It’s always a hard choice for me, when I’m traveling: Do I join a group of strangers for a tour of a town or a cathedral or a chateau? Do I strike out on my own? Or do I relax in a nearby cafe and just watch the day go by with help first from several espressos, then from a few glasses of the local wine. I travel well by myself and for years I instinctively passed up the guided tours in favor of the latter two options.
Then, several years ago, I was in Sydney and had a free day before leaving on Australia’s wonderful trans-continental train, the Indian Pacific
. On an impulse, I took an all-day bus tour out to the Hunter Valley, a well-known wine producing area. There were interesting people on the bus, the wineries were generous with their samples, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Two years ago, on my way to Moscow for my train ride across Siberia, I stopped in Berlin for two nights. In the lobby of my hotel, I happened to pick up a brochure for “A Walking Tour of the Third Reich”. The next day, at the appointed hour, I set off afoot with another dozen or so people, led by an extremely well-informed guide who, curiously, spoke with a thick Scottish accent.
Highlight Number One was the office occupied by Claus von Stauffenberg, a young German Army colonel who was one of the military officers who conspired to kill Adolf Hitler. (Tom Cruse portrayed von Stauffenberg in the excellent film, Valkyrie.) It was von Stauffenberg who placed the bomb in a conference room that nearly killed the German führer. The plot failed and von Stauffenberg was arrested, taken down to this very courtyard, and summarily executed. Compared to how Hitler dealt with the other conspirators, von Stauffenberg was lucky.
Highlight Number Two was the site of the bunker in which Hitler took his own life. As you can see, today it’s small, non-descript parking lot, deliberately left so lest the radical right-wing neo-Nazis in Germany (yes, they still have some of them there) turn the place into some kind of perverted shrine.
Now, whenever time permits, I do take tours of the interesting places I visit. Of course, a lot depends on the other people taking the tour. Years ago – I wasn’t more than 9 or 10 years old – my late Aunt Bobby took me on a bus tour of Boston. At one point, the bus driver was talking about the lanterns placed in the belfry of Old North Church as a signal to Paul Revere waiting across the Charles River. A woman in the back of the bus raised her hand and said, in almost a quarrelsome tone, “Well, how could he see those lights with all these tall buildings in the way?”