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Friday, June 6, 2008

Putting context back into travel, OR why contextualizing travel is cool

Now, you know I'm not a fan of guides (see this post) and my recent observation of a tour guide who stopped at each key sight at the Roman Forum to read passages from a guidebook to her bored tour group only reaffirmed many of my beliefs on guides and guided tours. Yet Context Travel is on an altogether different level. For starters, they prefer to call their guides 'docents', an American term for university professors or lecturers, reflecting the qualifications and expertise of their guides, many of whom are scholars who moved to Italy to complete doctorates on the subjects they're leading tours on. And they come from a wide variety of disciplines, including archaeologists, chefs, architects, artists, authors, and historians. While some of their walks involve stimulating strolls through Rome's long history, other offerings range from a literary discussion about Dante as you wander Florence's streets to an introduction to Roman cuisine while exploring lively local markets, along with lighter activities from drawing workshops at Castel Sant' Angelo to jogging tours through Rome's city streets. We did an inspiring and enlightening Italian language workshop in a buzzy local enoteca, an engaging walk through ancient Rome, a fun bar-hopping introduction to Italian wine, and an exclusive private shopping tour to visit some of Rome's best bespoke artisans. Context's owner Paul Bennett says: "Our walking seminars are, on some levels, love songs, paeans, and odes to a place that fascinates us day by day. Like Cupid with his arrows, Context events are designed to make you fall in love with Rome." We certainly came away from each and every engaging and eye-opening experience feeling like somehow had helped us gently scrape away a layer or two of the city so that we knew and loved it better than we had before. Don't you love it when that happens?


Nomadic Matt said...

hmmm. If I'm ever in Rome again, I'll give them a look.

Lara Dunston said...

Definitely do - they're really very impressive. And what do you mean "if" you're in Rome again? Didn't you love it the first time 'round?

Anonymous said...

I assume they're not paying you for saying all this?

Lara Dunston said...

You assume right. You may have read some of my earlier anti-guide blogs... as a result of those reflections I came up with my own criteria on what I thought comprised a good guide/tour (specialization, in-depth knowledge, connection to place, etc) and I think around the same time I was doing that research and discovered Context, a fellow blogger left a comment suggesting I look into Context. I did, and we did 5 walks/workshops with them and they were amazing!

I always did continuing education courses after I finished university or in-between degrees, and Context's activities are just like those only they're 'in country' and in and about the streets of a place - really stimulating stuff! And yet they pitch them to the levels of interest and knowledge of the groups, which are so small (less than 6 people) so they can afford to do that. The sommelier we did the Italian wine tasting-cum-bar hop-cum-wine appreciation course with said every single time she does the night it's different depending on the people.

Honestly, I can't recommend them enough - I just wish there were organizations like them in all cities around the world.

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

During a recent two-week visit to Rome, my wife and I traveled guideless. Partly it was because two's company, three's a crowd.

Instead we came equipped with several very helpful books, most notably the formidable (530-page) "Companion Guide to Rome" by Georgina Masson. Georgina is quite a guide!

Of course we occasionally paused to listen to guides, if not for long. I heard one memorable sentence from a particular guide who was hurrying her glazed group through one of the galleries of the Vatican Museum: "Look to your left, look to your right, and try to enjoy."

Nine out of ten times, we were more than grateful to be on our own. It was a near miracle to hear a guide who could truly be called a docent.

You may find my Rome photos worth a look. As you will see from the photos, for us, the main concentration was to visit the city's oldest churches:

Jim Forest

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jim

I love that line!!! That's hysterical!! But that's exactly what I mean.

I haven't seen Georgina's companion guide. I'll have to look out for it next time.

But aren't churches wonderful all over Italy? The art hidden away inside can surprise you in the most unexpected places - such as Calabria for example. One of my favorite 'attractions' in all of Italy are the baroque churches in Sicily, especially Noto. I'll take a look at your pics for sure.

Thanks for commenting!

Jim and Nancy Forest said...

For any English-speaking person with a special love for Rome, or who intends to develop such a love, I would say Georgina Masson's book is an essential resource, and great reading even if you are thousands of miles from Rome. Truly a classic. There have been various editions over the years. The one I have is the sixth, published in 1980. The author has since died but the book, now with a co-author who has done some updating and added new material, remains in print. For those who want pure Georgina, and they are many, used copies are easy to find on web sites like

Jim Forest