Monday, April 9, 2012

Good personal guide well worth cost

We toured Lucca during one of the few rainy days we
have encountered here, but our tour with Elena
Benvenuti was still memorable. She is explaining the
construction of the three different types of city walls.
Monday, April 9
I like traveling in Italy on a low budget, using public transportation whenever possible and finding unusual places to visit by researching on the Internet. Hiring a personal tour guide is not something that comes to mind when one thinks about low cost travel in Italy, but there are times when it does make good financial success. A good tour guide can save much time and also arrange or provide transportation at a reasonable price. If you’ve ever received a ticket for speeding, parking or driving in a limited traffic zone, you’ll wish that you had chosen to ride with an experienced driver who knows how to avoid these problems and take you right to your destination (my speeding ticket last year cost me nearly $400).

But the best thing about a travel guide is being able to go where most tourists are not able to go, and also to understand what one is seeing. For example, I have lived near the city of Lucca for four months, taking language lessons and regularly exploring the streets. My language school gave me two short tours of the city, and I thought I knew the city well enough. But we had a chance to take a walk through Lucca with Elena Benvenuti, a professional tour guide, and it was almost like seeing it for the first time.

She drove us into the city, parking in the only free parking lot near the city wall, and showed us things we had walked past before without noticing, or that we had seen but not understood what they signified. She took us to free museums we didn’t know about, to excavations of underground ruins, and to places she had selected just for us, based on our particular interests.

For example, I told her I was more interested in archeology than art, so we went easy on the frescoes but instead looked beneath the baptistery of San Giovanni to view 1200 years and five stages of history revealed by recent excavations.  The oldest stage corresponds with a Roman domus of the first century AD., followed by a spa complex. We see the water channeling systems used to fill the thermal baths. At the next level up is a 4th or 5th century baptistery, and above this one from the early middle ages. Above that are evidences of the Longobard occupation, tombs covered with stone slabs. The baptistery was rebuilt for the last time in the 12th century. The font is large, apparently designed for baptism by immersion. We also see four circular furnaces that were created on the floor to obtain lime for the construction process.

More examples: Lucy is interested in fabrics, so we are taken to see two shops that create silk and other fabrics on huge and elaborate hand looms. We also see two works of art on exterior walls that we have passed before without noticing. Elena points the first one out, and we see a puzzling story with some women, a child and the devil off to the side, and we wonder what is going on. Elena explains that a foolish mother, angered at the misbehavior of her child, said, “May the devil take you.” But when the devil came, the mother prayed for help, and Mary, the Madonna Del Succorso, came to the rescue.

These are just a few examples of the knowledge we gain in just a couple of hours. We could have walked around the city for a year and never been aware of the sights we are shown and stories we are told. It makes our favorite mid-sized Italian city all the more meaningful. Even a cheap travel enthusiast such as me has to admit that at times, the services of a guide are well worth the expense. You can read more about Elena at her website,

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