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HER WORLD

To Hedge Your Bets Against Sightseeing Letdowns, Try a Well-Conducted Tour

May 02, 1999|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

"Sight-seeing is the art of disappointment," Robert Louis Stevenson wrote.

Anyone who has made a trip to some long-dreamed-of sight and come away feeling let down knows precisely what he meant. I felt that way three years ago when I first saw the Great Wall of China without a good guide to help me take it in.

This would argue for visiting famous sites with tour groups, even when you've done plenty of studying in advance. But some are so bad that they take the pleasure out of seeing a place like Petra in Jordan, which I visited in 1997 with a tour leader who was so busy flirting that he didn't have time to explicate the ruins. And once, just for fun, I took a bus tour of Manhattan (where, at the time, I lived) but bailed out halfway through, horrified by the guide's commentary featuring profundities like "New Jersey is on the other side of the Hudson."

When you find a good tour, it can make an indelible impression--as anyone who's been lucky enough to visit Chartres Cathedral with Malcolm Miller can attest. For the last 40 years, he's been serving as a volunteer guide at the great Gothic church 60 miles southwest of Paris, giving two tours (in English) daily and passing a hat afterward. I happened onto his tour a dozen years ago, completely unsuspecting that I was about to be inspired by a savant who makes visitors really understand the achievements of the cathedral's builders and how it must have felt for pilgrims to come to Chartres, penitent and footsore, in the Middle Ages.

In 1995 I made a pilgrimage to the Vatican, feeling a little dutiful and bored, since I'd visited it numerous times before. This time, though, in the portico of St. Peter's, I noticed a dilapidated table with a sign offering free tours led by volunteers. So I took one with Penny Schwarz, an Englishwoman who sang in the Vatican choir and knew the great church intimately. She began in Bernini's 17th century colonnade, pointing out statues of Saints Peter and Paul, explaining that on Easter Sunday 35,000 chairs are set up in the piazza it encloses, and noting that 900 early Christians were martyred in Nero's Circus nearby, including St. Peter himself.

Bernini was just 22 when he created the seven-story bronze canopy over the high altar, though Michelangelo was 65 when he began designing the basilica's extraordinary dome. These may sound like dry facts, but on Penny's lips they were deeply affecting. Three ladies from Minneapolis were so moved that they left in tears, and I had to phone my Protestant mother to get her to remind me why I shouldn't convert to Catholicism.

In fact, most of the great tours I've taken have been of religious sites, like the beautiful, bare Meeting House at Hancock Shaker Village near Pittsfield, Massachusetts (where a guide led my group in singing the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts"), and Palestine Park, a model of the Holy Land (built on a scale of 1.75 feet to the mile) on the leafy grounds of the Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo, N.Y.

There have been exceptions, though; I loved touring the historic campus of Princeton University with a surprisingly urbane student guide, joining a Grand Canyon National Park ranger for a lecture on the canyon's layered rock and seeing the mansions of Puerto Vallarta's rich and famous on a home tour organized by the Puerto Vallarta Friendship Club.

Several years ago in Hong Kong, after hitting all the city's top sights, I signed up for a half-day "Family Insight Tour" offered by the city's tourist authority. It took visitors in a bus to a housing estate north of downtown, which is where most residents of the densely populated city live, in what seem, at first, to be dreary concrete high-rises with painfully slow elevators and barren grounds. But when we stopped in at one elderly woman's apartment, we got a chance to see how residents cope with cramped quarters, drying laundry on the balcony and setting up shrines to their ancestors atop the TV. And, in a way, the sight of 20 kindergartners at a day-care center we visited later singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" (in English, for our benefit) filled me with as much hope and joy as the spires of Chartres.

But I took my favorite tour of all in Beijing, an immensely spread-out city that isn't easy for independent travelers to see. I kept getting lost and wasting precious time walking great distances from site to site. So I was more than ready to join a half-day tour of the hutongs, or alleyways, of northern Beijing, in a pedicab, no less. What great fun it was to see a part of the city Western tourists don't often visit.

High-rise apartments for the city's burgeoning population are threatening to crowd out remaining hutong neighborhoods, even though they are pleasant and historic. Along the hutongs, my fleet of pedicabs passed street vendors selling fried egg sandwiches, odoriferous public bathrooms (used by residents who lack private facilities) and old courtyard residences, called siheyuans, built for royals and bureaucrats but now housing up to a dozen families each. We also stopped at the 13th century Drum Tower, the Guang Hua Temple (where imperial eunuchs took refuge when the last emperor was overthrown) and the mansion of a Qing Dynasty prince to watch members of the Beijing Opera perform while we sipped green tea.

I'd never have found these sites on my own, or had the nerve to ride in a pedicab, which is why I'm going to keep taking tours, tolerating the bad and never forgetting the good.

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