ROME—Stuart Harvey is giddy with excitement as he leads his small band of followers into lovely San Clemente Basilica, an unexpected stop on our tour of this treasure trove of history.
We’ve already completed our Rome “wish list” thanks to visits to the Vatican, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Arch of Constantine, Pantheon and Spanish Steps, but tour guide extraordinaire Harvey assures us a stop at San Clemente (basilicasanclemente.com/eng/) will be a worthy addition to our itinerary – the shelter the great church offers from the steady rain quickly has everyone agreeing to go inside.
It’s a tour guide’s job to introduce visitors to “off the beaten track” gems when they visit a city like Rome and Harvey is an expert at finding just such wonders.
“You’re not going to believe what’s inside,” says Harvey (www.romepersonaltours.com/) as he pushes open the ornate doors of a church where 21 centuries of history are literally stacked three layers deep.
Once inside the historic basilica that’s dedicated to Pope Clement I and still is use today, we are awed by its 11th century design and treasures – the church features an incredible mosaic dome over the main alter, priceless frescoes and a stunning marble choir loft. The entertaining Englishman then asks us to follow him down a stone staircase where we arrive in the 4th century – the present day San Clemente, you see, is built over the ruins of an earlier church which was a victim of fire. Now totally in Harvey’s grasp, the group follows him to another staircase which leads us to a 1st century pagan temple and soon we are standing in two historic Roman buildings and walking through ancient streets so narrow we can’t even stretch out our arms.
Fascinating stuff and we can’t stop thanking Stuart for taking us to where few tourists get to go in Rome, to which Harvey replies: “I’m just doing my job.”
I often tell people the best $200 you can spend on a vacation is to employ the services of a good guide and let him or her introduce you to the place through expert eyes. Their insight of local restaurants, transportation tips and trendy new areas far from the high priced tourist traps will actually save you money.
On a recent rail trip through France, Italy and the incredible Catalan region of Spain with Eurail (www.eurail.com/), we employed the services of some amazing guides like Harvey who introduced us to lots of fascinating new facts about the cities we were visiting – facts that even those among us who had visited these cities many times before did not know. And surprisingly, most of the guides we meet are ex-pats who fell in love with their adopted cities, uncovered lots of interesting tourist tidbits that even many locals don’t know, and now share their “inside” knowledge with visitors smart enough to pay for a service that always enhances a holiday.
Harvey says he was drawn to the Eternal City by the love of a woman and now his love for this incredible city and the secrets he’s able to uncover makes him so happy because “they make my guests happy.”
Besides meeting the enchanting Harvey in Rome, we toured Paris on the first day of our visit there with the husband and wife team of David Downie and Alison Harris (www.davidddownie.com/David_D._Downie/), and the next day with the entertaining Terrance Gelenter (paris-expat.com/), a former New Yorker who’s a cross between a tour guide and a stand-up comic. In Barcelona, we were led around the streets of the great Catalan city by Aicard Guinovart, who was a fountain of information working for the local tourist board (www.act.cat/?lang=en). Each of the guides brought great insight to the specific tours they led and in each case enlightened the group with lots of “local knowledge.”
For instance, Downie introduces us to the “best coffee shop in all of Paris” – it’s called La Cafeotheque at 50 Rue de l’Hotel de Ville (www.lacafeotheque.com/) and is located in an 800-year-old building in the historic Marais district, not far from Notre Dame. While sipping a dark brew, Downie tells us the owners are Colombian and that the wooden-beamed building is a favourite gathering spot for French intellectuals.
When we wonder why many of the bridges that cross the Seine are decorated with locks, Downie not only tells us that they represent a commitment of lovers who throw the key into the great river. But he also informs us that the locks are becoming a burden as some lovers have come back and cut their locks after romances end – “guides have told me they’ve seen the locks fall from the bridge onto tour boats.”
Downie moved to Paris in the mid-1980s, has written over a dozen books on the City of Light – his latest is A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, April, 2015) – and, along with his noted photographer wife Allison, offer custom walking tours of Paris, Burgundy, Rome and the Italian Riviera.
Over lunch at one of the couples’ favourite Paris restaurants – the quaint Gorille Blanc (4 Impasse Guemenee, legorilleblancparis.fr/en) – they talk passionately about their love for the French capital and how they truly enjoy finding out new things about Paris.
The wise-cracking Gelenter, who looks and dresses the part of a Parisian, is the founder and director of Paris Through Expatriate Eyes (paris-expat.com/), an informative English-language website which offers lots of tips on Paris, ranging from where to find the best and cheapest hotels to the hottest and most affordable restaurants.
His tours are filled with lots of anecdotes about Paris life and he often interrupts his walks to say “bonjour” to the many French celebrities he knows and who frequent the Paris cafés of which the fast-talking American has become an expert.
“Paris’ café culture dates back to the 19th century and Hemingway popularized them with tourists in his writings,” Gelenter tells our small group outside the famous Café Les Deux Magots (www.lesdeuxmagots.fr/en/ambiances.php#/ambiances.php) in the St. Germain des Pres area. “If you come into a café two days in a row, they’ll know your name and what you drink.
“A smile and a bonjour will get you a lot in a Paris café,” he tells us. Terrance has been known to regale his clients with a sampling of his favourite love songs – his rendition of Tony Bennett classics is most entertaining.
“I love my job because it allows me to show people the real Paris and not the one that’s been planned out for them in a guidebook,” says Terrance over a glass of wine in a classic French restaurant where everyone knows him – he even gets the owner/chef to take us to the room’s ancient wine cellar for a private viewing.
Try doing that without a guide.
To find out more about Harvey, his rates and the fascinating tours he offers in and around Rome, go to www.romeHapersonaltours.com
There’s no better way to get around Europe than by train and Eurail Group and its many partners make the experience seamless and fun for tourists, depositing them in the centre of all major cities and close to the major attractions. Eurail has many affordable Eurail Pass options available and don’t forget, kids under 12 travel free on Eurail. If you are interested in booking a Eurail Pass, go to www.eurailgroup.org/eurail-vendors. The Rail Planner is a free app that provides offline access to the European train timetables. With the app, you can use the ‘Trip Planner’ feature to plan your trip in advance, at the train station or even on the train. You can also find the train stations nearest to you using augmented reality, see what extra discounts and benefits you are entitled to, including ferry crossings, hotels and city tours and read facts about the countries you are exploring: www.eurailgroup.org/promos/railplanner_app/index.htm