I wrote this article after Champa and I returned home from Europe in March, just before the coronavirus made such travel impossible. It felt inappropriate to publish it then. A new article in The Washington Post prompts me to share it now, with hope for better times.
Champa and I were accompanied on our recent European trip by Laura, Camille, Adrien and Tim. They were our guides on free walking tours, a travel idea we hope to use again after the current crisis passes. Perhaps you can use it then, too.
Traditionally, you had to buy an advance ticket for a walking tour of a city, but several years ago some companies began switching to a “pay what you like” model. The concept spread, even to Moldova, where we served in the Peace Corps.
The two of us prefer this model because the guides are motivated to provide a great experience every time. Their tips depend on it and their companies monitor their online reviews.
All of our guides on free walking tours have been enthusiastic local experts who provided a 2-3 hour blend of history, architecture, culture and humor.
In Bruges, Belgium, for example, Laura explained how the picturesque Flemish city became a center of European commerce, declined and then reemerged as a cultural hub. She described its majestic belfry and churches and shared stories about how it came to possess both a Michaelangelo statue and swan-filled ponds. Laura spent several years in Australia, so her narration had an unexpected accent.
In Ghent, our guide was Camille, whose description of that city’s historic competition with Bruges provided an interesting counterpoint. Camille took us to several buildings that served powerful guilds and to others that beckoned sailors seeking prostitutes. We also learned the history of Belgium’s famous beer, potato fries and other foods.
Our guide in Brussels, Adrien, expanded the food conversation to include waffles and chocolates. He pointed out architecural oddities in its magnificent Grand Place and suggested local beers for us to sample when we stopped at a bar halfway through our tour. Like other guides, he also addressed some difficult topics. Standing in front of a statue of King Leopold II, he described how millions of Africans died under brutal Belgian rule.
In Amsterdam, our guide, Tim, told another story of colonial oppression, this one about Dutch rule in Indonesia. He also brought us to a former Jewish neighborhood and to the Anne Frank House to consider what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under German occupation. Mostly, though, Tim kept us smiling as he riffed on everything from Dutch cheeses to the maintenance of canals. When he told us he also works as a stand-up comedian, we weren’t surprised.
During our Peace Corps service, we took free walking tours in several East European cities, such as with the guide you see below from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her excellent tour ranged from the architecture of a local mosque to the city’s many symbols of recent Communist rule.
All of our guides combined light material with more serious sights. As Adrien said in Brussels, “I don’t want you to get churched out.” We found all the tours just right in length. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Needless to say, we tipped all of the guides and posted favorable reviews. Hennessey, who showed us around Dublin during an earlier trip, told us his mother checked his reviews regularly.
Free walking tours can also help you find a good hotel or Airbnb, as I learned from one of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads. If you’re looking online for a place to stay, check where the walking tour originates, then search near there. You’ll end up close to top attractions instead of in a distant neighborhood.
Champa and I know how fortunate we are to have returned safely at a time when the coronavirus is claiming an enormous physical and economic toll. People around the world are struggling, and those on the front lines are risking their lives to help us. We are grateful to all of them.
As we isolate at home, we’re dreaming of the day when we can again explore a new city with a good walk.