Friday, 10 August 2012

How to destroy the Doge’s Palace in one hour – Michelle Lovric

Recently  I booked the Secret Itinerary in English at the Doge’s Palace for my sister and nephew. The tour takes in the archives, the torture chamber, the Inquisitors’ room and the attic prisons known as the Leads, where Casanova was confined and from which he craftily escaped. I’d also heard about a really good young guide who recently gave this tour to some friends; they came back enthusiastic and wanting to know more. She’d been lively, friendly and brought the dark passageways and mysterious rooms to life.

It sounded like excellent displacement activity for someone with deadlines on two novels. It had been at least fifteen years since I’d done the Secret Itinerary myself, so I decided to go along myself, with the excuse that I wanted to make sure I could still personally recommend this tour to friends who come to Venice.

But sadly, this time I involuntarily inflicted on my family the worst specimen I have ever encountered in a long career of guided tours that takes in an excruciating camel journey through the desert by the pyramids with a compulsive bottom-pincher leering from the beast roped up to mine, a driving tour around Athens with a terrifying sociopath and, in New Zealand, four life-sapping hours with an unreconstructed racist who absolutely insisted on teaching us the life cycle of the kiwi fruit when we’d booked to hear about colonial architecture.

I knew that things were not going well the moment our Doge’s Palace guide arrived: an older woman with magenta hair and a toad-swallowing expression. Where was lively young girl my friends had enjoyed? I began to worry. Then the toad-swallower opened her mouth … and it all turned out worse than I could ever have imagined.

The beautiful, fascinating Doge’s Palace was described by Ruskin as 'the central building of the world'. This guide single-handedly turned it into an uncomfortable, irrelevant, hateful place for twenty-four people who were bright enough to find out about the special tour in the first place and get past the arcane booking system – and who were on those counts alone deserving of being treated as intelligent beings.  

After our guide had finished with us, we were running for the exit, not wanting to see the Doge’s Palace ever again. She was rude, boring, bullying, patronizing, officious and just plain nasty. Even her body language was more Prison Guard than Person Working in the Hospitality Industry. One female visitor became not unnaturally claustrophobic in Casanova’s cell and asked to stand near the door. Visibly trembling and pale, she was yelled at and harried until my sister and I intervened. Like all bullies, when confronted by opposition, the appalling guide slunk off to bully someone else.

The guide spent far more time warning us what we were not allowed to – petty and stupid things, endlessly repeated in an insulting, droning tone – than in delivering information. The only eye contact she made was in fierce glares, accompanied by the irritable clapping of her hands at anyone who was standing where, in her opinion, they should not be.

She made the classic writer’s mistake of telling us what she was going to tell us, before doing it. This was so pronounced that it began to seem that she was deliberately doing it in order to spoil the next stage of the tour.

Worst of all she made no effort to entertain or engage the interest of the group, aged ten to sixty, I’d say. She turned the whole experience into a punitive one for everyone, patronizing the adults as much as the children. Someone tried to ask a question in the archive room. It was a good question, but the response was so unpleasant that no one dared ask another. Questions were not welcome. Our job was to shuffle obediently in and out of rooms as fast as possible so she could discharge her superficial pellets of information as quickly she could and be free of our undesirable company.  

At one point, I lifted a notebook from my bag to write a domestic reminder to myself (being so intensely bored with what she was saying that I’d stopped listening). She shrieked ‘No notes!’ so loudly that I dropped my pencil. I thought of telling her ‘Non c'e' nulla di cio' che oggi ci ha detto che valga la pena di essere scritto.’ (You haven’t told us anything today that was worth writing down.) But it would have been lost on her.

The moral for historical fiction writers is clear – if you are guiding someone into the past, you must do so with empathy. You mustn’t patronize and you must attempt to engage with your audience. You are the bridge between the past and the present. Make the transit smooth and enjoyable. Take into account the fact that you have the duty, and the honour, of representing the past to your readers. Do not subject them to an experience that will turn them off your patch of history for ever. Share your pleasure, not your misanthropy.

There must plenty of other jobs where a pleasure in bullying and a hatred of the world could be usefully deployed: but let us have the great monuments of the world reanimated for us by people who love people!

Now, just to show that the mean guide did not really destroy the Doge’s Palace, here is a video of Mike Oldfield’s eponymous song from his 1999 album, The Millennium Bell.  

And you can also read about a wonderful guided tour enjoyed by Adèle Geras here

Has anyone else had any notable guiding experiences, good or bad? Do share.



Michelle Lovric’s website

 Illustration: William Harding Smith: Palazzo Ducale (Porta della carta)

19 comments:

H.M. Castor said...

Argh, what a terrible experience! And I know first-hand how fantastic that tour can be. R & I had our honeymoon in Venice & the secret tour of the Doge's Palace was, we both felt, top of the list of things we'd enjoyed. Once in North Cyprus I had an unnerving but hugely atmospheric tour of some ancient fortifications with a local man who spoke little English. He led two of us deep into unlit tunnels & then lit a match which spookily uplit his face while he told us what he could. He was friendly & enthusiastic & didn't exploit the fact that we were totally reliant on him, so deep into those dark tunnels.

spacedlaw said...

While I do not anticipate the job of herding tourists through sites to be a particularly pleasant task (rather the contrary, in fact) , I do believe (or rather I wnat - I need - to believe) you have happened on a rare bad one.
A real shame.

Jean Bull said...

Different city and different building, but a fantastic tour the very antithesis of yours - Behind the scenes at the Albert Hall. Our group of 57 had 3 different guides, but we all said that 'ours' was the best. The one we had was an Australian of Italian descent who could sing opera, and her impressions of Queen Victoria were wicked in the naughtiest sense! Lots of interesting information and interaction. Brilliant!

Jean Bull said...

Then there was also a tour of the Second World War tunnels in Gibraltar with a 17 year old guide, in the dark because of a power cut. . . Very atmospheric!

Tam said...

Sound awful! I like to think I'd have complained but actually, I'd have been too scared.

My worst tour is a toss up between a ghost tour in Prague, where all the ghosts were said to appear on the stroke of midnight, and the Highgate Cemetary tour, where I got told off for making notes (I was actually jotting down smells and atmosphere, not facts, but it didn't matter). Made me wonder if the guide was making it up as she went - she probably wasn't...

Mary Hoffman said...

What's the beef about making notes? I did this obsessively all round Egypt, because I'd gone to research the Seven Wonders of the World picture book and I'd have incinerated anyone who tried to stop me.

As a terribly claustrophobe I am in admiration of anyone who can go into tunnels without screaming.

Michelle, I hope you complained to the people you booked the tour with? Otherwise, many other people will experience the destruction of the Doge's Palace by magenta-haired lady.

My worst was being harrassed and badgered by guides outside Pompeii until we took one. We had read about it and wanted to see the Villa of the Mysteries but he could do only his set tour, which was full of obvious information and stale jokes. The second toime we went on our own and it was much better.

CharmedLassie said...

What an unpleasant woman! I've only been on a couple of guided tours in my life but I can safely say they were much more informative and less scary than this one. You have to wonder why people like that are doing the job - I think a call centre position may be order, terrorising old ladies about their bills.

Marie-Anne Mancio said...

I lecture in art history and often take adults on guided tours. I can't imagine behaving like this! People take notes in books or on smartphones (some even record me without asking first)but that's what knowledge sharing should be about. And as a writer I completely understand why you'd want to note down a smell. My favourite guided tour: in pre-Glasnost St. Petersburg where my sister and I slipped away in the Hermitage and found ourselves alone (no custodian) in a room with Matisse's The Dance. Can't imagine that luxury now.

adele said...

Brilliant post! And very glad I missed out on this lady in Venice...also thanks for 'toad swallowing expression' and I am grateful for the link to my earlier post!

Ann Turnbull said...

What an unpleasant experience! I have mixed feelings about tours anyway as I like to go round at my own pace and look at what I want to look at. We were once frog-marched and talked-at to the point of exhaustion by an enthusiastic guide at the immigration museum in Halifax, N.S., but at least she was friendly. But our best guided tour was from an English tour guide who took us around the Drogorati caves in Kefalonia and sang a traditional Greek folk song to demonstrate the acoustics.

Katherine Langrish said...

What an awful experience, Michelle! There's only one thing for it. Put the woman in a book.

Penny Dolan said...

Sad to hear your tale about the dreadful guide, Michelle, especially for any young listeners. (And how can one listen to something and not take notes? Pah!)

We'd weren't able to take the secret tour but thank you: this post instantly brought back the memory of the magnificent "waiting room" covered in those glorious painted maps. Venice, the centre of the world: that's what that chamber was saying - and how strongly - and with the Grand Canal visible through the open window.

Susan Price said...

Guides who should be sacked, part II. The woman who guided us round Knossos and another woman (sadly) who had been paid by a group of Americans to guide them round Stone Age sites in Shetland (I joined the tour without knowing it was private.)

In both cases the guide's talk was out of date and plain wrong. Especially the woman in Shetland, who told the group that the Stone Age buildings had been built by Atlanteans!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A guide in Vladivostok who forbade us to exchange any words with any Russian... even charming girls who were trying to practice their English, and who collected us from the airport then refused to let us stop for a coffee and took us on a 4 hour tour of what must be one of the most bleak cities in the world. And when we were finally allowed to visit a public toilet were each handed out two tiny segments of toilet paper. She must have been your guide's Russian cousin!!

Jenny said...

As one of the poor family sods accompanying Michelle, I almost incinerated magenta-haired lady myself! Even my 10 year old said she was a cow.

Elizabeth Dunn said...

I live in Venice and have seen far too much Venetian bullying and rudeness over the years. Please, please do complain Michelle. It's a grand old city too often ruined by its residents.

The Virtual Victorian said...

I was going to mention the 'toad swallowing' too. Wonderful expression - but I see Adele got there first.

frances thomas said...

I remember with annoyance a couple of guided tours - one outside Herculaneum, another outside the Acropolis - local guides insistent ondates and measurements - keeping us stuck for 45 minutes before we were allowed to see what we'd travelled across the world to see - and then only having a limited time. Local guides laden with statistics can be a nightmare.

K.M.Lockwood said...

This was an unpleasant experience for you - bit I did enjoy reading your account. I've had two contrasting ones in Chichester: Alan Green on Georgian Chichester who was erudite and entertaining - and a rather strange OCD/Asperger's sort of chap who admittedly knew his stuff but could bore the gaze off a gargoyle.