Learning at your leisure: the top ten history tours worldwide


These unique tours, from the UK’s Jurassic Coast to Sicily’s ancient
monuments, allow history buffs to indulge their passion, writes Nick Leech

Dorset’s fossil coast, one of the most complete sequences of Jurassic rocks ever found

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to steer you away from a well-worn itinerary and into uncharted territory, it’s a love of history. Some historical highlights punctuate every tourist itinerary, but the true enthusiast normally has to forego the finer side of travel to be able to add that final fresco, ruin or forgotten city to their list. From exploring the unimaginable depths of geological time to discovering your very own place in the scheme
of things, these tours show that it’s possible to combine learning with fun, and that a serious passion for the past doesn’t always have to involve sacrifices in the present.

1. Fossil trails, Dorset, UK
Very few visitor experiences allow you to take the history home, but that’s exactly what you can do with any fossils you find along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. A Natural World
Heritage Site and area of outstanding natural beauty, the coast is home to one of the most complete sequences of Jurassic rocks ever found, spanning almost the entire period from
200 to 145 million years ago. These rocks enabled 18th- and 19th-century scientists to understand the geological processes behind the Earth’s development. They also produced the fossils that led to the discovery of extinction, discoveries that paved the way for the theory of natural selection. Palaeontologists still come to the Jurassic Coast to obtain fossil specimens, but amateurs are even more common, so why not visit, and leave with your very own, unique prehistoric souvenir? An eight-night tour with six days spent walking the Trail is available from Footscape. Accommodation, ranging from b&bs to historic country houses, costs from £85 (Dh495) per person, per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast, transfers to and from the trail, a trail guide, and a map with the route marked on it.

2 Palaeoanthropology, The Cradle of Humankind, South Africa

The Cradle of Humankind, an area of dolomitic hills and high veld grass and woodland, spans 47,000 hectares in the Witwatersrand Basin, only 40km from Johannesburg. It is home to 12 major fossil sites and the world’s longest running archaeological excavation, active since 1966, which between them have produced more than a third of the world’s early hominid fossils, crucial links that helped to confirm Charles Darwin’s claim that the roots of humanity were in Africa.

Palaeo Tours uses palaeo-anthropologists and archaeologists as guides on their private tours of the Cradle. These include private explorations of the Sterkfontein cave, the richest hominid fossil site in southern Africa, and the site of the discovery of the earliest human ancestor in South Africa, dating from 3.5 million years ago.

A half-day tour of the archaeological sites in the Cradle by Palaeo Tours costs 3,500 rand (Dh1,680) per person.

3 Ancient culture, Malta

More than 1,000 years before the monuments at Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid at Giza were built, the Neolithic peoples of the tiny Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo were using stones weighing up to 50 tonnes to make what are now the oldest surviving free-standing stone structures in the world. Nobody knows for sure why this extraordinary culture developed, and the only intriguing glimpses that remain of these early peoples are the figures that have been found as statuettes at some of the sites. Dr Nicholas Vella, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Malta, is the guide on a seven-day tour of the islands that investigates this ancient culture. Visits include the World Heritage Site of Valletta and the temple complexes at Mgarr, Ggantija, Tarxien and the magnificent Hagar Qim.

A seven-day tour with archaeological travel experts Andante Travels costs £1,480 (Dh8,620) per person, including all local travel, most meals and six nights in a five-star hotel in Valletta. International airfare not included. Visit www.barebonestours.co.uk/ for more details.

4. In the footsteps of Alexander the Great

In 1994, the British archaeologist, filmmaker, and tour guide Peter Sommer wore out four pairs of boots retracing Alexander the Great’s all-conquering 2,000-mile march across Anatolia. Next year he will lead a guided tour along the same route. The expedition includes such highlights as Troy, where Alexander ran naked around Achilles’ tomb, rocky Termessos, often referred to as Turkey’s answer to Machu Picchu, and Gordion, site of the tomb of King Midas and home of the eponymous knot that Alexander famously cut, thus sparking the myth that foretold his rule over Asia. Twenty days later, your journey will reach its dramatic conclusion at the ancient battlefield of Issus, where Alexander defeated Darius III, the last king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

The tour costs £4395 (Dh26,370) and includes full board accommodation in 3-5* hotels, two nights sailing on a traditional Turkish gulet, airport transfers on first and last day of tour, all entrance fees and 17 day excursions with an expert guide.

5 Archaeological excavation, Tuscany, Italy

Most historical tours provide a window into the past but few allow you to uncover it for yourself. Luckily, the volunteering holidays organised by Earthwatch, an international environmental charity that engages people in scientific field research, do just that. It even organises field trips that cater specifically for families and teenagers, including the opportunity to take part in archaeological dig on the former Roman maritime settlement overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea in Tuscany. As a volunteer, you’ll be involved in the excavation, document finds, carry out experimental archaeology, and survey the area to collect, clean and document artefacts such as pottery shards, mosaic, fresco, metal and coins.

For teenagers, Earthwatch asks for a minimum contribution of £1,995 (Dh11,620) towards the eight-day expedition, which includes accommodation in a nearby villagio turistico and all meals.

6 Temples, Cambodia

Few things are more disappointing than travelling halfway around the world to a long-anticipated archaeological site, only to find it crawling with tourists clamouring for snapshots and generally spoiling the view. Hanuman’s temple safaris allow you to avoid the hell that is other people by setting up luxury camps at sites deep in the Cambodian jungle. Not only do these afford private overnight access to the temples, they’re also designed to evoke the luxury and magic of travel before the age of mass tourism. Sites visited include the old Khmer capital of Koh Ker, the imposing mountaintop temple of Preah Vihear, and the atmospheric fortress of Banteay Chhmar.

Prices for a 14-day trip, including two temple safaris, start at $3,300 (Dh12,122) per person, including all sightseeing and local transfers, accommodation, local guides, entrance fees, transport by a private air-conditioned vehicle, drinking water during sightseeing, and specified boat trips.

7 Anniversary of the 1812 Patriotic War, Russia

Many important figures and events celebrate an anniversary this year but few can be as profound as Napoleon’s failed attempt to invade and conquer Russia, which effectively spelt the end of his imperial ambitions and would later be enduringly commemorated by Tolstoy in War and Peace and by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture.

Muscovites will be celebrating the anniversary of the Patriotic War of 1812 in grand style, with a large-scale re-enactment of the French defeat at the battle of Borodino, complete with Napoleonic uniforms, cavalry charges and sabres. Alan Rooney of the Cultural Experience will lead a tour of the battlefields, museums and historical re-enactments associated with the anniversary, as well as visits to historical sites in nearby Moscow and Smolensk. The 10-day tour costs £2,475 (Dh14,415) per person, including accommodation and meals.

8 Mid-western masters of the Modern Movement, Chicago, US

Few buildings communicate the aesthetic and technical bravura of modernism more eloquently than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, two of the 20th century’s most iconic buildings by two of its most influential architects. Both are included in this Midwestern architectural pilgrimage that also includes visits to Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, Jacobs, and Robie houses, Taliesin, and other properties that are accessible only by special arrangement. Led by Dr Harry Charrington, an architect and academic from the University of Bath, the tour will also visit the Chicago Art Institute, Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum and the Carnegie Collection in Pittsburgh, where the journey begins. It then takes in Madison, Chicago, and the countryside of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois.

The price for a 12-day tour is £3,400 (Dh20,400) per person, including internal flights, travel by private coach, accommodation, some meals, and all necessary admission charges, donations, tips and taxes. International airfare not included. Visit www.martinrandall.com to book.

Jonathan Lewis, Istanbul, 2010

9 History in the making, Turkey

If today’s current affairs are tomorrow’s contemporary history in the making, an understanding of both requires insight born of long experience and in-depth knowledge that reaches back beyond the headlines. With this in mind, Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times foreign correspondent who spent a decade reporting on the Balkans, set up Political Tours to organise trips to the world’s strategic hot spots and uncover the real cause and effect of contemporary international affairs. In September, a small group tour led by political analysts will examine Turkey’s economic and strategic rise and what this means for the wider region. Travellers will get the chance to meet and discuss these issues with academics, journalists, campaigners, politicians and analysts, as well as visits to local communities and sites of historic interest.

This nine-day tour costs £2,500 (Dh14,560) per person, including accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, meals, and travel in and around Turkey.

10 Find your own place in the scheme of things

Have you ever wondered about your own place in the wider scheme of things? Is the family rumour of a distant royal relative just a tall tale, or might you actually have blue blood flowing through your veins? Ancestral Footsteps was founded by a producer of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? The majority of the team – from researchers and genealogists to fixers – have also worked on the series. They will uncover the history behind your family tree and discover any fascinating and poignant facts about your ancestors that may have been hidden in the annals of time. Once their research is finished, a bespoke tour of the archives and locations associated with your family history, wherever in the world they may be, will be organised in the company of your very own researcher and guide.

Each project costs £30,000 (Dh173,419) on average, including six to nine months of research, a tailor-made tour to archives and locations associated with your family, meetings with experts and curators, a chauffeur, a copy of your family tree and an archival album of documents and photos associated with the trip.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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