Are you perhaps looking for a tour or excursion with a difference? Do you prefer to explore in smaller, more intimate groups, go off the usual tourist track, and get insight from a local? That's what Select Travel Holidays' Amy was looking for on her own recent holiday with a friend, and so she booked a couple tours with Urban Adventures (part of Intrepid Travel) - and here's what she thought...
I really love travel; I love tasting different cuisines and flavours, watching people go about their daily lives and thinking about our commonalities as much as our differences, being humbled by magnificent monuments and awed by the incredible craftsmanship whilst wondering how on earth such things were even created or dreamed up in the first place, I love getting in the heart of a destination, trying to figure out what makes it tick, what makes it special, what can I learn from it. I like getting off the usual beaten tourist track, to avoid the crowds and the overpriced and inauthentic food and drink, but then there are some places that are like honey to tourists, such as must-see UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sometimes, it’s fine to just stroll along, take in the scenery, drink in the atmosphere, people watch, attempt to find a hidden treasure of a local restaurant or bar. Other times, you might feel you need a bit of guidance; local insight, specialist knowledge. There are also times, when you want to pay a visit to an UNESCO World Heritage Site or other iconic landmark, when you want to be able to skip the queue just a bit. There are certainly ways you can do this, as there are a number of tour operators available to pre-book guided tours or ‘skip the line’ excursions (for example, I booked ‘skip the line’ guided tours of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Vatican City, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica during the pre- and post- stays for my recent cruise, and they were both very good; the Vatican tour leader in particular was a very impassioned and knowledgeable guide).
During my recent holiday, my friend Lauren and I stayed a couple of nights in Barcelona before embarking on a six-night cruise with Azamara, and finished with a couple nights in Rome. For Lauren, it was her first time visiting both cities, and whilst I had visited Barcelona a couple times and Rome once, it had always been for perhaps just a few hours as a port of call on a cruise, so we both definitely wanted to explore more. In both cities, there were several things we absolutely wanted to see and do: Sagrada Familia, eat lots of tapas, visit the Colosseum, and the Vatican.
For the tapas and the Colosseum, we chose small, locally-led group tours with Urban Adventures, who are part of the small-group experiential travel specialists, Intrepid. Spanning across 95 countries and 163 cities, Urban Adventures offer unique excursions, ranging from just over an hour to 11 or 13 hours, with an incredible plethora of activities, from food and wine tasting, cookery classes, cycling tours, 4x4 desert experiences or snorkelling, and so much more. Groups are kept to a maximum of 12 people, but as soon as you’re booked, you’re guaranteed to go – even if it’s just you! For our Colosseum tour, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we were the only people booked on, so we enjoyed our very own private guided tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Tours are led by local guides – Alicia on our ‘Barcelona Tapas Tour en el barrio’ and Alessio on our Ancient Rome: Archaeological Discovery Tour – who give such wonderful local insight, they bring out the destinations in an unique way, and offer up secrets you wouldn’t discover on any other tour.
Our Barcelona Tapas Tour began as we met our guide, Alicia, and the rest of the group near the Christopher Columbus monument towards the end of Las Ramblas, but we were soon to leave the usual tourist tract. The rest of the group comprised of Americans; two lads from Atlanta in their mid-20s, two late-middle-aged women from Chicago, and a grown-up family also from Chicago (mum, dad, son aged late twenties or early thirties with his fiancée, and a daughter also aged in her twenties). We chose this tour because a) we love tapas (give us all the anchovies please), and b) we wanted to encounter authentic, off-the-beaten-track Barcelona, have a glimpse at what it’s like for the locals, and c) the tour ended with a glass of cava (which, apparently, the Americans had never heard of). It certainly gave us a real taste and flavour (puns fully intended) of Barcelona, as we savoured anchovies, manchega cheese and chorizo, made our own tapas, picked some pinxos, drank txakoli wine, as well as a glass of vermut (vermouth) and tinto de Verano (a simplified version of sangria, which is considered old-fashioned by Spaniards, who have instead embraced tinto de Verano as their national drink), and explored the formerly no-go barrio of Raval, just behind Las Ramblas. The Raval neighbourhood had a pretty toxic reputation until the 1980s, since when it has transformed into a vibrant community, blending ambitious new architectural projects, colourful street art, with the traditional multi-ethnic life of the barrio. Between tapas bars, we paused to admire the oldest church in the city, the gigantic cat statue by the Columbian artist Fernando Botero, and Barcelona’s answer to the famous Moulin Rouge of Montmartre.
Alicia explained at the beginning that this was more informal, that tonight we were friends, and that she wouldn’t be walking in front of us, leading us on with an umbrella, but would be walking in amongst us, and she took the time to talk to each of us, both whilst we were eating and drinking (after explaining what each dish was, as we were trying one or two different dishes in the three or four tapas bars we visited, including the pintxos bar), and when we were walking between the bars. People soon loosened up, and were chatting amiably, despite the range of backgrounds and ages. Alicia herself was bubbly, ebullient, and passionate and informative about Barcelona, local customs, and local food and drink. Because of this tour, I tried – and enjoyed – a glass of vermouth as an aperitif (rather than in a gin martini), and discovered some fabulous little tapas bars that I simply wouldn’t have done without it. It was one of the highlights of Barcelona and our holiday overall.
One of my other favourite holiday highlights was our other Urban Adventure, this time in Rome. We met Alessio, a local archaeologist, by the Arch of Constantine outside the front of the Colosseum, and were able to skip the queues (as a tour group, no matter the small size), and gain incredible insight into the history of ancient Rome. The fact that it turned out to just be the two of us was a real added bonus, as it felt a real privilege to have a private tour; I almost felt like I had to pinch myself several times! Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to do the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Alessio was such a fountain of knowledge, but also very friendly too. He had a gift for bringing ancient Rome to life, and his enthusiasm and passion for the subject was infectious. Suddenly, the Colosseum wasn’t just stone; you could almost imagine the Gladiators walking through the Arch of Triumph before waiting nervously underneath, perhaps battling giraffes (apparently that was a thing in ancient Rome, who knew) amongst other beasts. Certainly, we learnt so much more than we would possibly have learnt going around on our own! We were also shown some of the highlights of the ancient Forum, including the Temple of Augustus, the site of Julius Caesar’s funeral, the Via Sacra (Holy Road), and the meeting place of the Roman Senate.
These tours really added to our holiday; they gave us an unique insight into the destinations we were visiting, whether it was taking us away from the tourist path and showcasing the authentic flavours of the local cuisine, or really delving into the history of the city with the specialist knowledge of a local expert, and the group sizes were small, meaning that it was intimate, informal, and you could ask the guide questions. I cannot recommend Urban Adventures highly enough; they’re certainly ideal if you’re on a city break, enjoying a pre- or post-cruise stay, or even – if time permits, perhaps with an overnight stay in port – would make a great alternative to a cruise ship excursion whilst in port. They offer up a different travel experience, and will create many wonderful memories, as well as give you the opportunity to learn something new.
If you would like to go on an Urban Adventure of your own, why not contact our travel specialists on:
01234 819 699
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