You can find out pretty much anything these days: all you need do is tap your question into keypad. That's particularly true of travel. A quick search online for a city, and there's a glut of facts and figures, news stories, headlines and interviews.
And yet, as if to counteract this, there is a growing body of beautifully designed, weighty magazines that are very much about digging deep into a place. The geographical place first, but also the happenings, the history, the beauty and the deprivation. They are locally focused, yet global, rather than parochial; and it's not a coincidence that some of the most successful versions are labours of love.
Boat Magazine is aptly named. The office, run by husband and wife Davey and Erin Spens, is based in London, but it moves to a new city each issue. They gather up the most talented writers and photographers they can find, take them to the city they're featuring, cover their travel, food and living costs in lieu of paying them for their work, and – in Erin's words – "set them loose". They migrate for at least five weeks, and live together while collecting the content for their issue.
When Boat began, it had a strap that read 'the antidote to lazy journalism', but Davey and Erin quickly scrapped that because they didn't want to pit themselves against anything. They just wanted to do more. "Once we talked to more people and [heard] their stories, the cities were so different to how they were portrayed on the news," says Erin. They've had four issues so far – first Sarajevo, then Detroit, London and Athens. They've just had a special-edition newspaper about Derry-Londonderry, this year's UK City of Culture. Next stop: Kyoto, set to be published in May. "It's really fun," she says. "It's manic adrenaline the whole time."
The design is crucial. Boat's art director and designer, Luke Tonge, often stays put in London while the rest of the team travel. They collect everything tangible they can about the place – business cards, menus, maps and tickets. He studies their finds, and creates an issue that "looks how the place feels", as Erin puts it. A tall order, but, she says, Tonge is so successful that émigrés from the cities they've covered have often commented on how just the look of the magazine makes them miss their home.
Davey and Erin do this in their downtime; they head a creative agency in King's Cross (also called Boat) and wanted to be productive between jobs. "One of my biggest passions as an American," Erin says, with a discernibly wry tone, "is teaching people about other places in the world we don't know much about." As lovers of travel, rather than holidays, they were well placed to start such an enterprise. "That's why we f pitched Sarajevo," Erin says, of their first issue two years ago. "Most people only know about war. We said 'let's see what we can find'."
They found enough to fill a densely packed 100-page magazine, which included an interview with Lamija Hadžiosmanovic, author of Bosnian Cook, a tome of recipes they discovered in a city-centre bookstore. Erin painstakingly tracked her down, and discovered a professor of literature, who taught in universities and translated Turkish poetry into Bosnian. Thanks to a tip-off from a Serbian friend, Hadžiosmanovic had narrowly escaped death when the war began, fleeing her home with a handful of possessions just before Serb forces took over her apartment block. Two years later, in 1995, she returned to find everything gone. Her recipes are very deliberately not just for Muslims. "All the books I've written are about resistance," she told Erin. "This one uses food. Others use poetry."
In the Athens issue, D'Arcy Doran, one of Boat's writers, goes to a bankrupt television station taken over by its (unpaid) workers, who managed to broadcast programmes even after it was shut down. This feature makes the story "Locals", which comes later in the magazine, in which six Athenians recommend their favourite hang-outs, alternative cafés, and an outdoor cinema, feel all the more rooted in context. The fashionable places to go are properly sourced, rather than parachuted in to an airbrushed depiction of a perfect city.
These are the considerations that commercially driven travel publications don't take into account – and one of the reasons why We Are Here, an alternative conceived of and powered by Conor Purcell, exists. Purcell, originally from Ireland but based in Dubai, has a day job editing Open Skies, the high-gloss luxury publication for Emirates airline. "I didn't like travel magazines," he says. Not, he elaborates, the "PR-generated" ones, anyway, with their 'Top 10 Spa' recommendations. "You can find that online, so why buy a magazine?" he says. "I'm a big [independent] magazine fan anyway, and wondered why that design ethos couldn't be applied to travel."
Purcell's creation doesn't try to sell a destination to a reader. "They may decide they never want to go there," he says. But they will finish the issue knowing more about the place, in all its shades of dark and light. One of the selling points of his magazine is the grainy photography: a little street that could be anywhere in the world graces the cover of his first issue. But it is actually in the heart of Dubai, in an area the tourists are unlikely ever to stumble across and bears no resemblance to the imagery we've been sold of the city in recent years.
Those photographs have all been taken, or processed through, a mobile phone: it works well, especially on the non-glossy paper, but it's not a gimmick. "It was a practical thing," says Purcell who has, to date, funded the magazine himself. "I wanted the photography not to be expensive. I wanted to take the photos myself and control the design."
Also, Purcell has plans to go to Kabul, Tehran, and Bangkok's red-light district: places where it would be handy to have more surreptitious ways of taking a photograph than with a camera. In Bangkok, he'll be with an economist and a psychologist, who will help interpret what the socio-economic and emotional implications are of a red-light district. Purcell says he has to be discerning about advertising, despite the obvious financial help it would bring: he'd always choose not to have it, if he felt it compromised his freedom to say what he wanted about a city.
One man who can take advertising in the form of sponsorship for his travel magazine is Stefan Bogner, editor of the German magazine Curves. For his yearly publication, developed and put together entirely by himself, with the help of just one writer, he has had sponsorship from Porsche and Dunlop, and yet still retains complete creative control. It's a magazine with the tag line 'soulful driving' and is dedicated to the experience of travelling on Alpine roads.
Who knew that a magazine with hundreds of photographs of roads could be so beautiful? (It has just been shortlisted in this year's prestigious D&AD magazine design awards). But page after page of sweeping mountainous routes, always empty, and beneath vistas of sky, is exhilarating. And it doesn't even matter if you don't understand the German words that accompany the photography – Curves would sit very well on coffee tables anywhere.
Bogner, who owns an agency in Munich that specialises in industrial design, says that his initial idea was for a road- trip magazine, borne from a passion for mountains, skiing and hiking. And the words? Think Sofia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino, he says, and a conversation between two friends driving on the empty roads. Yes, there will be information about hotels to stay in along the way, and maps to help the reader navigate, but "the rest is the story, and pictures. No cars or bikes"
Bogner says. "Beautiful road building in the mountains is like a piece of art… and this is just about having a cool story – not a typical tourist story, but a friendship." To make this happen, Bogner employs a writer (a continuous story has run over the first two issues, and will be picked up in the third), and spends two weeks a year travelling himself. He calls it a "vacation project", something he does completely himself. "It's produced in the winter, in the evenings instead of watching TV – every day I do half an hour," he says. "That's the fun thing: no pressure. I have my daily business. If I were to make the magazine every half year? That's work."