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A guiding light in Florence
Caterina proved to be a great guide / Picture: Ben Harvey

How quickly we forget the stress of travel. When the holiday is over, we only remember the good bits. In the case of our recent four-week overseas break, there is a lot of good stuff to recollect.

Afternoon drinks on a hotel balcony on the Liguria coast of Italy, watching the sun melt into the Mediterranean Sea, for example.

Or driving a convertible along the winding roads between Geneva and Chamonix in the Swiss Alps.

Or walking through the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris, deciding where to eat.

Or getting pleasingly lost in the maze of Venice, deciding when to eat.

Some parts of the holiday were less pleasant, such as trying to find a laundromat in Florence in driving rain because we have run out of clean clothes.

Or walking, seemingly forever, in the steamy evening heat of Kuala Lumpur because your mother and girlfriend find (dubious) fault with every restaurant you pass.

Or any experience within 5km of Heathrow.

Travel, especially that which involves hiring cars from the French, purchasing train tickets from the Italians, or ordering a drink with ice from the British, inevitably will test your mettle.

It will test your patience. Your resourcefulness. Your sense of direction. And, Lord knows, it will test your relationship with your fellow travellers.

I always suspected that hiring a personal travel guide would be one way to take some of the stress out of holidaying.

I have never taken the plunge though, in part because of pride, in part because of cheapness, but overwhelmingly because I have always considered personal guides as being for older people.

So it is with a degree of trepidation that I decide to pay for a guide for a few hours while we were in Florence.

My "enabler" is former ABC newsreader Deborah Kennedy, who set up Florence Walks after falling in the love with the Tuscan capital in 2004 and realising there was a need for good-quality guides.

"I was in a huge group, following a guide carrying a red flag and shouting through a distorted microphone system and I suddenly thought 'I'm sure I can do better than this'," she explained.

Paying for a couple of the themed walks (ranging in price from $90 to $300 per head) was the best decision I made on our tour.

There are 10 walks to choose from and we chop and change a handful of different ones to end up with three excellent experiences at three or four hours each.

The first day, which starts in the afternoon with Caterina, our guide, meeting us at the train station and walking us to our hotel, involves a walk of about three hours seeing the major sights of central Florence. Having someone escort us straight to the hotel, bypassing the need to grapple with maps, has me sold.

The afternoon walk is an excellent way to familiarise ourselves with the city and, like all the walks, is peppered with passionate, intelligent and good-humoured commentary by Caterina. It includes a tour of Galleria dell'Accademia and the statue of David and ends with dinner at a stylish little eatery near Ponte Vecchio.

The next morning is a relaxed stroll over the bridge and into the old city before we head to a small village 20 minutes from Florence where we enjoy beautiful Tuscan fare over four courses with wine.

It costs less than a meal at a Leederville cafe.

The final walk is intended to be dominated by a tour of Uffizi Gallery but our plans are thrown into chaos by a rumoured train and bus strike. It doesn't happen, but having Caterina there to negotiate with the ticket office is an example of how the guide service makes life considerably less stressful.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of having to buy tickets for anything in Italy will appreciate how much of a nightmare it would have been getting information from uninterested office staff who refuse to answer questions about a strike which organisers want to make a surprise.

Had I been on my own, I would now be serving time in a Florentine prison for assault occasioning grievous bodily harm.

We take advantage of our remaining time with Caterina to revisit places we passed but didn't have a chance to explore over the previous three days, including the mouth-watering San Lorenzo market.

No doubt we would have enjoyed Florence regardless of whether we had met Caterina but having an expert by your side in a foreign city means you don't have those niggling thoughts about what you are going to do next or how you are going to get there. It allows you to holiday like, well, your mother or your girlfriend . . .

In retrospect, had I done this in other cities I would have spared myself many grey hairs and my mother hearing the kind of language that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. And I would have been spared an incalculable number of scornful looks and stony silences from my girlfriend because of dodgy map reading.

We only keep the photos of nice things we experience on holidays, which is why we have photos of Caterina.

If only the Visa bill disappeared as fast as the bad memories.

florencewalks.com.au