In the Footsteps of History…

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Ross Castle in Killarney, Ireland.
Ross Castle in Killarney, Ireland.

To be able to see the church in Madrid where my 101-year-old grandmother—who now lives in Miami—got married or see the stately apartment building where she spent her childhood, so close to the city’s famed Retiro Park, is one of those “cue the grand orchestra” moments that doesn’t come along every day. Here, in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, just a few steps from the Prado Museum, I was practically, almost literally, walking in the footsteps of my family’s history.

This fascination to come face-to-face with our ancestral past is what drives many Americans to travel to Europe, and although we can access most any information online to uncover our past, there’s nothing quite like breathing the same air your ancestors once did. According to Avanti Destinations’ president Harry Dalgaard, that access to more information, in fact, is actually driving heritage (or ancestry) travel. “Interest in family history has been around ever since people started making family trees, and since grandchildren have been asking questions. What is different now is that travelers are more sophisticated, more comfortable with traveling on their own, and the Internet has given us access to genealogical research that we never had before. When we find out where great-grandmother came from, many are interested in going to see that place. In some cases (the beaches of Normandy, for example), the motivation is to see where their grandfather or great-uncle fought in WWII.”

Heritage travel isn’t anything new, of course, and tour operators have for years been putting together itineraries that fit these demands, but I wondered, couldn’t your clients take a traditional tour to visit their ancestor’s homeland? Well, of course, but what sets heritage tours apart, says Dalgaard, is that it’s “personal—it’s about the history of a family—not a nation or a region. So by definition, it is an independent, unique kind of trip. A couple, for example, might be trying to trace family roots of both sides of their marriage—it could combine Germany with Poland, or France with Italy. Depending on the client’s comfort level with independent travel, a more seasoned traveler might be comfortable with renting a car to visit some remote village or site. Less-experienced travelers might prefer to hire a private driver guide for an extended period of time to guide—this is the service for which we have seen an increase in bookings.” In fact, he adds, a heritage tour “gives travelers yet one more reason to go off the beaten path, and explore areas which usually offer more authentic experiences, while fulfilling a lifelong desire to retrace the family roots.”

One of Avanti’s newest customizable heritage itineraries is in northern Germany, the 3-day Bremen Heritage (prices start at $815), which visits the new German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, the departure point for more than one million emigrants who left Germany for the U.S. and Canada in the late 19th century. “Sort of an Ellis Island in reverse,” notes Dalgaard. In fact, adds Ricarda Lindner, regional manager, Americas, German National Tourist Office in New York, “More than 50 million people with German roots live in the U.S., making it the largest group of former immigrants to the country (16 percent of the population).” She adds that “many of them are now looking to trace their roots back to their ancestor’s homeland to find out where they came from, and to discover the country’s cultural highlights, traditions and customs, as well as the modern Germany—a highly emotional journey!”

Beyond the aforementioned German Emigration Center as one of Germany’s top heritage travel sites, the German National Tourist Office also points to Hapag Halls in Cuxhaven; the BallinStadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg; the Emerenz Meier House in Schiefweg; the Museum of Emigration in Oberalben; and Kissinger’s birthplace and The Jewish Museum of Franconia in Furth. Take note of these heritage sites, because according to research provided by the German National Tourist Office, “Americans see ‘Destination Germany’ as over proportionally strong in rich cultural heritage and in historic buildings and monuments.” And according to the tourist office’s internal quality monitor, “30 percent of Americans list tradition/history as their main reason for visiting Germany.” This is probably due, points out the tourist office, to the high number of Americans with German ancestry.

Irish-Americans, which also make up one of the largest European ancestry groups in the U.S., can explore their family roots with CIE Tours International, which offers both Escorted Tours to Ireland and Ireland Self-Drive Vacations. In fact, its Go-As-You-Please With B&Bs travel option has travelers staying in a “real Irish family home to experience a friendly welcome from homeowners,” and your clients can choose from a variety of different towns, country and farm locations, providing numerous options to visit their ancestor’s hometown. Or, clients can choose an Independent Self-Drive Tour such as the 12-day Independent Irish Odyssey (through October, prices start at $1,405), in which they will have the flexibility to create their own daily itinerary as they hopscotch across the country from Dublin to Cork, Killarney, Galway, and Derry.

According to Sophia Kulich, CTC, founder and president, Jewish Travel Agency, Spain is also ideal for heritage travel because it
“is a familiar Western European country and besides Jewish heritage can be combined with general interest such as architecture, art, Moorish in Andalusia, great food and wine; it’s also easy to get around.”

The Jewish Travel Agency’s 9-day Sepharad Jewish Heritage Tour mingles Jewish heritage with general interest elements while visiting many of Spain’s top destinations, including Madrid, Toledo, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Barcelona and Girona. While visiting Spain, which is steeped in Jewish history—the first Jews are believed to have arrived in Spain at the same time as the Romans between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D.—visitors will feel as if they’re making their way through the pages of a history book. Kulich says that “Jewish clients with interest of Jewish heritage” are taking these Jewish heritage tours to Spain.

Tour highlights include a tour of Jewish Barcelona; a stroll through some of the many Jewish Quarters dotting Spain; a visit to the Sephardic Museum in Toledo; a visit to the Alhambra; visits to synagogues in Cordoba and Toledo; and the famed Mile of Art in Madrid. This private tour for two people staying in four-star hotels costs $17,200 and includes accommodations, all transfers with a private car and driver, local guides in all cities for half-day private tours, Sepharad specialists, first-class tickets from Barcelona to Madrid, entrance fee to the Alhambra Palace and 24-hour assistance in Spain; airfare is extra. The tour is customizable and can accommodate four people at a higher rate.

active in croatia with thomson family adventures
Thomson Family Adventures’ new 9-day Croatia: Mediterranean Multi-Sport Adventure, recommended for kids 8 and up, includes visits to Dubrovnik and Split, where families can go ziplining, cruise the Adriatic by speedboat, go for a drive in go-carts, snorkel, kayak, and stroll through historic towns. Summer 2016 dates start at $4,990 for 10 or more travelers; $5,490 for six to nine travelers; and $5,990 for two to five travelers.

contact information
Avanti Destinations:

CIE Tours International: or

German National Tourist Office:

Jewish Travel Agency: or

Thomson Family Adventures: