How to design an archaeological tour
As well as travel writing Peter also personally leads a number of our cultural escorted tours of Turkey each year.
How do you go about making an archaeological tour?
A number of first rate ingredients are required – great sites, seamless logistics, and a passionate and knowledgeable guide. Perhaps the biggest element of all for me when planning a tour is the story. I don’t want to simply arrange a route around a series of isolated historical ruins, instead I want to weave a fascinating tale, a historical back-story where each ancient city we visit is like a jigsaw piece that sheds ever more light on the region’s history and culture. Some stories are intrinsically obvious like travelling across Turkey in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, but others require much more careful consideration.
It all starts with a ‘recce’, going out to make an on the ground reconnaissance of the sites in a proposed tour area. To me this is like a marvellous adventure, I’m like a child in a sweet shop trying to decide where and what I should start with, perhaps something Greek or maybe Byzantine, perhaps a small but untouched temple standing romantically lost in olive groves or a giant Roman city, like Ephesus, packed with tourists. I love the energy and buzz of visiting new sites, but on a recce I am preoccupied with all the practical things that need to be thought through, especially how to pick and then unite the most special of sites into a compelling and cohesive tour.
Know your way around
I remember the first time I ever led an archaeological tour back in the spring of 1996. I was asked by a UK travel company to step in as tour leader eight days before a trip exploring ancient Caria in Turkey. At first I declined because I hadn’t visited half the sites on the itinerary and wouldn’t dream of taking a group anywhere I hadn’t been. When they called the next day and asked me again, I agreed provided they fly me out the next day and hire me a jeep with driver so I could tear around the sites on a whirlwind recce. It was a baptism of fire, but one that has stood me in very good stead. One of the most important lessons I learned was it doesn’t matter how much you know of a site’s history if you don’t know your way around.
The best approach
In fact the first thing I do when I get to a site is let all the history disappear from my head. For me the first walk around a site is all about practicalities, not least where do I want to begin. More often than not I choose to avoid the specified main entrance and approach a site from a different angle – both physically and historically. I like to enter on an ancient road if possible, like the sacred way leading to the temple of Apollo at Didyma. I like to create a sense of drama, as at Stratonikeia, a Hellenistic foundation in Caria.
A mile away from the main entrance I take groups on a small path through trees, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which suddenly caves away into a vast theatre with a breathtaking view. If the site is overgrown, and in rural Turkey one goat path looks pretty much like the others, sometimes it’s just a case of finding the best way around.
Round and round
Once I’ve figured out my route around the site, I rewalk the whole route again, and again. Navigation around a site is paramount. When I’m showing a group around I don’t want to be spending my time trying to find my way, and I certainly want my route pre-planned to the best historical and dramatic effect.
After that it’s a case of scouring the libraries to pull out the latest excavation and survey reports. That’s where a top quality tour guide comes into their own, fresh knowledge and a lively perspective, rather than a spiel learned by rote, or material regurgitated from age old guide books.
The sense of journey
Back in the office maps are pulled out and it all comes down to matching up the sites, the story, and the logistics. Many of the tours I arrange are archaeological cruises in Turkey aboard handbuilt wooden gulets. They’re a marvellous way to step back in time, not only do you avoid the hotel changes, the roads, and traffic, but it’s often the best means of exploring ancient civilisations, like the Lycians, who were essentially maritime, geared to the sea.
What finer way to visit a city like Knidos, where Praxiteles infamous naked statue of Aphrodite once stood, than to sail straight into its old commercial harbour and drop anchor beside its ancient mooring stones. Travel is a key element in the stories I tell, and whether a tour is based on roads or the sea I always try and make a virtue of the transport, by drawing on ancient parallels – be it shipwrecks, travel writing, or the classical tourists and pilgrims who visited the same sites and even bought tacky souvenirs.
A story unfolds
When creating the final tour itinerary, geography and logistics often carry the deciding vote, but if possible I love to start small and build. I think our Lycian cruise works that idea almost perfectly. The first few sites are in breathtaking locations, but in themselves the ruins are scant. They give everyone a chance to get their bearings, to settle into the landscape, and perhaps marvel at one broken tomb, a few inscribed stones, or the odd piece of sculpture lying on the ground. As the days go by, the sites get bigger and more impressive, one has a Byzantine church, the next has a theatre, another has a baths… so each location adds another layer of understanding, another facet of ancient architecture and city life. By the time we reach some of the greatest sites in the world – Aspendos, with one of the best preserved Roman theatres and aqueducts, Perge, a city with great boulevards and agoras lined with columns and baths swathed in marble – the group has already seen the basics and can revel in such size and magnificence.
Perhaps the other essential element in creating an archaeological tour is timing. Above all don’t cram in too much. I’d much rather give everyone a chance to sit in a theatre and savour the scene, nevermind the view, the birdsong, and the atmosphere, than cram in three sites a day on a whirlwind mission. Don’t travel in the hottest months, and even when it’s a cooler season, avoid the heat of the day, for a start the light is all the better early in the morning and later in the afternoon.
Always more to see
Whether it’s getting to a restaurant for lunch, making sure the drives aren’t too long, or something unique like swimming at Patara where St Nicholas was born, as the sun sinks like an orange orb into the sea, timing is paramount. If that means leaving some great sites out of a tour itinerary, that’s fine, I always think it’s a good rule of thumb to leave some places unexplored so there’s always something special to come back for.
Back to Travel writing and Photography
Find out more about our escorted archaeological tours in Turkey, Greece and Italy.