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gulet at sea

There are many things I associate with my work for Peter Sommer Travels, many ideas, images and sensations. One of the key ones is the elementary joy of travelling on the range of beautiful wooden gulets we use!

Last month, I received a lovely message from Peter Sommer, our eponymous founder, and his wife, Elin, noting that it had been ten years since I joined Peter Sommer Travels’ core team.

I must admit that it came as a surprise. With the ongoing pandemic and its resulting strictures, but also having first worked on some of PST’s gulet cruises since 2009, the date had quite simply slipped beneath my horizon. In my mind, those ten years feel like far fewer in some ways - and like more in others...

It’s been a formative decade, full of great and unforgettable experiences. And since we’re not quite ready for face-to-face celebrations yet, instead I’ll use the opportunity to celebrate here on the blog (to which I have also been contributing for about that amount of time), by reminiscing a little about those experiences that working for – and with - Peter Sommer Travels, and with Peter himself, has brought to me.

This cannot be comprehensive, and there’s no need for it to be: I have become familiar with so many places, met so many people, learned so many things and shared so many delights over these years – there’s no way to do justice to all that. So, here we go, with a single image for each calendar year, and a few lines about its significance. It all illustrates the experiences we look forward to sharing with our guests soon again – and besides, it reflects on the exciting development of Peter Sommer Travels during those years – an ongoing story!

I admit it: this image is not from 2009, but a few years later. It fits this post though because it records the very first instant I saw the gulet I have since spent most time on, the Aegean Clipper (in its Bodrum shipyard)!

2009: First time on a gulet!

As a traveller around the Aegean, I had spotted gulets many times, with admiration and wonder, but it was in 2009 that I first set foot on one, with Peter Sommer Travels. The many sensations these traditional wooden boats offer could fill a whole book: their organic connection with the element they travel in, namely the sea itself; their distinctive sounds of creaking wood and taut ropes; the warm and natural feel of their wooden decks under your feet; the unique vistas a small boat can offer of so many places! All these were most wonderful to discover and none of that joy has worn off. Gulets are a key feature of Peter Sommer Travels’ portfolio. Approaching and discovering a region on one of these vessels is quite simply a unique experience, a mixture of harmony and excitement, of beauty and movement, of unending wonder and sheer joy...

2010: Exploration and discovery in Turkey and Greece

Those years were a whirlwind of off-season travel, familiarising me with one country I did not know so well, and deepening my already extensive meanderings in another. Those voyages included many lesser-known wonders, but also world-famous highlights like Ephesus.

Whether you are a trained archaeologist or an interested layperson, there is nothing quite like exploring a site you have not seen before, trying to identify and understand every detail and taking in both its immediate local beauty and its wider cultural context, opening an avalanche of stories, connections and ideas. Peter Sommer Travels gave me the opportunity to do just that from the get-go, as it is central to the painstaking effort we put into the detailed preparation of our trips – all aspects of them, from archaeological content via walking routes to local meals. It is a constant and ongoing process, as all our itineraries are updated continuously. Although I can’t really pin this on a specific year, in 2009 and 2010 Peter began to send me on a series of reconnoitres, first to prepare myself for itineraries in Turkey, and then to prepare entirely new tours in the Greek Islands. I’ve lost count of the many remarkable places these voyages, alone or accompanied by colleagues, have brought me to: a vast repertoire of remarkable discoveries. Sharing the joy of discovery with our guests is one of the perks of our work! This is an ongoing story, by the way: in later years, I continued to reconnoitre in those countries, but also helped to do so in Sicily, Croatia, and later in Ireland and the United Kingdom!

2011: Meeting people

A sunset shot of a group of guests. I cannot even begin to name the many guests who have turned into friends, nor the many local contacts who make our work possible...

Being with our guests, telling them the stories of the places we see, not just for the few hours a visit takes, but throughout a tour lasting many days, is important to us. It allows us to understand our guests’ personal interests and fascinations, their own ideas and their own stories, to learn from them and to connect our narrative with them. What we do is very much determined by relationships, be they professional or personal or both. A well-run tour also relies on a good rapport with our colleagues and fellow experts, with our crews, captains or drivers, with all manner of locals, from site guards via restaurant owners to hotel staff – and of course always with our guests! Again, this is a constant process, but I treasure my memories of 2011. That year I first led a tour together with my good friend Michael and also that year, we recruited my Athenian colleague, Nota Karamaouna, beginning a long cooperation in guiding. Also, that year, I first met one of our most faithful guests, who has been joining tours with me nearly every year since!

Yes, this is real: probably one of the most striking views on any of our itineraries!

2012: Embarking on Cruising to the Cyclades

Imagine this being a place where you go for work! Santorini is a cliché of the Greek Islands, but it really is as picturesque as the images say. A landmark in our Greek activities, Cruising to the Cyclades was introduced in spring 2012, following years of preparation. It was our longest cruise itinerary (by mileage) at the time - and still is so! - initially touching upon nine islands in the Dodecanese and Cyclades archipelagos (as we rework all our itineraries constantly, that number is now up to 11). It is a thrilling cruise to be on, taking in a spectacular range of sights and places, including famous names like Naxos, Delos and Santorini, as well as some of the most spectacular archaeology in the region! Due to its length and route, this cruise is somewhat different every time it runs, a great opportunity to think on our feet... I can’t wait to set out for the next one!

Crete has many more things to offer than I can describe here, and for those whom it has enchanted, the longing to be there is intense. Designing our Exploring Crete tour and improving it year after year has been an enormously fulfilling experience.

2013: Innovation on land and a kind of homecoming - Exploring Crete

In 2013, I had the very special joy of sharing one of my favourite regions with our guests for the first time. As we were steadily increasing our range of activities in Greece, this tour was also a landmark for the company. Exploring Crete was the first of our regional land tours in Greece, setting out an approach we still follow for our Exploring tours, based on profound local knowledge (I had nearly two decades’ experience of travel and research in the island when I began outlining this tour) and the highest level of preparation available, along with an ambitious approach to superb local food and unique accommodation, chosen for quality, history and location. The tour was designed to encompass all of Crete’s long history and much more, to tell the story of what might be the world’s most historic island in a proper and approachable way, and it is both a pleasure and honour to be an expert tour leader on it!

Sometimes, the most wonderful discoveries are not where we expect them. Over the years, many of our guests have been especially impressed by the calm beauty of Chalki, a small island near Rhodes, and its lovely port town, still untouched by mass tourism.

2014: Onwards! Cruising the Dodecanese

Some of my favourite places in Greece are smaller islands that are not big names in tourism: they offer a combination of that sense of discovery, of great cultural sights, of friendly locals and of local culinary delights, all without the mass-market hype. Our Dodecanese cruise allows us to share such wonderful places with our guests. Since the Dodecanese are a string of Greek Islands not far off the Turkish coast, we had been frequenting them for some years already, but 2014 was when we finally presented our second two-week itinerary in Greece. Cruising the Dodecanese is an unusual cruise in some ways, as it combines famous highlights like Kos and Rhodes with lesser-known ones, including Samos, an island of first-rate archaeological significance just north of the Dodecanese, and many of the smaller Dodecanese islands: Leros, with its 20th century history of war and trouble, Chalki with its breathtaking ancient acropolis and Crusader Castle, and Symi with its ultra-picturesque harbour and the stories to explain its existence. To delve into these places and their stories with our guests, following years of preparation, is a privilege!

Dalmatia is another Mediterranean landscape, with its own Adriatic distinctions and its own history, sometimes overlapping with and sometimes differing from what we encounter in Greece, Turkey or Italy. Discovering its stories, for example on the island of Hvar, is intensely rewarding.

2015: Discovering Croatia

Somewhere entirely new! Historic monuments, a great seascape and much to discover. What could be more exciting than widening your own horizons and those of an entire company? In 2015, Peter Sommer Travels decided to expand its portfolio of gulet cruises into Croatia, or namely Dalmatia, this country’s Mediterranean/Adriatic coast, a fascinating region with a convoluted coastline and many islands, and an even more convoluted and very important history. It was a huge pleasure for me to help prepare our initial explorations there, to cooperate with Peter on designing our first Dalmatian Cruises, but also to meet our wonderful experts and initial partners in this country. By now, Croatia is an established part of our range of gulet cruises and in me it has instilled both a fascination with Adriatic history and with the distinctive culture of Dalmatia – including its superb cuisine. Our great colleagues in Croatia have followed up on these very first preparations and are working hard to show the country’s wonders to our guests.

A moody image of the wild and remote Mani Peninsula. I've long since given up on defining what might be the definitive Peloponnesian image for me: my mind is flooded with far too many of them, and no single one can encompass what this cultural heartland has to offer!

2016: A second homecoming: Exploring the Peloponnese

Imagine sharing your beloved childhood haunts with people eager to see them, to revisit places and vistas imprinted in your early memories and put them into their staggering geographic and historic contexts... The Peloponnese is special to me, because I started exploring it when I was little more than a toddler and I have never stopped afterwards. Peter Sommer Travels gave me the opportunity to transform those decades of familiarity into an unparalleled tour of Greece’s southern peninsula, a panorama of millennia of history, of diverse landscapes, of local flavours and of an unending ream of stories, from prehistoric mysteries via the bulk of Greek mythology and many of the pivotal events in Ancient Greek history, via a turbulent medieval era to the dramas of modern Greece’s formation. Developing our Exploring the Peloponnese was both a homecoming and a journey of rediscovery for me. It ran for the first time in 2016, and if there is any one tour that defines how we do things differently, I recommend checking it out.

The same applies to Ireland: having criss-crossed the country extensively and intrepidly, there is not one picture that can represent what is in my mind a web of images, voices, ideas and sensations. Kylemore Abbey and Lake will do as a stand-in!

2017: ... and a third one: Exploring Ireland

Another homecoming, another opportunity to share what I love. Standing on tall cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean far below; scrutinising an elaborate manuscript written 1,200 years ago; or admiring symbols carved into stone 5,000 years ago to embellish an enormous burial monument? All that is part of what we do in Ireland. It was my pleasure to study and live in this remarkable country for many years and to explore it, its archaeology, its landscapes, its culture, thoroughly – and Peter Sommer Travels has allowed me to turn those heady years of discovery into another unique itinerary, a chance to share my other great love. Ireland is a country of countless stories and I love being in a position to be among the voices telling them, again, together with my wonderful colleagues there! The year 2017 saw our first Exploring Ireland tour. Ireland is popular with travellers, and there are many ways of approaching this beautiful country –  we relish the chance to do it our way.

A cultural tour or cruise as we see it, is not a static concept or itinerary, but one that continuously evolves, grows and develops. This 3,000-year old olive tree on Crete is thus both a metaphor for that 'living' aspect of a tour, and at the same time a feature: we are trying to include at least one of the multiple ancient trees on the island in our Cretan tours!

2018: Pinching yourself: everything PST

So far, I focused on something new for every year. That’s exciting and important, but there’s another side to working with Peter Sommer Travels. Not every step we take every year has to be a new one: a step re-taken is also new, because everything is in flow. As Heraclitus said: “you can’t swim in the same river twice”. Every tour or cruise is new when it starts, and every time we find a new approach, a new discovery, a new story, a new question, new guests! After all, we conceptualise, design and then run tours, and yes, we develop them constantly: everything is an active work in progress. In 2018, I spent more weeks on tours than ever before, and I was happy being engaged in the entire portfolio: running scheduled gulet cruises, family cruises and private trips on land and sea, maintaining and improving the itineraries I have had a hand in designing, writing tour diaries on this blog, meeting new guests and re-connecting with returning ones. The sense of being part of Peter Sommer Travels and its growing range of activities, by then in six countries, was sheer joy.

Coming home also has its moments, not least when it includes a regular opportunity to see the Acropolis in all its glory, in all weathers and at all times of day. Of course, there's more to Athens, and we (Nota and I) take immense pleasure in sharing our hands-on experience of life in the city!

2019: Athens, the ultimate homecoming (for now!)

Athens is where I have been living most of the time for two decades or so. Athens is also one of the most important cities of antiquity, a place where new ways of living together, new ways of thinking and new ways of communicating were invented and practised two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. Athenian history has left a permanent imprint on Western culture, and has also left key monuments behind where it all started. Today, it is a vibrant modern city, the cultural hub of Greece and one of the most exciting and dynamic European capitals. We have been running tours in Athens for many years, but in 2019 we first ran our Easter in Athens, a trip that combines the highlights of the historic city with the celebrations of Greek Orthodox Easter Week, a time when Athens is replete with atmosphere, ideal for telling its story in depth. Once more, sharing one’s ‘own’ place and bringing its stories to life is a wonderful opportunity to engage with important history and its venues in the right place and at the right time!

It's been nearly thirty years since my first extensive trip around Macedonia, Greece's northern region, and since my initial discovery of its capital, Thessaloniki, Greece's 'second city'. But even now, I remain astonished by the region's extraordinary cultural and archaeological wealth!

2020: Exploring Macedonia (Northern Greece)

We all know that 2020 was not a year that turned out according to plan. It was, however, the year I returned to Macedonia (the northern part of Greece), to refine and define our tour of this region, our fourth land tour in Greece. Together with my colleague, Maria Girtzi, with whom I have been collaborating since 2015, we explored the key archaeological sites of an area that is still undervalued and mostly under-visited, as well as many locations off the beaten track. Seeing the places that defined the career of Phillip II and his son, Alexander the Great, and admiring the wonderful treasures ancient Macedonia has left behind, is something I cannot wait to share with our guests! There is much more to Northern Greece, from Neolithic to modern, and based on our thorough preparations, we can’t wait to offer Exploring Macedonia, a unique exceptional experience in 2022.

A picture I took last week, somewhere in the Western Cyclades. It is too soon to tell what landscapes, what monuments, what vistas we'll add to our range in the future - but add them we will.

2021 : Looking ahead

No need to hide it: the pandemic prevented us from doing much of anything in 2020, and it did the same for the early season in 2021. This is a predicament we share with most specialised cultural travel companies. The long period of disruption has not been easy, but it did allow us to look anew at what we are doing and how, and to think ahead of what we might want to do next. (NB: I am writing this on a small island, where I am involved in an archaeological project, picking up detailed knowledge of some new places and new ideas along the way!) Peter Sommer Travels is now looking forward optimistically to the late summer/autumn season of 2021. It is my hope to get the chance to share many of the above-mentioned experiences with my guests again, as it is my colleagues' in Croatia, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom (Ireland will follow later). It will be exciting to go back to all the sites and places, the towns and ports, the landscapes and locales we miss, and it will be even more exciting to meet our guests, old and new!

Most of all, I hope to see you on one of my trips soon! Let's see where they take us...

So, those were the thirteen images of my decade (plus a little more) with Peter Sommer Travels. They are a story by themselves, one that is very much ongoing. Let us see what the next decade might bring us. I, for one, am certain that Peter Sommer Travels will bring me even more opportunities to show and share even more wonderful places with our wonderful guests, especially in Greece, but maybe not just there. For you, dear reader, I hope that we will bring you a wonderful travel experience before long – perhaps with me, or with one of my remarkable colleagues. We can’t wait to meet you.

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