Culture

At its most striking, cultural travel means coming face-to-face with something – a ritual or belief, a practice or monument – that you simply would not encounter back home. I love that aspect of travel – it’s the essence of culture shock, and I find it is at its most profound when I encounter the man-made: the neon-vertical vertigo of Tokyo; the barter-for-everything culture of Istanbul; Havana’s atmospheric streets of vintage cars, wizened cigar-smoking old-timers and elegant, crumbling mansions. Religion is endlessly fascinating. To peek inside another people’s belief system is an enormous privilege and to see how those beliefs affect day-to-day life is another reason for travelling. Back to Istanbul: I’ll never forget the whirling dervishes we were fortunate enough to see while we were there. It was truly captivating, a ceremony of hypnotic movement and sound, just incredibly powerful to watch as others in front of us attain a point of devotional ecstasy. In a country stacked with extraordinary natural sights, this human practice may be the most thrilling of all. For me, West Africa has the most interesting and thought-provoking cultural traditions and beliefs in the continent. It’s a complex web of nomadic cultures, Islam, ancient tribal beliefs, and the remnants of French colonialism, among other things! It’s wonderful how this mosaic is celebrated – go to one of Mali’s mesmerising festivals and see how these cultures don’t clash, but come together to create something utterly unique. Or seek out uniquely West African moments – the dancers of the Pays Dogon spring to mind, incredible to behold, or watching a voodoo ritual in Benin. It’s a deeply moving region to visit in – the people of these countries lack many things we think of as everyday essentials, but they boast a heritage and culture that is so rich, always compelling and often downright joyful. Of course, ‘culture’ often means visiting the grand sights: whether it’s Florence’s Uffizi Gallery or Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Pyramids or Petra. They’re undoubtedly great, but what I really like is doing as the locals do. It’s great to have a local guide wherever you go, to help you get under the skin of the place you’re in – and it’s a real help in making sure you’re eating and drinking with the locals, rather than just in boiler-plate tourist traps. There are so many places I want to visit to soak up the culture – Burma is top of the list. It sounds like a unique blend of cultures and a fascinatingly preserved lifestyle. But wherever I go, I always find that one of travelling’s real pleasures is when encountering the shock of alien cultural traditions changes into the more profound recognition of the similarities of people across diverse cultures – that despite seeming like we’re worlds away from each other, actually everyone is part of the same whole.

Our Favourite Trips