BRUSSELS In a world of iPads, GPS and digital technology at your fingertips, one international tourism organization has discovered that few things beat the traditional fold-up map.
USE-IT, a non-profit group that traces its roots back to 1970s Denmark, is an independent maker of free and funky city guides aimed at students and other young travelers, and it's developing a cult following.
Designed and written by local artists and contributors, the colorful, individual maps are now produced in 23 cities across 14 European countries, with another two dozen cities lining up to take part in coming months.
The guides, covered in sharp commentary and doodle-like markings, scream youth and endeavor to point users to the hidden treats of otherwise familiar cities.
"It shows places you don't see in the city guides you can buy," said Olivier Bourdon, a 23-year-old exchange student from Montreal visiting Brussels with his girlfriend, Raphaelle Paquette. "When you travel, you want to see what is local."
At the USE-IT office in Brussels, where maps can be picked up free of charge, Bourdon and Paquette spent 20 minutes chatting to a young volunteer who circled their map with a string of extra destinations to explore.
The couple, bundled up in heavy coats against the cold and wearing near-matching thick-rimmed glasses, have plans to travel throughout Europe during their exchange. Guides for cities from Vienna to Porto are scattered around the USE-IT office.
The maps are pre-marked with the locations of hostels, restaurants, bars and other unique attractions. On the map for Bruges, in northern Belgium, there are "places to kiss" and on the Ghent one, all of the graffiti-ed walls are marked.
The Brussels map includes a waffle graphic that points out a "tourist waffle" - topped with whipped cream and strawberries, and a "super tourist waffle" - topped with a mountain of ice cream, fruit, and more cream. Belgian fries are marked too.
The guides are written colloquially, just as a friend might speak, so the commentary leans towards the sassy. Local artists ensure each one has a flavor that reflects the vibe of the city. (www.use-it.travel/home)
"We always tell the artists, 'If your grandmother sees it, she shouldn't like it," said Nicolas Marichal, USE-IT's editor-in-chief for Europe.
Each city operates independently, but they are all organized under USE-IT Europe. If a city wants to launch a map, it is responsible for lobbying for funding. In Belgium, funding comes from the Flemish government and local city authorities.
The story began in Copenhagen in 1971, the organization says. Young hippies were flooding into the city, so the mayor created a pop-up hostel for wandering travelers. The hostel began offering travel information and soon enough the first USE-IT guide was published.
"You consider the people that are using the maps friends," said Tine Declerck, a coordinator for the group in Brussels. "You are just giving them advice."
This year, USE-IT Europe received funding from the European Commission to expand its network and there are groups in at least 25 cities trying to launch USE-IT maps of their own.
Some of the money from the Commission will be used to create a smartphone app, although USE-IT editor Marichal thinks traditional fold-up paper maps will never be obsolete.
"Where everything is marketed or digitalized, sometimes simple things work better," he said.
(Reporting By Teddy Nykiel)