I’ve always been a bit of a ‘chuck yourself in the deep end with no research whatsoever’ kind of a gal. (See also: training to be an EFL teacher on a whim; moving to hicksville, southern Italy for a year; eating tripe.) So when I was contacted by a nice chap called James Gunn at MP3travelclub.com, asking if I’d review his new audio travel guides, I leapt at the chance. “Hang on!” I hear you chorus. “Where do travel guides come in to living life on a wing and a prayer?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Guides may not be my forté, but reviewing falls under the ‘chucking self in at deep end’ heading and is therefore totally fair game.
According to the blurb on the website, all the guides are edited by a BBC-trained script editor and voiced professionally. They are also recorded and produced by a (BBC Radio) producer. The brackets make me giggle. You have to admire the PR nous. I’ll be honest: I’m more than half-expecting them to be awful. As a one-time actor, I’m well aware of how to fool people into thinking your product (which, for me, was – well – *me*) is a hell of a lot better than it actually is. Namedropping is part and parcel of that. I’m therefore very pleased to find that, on this occasion, the product lives up to the hype. The clips are clear and of good quality. The drawback to this is that they are big, so you wouldn’t want to download them to your mobile phone unless someone else is paying. Most are between 1.5 and 2.5MB in size, and they come in bundles, either for city (eg Rome) or area (eg Tuscany). The Rome bundle, for example, contains ten clips: one city guide and nine more detailed ones. The download time therefore quickly adds up. I’d say it’s worth thinking ahead before you leave home and downloading them to an MP3 player while you still have free broadband at your disposal.
In the Italy bundle that I’ve been sent there are 29 clips, voiced by four different artists. I listen to Florence first, given that I’ve just been there and can therefore compare my experience with the guide’s. These are all voiced by Mark Hamilton. He has a pleasant, friendly voice, but his Italian accent is very – er – *English*. This isn’t a disaster, but is a bit distracting for me. I amuse myself for a few minutes, scrolling through the different tracks in Preview and making a pseudo-rap. Bonjorno. Bonjorno. Bon – bon – bonjorno. I know: I need to get out more. Well, that’s what these guides are for. I return to the matter in hand.
The Florence city guide contains clips on the Accademia, the Medici Chapels, the Piazza della Duomo, the Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi. Some of these I’ve visited, some I haven’t. I decide to listen to the one about the Accademia. There’s a bit of interesting chat about the history of the gallery and then, unsurprisingly, an awful lot about Michelangelo’s David, which is housed here. There is also mention of the corridor running up to the David, which I thought was one of the most interesting parts of the gallery. It contains a number of unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, which are fabulous. Seeing the figures emerging from the stone is like seeing Creation, heretic as that sounds. David is, of course, a masterpiece, but seeing the marks of the sculptor’s chisel and the muscles and sinews appearing from cold marble in the unfinished works brought a lump to my throat. I’m left feeling that, although this guide is in no sense inaccurate, it doesn’t capture the full awe of being there.
In a lightning bolt moment, I realise I’m doing this the wrong way around. Guides are intended as tasters to tempt people in. Once you’ve been there and formed your own opinion, they’re redundant. I therefore decide to listen to one on a place I haven’t visited. I scroll through again, giggling to myself at Mark’s ‘bonjorno’ rap, and stop at Naples. This one is voiced by a chap called Melvyn Hiscock. The Internetz can find no evidence of him as a voice artist, but apparently he’s written a book on how to build your own electric guitar. Is it the same person? I don’t know, but if it is then he’s doing a sterling job of diversification. Well done that man. He has a pleasant, light voice which is very easy to listen to. He’s also got great comic timing. Lines such as, “Laws are sometimes obeyed – but more often are not – and you’ll soon see that traffic lights, for example, are mostly for decoration.” could be forbidding in the wrong hands. Melvyn, however, has a light touch and delivers them with a metaphorical wink and a smile in his voice. Would I visit on the strength of this guide? Well, it certainly wouldn’t put me off. My main beef would be that it doesn’t give enough detail. It’s an overview, nothing more. My feeling is that if you’ve paid out for an audio guide then you probably want a more detailed analysis – good places to stay and that kind of thing. There are separate guides to Herculaneum, Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, which go into deeper detail, but Naples itself felt a little neglected. To be fair, this may be because Naples doesn’t have the greatest of reputations, but surely that’s all the more reason to big up its good points and give clear guidance on which areas are safe and which should be avoided.
Moving on, I listen to some of the Rome guides, more to compare my experiences with them than anything else. They are mainly voiced by Richard Hoyes who, unfortunately, sounds like Leslie Phillips. I’m sure the guides are great, but I couldn’t get past the feeling that I had a creepy old uncle breathing down my neck, and I therefore moved hastily on to Venice, which is voiced by Eve Karpf. I really like her voice, and she’s the only one of the four who can pronounce Italian like an Italian. The guide itself is also better than the one for Naples, giving far more detail and suggestions of things to see and do. Mind you – we’re talking about Venice here. It’s easy to be effusive about Venice. Poor Naples. I resolve to visit just to make it feel less like the poor relation. We southern Italians must stick together, y’know.
Overall, I think the guides are a great idea. They’re good quality, well-voiced and interesting. Having them on MP3 also means that they are more portable than a book when you’re travelling – put them onto your iPod or your phone and you’re good to go. If you’re short of time in a city and want an overview of the main sights then they’re perfect. Don’t, however, expect in-depth analysis or specific recommendations. They are merely starting points from which to discover things for yourself. Although, really, isn’t that the best way?
I listened to the Italy bundle offered by MP3travelclub.com. They are currently expanding their repertoire across Europe, North America and the rest of the world and are looking for reviewers. If you would be interested in reviewing then contact James Gunn via the website for your free bundle.
Image by Anna Jarske on Flickr