There was a lad I knew in school called James. He was disinterested in most subjects. The only time I saw him engaged and excited during classes was in history lessons. He was transfixed by stories of great world powers and military campaigns. As Mr Rees, our history teacher, spoke about the extent of the Ottoman Empire or outlined the expansion plans of Bismark, James would hang on every word.
If you’re like James, I’ve found the perfect holiday for you. Alan Rooney is MD of his Salisbury-based company The Cultural Experience. His team will take you to the sites of significant conflict or historical events all over the world. You could visit ancient fortresses in Iran or learn about the Minoan civilisation in Crete. And if you’re interested in the Romans, Alan’s team offers multiple opportunities to explore the great centres of their civilisation.
There are plenty of Middle Ages military destinations too. Alan’s groups regularly tour France, where you learn about the Hundred Years War. Continuing down the historical timeline you can follow in Napoleon’s footsteps and there is a chance to visit significant First and Second World War battlefields. An eight-day tour of sites connected with the Holocaust in Poland is one of the company’s most requested trips – and understandably one of the most sombre.
These tours are for the real enthusiast. Alan tells me that there are plenty of them and the tour guides share that passion for the past. You don’t get a student who sits at the front of the coach and wanders around sites, holding up a flag whilst reciting facts learned parrot-fashion. “Our Berlin guide was stationed in the city during the Cold War. He is proficient in Russian and German and worked with the Allied forces, driving around eastern Germany making sure that the Warsaw Pact establishments met the NATO treaty agreements,” Alan explains.
“He has many stories to share and still lives in the city. It’s been his life’s study to look at the history of Berlin in the 20th century. He can bring destroyed buildings back to life with interesting stories,” says Alan. Another of the tour leaders, who specialises in the Balkans, was greatly involved in negotiating the Serbian crisis in the 1990s.
Most of Alan’s guides are proper, qualified, been-there-seen-it experts. He often uses former or serving senior military personnel to make sense of conflicts that can sometimes appear incomprehensible. Other leaders are published historians or academics. Many of his guests have an understanding of the areas they visit. They can’t be fobbed off with the guides you’d get on open-top buses.
“We offer an opportunity to indulge in a passion for history,” Alan says. “You’ll see where the great moments of history took place. You need to see how the ground, landscape and an area’s surroundings combined to affected the outcome of military campaign. And you don’t get that from reading books.”
I asked Alan whether new destinations are being added to his programme as they become more stable after conflicts are resolved.
“Iran is a new destination which fascinates us,” he says. “We see where the original invaders of Greece came from and the civilisation that developed in parallel to ancient Greece -Persepolis – is a fantastic city to explore.”
Some of the trips are really specialist. I suspect my classmate would have retained facts about Frederick the Great and would be excited by the extensive tours Alan’s company offers to Silesia. I confessed my ignorance in knowing virtually nothing about the American Civil War, another of The Cultural Experience’s popular tour destinations.
Alan says US historical sites offer an enlightening experience. “The Americans don’t have as much history as we do in Europe. So what they have they do exceptionally well,” he says. “They preserve their battlefields and have a lot more funding to look after their sites than we would in Britain. Many of the major battlefields have Park Rangers dedicated to taking people around and some have ongoing research on what happened there. The Shenandoah Valley is in a beautiful part of Virginia and we visit there in the autumn, when the leaves are changing colour. It’s not just about visiting the battlefields it’s also a chance to see some of the scenery,” Alan says.
Alan’s brochure is like a history exam aide memoire. Reading it, I have a slight surge of panic, as if I am about to enter the exam hall and have found a topic I forgot to revise. We were always told that we need history to understand our present and future. That’s an important theme in Alan’s holidays. “When Iraq was invaded in the 1990s, General Schwarzkopf said that his planning was influenced by Hannibal’s approach to Rome two thousand years ago,” he says.
Nothing in history happens in a vacuum. And the people who book the trips don’t stop experiencing the past at 5pm when their day’s activity ends. “Many guests socialise well into the night following the day’s tours and share stories and experiences over a whiskey or two!” Alan says. And that’s why his company has a high return rate amongst the guests.
I wish I knew where my former classmate James was now. I’d tell him about The Cultural Experience. I hope he’s not taking breaks in Magaluf or Malaga – walking around the Waterloo battle site or the Road to Manadalay would be right up his street!
Listen to my full discussion with Alan here: