Why I love taking the unofficial tours
By Rick Olivares
With that one word —it’s no “Avengers Assemble” or “Tally Ho” — we were off to see Paris through the Sandeman’s Walking Tour. For free! Yep, for free. The only money these guides, who are spread across Europe by the way, make money is through tips. So they know that making any good money is also contingent upon their ability to engage, educate, and make people enjoy the tour.
In many ways, I enjoy these “unofficial tours” (those not deemed to be official by the government-tasked tourism agencies) is because they are staffed with guides who are totally dedicated to their craft. Their attention to detail and trivia is engrossing and impressive.
Take for example the Sandeman’s tour of Paris, now that's three hours of a Reader’s Digest version of French history while traversing the famous and historic museums, buildings, palaces, cathedrals and churches along the Seine River.
Our American-French guide named Alexandre began out tour at Place St. Michel at the Latin Quarter just opposite Notre Dame Cathedral. And like the significance of the fountain, Alexandre began his speil with Baron Georges Haussmann who was commissioned by Napoleon III in 1851 to beautify and develop Paris into the modern architectural and engineering marvel that it is today. While a prophet is never believed in his hometown as critics scored him for his extravagance, Haussmann’s vision of Paris remains powerful and significant as it has greatly influenced Barcelona, Brussels, Madrid, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna, and key cities in the United States.
Not only is the view and scenery is breathtaking but the history lesson is incredible; something I and possibly most who take the tour, know or understand. And later in our week-long stay in France, I understand other things the more I see them.
More than a history lesson, Alexandre made us forget the biting cold as we are still in the last days of spring with his jokes and choice one-liners that had everyone — no matter what their nationality is - in stitches.
For example, while seated in a circle at the courtyard of the Louvre, Alexandre -- in total deadpan humour style — dryly noted that the story or urban myth about the glass pyramids that regained popularity when that “greatest historian of our times — Dan Brown incorporated that into his controversial best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Boy, did everyone get a laugh out that. The American tourists included.
When Alexandre recounted how at Notre Dame the French kings were crowned, this Frenchman with bird food placed them on top of a female tourist’s hat prompting all the pigeons to flock to her. Our guide was bright enough to sense that something more interesting was occurring. “I guess it is time for a commercial break because anything else I say will pale in comparison to a woman covered with pigeons.”
It was only the jokes and the historical recounting. Our guide gave up practical tips and reminders from not tipping to being mindful of pick pocket to how to properly pronounce “Champs Elysee.”
This reminded me of the time when I took the “unofficial” Beatles Tour of Liverpool — Daytrippers and McComb’s “Game of Thrones Locations Tour” of Northern Ireland. Our guides were a total joy as they were not only a chockfull of information but also fun pals.
This is in stark contrast to the Tourism France tour of Normandy that I took into my fourth day in the country. It billed itself as visiting the sites of Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, Arrowmanches, and Bayeux. Honestly, it was a terrible tour. Not only was our guide, Elisa (she was nice though but this isn’t about being nice but efficient) not too knowledgeable about the tours as she would oft repeat words and phrases several times in a speil as if giving us the run-around but we also did NOT go down at Omaha Beach. If there is any one place one should go down in Normandy it is Omaha Beach. Not only was it the site of the bloodiest fighting but it is a battle that is world history that is pivotal as much as the Battle of Waterloo, Marathon, Stalingrad, Antietam, or Hastings to name a few.
What the hell! Where is St. Mere Eglise? Carentan?
Not going down at Omaha Beach (they said the view from the American Cemetery is better) is inexcusable. If they said this in their advertisements then I believe they would get fewer patrons.
I wish too our guide to Normandy had more stories in her speil. There was nothing. In fact, many of the patrons knew much much more than her.
Because of what happened, I skipped taking the tour to Mont St. Michel that the same agency was offering. Instead, I opted to do my own tour of Rouen much like I did when I went about London.
So I lumped the Normandy tour along with the hop on/hop off tour of Edinburgh. After five minutes, I pretty much figured out the city (use the Scots Monument as your focal point in direction because you know that where the city divides between the old and new towns.
Technically, I didn’t need to do the Paris walking tour as I’ve got an excellent GPS in my brain. All one had to do was keep to the Seine in a straight line as you’d pass through them all — Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Pont d’Alma where Princess Diana lost her life, the Tuileries Gardens and you can see that grand boulevard Champs Elysee and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Despite that it was three hours well spent and I gave Alexandre a 10 Euro tip (collectively with my siblings and kids 35 Euros).
If you have an excellent sense of history then you can go around on your own. If not taking the guided tours won’t hurt as you probably wouldn’t know any better. Furthermore, if you can figure out the labyrinth system that is the New York subway you can figure anything out.
Having said that, there are trade offs to taking official and unofficial tours.
The official tours provide transportation and direction. But photo opportunities are few and far in between.
The unofficial? Well, you kind of save a little more but you walk more but the photo ops are tremendous.
The official tours take you to places you don’t really want to go to such as that pearl and gift shop in Hong Kong and that tapestry shop in Bayeux.
The unofficial? If you plan your trip well you save time and money and go where you want to go. Besides you see more on ground level.
As for that trip in Paris — that Paris Pass helped quite a lot as I didn’t have to queue for the museums and it saved me from paying for the Metro and bus rides.