We first used Context a couple of years ago when we were working on some stories in Rome. We were just starting to develop Grantourismo then, and in a way Context was part of our experiment. We wanted to see if walking tours such as those offered by Context could be a way for people to kick-start a longer stay in a city, help them hit the ground running, quickly get to grips with a place, inspire their curiosity and encourage them to dig deeper.
We did a handful of Context’s walks in Rome, including an Italian language workshop with an Italian linguist, a walk through Roma Antica with a research student, an Italian wine-tasting bar hop with a sommelier, and a bespoke shopping and artisan walk with a Roman insider. Our experiment a success, we asked Context to become one of our partners for Grantourismo.
After a couple of years of emailing we finally met Paul and Lani, owners of Context, in the flesh in New York recently. We chatted to Paul about walking, sustainable travel, and other things over coffee.
Lani and I started Context after an 8000-mile, 18-month sailing voyage that took us to the Caribbean, Central America, and across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Along the way we learned that finding a local expert – a professor, journalist, historian, etc – who possessed specialized knowledge was key to getting under the surface of the place. When we landed in Rome the idea for Context emerged: here we had a great population of archaeologists and art historians who knew the cultural patrimony of the city inside and out.
What’s so great about walking?
We’re city people. And in most historic cities, walking is the best way to immerse yourself. It’s hard to appreciate art, architecture, and local character through the windows of a double-decker bus. Sometimes we’ll use a boat, train, ferry, or subway to move from one place to another. But when the tour begins we like to walk so that we can slip inside doorways, get up close to buildings, and really feel the city. Also, the walker’s pace gives participants the opportunity to ask questions and really learn.
Why does Context call its tours ‘walking seminars’?
A seminar is a participatory process. The idea comes from Oxford and St. John’s College (in Annapolis) where the professor lays the context of the conversation and asks probing questions in order to lead a group of intellectually curious students on a learning journey. Our walks tend toward this model. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of lecturing. But the docents who lead our walks are trained to bring participants into the conversation and to tailor it to the learning styles and interests of the group. By limiting walk sizes to six people or fewer this is easier to do than on a more traditional tour where the group might be 15 or 20 people. If you pass one of our groups in a museum, you’ll more often than not hear the docent ask, “So, what do you see in this painting?”
How does a walking seminar fit into a holiday or travel experience?
There are definitely those who see them as a good way to get started quickly. Our orientation walks and general, overview walks are good for this. Others use the more in-depth walks as a chance to dig deeper into the big cultural sites than they could on their own, or with a guidebook. Certainly having access to our docents is a great resource in terms of quick, local expertise. But more importantly, once you’ve walked the streets and seen the top layer of what the city has to offer, our docents really open up the more complex, curiosities that other travellers would miss. Our best clients are those who don’t find us on their first trip, but fall in love with the place and return—becoming insatiable Context-ites. For me, personally, I gravitate toward the specialized, thematic walks. I like to see a city through different lenses. eg. while I’m not a ‘foodie’ per se, I love some of our specialized culinary walks, like Tasting the Immigrant Experience in New York or The Bobo Palate in Paris. In each case, you see the history of the city through the lens of food.
Grantourismo is about inspiring travellers to dig deeper rather than race around ticking off sights off. Do you think it’s possible to do both?
I think the key is time. If you invest enough time into a place you can see the big sites that you need to see while at the same time digging in deeper. A lot of people – Americans, especially, who are cursed with a meagre two weeks’ vacation each year – complain that they simply don’t have enough of this precious resource to travel well. But then, when you talk further, you find that they’re trying to visit three cities in their 10-day trip. My advice is to narrow the geographic scope in order to broaden the experiential scope: spend those 10 days in one place: London, Istanbul, or Venice. Click off the big things, and then go deeper. Connect with a local, perhaps through an organization like Context, and have some more profound experiences than what the average tourist gets in a ‘drive-by’ trip. Save the next destination for the next year.
What sets an excellent walk apart from an average one?
Narrative. Any great guidebook can give you the facts on a place. Any average tour can regurgitate these facts for you. What makes a walking seminar profound is to connect with someone who has lived with this city and this topic for a lifetime and who can weave for you a narrative journey about it. For example, I was recently on our Ottoman Architecture walk in Istanbul with an architectural historian who has spent her life studying, writing, preserving, and teaching about the great mosques of the city. She had an amazing story to tell, not just about the history of the mosques, but also their role in the city and in the wider arena of Islamic aesthetics. It was like being back in college again with one of those great, dynamic professors who opened the world for you. Except, in this case, of course, you’re on site in an amazing locale rather than sitting in some classroom.
We love your focus on ‘small group’ tours.
This is critical. The small group format allows us to find out about each person and their interest and background, and to then tailor the experience accordingly. It allows people to ask questions and to steer the conversation themselves. We’ve toyed with larger groups: seven or eight. But we always come back to six. It’s a magic number for us, and you’ll never find a Context walk with more than that on it.
Tell us about your sustainable travel initiative.
Most of the cities where we operate rely on tourism as a key economic driver, and so they are pushing for more and more people to come each year. As these numbers balloon, there are tremendous stresses on the city – not only on monuments and artworks, but also on the local character. Chain restaurants move in, tourist shops replace artisans, and pretty soon you start getting these tourist zones that look and feel the same from city to city. We care deeply about these cities and want to do everything we can to sustain and support that local character that makes them each unique. Sometimes it’s as small as passing out lists of recommended restaurants near the end of our walks where participants can find locally owned restaurants serving local cuisine. In other cases, we may underwrite a project to preserve a monument or run an apprenticeship program, like we do in Florence for artisans who are suffering under the economic changes there.
Tips for people who want to travel more sustainably?
1) Try to walk or take public transport in lieu of taxis. This greatly reduces your carbon footprint, and takes strain off local traffic issues, which are getting horrendous in places like Rome and Istanbul.
2) Behave like you live there: respect the environment, obviously, but also find a cafe to visit each morning, a bakery to buy pizza bianca in each afternoon, become a regular if only for a week.
3) Think critically about your travel choices. Who owns the hotel you’re staying at? Is it a London or New York conglomerate? Or, is it a local family or firm? Could you be just as happy in a rented apartment? Are you eating the food of the place, or something imported from abroad? For me these choices are as much about learning and immersion as they are about protecting the local resources. My choice to eat at the local trattoria owned by the guy in my neighborhood helps to sustain that culinary tradition. But, it also ensures that I’ll get a great meal of a type that I can’t get when I return home.
Favourite walking cities?
Istanbul – because of the sea and Strait vistas; Rome – because of the layers of history on every street; and Venice – no cars!
I always like to carry a good map. I’m the way-finder in our family, and when we were sailing I was the guy who learned celestial navigation. Obviously, water and comfy shoes are helpful – although I usually opt for leather shoes in a city in order to blend in. (Sneakers, especially in a European city, peg you as a tourist.) An iPhone. It usually has the map included, as well as camera, video, and, at some point, I hope, Google Goggles. Lastly, slow down: leave the marathon days at home and walk only as far as you are enjoying, then find a place to sit, relax and plan out the next leg of your day.