Story and photos by Robert N. Jenkins
"Here, please. Maybe you can stand in the shadow of that tree," requested our guide. A couple dozen of us, on an excursion from a cruise ship, shuffled to one side, happy to get out from under the sun that was baking Rome to 90 degrees. The guide was holding above her head a book that had photos of landmarks, with overlays showing artist's conceptions of what the buildings looked like when new.
The guide's backdrop, about two city blocks away, was the Colosseum.
"It took 11 years to build the Colosseum," she said, holding open her book so that the overlay gave us the "then" image of the huge stadium. "The stone walls were covered with white marble, and it had a canvas cover that could be removed. "It was full of statues, but they are all gone. All the marble is gone, too." That was obvious even at our distance. I stared past her at the Colosseum and saw other tourists wandering about the structure on three levels.
"Now, take your pictures, and then we will walk up the hill to the great Roman Forum," the guide directed. I asked, "Aren't we going inside the Colosseum?" "No, that is not on your tour," she answered nonchalantly. "We only go inside St. Peter's (Basilica)," which we had done.
How could that be? How did I go across the sea, only to stand near, but not inside, one of the world's most famous structures?
No speed-reading, please
The answer was simple: I had not paid enough attention to the ship brochure's description of the tour before selecting it. The brochure described the "Taste of Rome" tour thusly:
"Pause during your walk near the Forum to photograph the imposing exterior of the Colosseum, one of Rome's monuments. . . . Re-board the bus for the drive back to the ship."
Sure enough, it says "photograph the imposing exterior." Nothing about the interior.
That's what I got for picking a tour at the low end of the price scale, in this case $99 for 9 1/2 hours, including the total of three hours’ driving to and from the port. The brochure's other Rome tours were priced at $128 and the "Exclusive, Best of Rome" at $345.
The brochure said that the more expensive trip included tours of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, "lunch in a fine restaurant, with wine," the Trevi Fountain, time for shopping, drive-by looks at several ancient sites and – trumpets, please – a chance to "visit the historic Colosseum, acknowledged as one of the world's most celebrated buildings."
But in truth, I had a fine time in Rome during the three hours of free time before we were to meet with the guide. Using a couple of maps, I walked through tiny alleys and across fine plazas.
I entered the magnificent Pantheon, built on the site of a Roman temple constructed in 27 B.C., consecrated as a Christian church in 609 A.D. and still used as a church.
I dodged motor scooters and big-city traffic on a couple of streets, until I reached the throngs crowding around the Trevi Fountain. It is lovely, in a monumental way – its human and animal figures heroic in size and pose.
My 3 1/2-mile walkabout convinced me not to switch my other excursions to ones costlier and more comprehensive.
I had researched each city the ship would visit. Thus, in Florence I did not take a chance on waiting in line to get in the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo's David. Instead, I walked a few blocks to the only home of Michelangelo still standing in the city; inside, I saw two marble friezes he created as a teenager that have never been shown elsewhere.
And I knew it would be worth my Florence time, and a small fee, to enter the Church of Santa Croce. I viewed on one wall the crypt of Galileo (the frieze has a telescope resting on one of his shoulders). Across the nave, I saw the tombs – almost side by side – of Micheangelo, Donatello and Nicolo Machiavelli.
But even careful reading of the excursion brochure might not have caught the difference between going inside the famed Grand Casino of Monte Carlo -- think tuxedo-clad James Bond asking for cards in a high-stakes game of baccarat -- and merely looking at the exterior.
Descriptions of the two basic tours said each lasted four hours and seemed to indicate that we would visit the same stops. The clue was in the price. My $56 tour described the casino stop as "Arriving at the Place du Casino . . . you will have approximately one hour to explore this landmark and surrounding area."
But entry to the casino at the time cost 10 euros, about $11.60. And the other tour, which cost $11 more, began with, "Discover the paradise of Monaco while visiting the greatest casino in the world! . . . “Your guide will escort you inside the Grand Casino where you will have approximately one hour to try your luck."
I didn't get to try my luck: Our tour left more than one hour before the Belle Epoque Casino opened for the day.
Reading what is there
The excursions discussed in this article were offered as part of a cruise. Of course, passengers may arrange their own touring. Before leaving, the wise traveler, whether on a cruise or a land trip, can scan Web sites or contact tourism agencies for each destination to check for commercial tours. For ship passengers, this could prove cheaper because it eliminates the booking agent/middle man’s fee: the cruise line.
Deciphering what to expect on an excursion, whether it is off a cruise ship or part of a tour-operator's package options, is fairly simple:
Study the rules for your tours and instructions about challenges to those who have mobility, back or heart problems. Be honest with yourself about difficulties these warnings indicate.
Be prepared for changes in the tour described: For example, road repairs, religious or government holidays and festivals can make some stops or sites inaccessible for certain days.
Some operators make it easy to understand what is included. For instance, Globus prints specific sites that are visited in uppercase letters.
Generally, in tour or excursion language, phrases such as "see," "'drive by" and "take in the scenery" mean you will not be entering the destination, perhaps will not even be getting off the bus. Similarly, "we will pause at the nearest point to view" indicates a photo opportunity but not much more.
On the other hand, "visit" means you will enter. A caution: Phrases such as "also on display here" do not guarantee your tour will stop at these artworks or items.
If the tour includes wording such as "time to shop," be prepared to spend time where you may not care to, in handicraft shops or at souvenir-oriented markets without quality goods. You can assume the guide or the tour company is getting a commission on all sales made to customers dropped off here.
If your excursion is off a ship, pay attention to where your vessel docks and where the tour begins. The ports serving Florence and Rome are at least 90 minutes by highway bus from the touristic parts of the cities, and the countryside is unremarkable. Because of morning rush-hour traffic, it took my bus two hours from port to Florence, 30 minutes more than the description estimated.
A last word of warning: You may think that you are back in elementary school by having to follow a tour leader who is holding high what resembles a large ping pong paddle or a pennant with a number on it.
But when you have gotten separated from your group in a non-English-speaking city 90 minutes from your ship, that paddle seems like the lighthouse near a reef. Take my word for it.
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