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The Virtues of a Tour Guide

An illustration of a tour in Rome.

Photo: Illustrated by Brett Affrunti

Some travelers—you, perhaps—are averse to the very premise of a guided tour. No self-assumed sophisticate wants to be led around by someone holding a whistle and a Ping-Pong paddle with a number on it. I certainly never did, in my indie-traveler youth. Instead I relied on books, on my own wits, and on friends and local contacts, who’d point me to the underground galleries and unsung sites that I believed told the real story of a place. In hindsight, I was poring over footnotes and ignoring the main text.

This error first struck me on a visit to Varanasi, India. At the time I was still naive enough to think I knew everything, or that I could at least figure it out on my own. So I spent three days walking the banks of the Ganges, watching the most bewildering scenes drift by. The experience was undeniably visceral, yet ultimately unsatisfying—like a Hindi movie with the subtitles off. On my fourth morning I met a local professor at a teahouse who offered to show me around in exchange for lunch. We spent the afternoon retracing my earlier steps, with my guide explaining everything I’d missed: not just the what and the who, but the how and the why.

India, of course, begs for interpretation, which is why seasoned travelers will hire a guide in Varanasi or Delhi or Mumbai when they wouldn’t consider it in Rome or Paris or London. But even the latter cities come to new life—even after your umpteenth visit—when seen with a skilled guide. Indeed, some of my most memorable tours took me not to obscure or exotic sites but around places I’d considered familiar: the Tower of London, midtown Manhattan, the heart of ancient Rome. A good tour guide can bring you to those coveted under-the-radar spots, get you into private collections your friends have never seen. But a great tour guide can steer you back onto the beaten path and help you see the celebrated sites as if for the first time.

“People often tell me, ‘We’ve done the Pantheon—show us something new,’” says Frank Dabell, one of Rome’s top tour guides. “My response is, ‘Well, yes, but would you listen to your favorite piece of music only once?’”

Did you know that Rome’s Palatine Hill gave us the word palace? Were you aware that czar and kaiser both derive from Caesar? Did you know that when the Pantheon was completed, the surrounding piazza was 15 feet lower than it is today, so someone standing outside would have seen not a rectangular box topped with a dome but the implied outline of a perfect sphere?

Maybe you knew all that. I did not, until I spent an afternoon with Dabell. Raised in Rome by French and British parents, he attended Oxford University and studied at London’s Cortauld Institute of Art, and now teaches at Temple University’s Rome campus. In his spare time he leads walking tours, which ostensibly focus on art and architecture but touch on pretty much anything you can think of, from Italian politics to ancient plumbing.

Dabell wears bright-red socks, speaks with a charming British accent, and is madly in love with art, with storytelling, and with Rome itself. He’ll visit the Pantheon twice a day, just to watch the shifting play of sunlight on the interior walls. Every April 6, Raphael’s birthday, Dabell stops to lay a flower on the master’s tomb. He can gracefully recite both the original Latin and the English translation of the famous epigraph above it:

Living, great Nature fear’d he might outvie her works

And dying, fears herself may die.

“Raphael knew the pleasure of looking and thinking,” Dabell says. “Something that’s sorely lacking these days.”

We met through Casa Manni, a one-suite hotel located 200 yards from the Pantheon. Designed by Adam Tihany, the apartment is owned and run by olive oil maker Armando Manni, who opens his black book to connect guests with Rome insiders. Dabell is Casa Manni’s art expert. (He also freelances with Context Travel, which offers tours in a dozen cities around Europe and North America.)


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