.
Practical listings such as those for hotels and restaurants are listed at the end of each country section which I found a bit irritating because I had to search that bit harder for the city I wanted information about. I will concede, though, that an advantage of this arrangement is that readers using the book for additional information for a guided trip where accommodation and meals are pre-arranged, will not have to sift through that information in the main section of the book. However, instead of keeping all the information for the two countries separate, 'Where to stay in the Czech Republic' is followed by 'Where to stay in Slovakia', and, likewise, 'Where to eat in the Czech Republic' is followed by 'Where to Eat in Slovakia' which means lots of leafing through pages if you want to find a hotel then a restaurant. Hostels are not included in the accommodation listings though the selection of hotels covers a range of price brackets and a key allows you to identify your bracket with ease. The lowest price section for hotels in Bratislava is the rather vague 'less than Euro65' which at the top end would be quite expensive for budget travellers, in spite of Bratislava being a capital city where you would expect prices to be higher than in the rest of the country.
Content-wise this book is a goldmine of interesting facts and visual pointers. If you are self guiding you'll find lots of little details that illuminate visits to the main attractions that you might otherwise not have noticed, or at least not known what they were exactly. With regard to providing background information on the countries named the book is OK up to a point. There's a bit of historical and political background and stuff on ethnic make up, religion, flora and fauna and all the usual areas covered in country guides, though to a lesser extent. While accommodation and restaurants are covered, you won't find listing for evening entertainment such as theatres or nightclubs. A 'Survival Guide' provides all the useful details on currency, visas, public transport and customs. A single page of English to Czech, and English to Slovak translations of phrases that might come in useful in ordering food, or asking for simple directions is rather limited in that no pronunciation guide is provided alongside. Maps - street maps and larger regional maps - are frequent and the ones I used proved accurate and easy to use.
Being a resourceful independent traveller I don't necessarily feel the need for a guidebook that provides listings for the whole experience but I find this DK Eyewitness guide tends to go too far the other way omitting information that budget travellers would find useful. I also find that this guide takes some of the joy of discovering those treasures that make a place special by providing too much detail in other areas. Preference of guidebook brand can be quite personal; personally speaking this one isn't my preferred publisher, though it will certainly appeal to travellers who want to know about the key sights and attractions.
My copy was published in May 2011 and has a cover price of £15.99; it is now selling on Amazon for £10.23 for a new copy. The next edition is scheduled for release in April/May 2013 and can be pre-ordered for £15.62.