Tick the box

Posted on Sep 24, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

In 2005 I bought a travel magazine (ABTA Travelspirit) while I was in an airport waiting for my flight. I found this article by Pat Riddell so enlightening  I decided to keep it and recently I found it again  with old papers….I tried to find it online to share it, but I couldn’t find it, so I decided to type it for you: happy reading!

Is sightseeing something we want to do? Or do we do it because we feel we ought to, asks Pat Riddel? 
It was while queueing among the masses to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at the Vatican that it occured to me . People weren’t really here to appreciate the Renaissance artist’s greatest work, they were here to tick off one of Rome’s sights from their list. Next up: St Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum and the Pantheon. 
Had it just become a meaningless exercise? Wouldn’t they rather spend their time lazing in bed, drinking cappuccinos, buying designer clothes and living la dolce vita ? Does anyone actually appreciate the sights they travel miles to see? Or is it a case of ticking it off the list, telling your friends and planning the next one – Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower…
Do we go and see things simply because we think we should? Open the guidebook, identify the top 10 things to see, join the queues and, often, remain marginally unimpressed. Spending four days shopping in New York is as equally valid as devouring everything the Museum of Modern Art has to offer. The problem is you feel compelled to see everything you think you should see and leave no time to really discover the place. The people who say, “you really must see such-and-such” are often repeating the mantra that’s been drummed into them – it’s one of the tallest building in the world, it’s the greatest architecture ever seen, it’s a masterpiece, it’s culturally and historically significant, it’s a “must see”…

Well, maybe I’m being a little cynical. Why not consider finding the sights that mean something to you, rather than going along with the “received wisdom”. For everyone who just sees a pile of rubble there’s someone who sees an amazing ruin, a great ancient civilisation. For those who see “just another painting my two-year-old could’ve done”, someone will see one of the most important works of the 20th century.
 Having left Rome, we met a guy in Florence who tought the Pantheon was the most amazing thing the ancient city had to offer. Personally, I thought it was pretty impressive, but he, as an engineer, was astounded by the geometry of a perfect sphere in a building nearly 2000 years old.
I’ve gazed in awe at the sun setting – and then rising again the next day – at Uluru (Ayers Rock) while my companion looked on impassively. This, just weeks after I declared the Sydney Opera House as being “more impressive on the telly” while the same companion was dumbstruck by its sails set against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour (admittedly, I have changed my mind about this since).
Sightseeing can be arduos , it can be mind-numbingly boring – we should accept that and move on. But it can also be inspiring and moving. The only problem is: you don’t always know what will inspire and move you. Which means you end up joining the queue with everyone else, regardless.
 The eternal dilemma is whether you skip the crowds, miss whatever “sight it is and do what you really want to do, living in the knowledge that you missed something that might have blown your mind. Peraphs it depends whether you will return – a weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam will never be enough and the chances are, given the distance, you will return. Whereas the likelihood of returning to Auckland or Buenos Aires are remote – in which case you should make the effort. Alternatively is it a careful balancing act? Learning how to plan a day of sightseeing without wearing yourself out by the evening, otherwise you miss out discovering the restaurants, the nightlife and the people. Or maybe we should just blame the guidebooks and their top 10s and relentless detail of sights that are often not worth the time or effort. That’s it, then – let’s go burn some books!

Travelling with a teenager (n°3)

Posted on Sep 12, 2017 in Children, Time out to reflect | No Comments

Last “meditation” about travelling (see the n° 1 and n° 2)  is coming from my personal experience  as a  mother of a 14 year old boy and as a tour-guide meeting a lot of families with children: when your travel companion is a teenager  you just have to keep in mind they do not have the same urge of “seeing it all”. You are travelling across the planet, you know how much this costs to you in terms of money and time and you are aware you might not have the chance to be there again soon. Of course this feeling is not shared by your children, they have their whole life ahead and they just want to enjoy their holiday (despite the presence of their parents, eheheheh!)

What I learnt about this specific situation is the following:

  1. the program of the day should not be packed, plan just one main activity and be sure there will be enough time to relax in the hotel or at the beach/pool… (of course there must be free wifi signal there!)
  2. Better to plan the main activity in the morning, otherwise they will never get out of bed (but – if possible – do not plan a very early start, it is physically harder for them than for adults to wake up)
  3. Teens get easily bored if they just have to stand in front of something or slowly walk and listen, listen, listen to a guide. They need to *do* something in order to feel involved: plan a trekking, a rafting (BTW the picture is about my recent rafting in Bali with my son), a bike tour, an art lab, a food tour or a cooking class if they like eating and are curious about food, …whatever keeps them active. In any case this would not be a waste of time for you: it is a chance to see a country from a different prospective, meet more people (both local and other travellers), going places you haven’t considered which might turn out to be wonderful
  4. Check if there are interactive museums, virtual reality experiences and everything exploiting modern technologies (check our blog post  about what Rome offers): teens generally appreciate these venues and they can be good breaks during a sightseeing day

Do you have any other tips? Let’s transform this post into a Decalogue, send  a mail to info@afriendinrome.it and I’ll be glad to update this post.

The guided tour guide (n°2)

Posted on Sep 4, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

As I anticipated in  post n°1, I learnt a lot about vacationing just by doing it in the last 20 years (in the picture: a tour I had on Mount Etna, summer 2016).  Of course my critical spirit was sharpened by  working in the travel industry and especially by becoming a tour guide in 2009. When you deliver travel services everyday, you start expecting a lot when you are on the other side …in short: we (tour guides) are the worst customers a tour guide might have! But we also exploit every personal trip to improve our own  service. And this is a list of what I learnt while I was guided:

  1. you do not *always* need a guide! Sometimes it is nice and inspiring to get lost and find your way just by asking people passing by… My rule here is to have a guide for max  50% of the time I spend in a new country. You need some “alone time” and a good guide is the one giving you advices on how to spend your time on own, after providing a general overview of the destination.
  2. On the other side: you might need a guide exactly when you think you do not need one! When you have been more than once in a city and you feel familiar there, that’s when a guide can take you discover the real, inner soul of that place.  As I always say, you need at least TWO trips to every place you visit: the first is just to get acquainted and inspired, the second is when you really enjoy!
  3. the most important requirement in a guide is a good command of the language you are going to use to communicate. A guided tour is a relationship – although very short – and if you cannot understand each other enough, well…. it cannot work!
  4.  Second requirement is honesty: I do not mean by that he/she has to be fair with all the money issues and defend you  when you risk to be ripped off in restaurants, shops, taxis and so on. I refer to “intellectual honesty”: facts about his/her country have to be presented in an unbiased manner as much as possible. Of course a guide has a personal perspective, but I do not want to just hear that everything works perfectly and all is wonderful and beautiful. I’m looking for “real life”, pros and cons.
  5. A guide should be punctual: again, I’m not just talking about being on time , but especially about being prompt, attentive, able to prevent problems and give good advices, quick in answers (even before meeting, in the crucial moment of planning)  and well prepared on the agreed program.
  6. Experience: a guide has to be an expert, having travelled extensively  the area covered by his/her services. He/She should know the best way to reach a venue, how long it would take , where my hotel is, where are the good restaurants….
  7. Lastly, and this is not a requirement (as I respect privacy and discretion) but a wish: a guide is a living “component” of the country I’m visiting, and learning a bit about his/her life is another way to understand this country. I’m always curious to know about his/her studies, travels, family… what he/she likes eating or doing in his/her free time and if these aspects are unusual or common in that country.

Once you have chosen the perfect guide, another hard part of the planning is choosing the perfect activity program!!! Of course,  trust your tour guide, but he/she needs some help to know what you like.

  • You do not need to visit an art museum if you never do that in your daily life. Be honest with yourself, there’s nothing wrong in disliking art and finding history boring. If you like markets and trekking, just to name something else,  tell your guide  and there might be wonderful opportunities (a personal example: in my recent trip to Bali, one of the main attraction was the Monkey Forest, everybody goes there, but I do not like animals and on top I was scared … so, I struck it through without ceremony)
  • Touristy things: everywhere you go there will be touristy activities; most of them are grounded on the history and traditions of the city you are visiting (for instance: a gladiator class in Rome or a Mozart concert in Wien), so do not spurn everything, just because only tourists would be there. But make sure of the quality of the show before spending money there: again,  your guide can be helpful
  • “Oh no! Not another church”: this is a frequent feeling of our guests here in Italy… maybe they reach Rome after visiting Milan, Venice, Florence, Assisi….. tons of churches in every city!!! But they hide this feeling (sometimes they just blame the kids, “you know they get tired….” ) and step inside the hundredth church with a (fake) smile, just to be polite. Well, you do not have to! I totally understand now, this trip in Bali was enlightening: first temple was amazing, on a cliff. And what about the second, on the shore of a lake? And the biggest of all, on the slope of a volcano? Awesome! But as a matter of fact I was more interested in learning about ceremonies, the dress code, the beliefs of modern faithful instead of visiting an endless row of shrines that – after a while-  looked all the same. If your guide is not filtering for you, be clear and tell out loud when it’s too much. The bottom line is you are on holiday and you have to *enjoy*.

And now the last part of my recent “meditations” about vacationing: what happen when you travel with a teenager? Stay tuned!

What I learnt from travelling about travelling (n°1)

Posted on Aug 24, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

My first trip alone… I mean not in a resort where you just have to decide at what time you go to the beach or to the gym class and not with someone else taking care of everything on my behalf.. so the first trip  I was totally in charge was in far 1996, to Paris! In fact it was the first summer I had a salary  and few days of annual leave. I  immediately understood my “holiday time” was precious  and I had to plan the trip well. Now I just returned from a a wonderful trip to Bali, where I had time to think (and take some notes) about my philosophy of  vacationing. The result is the next three blog posts , this one being number 1 i.e. what I learnt in more than 20 years of holidays :

  • a holiday is a “resting time”, if you leave in a rush, you are boycotting this from the very beginning. I always grant myself some time (at least one  full day, but two, even three, would be better) before the departure to slow down, transform  the baggage moment in a fun activity, leave my stuff and house in order because I like getting back to a tidy welcoming home, dedicate some hours to my aspect and wellbeing. I also like to go to the airport or station well in advance, and start being mentally on holiday
  • The same applies when I’m back: I do not go back to my routine and to work the following day, but I always keep one or two days to restart slowly. This rule I gave myself implies  sometime a shorter holiday but I ‘d rather have a 10-day-holiday and ease up  instead of two full weeks out (of course this rule doesn’t apply to short breaks). When I’m back I spend time organising my pictures, assembling what I wrote during the trip, finishing the book I have travelled with and assimilating the experience
  • jet lag: as soon as I embark on a plane, I immediately set up my clock to the local time of my destination and adjust as much as possible my eating and sleeping time. It usually works very well (plane companies do not help, they serve food when is comfortable to them, therefore bring your own sandwich or snack to respect your timing)
  • accommodation: I try to select an apartment, B&B or hotel with great location (always a priority) and following the local style (furniture, size of the rooms, amenities….). If  everybody in Rome live in apartments I would not look for a private villa with pool… . It is also important that the staff is local to have a chance to chat a bit with them during the stay. This way also the time spent resting in our room/hotel is part of the travelling experience.
  • eating: it is always considered important to “eat local” and try specialities. But it is also true that food is an intimate activity and we miss “our food” soon. I do not blame myself anymore if I end up looking for a tex-mex or a fast food or even a pizza (one of my first rules was “never eat pizza outside of Rome or Naples”!!!). But I’m aware the gastronomy of a foreign country is usually much more articulated than what I get to eat in some centrally located restaurants.  I had an awful soup with mysterious ingredients once in ChinaTown in NYC, I didn’t like it, but i remember that meal as a true experience much more than several steaks and French fries I had in fancy bistrot style restaurants of the City.
  • eating part II: I learnt a good way to know more about local food is to attend a cooking class agreeing to prepare a “real” local menu and not what tourists usually like. You can ask  your host to prepare his/her own meal together, what *they* like having for lunch And my goal in a cooking class is not to learn something I could replicate back home, but to enter a kitchen and see the cooking techniques, the tools which are used, the general approach to food: that’s why I prefer cooking classes held by non-professional chefs, but just local people who like cooking.
  • drinking: what I mean by this subject is “relaxing”. Where do local people go to have a drink and chill out? I ask my host, the hotel receptionist or the tour guide were they would go and do the same…  sometimes you  end up in a far attractionless neighbourhood, well, that’s exactly the point.
  • moving around: every part of the world has different options which are more or less  suitable due to safety, distances and local habits. I am glad when the best way to explore is a bike and  I tolerate a car stuck in the traffic when the connections by  train+buses would be a nightmare carrying luggage. My rule here is to embrace the local mean of transportations as much as possible with a net preference to a scooter: when you get on 2 wheels and zigzag in the traffic, you really feel like you belong there, you can easily cover distances which would be outrageous on foot  and get a great sense of orientation in the city. I am grateful I grew up in Rome on two wheels, as it is very unusual the traffic conditions can be worst, and I always feel able and happy to “jump into the jam”

And then it comes to “what you really do on holiday apart from getting there, sleeping, eating, drinking and moving around” ?  Of course the answer is “a GUIDED tour” !!! But not always… and even there…. I learnt some lessons. Follow me here! 

Why we’ll never be N°1 on TripAdvisor

Posted on Mar 3, 2017 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

Every traveller on planet Earth knows about TripAdvisor  and how their ranking system works: quality, quantity and “freshness” of the reviews let a business grow its popularity. We  know that too, and we came to terms with the fact we will never compete with the companies who are in Top 20 about “things to do” in Rome. But maybe this is not a flaw! Let’s see why:

  1. we only offer private tours, which means we cannot have a very large number of guests in a given day. Companies offering group tours can be rated ten or more times on the same tour. But we love the precious relationships that can be created  only in a private customised tour. 
  2. we are not a big company with a large team of tour guides and a rich calendar of tours per day. Again this implies less reviews. But when you book a tour with A Friend in Rome you are exchanging mails directly with a tour guide who might be your own guide when you finally land here. And if I’m not available, you will be guided by a colleague I personally know, I received great feedbacks about and I trust completely. In fact they are my friends and they are informed  about you and your family before the tour takes place. To sum up, you will not be just a name and a number in a list, but a guest we are waiting for!
  3. We do not bother you for a review with scheduled emails and insistence. We  send you our link once, that’s it. Some of our happy guests are not familiar with TripAdvisor reviews,maybe they read them but never wrote one and we do not expect them to open an account just to rate our tour. Most of our guests contact us after being recommended by friends and relatives. Companies who get most of their customers through Tripadvisor generally get more reviews because clients are used to the system. On the other side they do not enjoy the pleasure of getting updates on previous guests by their family members or by the same friends coming back again! 
  4. We never  NEVER paid for one review, never! Neither we asked mom, dad, cousins and old schoolmates to invent a review for us. All our reviews are real feedbacks and we are very proud of them all!
  5. Last but not least: some companies reply to all the reviews. Sometimes they let us feel at fault, maybe they also have a person in charge of this task… we surely admire them. But, when I thought about this point, I understood that the relationship created during our correspondence and tours surely exists, but not in public. It happens through private mails, pictures exchanged, little gifts given, Christmas cards sent, jokes and comments on social networks, and second trips…. We do not have a “Social Media Office”… we are just ourselves, tour guides, INSIDE social media or a review platform.

Why we do NOT offer segway tours?

Posted on Sep 22, 2015 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

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We decided to offer you authentic local experiences  only and you will never see a Roman on a Segway in Rome! We offer bike and scooter tours as we regularly go on bikes and scooters ourselves.
Moreover in Rome there are steps, holes, cobbled stones and crazy traffic jams, therefore a Segway can be hard to ride and dangerous. When in Rome, do as the Romans do !

A city is not a theme park

Posted on Sep 4, 2015 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

11949454_10153305683708999_2894139435485574639_nOn Tripadvisor for each city you have a list of “attractions” (988 in Rome, for instance). We are now used to those “lists of things to do ”, but I recently realised (while travelling to a foreign city) that when it comes to a CITY this approach has no meaning. Is the Pantheon more “important” or  “interesting” than (for example) the three columns of Apollo Sosiano’s temple? They have exactly the same value as witnesses of the past, witnesses of an ended era which is still reflected every single day in our life, in our way of thinking, in our paths.

When you visit a city like Rome, so rich in history and transformations, you cannot understand it just by exploring single elements, without walking or biking/riding/driving yourself…. at least you have to be well focused when you are driven from one place to another and look well what is there in between two “attractions”, and ask many questions and put everything on a timeline in your mind…. That’s the only way to appreciate a city like Rome, always putting in relationship “before” and “after”, always wondering WHY that road has that name and is bending like that and the wall is painted in that colour….
Living and working as a tour guide in a city like Rome, I decided several years ago that the only way to really enjoy it would have been in small or private parties, with a guide at your disposal maximising your (always too) short time and moving around: no big groups, no set itineraries with long transfers from one side to another of the city, no “attractions” just as a background for a good picture. A city is not a “theme park” where each element is a “line to skip – picture to take – tick on a must-see list….”
A city is a place to live and you need a mentor to understand it once you get here: only after a first introduction, a short orientation, you can decide to wander on your own, enter churches, museums, galleries, shops, just sit at a café in a piazza, eat local specialities, go to the beach or to the mountains around, spend a night at a concert… Best tip:travel slow, with a local… and come back!

P.S. Do not forget to travel in a sustainable way

Spring in Rome…the second time!

Posted on Mar 21, 2015 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

tivoliSpring is definitely a great season to visit Rome, it might be crowded, but if you follow our off-the-beaten-track tips, you’ll enjoy Rome a lot!

In fact we always recommend to visit Rome at least twice!

The first time is meant to  get acquainted, visit the must-sees and taste a bit of this Eternal City. For this kind of trip the winter months are the best, as you can explore the Vatican Museums, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon without a thousand people around you and maybe you can even find a good spot to throw the coin into the Trevi fountain without queueing to take that iconic picture.
Once the ritual of the coin has been accomplished, you can be sure you’ll be in Rome again!!!

That ‘s when Spring is a great season! Leave the crowds to the main attractions you already know (you will catch up at night with the charming ruins of the Forum and the familiar arches of your “old friend”, the Colosseum…) and start exploring the city where the Romans still live, work,  eat, drink, love and enjoy life!

“Family travel grows up”

Posted on Jan 25, 2012 in Children, Time out to reflect | No Comments

Family Travel“It’s no longer automatic that a vacation with the kids means a week in Waikiki or four days at Disney. Increasingly, parents are figuring out how to bring the family along on trips to explore the world in all its complex glory”… this is  the incipit of  an article from Conde Nast Traveller published in March 2006.

We encourage you to plan a trip in Rome with your family and we’ll help you through some blog posts and special tours and tips ready for your children !

Here some interesting  passages of the article:

  • Families that feel at home abroad raise children to have a global outlook.
  • A bored child is never a fun traveling companion. So from a purely selfish point of view, you want to make sure you have an endless supply of age-appropriate tricks up your sleeve (or more likely in your bag or their backpacks) to keep the dreaded boredom at bay.
  • In the end, children are not very different from the rest of us. They appreciate lovely food and beautiful hotels, they prefer not to be bored, and they like to be treated as reasonable human beings.
  • When you travel with your kids, you have the added delight of introducing them to all the places you love and watching as they, too, enjoy the ride.
  • Kids just wanna have fun. Ever notice that when a child is having fun, he/she doesn’t get cold or hungry or tired? The moment the fun stops, the whining starts. Forget the goal-oriented adult approach.
  • The trick is to figure out not just where and when to go but also how to travel and what age the children should be. (…) make sure the destination and the activity are appropriate for your child’s character and interests.
  • Street markets and grocery stores are good places to introduce kids to local culture, to find out what people eat, wear, make. When we hire a guide, we make it a habit to ask friendly questions about his or her family (…) Navigating a foreign subway system, eating at a restaurant where you can’t read the menu, and calculating a strange currency all constitute adventures for kids, especially if you get them involved.

And finally…our favorite statement: “It goes without saying that travel feeds a child’s curiosity and contributes to good citizenship by encouraging human contact and tolerance of cultural differences.”

To be or not to be (a guide!)

Posted on Jan 8, 2012 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

touringI found this article about tour guides interesting: our job is wonderful, but not so easy as it might seem!

From the list of 10 major qualities you can read in the article, we expecially believe in interaction and flexibility…a tour guide is not a teacher, but is someone who helps you to understand and appreciate the city, the site, the museum you are visiting… YOU are the leading actor, not the tour guide!

On top of that, the tour guide is a “local”, he (or she) is someone living in the city you are visiting, maybe he (or she) was born there and has experienced this place since his (or her) childhood, therefore is able to tell you how the city changed and “where it is going”…

The tour guide is a “sieve”, someone screening for you everything which might be interesting  in town, from the main attractions to the temporary exhibits, from ice cream shops to the good music festivals: commercials always show the best side of everything, but we have tried everything for you and we can tell what is worth its reputation and why.

Trust us… a local nice tour guide can add a lot to your travel experience!