For frustrated Francophiles unable to visit France is there any joy to be found in the much-hyped world of virtual travel? Guy Hibbert investigates
For the last decade we travellers have been taking advantage of cheaper aviation and easy online booking to visit the destinations we love whenever we like, while the world of virtual travel has been quietly following along in the shadows. Suddenly, with the advent of Covid-19, this other way of travelling has emerged into the limelight. Here at France Today we decided to check out some of the options and offers available to Francophiles. So, with the help of a comfy armchair, a glass of rosé and an iPad, I took my first steps on a virtual tour of France.
Museums have been quick to spot the potential to enhance their visitor experiences. These are the traditional style of virtual visit where you click an arrow to lead from room to room, zooming in on sculptures or paintings to see close-up detail and read a brief text. The Louvre offers seven virtual tours but five of these are within La Petite Galerie, so there is very little of the main museum accessible. Much more illuminating is their “focus” series where you get to drill down into a particular painting in more detail. For example, the famous portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour is brought to life in an interactive tour with the voices of curators and experts giving us the history and context of the portrait while you control which aspect you would like to examine in more detail. It’s great, like having a personal guide. Unfortunately, they only have three of these: The Marquise, the marble Winged Victory of Samothrace and Mona Lisa.
A more complete series of 360-degree room tours and virtual museum visits can be found over at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and Musée Nissim Camondo. If you’ve ever felt that a museum is too crowded or your legs are beginning to tire then you can enjoy a private discovery of every room, stopping to examine when you like with no interruptions or backaches! And when you feel the need to hear a human voice the Director of the Nissim Camondo will take you on a personal video tour.
Over at the Musée de l’Orangerie, a 360-degree tour of Claude Monet’s Nymphéa fails to deliver anything like the impact of stepping into the oval room and absorbing the impressions of the original painting.
If you are happy to browse without the benefit of any kind of curation then you could get lost in Google Arts & Culture for a couple of months. It’s an enormous repository of images and information which allows you to discover over 12,000 artists and 7,000 famous people in history. There are 127 ‘collections’ for France and 256 virtual visits which borrow technology from Google Earth. Personally, I find these visits a bit soulless, with their faceless people and random sense of direction. But there are some fun features – like going on a cultural magical mystery tour by allowing the system to find visual connections between paintings, or the Art Projector app, which allows you to view any painting against your own interior; or even the Selfie app which finds portraits of people that resemble you!
For a more personal experience you can opt for a guided tour offered by official guides and curators like Elisa Jehanno. For €75, five people can participate online and have the benefit of Elisa’s real-time professional expertise to accompany the virtual visit.
The Tour Guy lists 13 virtual tours on its site, five in Paris at just $15 per head. For that you get a one-hour ‘tour’ by a licensed guide and an interactive chat or Q&A at the end. The thing to note, though, is that this is really a webinar, not a tour as such. But still, for $15 you could book a slot, join as a group with friends and spend an hour gaining the kind of insight you might not get otherwise. Reviews are positive: people who have been to Versailles say the virtual tour “gave them more than ‘real-life’ experience”. Hmm.
Meanwhile, Corey Frye, of A French Frye in Paris, has been running live-streamed walking tours. You’ll be there in real time with Corey and his camera/phone as he takes you on one of his favourite routes. According to Corey: “Interest in the live-stream tours has taken off this year. For some of my viewers it’s a weekly event they really look forward to – fresh coffee and croissants in front of the TV as I take them on a virtual tour!”
The virtual visit experiences offered by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux are well constructed. The 360-degree Château de Pierrefonds, for example, is a pleasure to discover, with excellent navigation and interesting info panels.
While VR headsets claim to provide the ultimate virtual travel experience, sometimes you don’t need the latest technology, you just need to know where to find beautiful short films of France which, through high-quality editing and cinematography, will do more to inspire you to visit than any number of social media posts. For example, check out this stunning film, Transhumance, made seven years ago when Marseille was the European Capital of Culture.
Drone videos are all the rage and sometimes the results are breath-taking, as in this sublime footage from the Alps by Gaëtan Piolot.
Deep down, what do we get out of our trips to France? The pleasure of a beautiful place, the experience of meeting people, the satisfaction of learning about culture and history. Virtual travel can never replicate the visceral intensity of real travel, nor create the same memories. But, chosen carefully, there is still much to enjoy: the ability to visit many more museums and monuments than you could ever hope to see in the flesh; or the pleasure of a family or friends from distant lands joining in a virtual wine tasting. By and large, whether you enjoy the experience is down how the creators use the tech to deliver engaging experiences.
And let’s not forget that before the pandemic, popular destinations all over the world were grappling with the problem of too many tourists. The world needs fewer carbon-emitting flights and cruises. Over-stretched destinations need fewer visitors. A century ago, travel was for the privileged few. Everyone else read about it or, later, watched it on TV. Thanks to the internet, virtual travel is available to all. It will be interesting to see whether Covid-19 marks a turning point in its fortunes and in our behaviour as travellers.
From France Today magazine
Itinerary for VR travel
Purchase 1 Oculus Quest wireless headset $399 / £399
Buy the WANDER App (Think Google Earth + Streetview) $3.99
+ Visit any place in the world and look around
+ Go back in time image by image
+ Invite friends and family to join you on “trips”
+ Prepare to be anti-social and look weird with your headset on
+ Prepare for possible side-effects like motion sickness
+ Put it in the cupboard and buy flights to Paris
Virtual Address Book