Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Ghastliness of Organized Tours

I have yet another item to add to my list of “things I will never, ever do again—in this lifetime or the next.” Against my better judgment, I agreed to try a bus tour to Mycenae and Epidaurus. Originally I wanted to rent a car for the day, but Rod worried about navigating the notoriously tricky Athenian traffic (now much diminished because of the economic crisis) in exiting the city.

We booked with CHAT, a company reputed to be very good, supposedly with well-trained, knowledgeable guides. Initially we were impressed: we were fetched on time and the Mercedes bus—I didn’t know such a thing existed—was quite comfortable. My heart began sinking as the guide, a very overweight woman, intoned her commentary with a lassitude just this side of boredom. I mention weight not out of prejudice but pragmatics: the guide’s considerable bulk and poor condition prevented her from actually accompanying us around sites. She wheezed her way to the entrance of Mycenae, lectured a bit about the famous lion gate, and then turned us loose for all of twenty-five minutes while she went back to the air-conditioned bus and collapsed.

Twenty-five minutes? To explore the famous seat of the House of Atreus? Frantic, I raced around as quickly as the heat would permit, desperately trying to see everything. This, I thought, is what cruise ships do to their passengers, setting them down in Venice or Barcelona for half-a-day with a mandate to “explore the city.” We were similarly shortchanged at Epidaurus. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have waited thirty-five years to see this theatre. Pissed does not even begin to describe my mood by the afternoon.

I’m not sure whether it’s the fools at CHAT or our particular guide, but we spent more time stopping for coffees and eating lunch (mediocre) than we did exploring the ruins. I missed nearly everything at Epidaurus, a large, historically rich site, other than the theatre, for which we were allotted 30 minutes. I did learn that the famed acoustics are somewhat overstated. Yes, one can from the upper seats hear a coin drop in the orchestra—but just barely. Actors delivering lines in a normal speaking voice would have strained the listening capacity of their auditors. During the dramatic festivals, audiences attended three tragedies and a satyr play over the course of the day. The actors would have needed to project considerably to maintain attention, especially as the cumulative effects of wine and sun took their toll.

I’m not sure how these myths arise or why they’re repeated as received opinion. Ever the skeptic, I tested acoustics and sight lines in every theatre we’ve explored (six on this trip alone). Epidaurus is no better than several others; indeed, I think the theatre at Thassos, a smaller space, has superior acoustics.

I was downcast on the long bus ride home, but I reminded myself that the occasional off day in an otherwise splendid trip is to be expected. I am, however, contacting CHAT tomorrow . . .

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