Telling Your Stories or Walking Through History: A New Way to Capture and Experience France

Summer is ablaze in France bringing out thousands of travellers keen to tap into its remarkable history and culture. Might their travels be enriched by a little audio help from knowledgeable locals?

Ernest Hemingway in Paris is the subject of one of the author's walking tours (Credit Wikipedia)

Ernest Hemingway muscles his way into one of the author’s Paris walking tours (Credit Wikipedia)

Toronto writer and voicemapper Philippa Campsie thinks so and here encourages enthusiastic storytellers and locals to follow in her footsteps. Below she explains how to tackle the task of creating a Voicemap tour.

I love to take walking tours when I travel, especially the kind that offer insights and anecdotes that you don’t find in ordinary guidebooks. I want a local to take me off the beaten track, show me places I wouldn’t find for myself, and point out the details I might otherwise miss.

And yet, and yet… I tend to dawdle, to gaze about me or take photos. Then the group moves on and I can’t hear what the guide says next. Once I completely lost sight of the others and wasted an hour wandering in hopes of re-encountering them. And sometimes I want to appreciate my surroundings without the chatter of other tourists.

So I was immediately attracted to VoiceMap – audio tours you can download to a smartphone and follow at your own pace. The narration is activated by GPS. Once you arrive at each designated point on the map, the next installment begins. You can even stop and have a coffee and the tour will start up again whenever you are ready. If you miss anything, you can hit “replay.” This is my kind of technology.

But here’s the thing: the company is so new (it was created in Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2014) that the number of tours is still limited. In fact, the only audio tours in France to date have been created by, ahem, me. I would really welcome some competition, because then I could go and explore someone else’s France.

So I am calling all storytellers and locals who love to show off parts of the country to create their own tours. If I can, you certainly can.

My first effort was an expanded version of a tour I had created for the Girls’ Guide to Paris website called “Through fashionable Paris in the footsteps of Audrey Hepburn.” It links together locations for all of Audrey’s Paris movies, as well as sites associated with her role as a fashion leader and Givenchy’s muse. The original version consisted of a map and a set of notes that could be downloaded as a PDF. That was later updated to a smartphone version, with maps, some photos, and fairly minimal text. But it had never worked as storytelling before. So the VoiceMap version was a new departure.

With VoiceMap, you plot the route on a map, which sets the points at which each part of the narration will start. VoiceMap also tells you how much narration to add for each leg of the journey – 150 words here, 300 words there, depending on how far apart the points are. As you write the text, you submit it to VoiceMap’s editors, who make suggestions for improvements. I went back and forth a few times with editor and co-founder Lauren Edwards until we were both happy with the route and the script.

Finally, I recorded the script. I did it on my iPhone, section by section, and e-mailed each one directly to VoiceMap for audio editing. With some finishing touches (brief description, a photograph, suggestions for places to eat on the route), we were done. “We work closely with storytellers because location-aware commentary is a new medium, and we want to take full advantage of its potential,” Edwards explains.

 France's all time favourite car the 2CV great for an audio tour of the country (Credit Copyright Paris Region non commercial use allowed).jpg

France’s all time favourite car the 2CV great for a timeless, ambling audio tour of the countryside (Credit Copyright Paris Region non commercial use allowed).jpg

My next try was called “Coco Chanel’s Paris.” Fortunately, the sites associated with Chanel are located quite close together in the centre of Paris, so plotting the route was a straightforward matter. And there is a wealth of material on her life to draw from, so the main challenge in writing the script was to tell her story concisely and weave it around the key locations.

“It’s all about the storytellers,” says CEO and co-founder, Iain Manley. He and Edwards started the company after working together to create content for the operators of Cape Town open-top tour buses. “Open-top buses worldwide use location-aware systems that play commentary at specific GPS locations, but most tell a city’s story with only one or two voices, which doesn’t allow for diversity or individual perspectives,” says Manley. “We struggled to capture emotion without the personal opinions, anecdotes, and sense of ownership reflected in the words, ‘I love,’ ‘I remember,’ and ‘I hope.’”

My third storytelling effort was the most ambitious, but also the most satisfying for me. It is called “Finding the Lost Generation in Montparnasse.” For one thing, this is an area I know particularly well. For another, I have read extensively about that period from the perspective of several members of the so-called Lost Generation and have developed opinions about them. I wanted to feature a range of characters and voices – Ernest Hemingway kept muscling his way into the frame, of course, but I was able to include many others, from Alice B. Toklas to Isadora Duncan to Dolly Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s niece).

Piecing together the route took me several tries, because I wanted to include the major Montparnasse locations, but end up at the original site of Shakespeare and Company, which is in the Odéon neighbourhood. Once again, I had far more research material than I could possibly use, but I put in as much colour as I could, from the place where Morley Callaghan knocked out Hemingway in a boxing match to the sad story of Amedeo Modigliani and his muse, Jeanne Hebuterne.

I plan to create more walks, but the field is wide open for others to create tours throughout France. The main qualification is to have a story to tell that unfolds as you walk through streets or along lanes. The story can even be fictional – one tour in Edinburgh requires you to carry out a special mission as you make your way through the city!

“Our aim is for VoiceMap’s publishing tools to be used by all sorts of people, to communicate in a variety of ways,” says Manley. “Tourists are an important part of our market, but we’d like to see locals using VoiceMap too, for everything from murder mysteries to children’s stories. In the long term, we see it becoming a medium for more private communication: for someone to leave a record for their grandchildren of the street they grew up on, or for a neighbourhood tour for friends visiting from another city; for scavenger hunts maybe, and even for love letters. The possibilities are infinite.”

Anyone can set up an account, take the tutorial, and start creating tours. You can set the price for each one and you will receive a percentage for each tour downloaded. So if you love to guide visitors around your own part of the world, why don’t you create something that others can enjoy too?

Writer: Philippa Campsie


Philippa Campsie: “studied in Paris as a university student, and has never quite got Paris out of her system ever since.”

Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball are Toronto-based writers and joint authors of the Parisian Fields blog, an anthology of Paris and French curiosities seen through the keenly attuned eyes of two eclectic and observant writers about Paris.

Philippa has produced  several walking guides to Paris including Audrey Hepburn in Paris. “The Audrey Hepburn walking tour through central Paris links the locations of some of her best-known films…” and -Shopping with Jackie in Paris “The Shopping with Jackie Kennedy walk focuses on the places she knew back when she spent her year abroad in Paris…” These can be downloaded from the Voicemap website and cost just $6.99 each. These are audio guides that work with GPS on an iPhone or Android device.

Norman is a retired university professor trained as an historian of technology, design and engineering, who as his blog notes “can’t stop taking pictures of Paris graffiti and interesting cars”.

See the Voicemap website for full details here:



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