Tour Guiding

Originally published on Vagablogging. Direct link here.

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.


Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind.

It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too.

But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

A Taste of Alsace

Tucked amongst the rolling green vineyards at the foot of  Northeastern France’s Vosges Mountains, a collection of immaculately preserved little villages hide five centuries’ worth of history and expert wine making in their colorful Renaissance-era half-timbers. Dotting Alsace’s rural Route du Vin—the loop that ties together some of France’s best vineyards—marvelously authentic villages like Riquewihr, Kayserberg, Eguisheim, and Hunawihr have happily defied the onslaught of time.

village in rural Alsace, France

village in rural Alsace, France

Long beloved by wine enthusiasts and vacationing French, the cobble-stoned hamlets have become known to tourists worldwide who flock to soak up the authentic old-world cuteness—and sample their excellent vino.

The almost perfect preservation of the villages is in itself a minor miracle. The region, not far from the French-German border, has for centuries found itself the object of a tug-of-war by Europe’s two great imperial powers. The Germans believed their rightful territory extended to the mountains, while the French considered the Rhine to be the natural border. The picturesque territory—with its mellow Alsatian plain spilling out from the Vosges Mountains and renowned for its grapes since Roman times—was tussled over by diplomats and kings from the early middle ages onward.


As a result of centuries of boarder-moving depending on which country had won the latest struggle, the region developed a fascinating hybridized culture. It was reflected in the language (Alsatian is a peculiar dialect) and the cuisine (the savory French dishes carries elements of the hearty Germanic fare). It’s not usual to see street signs bearing both a French and a German name; most of the signs date from the time when their national affiliation was constantly in flux. The residents of the villages, many of them vintners, consider themselves Alsatian first and Frenchmen—or occasionally Germans—a distant second.

Despite the political drama, the region prospered during a medieval boom in its wine industry. The resulting wealth led to many of the beautiful structures that stand today. The photogenic villages—crammed with wine shops, galleries, bakeries and stay-a-while cafés—look similar but have their subtle differences.

Tiny Kayserberg boasts a historic hometown hero—Nobel Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, famous for his humanitarian efforts in Africa, was born here in 1875. In addition to the notable local, the town also has an ancient church holding a historic 1518 altarpiece. Its proximity to the vineyard-blanketed hills and a looming castle in the hills makes it popular with the hiking set.



A little further along the winding Route du Vin is the cute-as-can-be hamlet of Eguisheim. The closest village to regional city Colmar, Eguisheim’s Hansel-and-Gretel aesthetic exerts a powerful pull on romantics. The collection of brightly painted medieval houses—some more charmingly ramshackle than others—make meandering down its winding alleyways a treat.

Hunawihr has a gorgeous Renaissance-era church in addition to its collection of cute half-timbered dwellings. Riquewihr is another gem. Boasting a magnificent medieval bell tower, a museum and fine cafés, it crams historic and culinary treats into its confines.

village 2

That is not to say the area was untouched by the tumult of the twentieth century. In fact, the region so used to being a political pawn found itself as the battleground in a profoundly important military event. As the New Years’ Day 1945 glowed pink at sunrise, German forces unleashed a surprise attack in the Vosges Mountains, sweeping down into the sleeping Alsatian plain. The region’s villagers were unknowingly in the middle of Operation Nordwind, Hitler’s last offensive of World War Two.

Ferocious fighting ensued over the course of several weeks in subzero temperatures. Allied and German vehicles alike became bogged down in the snow and mud while savage combat tore apart ancient towns like Bennwihr. In the sorts of random twists of fate that occur in war, the villages of Riquewihr, Kayserberg, Eguisheim, and Hunawihr were left unscathed while unlucky Bennwihr was almost completely destroyed by the dueling armies.


Despite the early pummeling, the Allies rallied and by February had reclaimed the vineyards, villages and mountains from the Germans. The failed offensive decimated much of Hitler’s remaining forces, and the Allies penetrated Germany not long after. Once again quiet settled upon the region and the villagers went back to making their wine as they had for centuries. Post-war tourists discovered the area’s charm and the resulting boon encouraged locals to keep their communities just as previous generations had—clean and quaint.

Now the villages welcome wine enthusiasts and romantics alike to be enchanted by their cobbled lanes, medieval wine cellars, and colorful Renaissance houses. Sample some of the local product and wander the winding back alleys with your camera before lounging at a café. The villages are full of hardworking folks who are happy to share their little slice of history with any traveler interested enough to seek it out.

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.


Back from another adventure

Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work. Almost immediately. It’s amazing how engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d captured with my camera. The clusters of pixels contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings to be sure, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.

It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community that lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—at sunset.

At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.

Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.

As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research and photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.


The Royal Geographical Society: Still a treasure in its third century

Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.

With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.

The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”

The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.

Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era.

I dare you not to be inspired.

The What-ness, part 2: Choose what to lose

When you’re trying to write about your experience of a place, whether for yourself or an audience, it’s tempting to adopt the narrative form we were taught in school. After all, it was drilled into us for years, over and over again. Therefore it’s no surprise that when you open many a travel journal or travelogue you’ll often see rote accounts of trips. Many of them read like a bureaucrat’s report to the head office. It’s death by a thousand details.

The point is, rote accounts won’t achieve what you want to achieve: capturing the fundamental “what-ness” of a place. As in, the “what-ness” of a place or feeling; the core essence of it. Readers from last week will recognize the term from my old philosophy professor (actually, I don’t think it’s a term).

If you want to transcend this and capture the “what-ness” of a place or experience, ditch the narrative and narrow your focus. In other words, choose what to lose. This is really a matter of self-restraint and decisiveness.

For example, lose the superfluous stuff like the plane’s arrival, the ride from the airport, and the reviews of the food you ate. Lose the comments on prices. Lose the talk of “quaintness” and “idyllic”. We already know certain places are idyllic and quaint. Other places are dreary or foggy or crowded. These words give us nothing.

Focus instead on the conversation you had with a lifelong local. He likely imbued the place a more human dimension or gave you a clearer historical perspective. Pick out a few key moments that really crystallized the personality of the place. Record the thoughts and impressions with words that pop; use words that render the place or experience in clear tones.

It’s challenging; I face this problem in writing my new novel. It’s easy to cram in mundane and blandly written details or clichés as I describe the book’s foreign settings. Instead, I strive to pinpoint something that gives meaning and emotional heft, and then try to render it in a multidimensional way that reaches through the page and pulls the reader in.

So, if you’re struggling to capture something special for your journal or for an audience, forget what you’ve learned. Choose what to lose. Figure out what’s meaningful and breathe life into it using words that sing.


Comb through your memories and pick a few the most vivid experiences that truly embody or illustrate the experience or place. Expand on those.

There are two reasons why people write about their travel. The first is to capture a sense of place in their own private journal, in order to document the experienced of a place, and return there any time they crack the book open in the future. The second is for others’ consumption. Regardless, the each writer faces the same task: How to give a richer portrait of the place anf the experience of being there, and avoid using tired clichés?

It’s so easy and so tempting to spout out flat, tired fluff about “quaint” villages, “charming” towns, and “idyllic” beaches. You don’t want to sounds like a glossy brochures. Those are fine adjectives (and I use them from time to time) but they’re really overused, and thus lose their impact.

Plus, clichés paint only a two-dimensional portrait. Good travel writing is kind of like creating a personality profile of a place; to give the reader a more three-dimensional feel for the place. In other words, pulling in sensory data is really important to draw the reader into the location emotionally.

The Joy of Research

When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.

I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.

Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.

The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.

I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.

The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.

Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.

The What-ness of Travel

My college philosophy professor was fond of the term “what-ness.” As in, the “what-ness” of a place or feeling. Meaning, the core essence of it. Being a callow young man, at first I rolled my eyes and thought, “He’s nuts. That’s not even a word!”

But in time I became a fan of the concept, because it was really the perfect way to approach description. Now, as a professional writer, the concept is at the heart of my daily work. As I write my new novel—the plot of which involves a travel writer gallivanting through several countries—I’m well aware of the importance of capturing the soul of the locations. I stop myself from reaching for the same old clichés and hackneyed phrases and focus on the “what-ness”.

Just as my old professor taught me to.

The challenge is straight forward, but not easy. Our mandate is to render the location in vivid detail using all the sensory data we can muster.

The what-ness is comprised of the facets that add up to the whole impression. The good news is there’s no secret formula to reach the what-ness. The tools needed to render these places in almost-flesh-and-blood are in already us. They’re all around us, and they’re free.

Just focus on the sensory data.

For example, does the location of the given scene have a particular smell, perhaps giving clues to the dominant agricultural or commercial activity of the neighborhood? Or a noise that’s indicative of the place’s character? What are the visuals of the place—are the buildings fairly humdrum or are they freshly coated in an array of pastels? How are the people dressed? Do you dodge well-dressed professionals striding along, absorbed in their own cares? Or do you pass under lines of drying laundry hung from lines suspended from apartment balconies while grandmothers lean out open windows chatting with their neighbors?

These are just a few examples to give a sense of what I mean.

In future posts I’ll be expanding on ways to imbue these places with the magic necessary to touch the reader’s senses and emotions. By doing so, you are not just presenting the reader with a laundry list of facts; you are leading them to their own satisfying discovery of the “what-ness”.

The challenge is straight forward, but not easy.

I know, it’s tempting to try to bottle the soul of an entire city and give it to your audience to feast on. The instinct is noble but the end result usually does a profound disservice to the city itself. Such attempts will more than likely lead to a watering down of the place you’re trying to describe. And no place deserves a shallow generalization.

More importantly, such an attempt often does profound disservice to the reader. The reader has come to your words trusting your experience. They come for a taste of a place they’ve never been before—or at least a sample of a neighborhood they didn’t have the chance to get to know on their last visit.