ITALY BY EAR

The Baltimore Sun

Down just about every ancient street in Italy's Rome and Florence were weedy ruins or majestic churches or the former homesteads of aristocratic families. Often the narrow streets lead to open squares, or piazzas, as well as markets, artists' enclaves and fountains.

But who could tell one stony gray treasure from another?

What my husband and I needed on a recent offseason visit to Italy was a guide.

But not the kind of guide that would require us to board buses or herd en masse behind him. We're too independent for that. Instead, we wanted portability. We of the iPod generation wanted download-ability.

We found such a thing online. We purchased audio tours for our MP3 player that talked us around, and into, some of the most famous sites, while others took us to culturally and historically significant neighborhoods that would be virtually invisible to the casual observer.

The industry for these audio guides has grown along with the popularity of digital players. The guides have emerged as a method of learning some local history and getting a feel for the city in the present - without all the scheduling and tethering to a group. Travelers can go at their own pace, even stop for lunch. And, in many cases, the audio tours allow tourists to tailor their trips to suit their interests in arts, sports, food or other topics.

Most tours can be downloaded from the Internet, but some must be transferred to MP3 players from CDs. They vary in length (several minutes to an hour or so), quality (some are narrated by historians or academics and others without credentials) and cost (from free to about $20). Some come with paper maps, and others don't talk so much as give you a digital version of a guidebook with GPS and other interactive features.

For our walks in Italy, my husband, Doug, downloaded Gildan Media's Walk & Talk series for Rome and Florence. We got two sets of four tours, which took about an hour or two to complete each.

The Florence walks took us by some of the cities' biggest sights, including Michelangelo's David and the Duomo. But in Rome, the walks were more focused on ethnic neighborhoods and markets and less on the Vatican or the Colosseum.

While we strolled at our leisure from one point of interest to another, our audio guides explained how fountains were built to provide water to ancient Romans and how rock walls were constructed around Florence to keep out nasty neighbors. There was also a tale about how stinky the Arno River became after merchants who worked on the famed bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, dumped waste into its waters.

One tour, for example, began at the foot of Capitoline Hill, which we learned now houses municipal government offices, though some ancient ruins are still visible. The narrators directed us next up and down some stairs to the Arch of Janus, a four-sided arch built in the 4th century possibly in honor of an emperor and later used as a fortress. Then, on to the nearby Church of San Giorgio in Velabro, one of hundreds of churches in Rome. We were told to go inside if the doors were open, which they were, despite ongoing work to restore the church to its medieval splendor.

Between attractions, a bell would sound - our indication to pause the player and find our way to the next spot. Convenient, since the next stop could be around the corner or several blocks. There were probably about 45 minutes of tour for several dozen attractions, which weren't always the buildings themselves, but sometimes were the family crests of long-ago families embedded in stone facades or the ornate stone work that covered more rustic building materials underneath.

Sometimes, there was commentary on architects and artists who contributed to the scenery, such as Michelangelo at Capitoline Hill.

There were some difficulties: My husband and I had to stay pretty close because we only downloaded the tours to one iPod. (We had two sets of headphones plugged in.) That wasn't unpleasant, considering the company, but it was a challenge logistically, given the extremely narrow corridors and sidewalks of the ancient cities.

And we didn't realize until we began listening that the guides came with their own printable maps, so we had to make do with more general ones that didn't mark every piazza and alley on our audio tours.

Another problem with recorded tours is that you can't ask questions, including directions. And as the trend grows, it's important for travelers to make sure they buy a guide that is up-to-date.

LearnOutLoud.com, a clearinghouse for audio and video learning tools, lists more than 200 audio guides from dozens of companies. They are as narrowly focused as a guide to the Louvre or Yellowstone National Park. Some have themes, such as Tourcaster's "Cable Cars Stroll" in San Francisco or "Rock and Walk" in Los Angeles. Some cover more ground, such as AudioExplore's "Dublin Jaunt."

Some of the downloads aren't actually the "walk and talk" kind, where an audio guide takes you step by step. Michael Brein's, for example, are audio versions of his printed guide books. These guides tell you what to go see and how to get there on city buses or trains - Brein's use the iPhone's GPS capability to hook up tourists with Google Maps in London, Paris and Hawaii, assuming a wireless connection is available.

Museums and other institutions are getting in on the trend by producing some of their own audio guides. At the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, visitors can now listen to curators and local authors talk about 60 pieces in the collection.

Heartbeat Audio Travel Guides, founded by former radio journalist and travel writer Tim Richards in the United Kingdom in 2004, always includes local sounds in his audio tours, which focus on everything from history to shopping to sports or culture.

Richards said demand keeps growing as people explore new destinations and seek information beyond what they can get in a generic travel guide. This year alone, he's made 36 guides for England's tourism Web site (enjoyengland.com). He said all his European city tours sell well, particularly Barcelona, Prague, Rome, Amsterdam and Istanbul.

"There isn't that much competent competition - some people seem to just rewrite what they see in a guide book and parrot it in a dull studio surrounding," Richards said.

"My stuff is only ever on location. The Istanbul, for example, really captures loads of sounds of that fascinating place with ferries across the Bosphorus, the Whirling Dervish dancers ...," he said. "I always make the point, which is why it's called HeartBeat, that I can only supplement the huge amounts of information in fat guide books. I simply add the sounds, some info, but catch the soul, the heartbeat of a place."

audio tour guides

Here are some companies that offer downloadable tours and where to find them online:

* Walk & Talk Guides: Tours in Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris, published by Gildan Media. Go to amazon.com or audible.com.

* Tourcaster: More than 100 tours in 30 cities on 6 continents lead by guides, journalists and writers. Go to tourcaster.com.

* Heartbeat: Hundreds of downloads, some as short as 8 minutes, for cities around the globe. Go to heartbeatguides.com.

* Lodingo Travel Guides: A travel catalog with hundreds of tours around the globe. Go to lodingo.com/travel.

* AudioGuide2go.com: A list of guides to cities, nature trail and tourist attractions around the world. Go to audioguide2go.com.

* Find other tours on itunes.com, amazon.com and learnoutloud.com.

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