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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, July 12, 2018 1:00 am

Walking tours provide new look at cities, events

Ron Charles | Washington Post

Armed with no evidence whatsoever, I was long convinced that city tours are a terrible way to spend precious hours of vacation.

The prospect of finally getting to Venice or Prague or Barcelona only to be penned in a group while someone barks through a megaphone sounded miserable.

But my wife was determined to convert me. And so, in Dublin, she signed us up for a Literary Pub Crawl. That sounded like a particularly arid way for two teetotalers like us to spend an evening, but this trip was something of a second honeymoon, and I was trying to be open to new things. Besides, the opportunity to have one's prejudices confirmed is always attractive.

We arrived at the Duke Pub. A waitress directed us to a paneled room above the bar, and we sat on a fetid cushion while the room filled with drinking tourists and my dread.

But it didn't take long to realize how wrong I'd been.

Two boisterous actors, Frank Smith and Kevin Olohan, introduced themselves, donned bowler hats and slid right into a funny scene from “Waiting for Godot,” by Dublin native Samuel Beckett. And then we were off, for the next two hours, meandering through the streets of Dublin like Leopold Bloom himself, stopping periodically at several of the city's hundreds of pubs. At each stop, Smith and Olohan offered historical and literary anecdotes about Dublin's famous writers, including Brendan Behan and Oscar Wilde. On the steps of St. Andrew's Church, they enacted a tragicomic scene by James Plunkett in which two strikers consider the different ways to wring drink money from Catholics and Protestants.

I was completely enchanted. When my wife asked if I'd go on another city tour, yes, I said, yes I will, yes.

So we signed up for a historical walking tour delivered by an impassioned professor named Donal Fallon. His approach was different, but just as engrossing, full of explanations and stories designed to engage scholars and novices alike. 

Now, I'm aflame with the fervor of a new convert: Walking tours are the best way to experience a city!

When we got to Scotland, we bought tickets to the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, a delightful two hours led by a couple of actors, one posing as our guide, the other as a haughty tourist. They kept up a witty argument about whether the city's famous writers – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and many more – were drunken louts or posh artists.

So enamored did I become with these perambulatory performances that we even joined a Cadies & Witchery Tour conducted by an actor extravagantly overdressed as the ghost of Adam Lyal, who was hanged for robbery about two centuries ago. While luring us through Edinburgh's dark alleys, our spectral guide served up pints of bad puns and grisly tales, including a story from the early 19th century about William Burke and William Hare, the city's most notorious body snatchers. Their crimes inspired stories by Stevenson, Dylan Thomas and others. And in a ghoulish irony, a book bound with Burke's skin is still displayed at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.

One never knows how one might contribute to literature.