Picture the scene: a luxury mini bus full of gently flushed, dozing travellers heading back to their hotel for an unscheduled nap before dinner after an entirely satisfactory afternoon Calvados tasting at a local producer. The tour leader/driver smiles quietly to himself, sans Calvados: another really good and culturally rewarding excursion undertaken.
If you are looking for a meaningful, authentic experience on an escorted tour of Europe or the UK, where the itinerary can be tweaked en route, Back-Roads Touring will most probably hit the spot. This company does just what it says on the tin: takes small groups on tours on the back roads of your chosen country. So no lengthy motorway journeys for hours, no mass market restaurants and certainly no tourist only attractions. This style of touring is a purposeful meander taking in regional specialists, for culinary delights both eaten and drunk, craftsmanship, visiting places that epitomise the area and reflect the national character, culture and history. Added to which, the accommodation is charming and characterful with hosts who are keen to share their local knowledge and culture. If travellers are looking for a tick box tour, this is, most certainly, not it!
Central to this are, of course, the leaders, who here double up as drivers. With a maximum of party-size of 18, and often only 12 on board, the luxury mini buses used are extremely comfortable and a pleasure to travel in. I recently spoke to Andy Steele, one such guide, about the tours he leads. This year, 2014, is particularly poignant as commemorations of World War I and II are taking place across Europe, especially in France, which is one of Andy’s areas of expertise. His passion is history, and enthralled by his grandfather’s diaries of the First World War, Andy started researching his movements and learned to access relevant war archives and documents. He puts this to good use for clients from around the world who have travelled to the battlefields and D Day beaches in memory of uncles, fathers and grandfathers. Andy brings a true sense of history to the place, by reading, in his glorious, mellifluous voice, an eye-witness account of what happened on June 6th on the beaches at the very spot described. Stirring stuff indeed and an inspired way to connect the present to the past. Again, at the American cemetery he tells the story of his father’s best friend who was there when momentous events took place.
There is a lighter side to the tours, and whilst fulfilling the role of storyteller, Andy also acts as translator at the 18th Century manor house where his group lunches in authentic, French surroundings. With a small group, an element of personalisation can take place on the journey, a trip to the market, an extended lunch or garden visit. These intimate journeys start at a very civilised hour, allowing for breakfast and a gracious beginning to the day, although, as with most tours, stout footwear is recommended and a preparedness to walk quite a bit is needed. I got the impression that plenty of excellent regional food from traditional producers is part of the experience, as is partaking of local wine tastings.
Interesting discoveries are part of Andy’s stock in trade. He tells the amazing tale of Australians on a tour in the UK, down in Cornwall. Their ancestors had emigrated as tin miners from the county and they were keen to trace any gravestones or records from the previous century. This they did in the very first hamlet visited, however their second stop turned up a living distant relative in the shape of the Church warden. You really can’t do better than that!
Tours in the UK take in all four countries and you can travel all over Europe too, with Turekey as an extra. Specialist themed tours are on offer too, in cities, for New Year, the English Flower Shows and the superb European Christmas Markets. Travelling with like-minded people to unexpected and interesting places, accompanied by exceptional guides must surely be what true discovery is all about.