I must admit that I’ve never considered booking a tour when visiting a big city as I’d never thought of it as my “thing”. I went on a free walking tour of the old city in Jerusalam many years ago along with at least thirty other people and after ten minutes of trying to listen to a bored guide obviously regurgitating a load of facts for the upteenth times, we quitely slipped away to go and look at the sheeps head stalls in the winding lanes of the muslim quarter instead. When I think of tours I think of groups of bored people trailing behind someone carrying a brolly or similar aloft so that heavens forbid anyone would have the misfortune of loosing her or him. I would rather have my teeth pulled than spend a few hours of my valuble holiday time than having to endure listening to boring fact after fact after fact! If I really need facts I’ll go to good old Wikipeadia or the latest DK Eyewitness travel guide.
And that was originally the plan for our trip to Rome. Go to the sites, look around, take photos and read up about where we had visited later. However, one day having a mooch on Instagram I came across a link to Christina’s Cucina blog post on her experience going on a tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel with a company called What a Life Tours. I really enjoyed her informative post and I loved the sound of the tour company. Could my perceptions of tours be wrong? Could a tour company provide expert guides that brought history to life in an engaging, fun and knowledgable way and be happy to interact with their guests. Would they be passionate about their city and and want to share that passion with the customers.
Curious, I popped over to their website and I have to say, I was more than pleasantly surprised and more than just a little excited. This wasn’t some stuffy tour company but a young, dynamic and successful company providing quality tours by a team of extremely knowledgable expert guides who do indeed love their job and their city. What caught my interest as well is that they only take small groups. No legions of bored followers of bored brolly bearing guides! Joining a tour also makes perfect sense as you get to skip the queues to get in. I’d heard about the very long wait to get into the Colosseum, Forum and Vatican museums and I knew for a fact that Mr R would take one look at the queue and decide not to join. This is a man who gets inpatient if there’s someone in front of him at the checkout in Tesco! After years of poo pooing the idea of joining a tour, I couldn’t believe that I was actually really excited about joining one, and without further hesitation I promptly booked one on their easy to navigate booking system.
And do you know what, our tour was one of the big highlight of our entire trip. Or should I say tours. But more about that later!
Our first tour of the Colosseum and Forum unfortunately got cancelled due to awful weather (as mentioned in part two of our Roman adventure. Remember me mentioning the pinecone missiles?) and the authorities closing the whole site for safety reasons. Marcello, our guide was extrmely apologetic when we met him and gave us the choice of a full refund or booking us on to an upgraded tour two days later.Of course we opted for the latter.
Two days later and we turned up for our tour on a perfectly beautiful sunny day. We were so pleased that Marcello was our guide. We liked him the moment we met him. There were to be six others in our tour from the UK, Germany and the States. Marcello amusingly called each couple from where they came from. He found Swindon tricky to pronounce so we suggested he call us Bath instead, but he was having none of it so Mr R and I were Swin-don for the duration of our tour. Getting into the Colosseum by skipping the queues is a bit of a hub-bub and you do need to stick together as there’s a lot of people around, but Marcello had all in hand and after a quick security check, we were in. Oh my goodness, I cannot begin to explain how actually standing in this iconic, amazing, historical building was just so totally jaw droppingly amazing. It made me shudder with the wonder of it. True to their word on the What a life website, our tour was fun and engaging and fabulous Marcello brought history alive and very real. We were given radio headphones so that we heard every word he said clearly. The Palentine Hill and Forum were equally as incredible. Marcello gave us time to take it all in and take lots of photos. The three and a half hours flew by and it was a bit sad to say goodbye to the couples known as York, Chicago and Hamburg, and especially sad to wave goodbye to Marcello.
So how come we ended up on two tours when we’d only planned to do one? We had decided to visit the Vatican museums under our own steam on the day after our tour, which was our last day in Rome. What we hadn’t factored in was that it would be November 1st, All Saints Day, a public holiday meaning the Vatican museums would be closed. NO, NO, NO ! You just cannot go to Rome and not visit the Vatican. Absolutely not! There we were having a total panic when I remembered that the What a Life website had an online chat facility. A quick chat and a very quick taxi ride across town to their office with a lovely taxi driver who kept pointing out gelato shops on the way, we just about made it for the afternoon tour with the lovely Federica. There was only one other couple and their two children on her tour so we were a very small group. Yet again we skipped the lines in no time at all and again we were given radio headphones so that we caught every word clearly. I would say that the earpiece provided by the Vatican aren’t very good and I had to hold mine to my ear as it kept popping out. You’d be better off taking your own.
The Vatican museum complex is huge. Room after beautiful room, gallery after beautiful gallery of the most wonderful art and sculptures from through the ages. Yet again our guide impressed us with her wealth of knowledge and that she engaged with us through out. She never stopped smiling either and letting us know how amazed she was by how tall Mr R is, something he normally he gets irked by, but he was so in awe of everything he didn’t notice. I hate to admit that I was disappointrd with the Sistine Chapel, only because I felt I really couldn’t appreciate its beauty when you are herded in with hundreds of others and being shouted at to not take photos or to talk. Being short I found it claustrophobic and I was keen to get out. Pity as it was something I was really looking forward to. Our tour ended in St Peter’s Basilica where after saying goodbye to Federica and the other couple we were free to discover this most beautiful church for ourselves.
Do I think differently about tours now? Absolutely, but I think that you need to shop around and find the right tour to suit you. Our tours were spot on for us. The whole experience was perfect from start to end. When we return to Rome we will definitely book another tour or two with What a Life. I rather fancy the food tour and the twilight evening stroll. Oh yes, there’ll definitely be a next time.
So it’s now time to say arrivederci to Rome. Apologies if I’ve overdone the whole roman adventure posts. My next blog post will be something entirely different and may be another little story for you. It’s the first chapter of the book I may one day I get down to writing.