Free walking tours became a popular trend in every major city around the world during the last years. City enthusiasts would organize guided walking tours to share their view on the city, making a living based on tips received at the end of the tour. In Gent, Maria Mironova (from St. Petersburg, Russia) and Corrado Altomare (from Molfetta, Southern Italy) got involved in Gent Free Walking Tours. We talked to this international couple about their shared passion for traveling and asked about how they ended up in Gent, why they started doing guided walking tours and how they feel about living here.
Getting into guiding
Maria was invited by a mutual friend to get involved as a tour guide for Gent Free Walking Tours. Having worked as one in St. Petersburg, doing the same job in Gent came rather naturally.
“This feeling after the tour, that people came to Gent and their flashback of Gent will be a positive one which is connected to you, makes you feel good” – Maria
However, there are some major differences between the concepts of conventional guided tours and free walking tours. Guides working for free walking tours only earn what they get in tips at the end of the tour. This means the income depends to a large extend on the good quality of the tour, the enthusiasm of the guide to let people see the city and find things, as well as the good service and experience the guide offers for the travelers. This slightly different perspective on guided tours allowed Maria to further develop her own guide style by researching the history of Gent, following tours of colleagues, and watching TV series and documentaries about Gent. This became a big topic of conversation at home and Corrado got the latest information about what she had learned about the city on the fly. Nowadays, Corrado is also leading a couple of tours a month himself.
Life of a tour guide
Both Maria and Corrado enjoy the contact with travelers from all over the world, who show up because they want to and not because they have a pre-arranged tour booked. They say that the interaction with curious, open-minded and mostly friendly people is a fulfilling experience. Maria and Corrado participate in free walking tours themselves when traveling and often noticed that their perception of the city depends on the guide, and if they like the guided tour they usually like the city.
“You have to really like what you are showing as a guide, otherwise the tour will not be successful” – Maria
Recently they had to give a tour, it was a cold and windy winter day, and only two people showed up. Maria first thought “oh no why do I have to do this now” but then the two people were so heart-warming and genuinely interested. They were spending only this one day in Gent and wanted to learn about the place and then return home in a good mood, saying “it was amazing”. Sometimes people even become friends and it happens often that they can give them further travel advice for Gent but also for their next destination.
If the tour was done right, people reflect it back and this creates a good mood and they will remember it in a positive way. This is emotionally satisfying and nowadays also economically profitable after Gent Free Walking Tours took the number 1 spot on TripAdvisor of all touristic tours in Gent.
Moving to Gent
Maria and Corrado met in Barcelona while Corrado was working on his Phd. But it was with a tear in his eye that Corrado left Barcelona to follow a better job opportunity in Belgium in July 2012. Not only was he leaving behind Maria, who then went to work as a tourist guide in St. Petersburg, but also the city of Barcelona which he loved.
“Arriving in Gent was a shock, a good shock!” – Corrado
Apart from the bad weather, he had no expectations at all when arriving in Gent, and was positively surprised. During the first months he rented an apartment from Gent University, because he was partly employed at Gent University and partly at Flanders Hydraulics in Antwerp. This meant staying in Gent even though he worked most of the time in Antwerp and had to commute every day. During this period he got to know Gent and was amazed by the history of the city as well as its cultural opportunities. Finally, the good vibe during the Gentse Feesten convinced him to stay in Gent permanently instead of moving closer to Antwerp.
The first time Maria visited him was in November 2012, a cold and rainy day. She remembers how cosy the city felt and experienced a similar “good shock”, especially while taking in the view from St. Michael’s bridge towards the historical city center and over the water between the Graslei and Korenlei, with the castle in the background. Gent must have done something right, as both of them have been living in Gent for almost 6 years.
Making it official
After two years of long distance commuting between St. Petersburg and Gent, seeing each other wherever the cheapest flight would take them, Maria and Corrado decided to get married. After the official wedding in Russia, and the religious ceremony and party in Italy, they moved in together in Gent in early 2014. They had previously arranged for an apartment in the city center and only the long procedure to obtain official status in Belgium was a small downer. It took 6 months of waiting for a letter in the postbox until they were officially registered. This meant that they spent their first wedding anniversary in not so far away Wallonia, because they were not allowed to leave the country while waiting.
Embracing Gent and all things Belgian
Especially the summer makes Maria and Corrado appreciate the fact that they moved to Gent. With life on the streets, the Gentse Feesten approaching, the good vibe of people enjoying themselves and all the beautiful terraces, you can’t help but think “Wow, Gent is a really relaxing city and perfect in size”. This mix makes it for them the best town in Belgium but they wonder if it gets the recognition it deserves. They noticed when arriving at Brussels airport that only the other three big cities: Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges are displayed, but not Gent. Also, when they tell friends where they are living, it often ends up in a description of Gent being in the middle between Brussels and Bruges. But once their friends have visited them, they would always return, partly because of the beauty and charm of the city.
Only the fact that both of them are not from Belgium and their hearts are still in Russia, Italy or Barcelona where they met, make them doubt if they will stay here. While they can accept some cultural differences, like many shops closing at 6 pm (“it makes your day shorter”) or the conservative Belgian bureaucracy, they struggle a little to get used to it. To fill their evenings they started to do several sports, Corrado started playing saxophone and Maria followed all levels of Dutch classes, and is starting with French next.
“If you asked what is the main hobby that we both share, it is traveling” – Corrado
Maria and Corrado are also great fans of Belgian products. Whenever a friend is visiting them, they show them the local products, like stoverij, chocolate, jenever or beer. When I met Maria and Corrado, both of them were wearing the ‘Gentse Strop’, a traditionally black and white rope around their neck and a symbol of the rebellious attitude of Gent citizens over the past centuries. Like the Gentians they would wear it with pride showing their connection with the city.
They say that for travel enthusiasts Gent is perfectly located, within only a 2-hour flight distance to other countries in Europe, and even to St. Petersburg. For the moment the location of Gent supports their shared passion for traveling, and their appreciation for the city is reflected in their engagement as Gent Free Walking Tour Guides, welcoming travelers from all over the world.
About Gent Free Walking Tours
Gent Free Walking Tours offers morning and afternoon tours, starting at 10 am and 1 pm each day. At both times a tour is given in English and Spanish. Additionally, tours can be organized in Dutch, Italian and French but then pre-booking on the website is recommended. The meeting point for the tour is in front of the entrance to Hostel Uppelink in the city center, Sint Michielsplein 21. The tour covers the main attractions in the city center and takes around 2 hours.