While I was in the process of checking in and dropping my bags at my hostel in Lisbon the clerk asked if I wanted to go on their free city tour which started within minutes. What I really wanted at that moment was a shower, but since I was at the hostel by 10am and I couldn’t actually access my room until 3pm, I thought, why not? It’ll make the few hours until I can shower go by a ton faster and give me a sense of the city for my future solo wanderings. So despite my looming plane dehydration headache, I trundled off down the hill towards the tour-group meeting spot with one of the guides, who upon learning I was an American who had lived in Rome, made lots of annoyingly stereotypical assumptions about me. No I did not spend all my time there partying, Yes I do speak Italian, No I did not hang out only with Americans. Ugh. So far I was not wholly impressed by this tour.
Unfortunately my initial impressions of the free tour experience were proved to be true as the hours wore on. While the guide spoke excellent English, and was clearly pretty well-informed, the level of information that was presented was basic in the extreme. I was surprised that over half of our group of mostly Canadians–over 30 people, which is itself problematic–had never heard of Salazar. Even the most cursory of googling about Portugal will reveal the name of the man who, within the last seventy-five years, was dictator for over three decades. Jesus. But beyond the ignorance of my group, the guide proved that tour-guiding, much like lecturing in a classroom, is an art that very, very few have mastered. He spoke extremely quickly and would bookend most of his monologues with: “I’ll stop boring you about that now.” Teacher tip: if you call yourself boring before your listeners do, we’re going to start to believe you.
I don’t particularly like group tours and avoid them as much as possible, they are simple an unsustainable mode of travel. Anyone who has tried to fight their way against the river of tour groups into the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in July knows how frustrating these groups can be. And I’m not super proud of the fact that I agreed to join one. I’ll blame it on the jetlag. It was useful in that it provided me with the general layout of the city and I will be forever grateful to the guide for recommending 1) Bertrand Books and 2) an excellent cafe to get the bifana sandwich, a particular Portuguese pork sandwich with mustard that became a staple of our diet throughout our time there. But the biggest lesson of all from that free tour was that as a traveler and in life, you get precisely what you pay for.
Have you ever gone on a free city tour? Was it a worthwhile experience?