A Valuable and Valued Experience

In recent years, the literature about travel has been focusing on the importance of creating or taking advantage of experiences rather than seeking the traditional rewards such as entertainment or relaxation.  Of course, how we define a memorable experience is all over the board.  Foodies may be looking for something much different than hikers, and history buffs may not appreciate the same experience that is meaningful to a photographer or painter.  Then again, there may be significant overlap.  In any case, if we want to learn as much as we can about a destination while we are there, we have to be willing to invest.  We have to spend time doing some research before we ever leave home, but even so, that preparation may not be enough in some cases to get a true appreciation for what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching.

If we want to make sure we are doing the best we possibly can with our financial investments, we seek the advice of an expert.  If we want to take full advantage of the time we have to exercise and stay fit, we may pay a trainer or an instructor.  We may also pay teachers to help us learn particular skills or develop our hobbies.  And, there are times when it makes sense to pay someone to ensure that our travel experience is as rich as it can possibly be.  Yes, travel agents come to mind, but web-based services have almost made this profession obsolete, although they do still offer a valuable service for many individuals and groups.  I’m thinking of a service that is a bit more, well, personal.  On several occasions, we have paid to have a guide at special places of interest.  Some places are just impossible to completely enjoy even with such assistance because of poor crowd control, cheap audio equipment, or an inexperienced guide.  The Vatican Museum comes to mind — they pack way too many people in at a time, and it becomes a real challenge just to stay with your guided group.

For the most part, we have been very pleased with the guides we have had and felt that this investment provided us with a deeper appreciation for what we were seeing.  The two best examples that come to mind of where guides were invaluable to us are the Colosseum and Forum in Rome and Versailles Palace outside Paris.  In Rome it would be almost impossible in a short time to see the most historically-significant parts of the Colosseum and the Forum without an experienced guide.  I don’t remember her name, but our guide’s knowledge of these two attractions was certainly impressive.  We hired her for an individual tour, which was not cheap but worth every Euro.  She was able to answer in detail each question we asked.  She spoke fluent English.  She had a sense of humor without being silly.  She took us on a walking tour, and she managed to cover essential ground, literally and figuratively, while also adding interesting anecdotes, myths, and fascinating details.  It was such a rich experience.

Colosseum in Rome
Colosseum in Rome

The Palace at Versailles is a short 30 minute train ride to the west of Paris and well worth the time and effort to get there.  Because the Palace is so huge and we only had about four hours to spend there, we decided to pay for a guided tour.  This time, we were part of a group.  We still had bad memories of being shuffled through the Vatican Museum, shoulder to shoulder, like cows being herded to the slaughter.  We were prepared for the worst at Versailles.  Pauline was our host, and we could not have been more pleased.  She met our group at a building where tickets are sold about three blocks from the entrance to the Palace grounds.  She held in her hand a brightly-colored cloth blue flower on a tall green stalk, which she held up high enough for everyone to see to make following her a bit easier.  As is usually the case with guided tours, Pauline was able to bypass the longer general admission line and get us in the Palace promptly, which is almost worth the price of the tour alone.

Pauline distributed our audio headsets shortly after we entered the Palace and tested them all.  The technology was much better this time than when we were at the Vatican Museum, and our ear phones allowed us to hear every word she said.  Taking us through each of the rooms of the Palace that are open to visitors, Pauline not only explained the significance of the rooms, but she was always careful and creative about weaving the information back into her chronological theme of the royal families that resided at the Palace.  Her approach was similar to that of a school teacher, asking questions from the group and using responses to deliver her narrative.  She managed to do so without dumbing down the story so that people of all ages and education levels could appreciate the tour.  She was really talented.  Another skill Pauline exhibited was aggressiveness.  There are always rude people in museums who will insist on edging their way in front of others to get a better view or to take a photograph, or even worse, the obligatory selfie.  Incidentally, selfie sticks are prohibited in the Versailles Palace and in many museums and galleries in Paris, thank goodness.  When our group encountered anyone attempting to push in front of us at the railings while Pauline was talking to us, she would quickly and firmly say, “Excuse me, this is a group tour, would you please step aside?  Thank you!”  It worked every time.

Pauline at Versailles
Pauline, our guide at Versailles

Traveling is a luxury that many people cannot afford, which is unfortunate.  However, there are ways to make tourism more affordable.  There is a considerable range of prices for transportation, lodging, meals, attractions, and incidentals.  It usually makes sense to pay for many services in advance, including admission.  The Paris Pass is highly recommended for visitors to the city who plan to be there a few days and want to see multiple museums and galleries.  Other major cities have similar deals, and they are definitely worth considering.  Most of the time, we don’t feel a need to have a personal guide or to even join a group tour, both of which can be expensive.  We tend to like the freedom of seeing what interests us most and skipping the rest, which is practically impossible with a guided tour.  But there are times when having a knowledgeable narrator can provide that memorable and meaningful experience that so many travelers seek.

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