Originally published in Travel + Leisure, May 2011
DID YOU KNOW that Rome’s Palatine Hill gave us the word palace? Were you aware that czar and kaiser both derive from caesar? Did you know that when the Pantheon was completed, the surrounding ground level was 15 feet lower than it is today, so someone standing in the piazza would have seen not a rectangle topped with a dome but the implied outline of a perfect sphere?
Maybe you already knew that. I did not. It was only after an afternoon walking around Rome with one of the city’s most engaging guides that I learned just how much I did not know.
Frank Dabell was raised in Rome by a French mother and a British father. He studied at Oxford and the Cortauld Institute, and teaches art history at the Rome campus of Temple University. In his spare time he leads walking tours, which ostensibly focus on art and architecture but touch on pretty much anything you can think of, from contemporary Italian politics to ancient plumbing. Dabell wears bright-red socks and corduroys, speaks with a charming British accent, and is madly in love with art, with storytelling, and with Rome itself. He visits the Pantheon at least twice a day, on his way home from class or the butcher’s, just to watch the shifting play of sunlight on the interior walls. Every April 6, Raphael’s birthday, he stops in to lay a flower on his tomb. With a graceful cadence he can recite, from memory, the original Latin and the English translation of the epigraph above the master’s tomb:
Living, great Nature fear’d he might outvie her works
And dying, fears herself may die.
“Raphael knew the pleasure of looking and thinking,” he says. “That’s sorely lacking these days.”
We met through Casa Manni, a one-suite hotel located 200 yards from the Pantheon. Designed by Adam Tihany, the luxurious apartment is the brainchild of olive-oil maker Armando Manni, who opens his black book to connect guests with Roman insiders. Dabell is the resident art expert.
We had only to walk within an eight-block radius of Casa Manni to explore one of Europe’s finest open-air museums: the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza Colonna, the Trevi Fountain. Through the heart of this neighborhood runs a path, marked with brass inlays in the pavement, that forms a literal tourist trail: we were not charting unknown terrain. I had traced this route countless times myself, and thought I had a decent understanding of Rome and its heritage—for God’s sake, I minored in art history at Harvard. But Dabell proved me hopelessly wrong. I hadn’t been looking and thinking.
In addition to his work with Casa Manni, Dabell freelances with Context Travel, which offers private and group walks in a dozen cities around Europe and North America. “I shy away from the term tour guide,” Dabell says. “Not to be snobbish, but that sounds like I’m waving a little flag.”
Some travelers—you, perhaps—have an aversion to the very notion of a guided tour. No self-assumed sophisticate wants to be pushed around by someone with a whistle and a numbered ping-pong paddle. I sure never did, in my indie-traveler youth. Instead I’d rely on books, on my own wits, and on friends and local contacts, who would point me to the underground galleries and unsung sites that I believed told the real story of a place. In hindsight, I was poring over footnotes and ignoring the main text.
This dawned on me during a trip to Varanasi. At the time I was naïve enough to think I knew everything, or could figure it out on my own. So I spent three days walking the banks of the Ganges by myself, watching the scenery drift by. The experience was thrilling and visceral, yet ultimately frustrating—like a Hindi movie with the subtitles turned off. On my fourth morning I met an amiable professor at a teahouse, who offered to show me around his city in exchange for lunch. We spent the afternoon retracing my earlier steps, with my guide explaining everything I’d missed. It was a revelation, in every sense.
India, of course, begs for interpretation, which is why seasoned travelers will hire guides in Varanasi or Delhi or Mumbai when they might not consider it in Rome or Paris or London. But even the latter come to new life when seen through the eyes of a skilled guide—even after 10 or 20 visits. I lived and worked in Manhattan for a decade and never fully comprehended the nuances of the cityscape until I joined an AIA walking tour of Midtown. Indeed, some of my favorite guided tours were not of obscure sites in exotic locales, but of places I’d considered familiar: the Tower of London, New Orleans’s French Quarter, the heart of ancient Rome.
“People often tell me, ‘Show us something new—we’ve done the Pantheon,’” Dabell says. “And my response is, ‘Well, yes, but would you listen to your favorite piece of music only once?’”
It’s that “something new” fixation that leads many travelers to confuse breadth for depth—to forego the old warhorses (the Pantheon, the Prado, Westminster Abbey) in favor of less obvious places on the list. A good tour guide can lead you to those coveted under-the-radar spots, get you into private collections your friends back home have never seen. A great tour guide can steer you back onto the beaten path and help you see it as if for the first time.
“Travelers tend to sell famous things short for being famous,” says Maureen B. Fant, a writer and longtime Rome resident who also leads walks for Casa Manni and Context Travel. “We forget that there’s a reason they got that way.” As it happened, the places Frank Dabell took me and my wife were decidedly on-the-map, accessible to the public, and, best of all, free. Anyone with a Blue Guide and a clue could follow the same itinerary themselves. But even the sharpest guidebook or the liveliest podcast can’t replace a firsthand connection with a walking, talking insider—someone who explains not just the what, when, and where, but the how and the why.
“I’m a big fan of hiring guides in cities like Prague, Istanbul, Tangier—places where you could really use the help,” says Rick Steves, the travel writer and television host. “The irony is, the more you need the guide, the cheaper they are. In Prague you can hire a student to take you around for twenty bucks an hour, and you’re making his day.”
Guiding may be the one instance where you don’t want a professional. “People who are primarily experts in their subject—like Frank—generally make better guides than those for whom it’s a full-time job,” Maureen Fant notes. After too long in the field, even the most creative tour leaders default to a tape-loop.
The best guides read their audience as well as they read the city, ever-attuned to the ebb and flow of engagement. (The perfect candidate not only has a PhD but moonlights in an improv troupe.) For Dabell and Fant, the client profile is all over the map: some are scholars themselves, some have barely cracked a guidebook. Fant recalls an American couple who requested a tour of ancient Rome. “The husband had no interest in art, didn’t want to go to museums. I thought, How am I going to engage him? Well, he happened to be in the bathroom-supply business, and he wound up being fascinated by the fountains. He asked a zillion questions about how they worked, the movement of water through the city.”
Standout guides also manage to transcend the job’s inherently awkward premise, which is herding adults around like schoolchildren. In Dabell’s company, my wife and I felt less like two out-of-town rubes with a guide than like three friends engrossed in conversation during a stroll across town. Our discussion veered often from the topic at hand, even well beyond Rome—to Libya, New York restaurants, the Beatles. (We also spent a good chunk of time talking pistachio ice cream. A stop at Ciuri Ciuri, Dabell’s favorite new gelato shop, was a welcome detour.)
Focused as we were on the big-name sites, it was the small tangents and odd digressions we remembered best. Dabell took as much delight in these seeming asides as he did from his primary subjects: a door hinge became as compelling as the Pantheon’s dome; a chipped remnant of tile as sublime as any Caravaggio. Standing before Sansovino’s otherwise solemn painting of Mary, Jesus, and St. Anne in the church of Sant’Agostino, he pointed to Anne’s fingers, which—now that he mentioned it—were barely tickling the infant’s foot. “Such an intimate gesture,” Dabell murmured.
Who’d have thought we could spend 50 rapt minutes circling Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, with Dabell pointing out hitherto unseen details? “Look at that palm tree, carved as if it’s leaning in the breeze. Astonishing!” he swooned as we took in the fountain’s twisting swells. “It’s the most complete artwork,” Dabell continued. “You have water, light, sound, theater, sculpture, architecture, painting—because these figures were originally painted. When this fountain was first switched on in 1651, Bernini essentially invented the cinema.”
I figured I had seen the best of Bernini, but until Dabell directed me to it, I’d never encountered what is now my favorite of his works: a haunting memorial bust of Giovani Vigevano, a 17th-century nobleman, inside the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. There’s nothing monumental about the likeness—rather a vulnerability and uncanny softness that belies the stone in which it’s cast. “Bernini believed the best time to sculpt is either just before the subject speaks, or just after,” Dabell noted, and this seemed the case with Vigevano. Bearded and frail with age, he appears poised to utter a parting word; his head tilts almost imperceptibly forward, as if nodding in welcome to his own mourners. The blueish tint of the marble eerily suggests blood beneath flesh, making the skin appear paper-thin and translucent. It is the most lifelike depiction of near-death I have ever seen. And there it was, drawing not a single spectator—while, just down the nave, a crowd of tourists snapped photos of Caravaggio’s Madonna dei Pellegrini.
“Scholars know the Vigevano bust, but it’s not celebrated,” Dabell explained. “History is written by the winners, and the winners of Bernini’s big book are the mythological figures. Seeing these busts of 17th-century characters no one’s ever heard of—it’s like meeting the people themselves.”
A good guide is like the difference between reading a historical plaque and having an actor perform it. In Dabell’s case it was more like the difference between scanning a piece of sheet music and listening to a choir sing it aloud. Suddenly I recognized the arc of the melody, the grace of the counterpoint, the thrust of the lyric.
When I told Dabell this, he humbly protested. “Sometimes you simply have to step out of the way and let the thing sing for itself,” he said as we gazed into Vigevano’s mournful eyes. “This is something we never make the time to do—just to stop, and look, without speaking.”
And so we did. •