Jul 7, 2009

To tour or not to tour?

The definition of purgatory is going on an organised tour, as the Flashpacker once presumed…

Postcard Tuscany

Plans eh? Who needs them? I feel sorry for my poor friends that make concrete plans, I always agree to be a part of the fun then bug out at the 11th hour. Spontaneity seems more exciting, it means that I am always pleasantly surprised and rarely let down by grand expectations.

This goes for travel too.

The Flashpacker is an independent traveller and very proud of it. He likes to leave an open road ahead of him, plans really piss him off. Regimented travel is travel not worth doing. And it’s the places you visit that you never planned to that are always the most memorable.

My dear Mother Christine has just spent a month with me in London. As we were planning her trip I was surprised to find that she had sent an email with my name on a ticket to Italy called ‘Tuscan Treats’; an 8 day tour of Tuscany.

I replied with a panic: ‘Mother dearest, im not sure I would enjoy a tour, cant we just rent a car and wing it?’. This seemed like a logical reply; this way we wouldn’t have to make friends with strangers, would save money, wouldn’t be dragged around by a demented tour guide and could pick and choose our accommodation

But bless her, she had already paid for it.

Christine: hardened tour battler

In the run up to the trip I didn’t do much to learn about the area. I guess I was having some sort of denial about going on a tour. Christine sensed this and ordered me to read up on Tuscan culture (yes Mother). She also reassured me that this was no ordinary tour, it was a small group with a small bus that get inside old Roman cities and could drop us right at the door of our hotel.

And with one last attempt at denial I went out till 3am the night before we flew out, catching two hours sleep before rising to catch our 8am flight. But this was no ordinary night out, it was a full blown , apple schnapps experiment in madness. Suffice to say, travelling is always more difficult with a hangover and I should really know this by now...

On arrival at Pisa Airport we found there were no trains or buses to Florence. When I queued to ask what was going on, the information woman shrugged her shoulders and laughed. Welcome to Italy. I headed for the bus company and was confronted by a young American woman screaming at the staff.

I was angry too, but my India training kicked in and I relaxed into ‘be the cow’ mode (a form of relaxing meditation I perfected in India when everything was going wrong and nothing made any logical sense. Basically imagine a cow chewing slowly, eyes half open…mmm relaxing.) I told her to calm down and that we were all in the same boat. Bad idea: she turned so purple in the face with anger and directed her tirade on me.

So much for being the cow, 5 minutes later I was accusing a disabled woman of queue jumping...

Phallic Florence

We finally made it Florence to meet our group. This was another stressful moment. What would they all be like? My preconceptions were running wild and I imagined the group would most likely consist of an American couple that are allergic to everything and would make the restaurant experience hellish, an Australian couple that thought they knew everything and always had a better story than yours, and a Japanese couple that pretended to be fluent in English but couldn’t speak a word of it, that got lost all the time and kept us waiting.

How wrong I was. There was an American couple, Steve and Annie from Loomis CA. California was a good start, everyone in California is nice, and they didn’t disappoint. There was an Australian called Eugene, a salt of the earth Aussie builder with Eastern European roots. And finally a Canadian couple called Amanda and Allaine who were younger than the others; they looked like they had just walked off a music video shoot rather than your average tourers (hi guys!).

Cool tour

At dinner we met our tour guide for the next 8 days, Gian Paolo. He was every stereotype of an Italian; flowing hair, great tan and a cruisey demeanour. Though fluent in English he had that fantasic Italian English accent that sounded like a latin version of Borat, and at our first dinner together after dispensing with the formalities of our trip over several glasses of white, he opined the problems of our greedy western societies with a flourish of hand gestures and head throws. I could tell I was going to enjoy this tour.

So many nice knockers in Tuscany

“Tuscan Treats’ is organised by Back Roads touring, a company that specialises in smaller groups that take the ‘back roads’ (insert rude joke here). The advantage of this is that you don’t feel like you’re a small part of a bovine collective by being herded in and out of tourist traps and the group gets to decide where and what to do. Perfect for me, we don’t need to commit to a plan!

Hey, get out of my shot!

Tuscany is simply fantastic. No matter where you look, you cant take a bad photo. From Roman forts to fields of sunflowers, it invades the all the senses with colours, landscape, history, culture and of course, food and wine.

The Tuscan 'Ills'

The tour includes breakfast and dinner, you have to look after yourself for lunch. Not that we needed to eat lunch, Gian Paolo saw to it that dinner would be so ample it lasted at least 24 hours later. Were talking about two pasta starters, followed by a massive bit of meat and topped off with elaborate Italian desert, all the while accompanied by gallons of local wines.

Walking the Chinque Terre, note sweat

The schedule though was predictably hectic, a fact that annoyed me at the beginning as I don’t like getting up at 630am when im on holiday. But in hindsight a necessity as the mornings where the coolest part of the day and it was the only way to beat the throngs of ‘big bus’ tourers to our destinations.

For the next 8 days, whilst listening to the same Latin Kings CD over and over, I sat up the back of the bus to admire the awesome Tuscan countryside. And as Gian Paolo MC'd from the front, we saw the 'ills' (hills), a 'wheel' (well) and everything according to him was 'ultra' (awesome).

'Volare, oh oh oh oh...Cantare, oh oh oh oh'

The tour had its ups and downs, its never easy making a group of people happy, but they were insignificant to where we were and what we were doing. And, as our tour guide insisted on our first night together, we made a few changes to our schedule to suit or needs.

The best thing about the tour for me wasn’t the tour itself, rather the other people on it. It made me realise how easy it can be to be insular and never meet people from outside your own bubble. And as the week went on we all opened up a little more each day to let each other get a little closer. Suspicion became intrigue, preconception became admiration and complete strangers became friends.

Just the six of us (minus me)

And when our week was done and it was time to say goodbye, I have to admit I felt sad to leave everyone. I couldn’t help escape the feeling that it was a week we shared together that we would all probably never share again, unless someone else is paying for it all.

But all great things come to an end.