Arnie Lepelstat, a 63-year-old retired real estate investor, knows how to travel well. He just returned from Egypt and has a four-week vacation planned in August where he'll begin in Venice and end in Istanbul. Not content to just sightsee, Lepelstat hopes to learn something on his adventures, to return to his Long Island home with ideas about art, culture and history.
Five years ago, Lepelstat discovered a company tailor-made for him. Operating in six European cities, Context Travel provides walking tours led by “docents” who often have terminal degrees in classical subjects like art history, excavations and theology. Lepelstat was hooked after his first taste and has since gone on an estimated 50 tours with the company. He's lost exact count but says, “I think I'm the record holder.”
Lepelstat belongs to a niche group of travelers interested in combining rigorous learning with vacationing. He once, for example, took a three-hour tour of the Louvre during which an art historian discussed the influence of the 17th century French painting master Nicolas Poussin.
Other examples of tours that aim for intellectual enrichment include a trip to Cornwall to study classic and modern interpretations of Arthurian legends and a trip to Cambridge and Moscow to discuss Cold War history and strategy in the company of former counterintelligence officers and retired KGB members.
“When I come back from [a tour],” Lepelstat says, “I'm not just coming back with a tourist's experience. I have a real understanding of where things fit.”
The tradition of intertwining travel and education long pre-dates Lepelstat and his similarly inclined peers. The “Grand Tour,” which began in the late 16th century, often took travelers on a months-long trip through Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome to learn about art and architecture. The practice became de rigueur for young male aristocrats, who were frequently accompanied by a tutor.
“The idea that you travel in order to learn is as old as traveling,” says Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association. Though no programs are as intensive as the Grand Tour once was, Jenkins says that travel companies like the U.K.-based Martin Randall and the German-based Studiosus have “built substantial businesses on taking people to interesting places and providing an academic or expert's guide.”
These companies, and others like them, regularly feature European destinations, which Jenkins says they are a natural fit given the continent's history and cultural heritage.
“You've got the raw materials here,” he says.
No expertise required
Ann Kirkland, president of the travel company Classical Pursuits, has planned four of the company's eight 2008 trips in Europe. She's chosen places like Lyon, Paris and Galicia, Spain, as excellent backdrops against which to study the French resistance or literary representations of pilgrimage rituals. By day, Kirkland's guests discuss assigned reading and lunch at intimate local restaurants, and by evening, they retreat to a cozy hotel room.
Kirkland tries to assuage the concerns of potential guests who worry that their lack of knowledge in a particular subject might hinder their participation.
“They say, ‘I never studied literature or philosophy, and I'm going to make a fool of myself,’” she says. “But you don't come on one of these things to show off.”
Instead, she urges guests, who typically include professionals like lawyers, engineers, bankers and doctors, to enjoy the exchange of ideas between people who have varied levels of interest and knowledge.
Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel, says his clients fall into two categories: those who see a walking tour led by an expert as an opportunity to “go back to school for three hours” and those who enjoy a brief introduction to a slice of art history or architecture.
Either way, Bennett says, they return home with an improved intellect that “makes cocktail party banter all the much better.”