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What an “Alternative” Tour of Europe’s Great Cities Is Like

By Simone Lai

Feb 15, 2022

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Turin is an ancient city, but by 2019, more than 15 percent of its population had been born abroad.

Photo by s74/Shutterstock

Turin is an ancient city, but by 2019, more than 15 percent of its population had been born abroad.

Migrantour began in Turin, Italy, and now operates across Europe, offering travelers and residents a new perspective on multicultural cities.

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On a gray Saturday morning in January, I joined a group of 10 people I had never met by weathered Roman ruins in Turin, northern Italy. Together, we stood huddled at the edge of the city’s vast Porta Palazzo market—one of the largest open-air markets in Europe—waiting for our tour to begin. 

Our guide arrived and began to lead us through the market. She pointed: freshly baked ceremonial breads there, artisanal soaps there, and elaborately decorated vases and other ceramics there. Italy, of course, is famous for its traditional food and handmade crafts. But the bread our guide had identified was actually Romanian, the soap was Syrian, and the ceramics were from China. This was not your typical group tour—it was a Migrantour.

The first of these tours began in Turin in 2010 as an initiative of Italian NGOs and a tourism operator called Viaggi Solidali (“Solidarity Travels”), a social cooperative focused on responsible tourism and activities that encourage intercultural exchange and benefit the communities being visited.

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These Migrantours—which are led by immigrants—then inspired similar tours in other European cities, including in Rome, Milan, Florence, Brussels (Belgium), Paris, Marseille (France), Lisbon (Portugal), Ljubljana (Slovenia), and Valencia (Spain). In time, NGOs in the respective cities collaborated with those in Turin to expand the initiative, secure financial support from the European Union, and develop training courses for people to become guides. (The initiative refers to them as “intercultural companions”; while paid, they don’t work full-time as guides.) The focus of our tour was the Porto Palazzo Market; in other cities, tours are centered on a particular neighborhood or product and how they reflect histories of migration as well as trade.

Migrantour is careful to avoid having its tours be exploitative. Per a 2018 Migrantour report, it acknowledges that it is trying to do something different without “commercializing diversity . . . painting it in exoticised and folklorist terms” or encouraging stereotypes. As a result, their guides and “protagonists are the people that live, work and frequent multicultural neighborhoods; people that live for a significant period of time in our cities and have a desire to tell their own life story and their relationship to the area where they live.”

And while TV news broadcasts and newspapers have often focused on deaths in the Mediterranean and far-right opposition to migration in Europe, the Migrantour initiative brings into focus how the cities are already vibrantly multicultural.

“It’s not about telling the story of the area, or not only that; it’s about the stories of migrations . . . about what’s different, about diversity,” said our guide, Mirella Aurora, 57, who is originally from Romania but moved to Italy with her family more than 15 years ago in search of higher wages. 

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As we walked through some of the tour stops, Aurora gave her perspective on the history of Turin, which has long been a meeting place and hub for new arrivals in Italy. In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people moved to Turin from southern Italy, attracted by jobs in the industrial city, which is home to car giant Fiat. In the 1980s, growing numbers of people moved to Turin from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By 2019, more than 15 percent of Turin’s population had been born abroad: a majority from Romania, followed by Morocco, China, Peru, Egypt, and Nigeria.

Aurora has been involved in Migrantour from its beginning. What’s unique about these tours, she says, is “our presence and our testimony” as immigrants, whose motives for moving to Italy are also diverse. (The first Migrantour I went on, late last year, was led by a 35-year-old Russian woman who had first come to Italy a decade ago as an exchange student.) These stories, Aurora adds, include the pain of “leaving behind everything familiar.” She hopes sharing these perspectives will help participants on these tours to “see us with different eyes that can help our integration and ability to live together.”

For growing numbers of local residents and domestic tourists, these tours have provided them with an opportunity to experience their own country in a different light. One of them is Chiara Blengino, 52, who was on the same tour as I was in January. A resident of Turin, Blengino had already gone on Migrantour walks in Catania and Naples with guides from north and west Africa. “I like it a lot,” she says of the tours. “It is a new way of seeing.”

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Migrantours in Italy cost €15 per person (free for children under 12 years old) and are advertised on Viaggi Solidali’s website. Bespoke private tours for individuals (starting at €20 per person) and for groups can also be arranged.

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