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We were in a squadron of jeeps, deep in the great desert, chasing prehistoric rock art. I was leading a cultural tour. Two of my group used sticks, two were on Beta blockers for heart conditions, two had first met each other during the Blitz, yet we were all like children in a playground, scampering around the rock walls, ‘ooh’ing and ‘aah’ing over the ochre bison and yellow giraffes. The sense of excitement was palpable, for we were all here to learn, to speculate and ultimately just to see for ourselves. In the same way that a rock concert differs from a personal stereo or a packed Church from a lonely prayer, the group helped intensify the experience. Empty old medieval colleges can suddenly be transformed back into themselves by passionate discussions about faith while neglected galleries can be lit up by the reflected enthusiasm of two dozen eyes.
Cultural tours can pack a quite unexpected kick. The intellectual stimulation dressed up as a holiday, the learning washed down with wine amongst like-minded companions can become an addictive pastime. For many, the year becomes incomplete without at least three trips. Forget the amplified drone of a city bus tour. We are talking another level of quality. The biographical list of lecturers taking tours reads like a who’s who of architectural historians, art scholars, working archaeologists and writers. It is one of the last areas of true rhetoric, of impassioned explanation free from idiot boards, scripts, lecture notes and the ubiquitous cut, paste and edit of TV and film.
As a lecturer it is vital to love the sound of your own voice, especially when it can be used to summon the ghosts of the past into the ruins of their own time. To read Apuleius’s description of the great goddess in the wave-eroded temple of Isis or to quote from the Emperor Hadrian’s military inspection report as you stand on the walls of a frontier fort of the Roman Empire is too touch upon time travel. Amongst Istanbul’s Byzantine monuments I never felt I had done my job well enough unless my group had been joined by a showy clutch of eaves-dropping independent travellers.
As a lecturer you can never be prepared for the range of knowledge within your group. Propped up by coffee, but still bleary-eyed at dawn, you wait to greet your group one by one by an airport desk at Heathrow. Expecting nothing more than some casual chat about the state of the M25 or Mi5 I vividly remember being asked with an innocent smile - “Tell me Barnaby, when did Byzantine sculptors stop carving in the round?.” At the end of the same tour (involving seven days of passionate mosaic talk) a distinguished-looking old man waved at the wall and innocently asked me, “Why are all these little squares stuck all over the place?” It was sobering to realize that he had obviously listened to nothing all week but he had no doubt enjoyed the food, wine, hotel and company.
The presence of “civilised companions” and “like-minded travellers” is frequently sited as one of the benefits of a cultural tour. This may sound like coded talk for snobbery though in my experience a shared interest in learning outweighs any interest in school ties, regiments or county gossip. Friendships can be made for life but are more often than not kept on ‘Christmas card terms’ until the next tour.
Sometimes, just sometimes you come across someone very wise, very beautiful or a genuine holy monster. The late Ursula Wyndham fitted one of these categories. Having waited for an auspicious moment (when the group was gathered together but silent) she audibly asking a fellow traveller, “Don’t you think it unwise my dear, to travel under a different name from your husband?” Her victim fell into the trap of providing an honest answer - along the lines of their separate careers and identities. “Oh no, I couldn’t care less about that - my concern is that it is very likely that someone having met your husband might come up and ask you, “Who is that prepostrous man?’
Cultural tours can get you into places inaccessible to independent travellers. They pack in an extraordinary density of sites, tend to be cheaper than doing it yourself and are certainly a lot, lot easier than organising it yourself. The combination of tour managers, local guides and professional lecturers literally opens your eyes to alien cultures and art forms, or at the very least, replaces months of personal reading.
In exchange, you should be prepared to be tolerant. You should also be prepared for an average age of 65, and that whatever the window dressing, tours are all to a greater or lesser extent, coach trips with group meals. If you are in any doubt, the best test is to stand, midweek, in the foyer of the Wallace Collection or the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly. Half an hours people watching here will give you a feel about who your companions are likely to be. For me it can be something of a memory test – were they on Punic and Roman Carthage?, he was definetly a Tripolitania with Cyrenaica – I remember that squint, was she on the Moroccan Gold Route or was it Byzantine Istanbul? Oh yes, now I remember she had ankles like a ballerina and we danced in one of those upstairs rooms off the Cicek Pasaji with the next door table full of Turks… I never worked out if the guns in their back pockets meant they were Mafia or police…Whoever they were, they had style.
Leading Cultural Tour Operators
In alphabetical order and excluding walking tours and cruises. As well as checking itineraries and departure dates ask about group size, the presence of a tour manager and the expertise of the lecturer.
ACE, Assocation for Cultural Exchange, Babraham, Cambridge, CB2 4AP, telephone 01223-835055.
One of the oldest of the tour companies (set up in cold war 1958) which runs 200 itineraries across the breadth of the world. It is now a private business though it has a charitable arm and a reputation for keeping costs low. Group size of 25, each with a course director and a tour manager
Andante Travels: tours for the thinking traveller, The Old Barn, Old Road, Alderbury, Salisbury. SP5 3AR, telephone 01722-713800, fax 01722-711966.
Twelve years ago an archaeologist studying Roman Germany returned the hospitality of her German colleagues by escorting them around the sites of Britain. She never stopped. Annabel Lawson organises 60 tours a year specializing in archaeology and ancient history. Aside from the academic lecturers, the features of Andante tours are site picnics and the comforting presence of the trained female tour managers.
British Museum Traveller, 46 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QQ, telephone 020-7323-8895, fax 020-7580-8677
Part of the British Museum Company, a charity which feeds all of its profits to the British Museum. They organise 65 tours a year using the enviable talent pool of Museum curators and work alongside the ‘Friends of the British Museum’ organisation and the Museum Education department to give unrivalled ‘aftercare’ and so create, for a better or worse, a club-like loyalty.
Eastern Approaches: tours through archaeology & history with Warwick Ball. 5, Mill Road, Stow, Selkirkshire, Scotland, TD1 2SD. telephone 01578-730361, fax 01578-730714, e-mail "firstname.lastname@example.org"
A dozen tours a year, most led by the proprietor Warwick Ball, an archaeologist and historian who has dug in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Specialises in unusual (and constantly changing) itineraries within Central Asia and the Near East beyond the conventional frontiers of tourism. His expertise is also put to work closer at home with trips to Paris and St Petersburgh dedicated to exploring the Eastern collections.
Fine Art Travel, 15 Saville Row, London W1S 3PJ, telephone 020-437-8553, fax 020-437-1733.
Jane Rae and Charles Fitzroy run one of the smallest but most exclusive of tour companies taking cognoscenti on a contemporary Grand Tour. Just four trips a year, to Spain, France and Italy inspecting otherwise inaccessible palaces, gardens and galleries, with many of the clients scribbling down notes for improvements back home.
Kudu Travel for imaginative travellers, Windover House, St. Ann Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire. SP1 2DR, telephone and fax 01722-349009, e-mail "email@example.com"
Over 30 cultural tours a year mixed with a strong interest in cooking, urban music festivals (Prague, St Petersburgh, Fez, Wexford, Berlin and Bath) but balanced by days out walking. Small groups (maximum of 14) and a deliberate policy of leaving customers to make their own flight arrangements attract a younger, international following. Have a look at “White Nights in St Petersburgh” where the tour, led by Russian specialist Rose Baring, kicks off with vodka and concludes with a reading of Pushkin’s most famous poem beside The Bronze Horseman.
Martin Randall Travel Ltd,10, Barley Mow Passage, London W4 4PH, telephone 020-8742-3355, fax 020-8742-7766
The acknowledged market leader with 130 tours, all featured in his elegant, award winning catalogue adorned with maps and old prints. Their meticulously planned itineraries are conducted by outstanding lecturers with the companies seriousness reflected in the habit of evening lectures. Best known for renaissance Italy, baroque central Europe and their own music festivals (Prague, Rhine valley, Venice and Danube) attended by between 100-300 clients. Maximum group size of 22 and an 80 year old age limit. Their city-based music festivals which offer a variable price list of hotels, a flexible programme of lectures, history walks and concerts would be an ideal introduction to any free spirit wanting to test the waters of “group life” and keep coach travel to a minimum.
Page & Moy, 136-140 London Road, Leicester, LE2 IEN, telephone 08700-106400.
One of the largest companies in volume of business with a dozen different brochures and a choice of departure dates for the popular tours. Principally focused on Italy.
Prospect, Music and Art Tours Ltd, 36 Manchester Street, London W1U 7LH, telephone 020-7486-5704, fax 020-7486-5868.
Another of the big volume operators with over 400 tours a year and four separate catalogues: opera and music, cultural breaks, river journeys (with Noble Caledonia) and art and architecture. Only the latter are fully guided, and fits within the parameters of a full-on cultural tour.
Special Tours, 2 Chester Row, London SW1W 9JH, telephone 020-7730-2297, fax 020-7823-5035.
Frances Roxburgh organises 30 annual tours for members of the NACF (National Art Collections Fund) as well as for groups from the US ivy-league universities and Europa Nostra (a sort of National Trust for the European Continent). The natural focus of her groups is the great (and the normally inaccessible) art collections of Europe though for a first time client she recommends her perenially popular Sicily tour in early November.
Steppes East - ‘tailored travel for the wild at heart’
Travel House, 51 Castle Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire, GL7 1QD, telephone 01285-651010, fax 01285-885888, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Newcomers to cultural tours, though well established as an upmarket travel agency specialising in off-beat destinations and safari’s for private clients. In the last five years they have developed a itinerary of 40 tours, more adventurous than academic and led by well known travel-writers and broadcasters such as Michael Asher and Benedict Allen. You can toy with the idea of riding through Chinese Turkestan or take a soft option like the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Westminster Classic Tours
Recently moved from Oxford to 4, The Firs, Bath,BA2 5ED, telephone 01225-835488, fax 01225-837562, e-mail ‘email@example.com’
Dedicated specialists in Gulet and small yacht cruises within the Aegean and along the Turkish coast. 14 tours a year (plus private charter work) each with their own lecturer, tour leader and limited in size to groups of ten. The classical ruin studded stretch of coast between Bodrum and Antalya is their core territory though they have just set a very tempting sounding cruise that takes you through the Dardanelles, Troy, Alexandria Troas and the Marmara sea to Istanbul.
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by Barnaby Rogerson