Think Tour Itineraries Are Too Rigid? Then Read This

By Fyllis Hockman
January 9, 2015

This was originally going to be a typical travel story about a "Crossroads of the Adriatic” tour sponsored by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), part of the Boston-based Grand Circle Corporation.

It was going to be all about several Balkan states that made up the former Yugoslavia -- an extensive itinerary that brought a new adventure to our group of 16 day after day. But that’s where the story part veered into new territory…

Learning and Discovery

I soon found myself being equally surprised and delighted by all the little extra things we were seeing and doing -- or eating -- that were NOT on the printed itinerary.

The general impression of tour companies is that they stick pretty close to their scheduled stops. But OAT’s philosophy of “Learning and Discovery,” which the company takes very seriously -- and our guide, Ivana, especially so -- elevated an already enticing itinerary into a far more expansive travel experience.

During our first day, we explored the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, still resembling its 15th-century heritage, scaling its huge fortress walls to enjoy exhilarating views of the Adriatic coast. At night, ostensibly nothing was planned -- until our ever-creative and ingenious guide, Ivana, noticed a small sign on an old church announcing a string quartet concert.

So, with mostly make-shift chairs set up in the tiny church whose history dates back to the 12th century, we joined the locals in a surprisingly professional performance.

The Art of Veering From the Itinerary

In Montenegro -- a small country boasting ancient villages, a bay designated by UNESCO as one of the world’s 25 most beautiful, and aristocratic mansions -- we veered from the planned itinerary to visit a local artisan in traditional dress who regaled us with the intricate process of embroidery, a regional specialty.

The talk included an extensive introduction to the silkworm, which makes it all possible -- literally. The worms were present in all their iterations -- from birth to thread. 

At a small farmhouse where we spent the night near Slavonia, Croatia’s breadbasket, several of the women in our group admired the pottery in the kitchen. The following day we made another unscheduled stop -- this time at a ceramics shop – to learn about the process of making the different cups and bowls.

Ivana just set the visit up on the spur of the moment -- she certainly didn’t have to. And she even convinced the potter to accommodate us, even though he had already closed for the season. 

And because this was a stop mainly for the women, Ivana promised to find something comparable for the men as well. As it happens, she didn’t have to look further than a local brew pub in the next town.

War and Burek

Next it was on to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  When the longtime generally benevolent Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito died in 1980, the economy crumbled, unemployment skyrocketed, and the unity and harmony among the many populations deteriorated into nationalistic jingoism and animosity. The devastating Bosnian War of 1991-1996 was the result.

Amid this gruesome history, though, Ivana found ways to comfort us with local foods.  First came an unscheduled stop at a roadside stand where she bought enough tangerines -- the agricultural specialty of a verdant river valley -- to last on the bus for the rest of the trip. 

Later, Ivana tried to soften the emotional blow of watching a video on the war by plying us with burek: sweet Bosnian pastries. They helped, at least a little.

Strudel and Truffles

Then there was the visit to a local mountain village priest -- Father Robbie, who just happened to be a personal friend of Ivana’s – who offered us blueberry strudel that he himself cooked, along with wine from nearby vineyards. His beautiful 18th century village church was just a bonus.

And while sampling truffles and brandy one morning in one of the Istrian hill towns outside of Lovran, Ivana was asked how truffles are found.

A quick phone call later and another detour of the bus (we had a very accommodating bus driver who sometimes seemed in cahoots with Ivana), brought us to a truffle hunter and his dog, Riki -- who demonstrated the well-preserved art, the hard-to-define pas-de-deux between man and dog, of tracking down the evasive gourmet white and black gold.

Local Must-Haves

In case our three squares a day weren’t sufficient, even the local guides and bus drivers got into the act by providing us with yet more to eat in the way of local snacks, citing the mantra: “You can’t possibly leave (fill in the town) without sampling (fill in the delicacy…)."

Among the many savory offerings we sampled were the best of regional chocolates, the yummiest roasted chestnuts, the finest Bosnian coffee, the sweetest rahat lokum (Turkish delight), the grandest Istrian truffles, the best of cream cakes, the most delicious Bosnian burek, the mouthwatering strudel from Father Robbie's oven, and my personal favorite, an almost endless amount of regional brandies at every stop. 

Blame the superlatives on Ivana.

Arts, History, Culture, Politics...

During our tour of Zagreb, the sprawling Croatian capital, the Learning and Discovery expanded into the arts.

Though ample free time is always factored into the tours -- what should be time off for Ivana -- she instead saw it as an opportunity to provide more options for her ever-greedy charges. In this case, tickets to either a jazz contest or the ballet simply because they were in town when we were.

And our Learning and Discovery adventures didn’t stop when we were on the bus riding from place to place. As impressive as all our unscheduled stops were, even more so were Ivana’s constant tales of history, culture, Tito, political controversies, architecture, Tito, education, economics, Tito (yes, they want him back), plus personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits day after day.

The fact that her dialogues remained as fascinating after two weeks on the road makes it even more remarkable – and reason enough to take the kind of guided tours that Overseas Adventure Tours offers.

But you won’t find all those extras in the printed itineraries. You have to experience them for yourself.

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