On Which Eileen Reflects on the Pros and Cons of Taking a Tour
Okay, let’s start this little piece with the admonition with which I begin every talk on writing. The quote on writing is from Somerset Maugham. “There are three hard and fast rules to writing. Unfortunately nobody can agree on what they are.” Now, there might not be actual rules, to travel, but for me the same rule applies, basically that you have to travel the way you are comfortable. You’re not going to get anything out of a visit to the Parthenon or Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal if you’re so consumed with worry over travel plans, safety, surprises and irritations that you don’t even remember to take a picture. On the other hand, you also want to be given the chance to savor the amazing things, places and people you get to see in a way that gives you pleasure.
As I said on a previous blog, I’m not the best tour person. I tend to be a bit headstrong. I want to see what I want to see. I want to go to the back roads and small streets, interact with the locals and learn their preferences, recommendations, ideas. I prefer to view architecture from a double-decker, open-air hop-on bus than a Greyhound. I want to discover the hidden gems that only the locals know about. For instance, you can see my picture here of the Bruges Madonna. Everybody knows about her. And she was everything and more than I’d hoped. Ethereal and exquisite, well worth my pilgrimage. But what most people don’t know about is the Holy Blood Chapel tucked into a crypt at the edge of Burg Square. Because they don’t have the time to wander, they miss this amazing statue of Christ tucked back in the corner. They never have a chance to sit with him, or listen to the soft echoes in the shadows and smell the old incense embedded in ancient brick.
It’s hard to take that time on a tour, hard to build in such time for wandering. If you’re in a big group, only certain places can handle your number for things like meals or shopping(parking lots are important–because where one bus goes, all buses go). My favorite thing to do is linger. NOT something you can do as well on a tour.
I took a trip that lasted five weeks. Of those weeks, four days were on a tour. And it was a beautiful organized and executed tour. We saw just about everything there was to see at Waterloo; the battlefields, the landmarks, the re-enactment bivouacs. We learned a lot from a recently retired British general and his cohort, a Captain of the Welsh Fusilliers. They were fabulous fun, and gave us insights we couldn’t have discovered on our own. We ate in lovely places, and we ate well. We stayed in a hotel that could easily handle our numbers(ask anybody who attends a conference and you’ll find out that the hotels that advertise as a conference or business hotel do really well until they actually have…a conference). But….
We were on the tour’s schedule. We moved at the general’s pace(and don’t think that generals have gone all soft and lazy. I walked my cute Irish ass off) (okay, I didn’t. But that might have had more to do with Belgian fries and waffles than the exercise). The one place I wanted to see and understand more than anything was Chateau Hougoumont. For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to it. The fight there resonated. And yes, we got to go. For half an hour. Heck, the instructional movie lasts longer than that. I felt rushed, harried and unsatisfied. I’ll have to go back. I tend to absorb the sense of a place by standing sill and just listening. Hard to do when you’re surrounded by 30 chattering people and a guide who’s talking about the next site we’re visiting. And I don’teat quickly. Not at all. Another way to keep my weight down, anyway. And most of all, I’m very particular about my hotels. I like the little hotels, the B&Bs and family places staffed by characters. In Bruges we got to stay in the Duc du Bourgogne, a little boutique hotel at the most photographed spot in the city. But it’s steep, small, and has a staff usually of 3 or 4. Not a place you’re going to see a bus(during the day, you can’t even bring a car near it)
But at the same time, I had guaranteed seats at the re-enactment and passes to everything. All of the details were taken care of (and after five weeks of mostly being in charge, I can’t tell you what a relief that is.) Instead of carrying around an expandable folder stuffed with every bit of info I might need, from B&Bs to restaurants to sites to passes to tickets to maps to schedules, I was able to just leave it all up to the military guys. But….
I guess it comes down to how independent you are, and how competent you feel in the place you’re visiting and whether you can gain access to what you want alone. I’m happy to plan Europe or the US, and even most of South America. But when the engineer and I went to India, I used the services of Amex’s Travel&Leisure Elite to help me plan the trip(especially guides and drivers) and be there for back-up if I got in trouble. If I’d been somebody else, I might well have taken a tour the first time, just to get my feet wet and find out where I wanted to return.
However you do it, though, please. Take a chance. Get out. See the rest of the world. Even the rest of the country, or the rest of the state. There is so much to see and learn, so many wonderful people to meet. You don’t have to go far. But you should go.