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The Virtues of a Tour Guide

An illustration of a tour in Rome.

Photo: Illustrated by Brett Affrunti

We had only to walk within an eight-block radius of Casa Manni to explore one of the world’s finest open-air museums: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza Colonna, the Trevi Fountain. Through the neighborhood runs a path, marked with inlays in the pavement, that forms a literal tourist trail. We were not charting unknown terrain. I had walked this route countless times myself and believed I had a decent understanding of Rome and its heritage. But Dabell proved me wrong. I hadn’t been looking and thinking.

Guiding may be the one instance where you generally don’t want a veteran professional. “People who are primarily experts in their subject usually make better guides than those for whom it’s a full-time job,” notes Maureen B. Fant, an American writer and Rome-based expat who coordinates tours for Casa Manni. After too long in the field, she notes, even the most inspired guides default to a tape loop.

Savvy tour leaders read their audience as well as they read the city, staying ever attuned to the ebb and flow of engagement. (The ideal candidate not only has a Ph.D. but also moonlights in an improv troupe.) Such skills are essential, since there is no such thing as a “typical” tour client, according to Fant: some are scholars themselves; others have barely cracked a guidebook. She recalls a couple who signed up for a tour of ancient Rome. The husband had no interest in art or museums, but happened to be in the bathroom-supply business: “He wound up asking a zillion questions about the fountains—how they worked, how water moved through the city. They became the basis of our walk.”

Standout guides also manage to transcend the job’s inherently awkward premise, which is to herd adults around like schoolchildren. In Dabell’s company, my wife and I felt less like two out-of-town rubes being led by a guide and more like three friends engrossed in conversation during a stroll across town. That conversation veered frequently from the topic at hand—to Libyan politics, New York City restaurants, the Beatles, pistachio ice cream. (A stop at Ciuri Ciuri, Dabell’s favorite gelato shop, proved a worthy detour.)

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