A tour guide who gives you so much more than a few facts and figures.
Occasionally I will do private tours, particularly if I’m pressed for time and in a city I’m unfamiliar with. I rely mostly on toursbylocals.com, because, well, the guides are locals they know their city well. For the most part, they’re friendly, chatty, provide interesting little tidbits about their city, and some even have a sense of humor.
The last of these is most important to me, because I’m there for the fun, not so much for the education. If I want to learn about a city or country, I read history books and do research — you can’t get much useful information, certainly not much you will retain, from a tour guide in 2-3 hours. So I spend the first 10-15 minutes of each tour loosening up the guide, and I do that by making a joke or by saying something totally off the point. “When do we eat?” works pretty well. After a few of those, they usually get the point — we’re here to learn a little about your city, but mostly we’re here for the yuks. That’s the thing about tour guides — you have to engage with them if you’re going to enjoy yourself. As you get to know each other, guides become more comfortable and more open, and so the conversation can get juicier. If a guide is truly effective, I’ll have better memories of my conversations with the guide and how they feel about their city, than about architecture and historical tidbits.
All toursbylocals guides are nice enough. But Fulvia is a cut above the rest. I hired her for a run through the five towns of Cinque Terre, which are located on the Italian Riveria, about 10 miles west of La Spezia in the Liguria region.
Within 5 minutes of meeting, you feel like you’ve known Fulvia for years. And within an hour, you’ll learn that she knows everybody and everybody knows her. Fulvia has been variously described by clients and residents of the five towns as the president, queen, boss, etc, of Cinque Terre. I went with Mayor, with a capital M. The fact that others have come up with similar nicknames is a testament to her character, and a character she is.
Of course she shares all the facts about the five towns — why they exist, how they developed, and how they sustained themselves despite being isolated from the mainland. But you get a little more from Fulvia. For example, she explained that because the five villages were even cut off from each other before roads were built in the 20th century, families tended to marry into each other. That in-breeding led to a high percentage of mental deficiencies. But because they maintained a Mediterranean diet they were physically healthy. So the residents tended to have long lives, but weren’t the sharpest tacks in the box. (That may be why they never figured out they should just walk over the mountain and join the rest of the civilized world.)
As we walked through one of the towns, a resident said to us in passing, “Don’t listen to her. She lies.” — joking, of course. Train conductors would tell her which cars are the least crowded, or “don’t get in that car because the door is broken”; restaurant owners give her clients the best service. She knows little passageways to avoid crowds, and then will stop to show capers growing wild on the side of a cobble-stoned street and exclaim, “What a country — you can eat off the sidewalk!” Her level of enthusiasm for her job and her home is amazing, and contagious.
Anyone who knew her would make some kind of comment, and as I said, she knows everybody. But all these interactions didn’t interrupt the flow of the tour. In fact, it added to the fun, and again, that’s what I’m there for.
As we made our way back from the La Spezia train station, she had us pass through a piazza and told us about a recent mayor of the city. This dude thought it would be a good idea to put a new fountain in the piazza. He was quite excited about it and when it was ready he had an unveiling ceremony for the townspeople. When the cover was removed, the citizens didn’t know what to make of it. In the end, what the artist was trying to convey didn’t matter because the residents came up with their own description. When they want to get together, they say, “let’s meet at the fountain of the big ass”. This same mayor also thought it would be a good idea to remove the trees that lined the most beloved piazza in the city and replace it with a sculpture from a French Architect.The residents call it the Car Wash Piazza.
He’s no longer the mayor — maybe they should consider Fulvia?
By the way, Cinque Terre is definitely visit worthy — the towns have retained their old world beauty and charm, and the views of the coastline are magnificent. If you plan to go, whether with a guide or on your own, do it by train — forget driving. It’s crazy mountainous roads and when you get to each town, parking is far from what you’re there to see. Instead, you can either drive to the first town (Riomaggiore if starting from the west; Monterosso if from the east), or drive to La Spezia and pick up the train there. If you have the time, and you’re either really into hiking or just plain crazy, you can also walk. I haven’t walked it because I’m neither crazy nor into hiking, but I hear the scenery is spectacular along the way.