Joining organised guided tours have always been a good way for solo travellers to learn about a city, not least because it allows you to meet people. But what if you want the flexibility to stop-and-start your tour at will, to dip in and out of it over a period of days as you wonder the streets? Now that smartphones and MP3 players are widespread I’ve noticed downloadable audio guides and tours seem plentiful, and I’ve always been curious to try them.
On a recent trip to Rotterdam and Antwerp I thought I’d put a couple to the test. I did a fair amount of online research before departure, which turned out to be a good thing, as good European audio tours around aren’t as commonplace as I’d thought. In this post I’ll look at my experiences in Rotterdam. In a couple of weeks I’ll follow up with Part 2 in Antwerp.
An unconventional tour of Rotterdam
I pass through Rotterdam on my way to Antwerp early on a Saturday morning. Since I’m in no hurry I can easily stop off and mooch about for a few hours, so I do an internet search for an audio tour. Surprisingly, nothing turns up. I’ve already found tours for Antwerp – smaller and less touristy than Rotterdam – so why should there be nothing for the ‘largest port in the world’?
I do find something unusual, though. The website of the Witte de With Contemporary Art Centre has a free download available of an audio tour intended as a companion piece to their Melanchotopia project. The project itself ended last year, but the audio tours promise “to encourage the listener to pause and reflect on the here and now of the city and the personal experiences of its residents and users”, so I’m assuming they work well on their own.
I download them and copy them to my iPhone. Besides checking to see if they’re working I refrain from listening to them. I decide to wait until I’m actually standing in the designated location, on the street, in Rotterdam, before pushing the play button. I’m going out on a limb here, so why not go all the way? If it’s a disaster I’ll just pack it in and find somewhere nice for brunch instead…
On the day, things don’t start well. For one thing it’s pouring with rain. Then I discover that only two tracks are in English (my fault – I should’ve checked). Despite the setbacks, the experience of seeing the locations through the eyes of the artists involved in the project proves really compelling. Rather than look at the city as a series of tourist sights to tick off a list, I’m thinking about the nature of urban spaces and our relationship with them. Rotterdam, as a city constantly under reconstruction, is an ideal place to do this.
I enjoy the experience, and, considering I’m not spending much time in Rotterdam, a couple of tracks is enough. A pity, though, that there isn’t a more fully fledged tour on offer.
Our guest blogger Roger Christian is a London based graphic designer, blogger and fiction writer. In his bi-weekly articles for Spotted by Locals Roger explores the pleasures and occasional challenges of solo traveling in Europe.