Thoughts on Belgium Part 2
A tale of two tour guides
Sometimes your impressions of a place you visit become even more memorable based on the actions of the guide who showed you around. And sometimes it’s not what the guide tells you that is the most memorable; it’s the guide himself (or herself).
Biking from Bruges to Ghent on Sunday, dark clouds hovered over us. The rain finally made its appearance as we entered Ghent, still about 15 minutes from our destination, the town’s famous Gravensteen, “Castle of the Count,” an imposing medieval wonder. We had gotten a late start that morning, and Rolf, our biking leader, was trying to hurry us, so we wouldn’t be late meeting our city tour guide, who was to show us the castle and the other attractions of the town’s main square (Grote Markt). We would soon learn a valuable lesson: you should not piss off a Belgian tour guide—at least not Osvald.
Wet and winded, we arrived at the castle at around 3:30 instead of 3. “We must hurry,” Osvald said. “You have only 2 hours now, and you really need 3 hours just to see the castle, which is the heart of Ghent.”
Soon, we were scampering up one of the steepest spiral staircases I’ve ever been on and rushing into a Chamber of Torture, among other wonders. All of the time, Osvald was lamenting our too-brief stay at the castle.
Then one of our group really irked him by suggesting that we leave the castle soon in order to spend what time we had left with him on other (implied: better) sites in the city. Osvald seemed horrified but at last complied. He led us outside and took up a place along the canal to tell us about Ghent’s historic buildings and canal, its guild houses, and its trading and warring history. He spoke with great animation, waving his arms and modulating his voice in an almost singing manner. He was wondrous. But he still let us know that we should tell our tour company that if we could spend only 2-3 hours in Ghent, we should just forget seeing the castle, which takes 3 hours to see properly all by itself. The castle was his special domain, and he wanted it treated with respect.
Osvald reminded me of an earlier guide we had enjoyed on a trip to southern Italy several years before. He introduced himself as “Professori” and shared with us the wonders of Paestum, a town founded by Greeks in the fifth century BCE. Paestum has a temple to Athena similar to, but in better shape than, the Parthenon in Athens. We were entertained with great enthusiasm by a man who combined knowledge and ego in equal parts.
When we got back on our bus after leaving Paestum, we asked our own tour guide, who had been leading and cooking with us so excellently all week, in which university the Professori taught. “Professori, eccch,” she said contemptuously. “He is just a tour guide like the rest of us.”
From my experience, a great tour guide is as priceless as a great city you have come to visit and often more memorable.