Food weirdos

Food can be a divisive subject, something so personal and “ancestral” that we immediately notice when somebody has different eating habits from us.

So, it was fun to collect some of the aspects that make us, Italians, seem weird to the eyes of people coming from another continent:

  • we usually eat lunch and dinner preferably at the same time, which means late! In summer we can easily have dinner at 9.30 or 10 pm, even when children are involved (at least in Rome and in the southern regions)
  • we mostly eat Italian food *all the time* ! Yes, we are fond of our gastronomy and eating “ethnic cuisine” is usually a special occasion. This is changing, though: new generations like fusion food and the spread of delivery services made Italians more familiar with different options.
  • We eat one kind of food at a time: only exception is the main course (fish or meat) with its side vegetables, but you never combine pasta and salad, for instance.
  • The reason for the previous point is probably connected with the presence of many fresh ad quality ingredients in our culinary tradition, which are better appreciated if they are “alone” or just in the good and well explored combination (tomatoes and mozzarella, for instance). We give a lot of importance to acronymous like DOP, DOC, IGT… What do they mean? For food, the best guarantee is DOP (a denomination of protected origin): it means the environment has a special influence in the creation of that product and the whole process must happen in a determined location. The easiest examples are Parmigiano Reggiano or Parma Ham, but we have 167 products in Italy with this special recognition, no other European country can say the same! A step below is the IGP products: we have 130 of these examples and it means at least one phase (growing, transforming or making the final product) happens in a specific geographical area. We care a lot for these quality marks and we appreciate genuine single flavours: in the end, a good hand sliced prosciutto only needs some focaccia and a glass of wine to be a perfect meal!
  • To continue this little “lesson” on food acronymous, best wines are labelled as DOCG, which means that their denomination is “controlled” and “guaranteed” by a commission. Not only they have to follow a disciplinary code during the production and can only be produced in a specific territory (as the DOC wines are), but they have to maintain this quality level for at least 10 consecutive years and be tested mechanically AND by a human analysis. Of course all this attention raises the price of the wine, but if you want to taste a good wine without spending a fortune be sure that it is a least an IGT (the territory is not too restricted, but the vines have to be carefully selected and indicated, without mixing too much)
  • pizza doesn’t come pre-cut. And we order one pizza each, it’s an individual dish, not something you share, at least not when you are sitting down in a pizzeria
  • salad is not served as an entree, but as a side dish with the main course. And the only dressing option is olive oil, salt and – for those who like it – vinegar or lemon juice. This seasoning is personally done, the restaurant is never serving an “already dressed” salad.
  • Fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, pepperoni pizza... you won’t find these recipes listed in Italian restaurants in Italy! If you like the pizza with spicy sausage, ask for a “pizza con salame piccante”, and instead of those “movies pastas”, order “tonnarelli cacio e pepe” or “fettuccine al ragù”. Chicken is usually served here with peperoni (i.e. non spicy peppers) or grilled, while you will surely enjoy eggplant parmesan, really delicious!
  • coffee is better tasting at a bar instead of restaurants: so, it is usually better (and cheaper!) to ask for the bill before coffee and have a healthy walk to the first good bar (yes, the bar here serves coffee, not alcool… at least, not only) and drink your espresso standing … “as the Romans do”
  • we usually have gelato on a cone, generally two or three flavours at the time (same price!) and we eat it while we walk in our errands or during a promenade
  • cookies for breakfast are not a treat, it’s totally normal. While eggs for breakfast are extremely rare in an Italian house.

Do you know other weird aspect of Italian eating habits? Let us know with an email to info@afriendinrome.it

FAQ: how do you remember all this “stuff” about Rome?

Posted on May 14, 2020 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

Many people in this time of lockdown rediscovered the game of jigsaw… it explains well our system of memorising information and concepts connected to the history of Rome. At the beginning you are… puzzled! You do not know where to start from, too many pieces, let’s imagine an image split in 2773 pieces, one for each year of the history of Rome!

You start from the frame: corners and flat pieces are easier to identify and this way you create a container for the other pieces, right? These are the basic infos on the city of Rome, the milestones, main events and dates, main artists and characters. 

Then you proceed with groups of pieces similar by color or subject: these are the main stories related to a specific monument, church, museum, piazza…. 

Little by little all these clusters of pieces connect to each other and they “make sense”… the more you study, the easier it is to remember connections of events and people, because they have a logical relationship. 

And final pieces of a puzzle are easy to insert, as they can only be there, in the few spots left blank… that’s the refinement part of our job of understanding… when you put the final touches to your “picture”. 

Rome is our game, a fascinating endless game of putting pieces in a picture!

How do we create a new tour?

Posted on May 7, 2020 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

In this period of “travel freeze” we can devote time to studying and preparing new tours. Hopefully soon we will have access again to attractions, churches and museums to complete the path, as you’ll see below how essential is the inspection to the whole process. So, how do we proceed when we decide to introduce a new tour in our portfolio? (BTW, current portfolio already includes 82 tours/activities, but we love diversity, even when it comes to tours!)

  1. first of all, we have to be fascinated ourselves by a specific subject or period, or maybe a new site/exhibition … here below is the Crypta Balbi, a museum that opened in Rome only in 2001, included in our portfolio since last year, 2019. A new tour for 2020 is “Rome in WW2” and two more are almost ready: one is the “Raphael tour” , the other is dedicated to “Villa Giulia and the Etruscans”
  2. we start studying the context: for instance the medieval history and architecture of Rome for Cripta Balbi, the reasons why the Roman Empire collapsed, the sa called “late antiquity” phase…
  3. we visit several monuments or remains dating back to the same period or related to the same age (for instance I studied the churches of S. Maria Antiqua and S.Maria in Via Lata, together with some other underground sites of the city centre such as Vicus Caprarius and Domitian stadium…). If possible, we are escorted by some experts, for instance I had the chance to visit Crypta Balbi with an archaeologist who dug there, or I went to the Ardeatine Caves with a colleague who is also the granddaughter of one of the victims of the massacre happening there during Nazi’s occupation, in order to prepare the tour about WW2.
  4. of course we study the catalogue the site/museum (if available) in details at this stage, when every information in there makes more sense.
  5. this is when we visit the site again, with new eyes!
  6. at this stage (and not earlier) we are ready to revise our notes, organise all the infos, create an itinerary outdoors and inside the museum that follows our “thread”, and finally we select useful images to be loaded on our tablets and be at hand during the tour.
  7. Eventually we visit the site again, checking the itinerary, testing times and exact locations (where can we stop for short and long explanations, where is the sun/shade, where can we rest or give a break to our guests…)

I can’t wait to go out for points 5, 6 and 7 and be ready with the next two tours already “in store”. And then I’ll start planning for more!

Crypta Balbi, the exedra 

PS If you want to know more of the life of a tour guide “behind the curtains”, read the 16 chapters I collected in our Facebook Page at the dedicated album.

Lean thinking and tours

Posted on Dec 14, 2019 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

I just finished reading an essay about contracts and negotiations (“Extreme Contracts“). The main reason I read it – honestly – is because it was written by a friend, Jacopo Romei, but I’m always surprised  by the way any source of new knowledge can be applied to any field, including the market of tours. I learnt that the  management model called “Lean Thinking” is one of the most appreciated in recent years, as it  produces excellent results in terms of quality, efficiency and productivity. Lean thinking is a management philosophy which is oriented to maximize the customer value and to minimize any kind of waste. Although derived from manufacturing, Lean Thinking principles have been successfully applied to the service industry, from Healthcare to Tourism (keeping in mind the main features of the  service industry itself are intangibility of services and  production and consumption at the same time).

Lean Thinking is something more than a method for process improvement. It is a philosophy and a mindset aimed to cut waste and simplify processes.  Five steps are the pillars of this philosophy:

  1. Identify value from the standpoint of the end customer
  2. Identify all the steps in the value stream
  3. Make the value-creating steps occur in tight sequence so the product will flow smoothly toward the customer
  4. As flow is introduced, let customers pull value from the next upstream activity
  5. Seek perfection

Well, what has all this to do with us, tour-guides leading tours in an old city like Rome?

In ten years of  providing tours to independent travellers, we built the awareness we are not simply giving you information about a famous church (called St. Peter’s basilica) or a groups of ruins (called “the Forum”)… We are sharing time with you, your family and friends during your valuable holiday, making your time count and giving you resources to enjoy your spare time in a foreign city in the best possible way. We share contacts and tips, we provide ground information to understand the city, its history and its buildings. And buildings, artworks, urban structures are the reflection of  Ages and historical events. In the best scenario, you might leave Rome with a better understanding on  mankind… on top of some great pictures and a few extra pounds gained over gelato and pizza!

We hope our guests felt this value and their expectations have been fulfilled. It seems so, from their nice words on private messages and public reviews. We can consider step 1 reached, then.

Steps 2, 3 and 4: the way we provide this value is as informal as possible, from an easy and fast communication over emails up to the meeting points (close to the sites when easy to reach and  let you save time and money OR at your place when it’s easier and more convenient). We prefer not to use sales portals and automated booking engines (which would seems very “un-lean” ) because we want to get in touch with you prior to our meeting: “choose a standard tour>click a button >insert card details >DONE”   sounds very efficient, but erases all the “relationship value” of the communication prior  to the tour. This is the phase when you tell us this is your long waited trip or your honeymoon, when we learn about your children being fans of Percy Jackson, when husbands ask how they can celebrate their wife’s birthday during the trip, when  you express your “devotion” for Italian food and wine and especially when we create *together* your perfect trip, something personal and unique just for your party. When plan is set, we wait for you here in Rome. And then we finally meet you, happy to share few hours or few days of your holiday, leaving space to an unforeseen detour on the program, adapting to your pace and needs, acknowledging  what you like and pointing out more details you might appreciate, sometimes eating with you and talking about our different habits, learning from you and your homeland or previous trip experiences. When you leave, we stay in touch: social media help us and we comment your pictures while you go on with your trip, we receive your nice feedback with great pleasures and  sometimes we welcome you again  some years later and are happy to give you contacts and suggestions for your next Italian destination.

The process is smooth, it’s exactly like the correspondence with a friend living in another country, that’s what we aim to be, here in Rome, for you. Our name is a sign… you know… “nomen omen”, as the Romans used to say. And the lean philosophy preaches that YOU pull this process and value. We do not want to oversell activities and tours, we try to accommodate your needs about timings as much as possible,  we keep the experience private to be really personal, even if we might earn more from “small group tours” as many companies do.

Last steps (5) is about perfection: we know we are far from that, but lean thinking means  targeting for perfection, not exactly reaching it!  We do question ourselves, we share opinions among our team of tour guides  and even with competitors and counterparts in other cities, we ask  feedbacks to our guests, we invest in ourselves with lectures, educational trips, books (OMG how many books we want  to read!!! I wish I had a sabbatical year just to read!), inspections, exhibits… And above all, we are content, but never satisfied and look always for new projects and experiences.

From this read, I reinforced my opinion about the importance of respect, trust and fairness in business:

  • easy-going  long-term relationships with guests, suppliers and colleagues based on clear communications and simple ground rules, talking directly with the decision makers and abolishing mediations  when they do not add value (which implies reduced costs).
  • full trust in our team, leaving everybody free to express his/her own potential in his/her own way, listening to any opinion about what we do and how we do it. Maximum effort to deserve the trust of  our guests by being accurate, cheerful and flexible.
  • Improving services through experience, feedbacks  and even mistakes. Being ready to innovate and invest. Honest fees and clear communication about timings and  extra costs. Easy negotiation which continues until the day of the tour: we don’t send long emails with tons of infos and clauses, our agreement is undefined on purpose to leaves everybody the freedom to play it by ear on the day of the tour (you might be tired and longing for a smooth tour, the weather can be too hot or rainy, you might have discovered something more interesting to you than what we  had planned to visit, the Pope might decide to celebrate mass in St Peter’s making it off limits …. we need and want to be flexible)

In the end, as Jacopo Romei mentions often in his book, everything can be summed up by the expression “skin in the game” : we are not “selling” a service, we are cooperating to obtain a common result. Having a good time together, creating a fulfilling day is a mutual benefit: you’ll have great memories and the desire to come back and  we will feel proud of our job and motivated to create more  great days with other guests to come, in a virtuous circle.

Why we are NOT on booking engines?

Posted on Oct 29, 2018 in Time out to reflect | No Comments

Some of our guests asked which button on our website they have to click on to book a tour. Well, no button, you have to write an email and we will discuss our plan first. Once we agree on a plan, we will give you instructions to send a confirmation deposit (through PayPal or by credit card/bank transfer),  to book online tickets if needed (if you prefer us to deal with that, we have a fee: read our policy here) and we will send you a final recap of the booked service via email again. Nothing is standard and this might sound “vintage”,  but it’s like that on purpose.

We prefer not to use  portals and automated booking engines (like Viator, TripAdvisor, Get your guide, Airbnb Experiences ….) because we want to get in touch with you prior to our meeting: choose a standard tour>click a button >insert card details >DONE  sounds very efficient, but erases all the “relationship value” of the communication prior  to the tour. This is the phase when you tell us this is your long waited trip or your honeymoon, when we learn about your children being fans of Percy Jackson, when husbands ask how they can celebrate their wife’s birthday during the trip (or viceversa), when  you express your “devotion” for Italian food and wine … in one word, when we create together your perfect trip, something personal and unique just for your party.

On top of that, we want to avoid any extra cost on middle-persons (or OTA): I suppose you know they charge from 15 to 30% for their mediation job and of course this ends up in an higher fee for your tour (and BTW, Tripadvisor is now an OTA like any other, we are listed there only because it’s the most practical way to collect our reviews, but you have to look  specifically for “A Friend in Rome” as they do not make a hierarchical list according to the value, they only advertise companies who sell through them at heir conditions and rates)

That’s why we need an email and the process can be a bit slower than with other companies…. it’s a choice, but we firmly believe in this choice.

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 waiting for my flight. I found this article by Pat Riddell so enlightening  I decided to keep it and recently I found it again … 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 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 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 above is my rafting in Bali with my son, summer 2017), 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 it can be  a good break 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 only mean 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!!! 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 everyday 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 something 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* what you do.

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 was in far 1996, to Paris! 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 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 where they would go…  sometimes you  end up in a far attraction-less 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 means of transportation 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!

PS. update on December 2019 – nowadays TripAdvisor simply is one of many OTA (online travel agency), ranking still exists, but companies are listed according to their commercial agreement with TripAdvisor, giving more visibility to the companies  who offer more tours and better selling opportunities to the platform. We are still listed because we consider it a good public way to collect our reviews. But we will not sell our tours here for the reasons explained in this other post.