Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Tim Blanning

Q. What kinds of insights do you hope to convey to our travelers?

A. In both my lectures and informal discussions, I seek to promote an understanding of the historical context of the destinations we are visiting and the sites we are seeing. However beautiful its appearance, a building, for example, is always more than just a building. It is also a dwelling for memories, achievements, atrocities, excitements, and disappointments. If its past can be recreated and understood, it takes on an extra dimension of understanding and therefore enjoyment. The same applies to the other sites and locations we see, from paintings to landscapes, from battlefields to more mundane places such as railway stations. Always kept in mind is the current political situation in whichever country we find ourselves.

Q. How do you infuse your Smithsonian Journeys cruises with your expertise?

A. I do this in three ways. First, through my lectures. Talking informally, without text or notes, and making liberal use of visual illustrations, video clips, and music, I aim to make my lectures entertaining and interactive. Second, I use the ‘Smithsonian Journeys Travelers’ Corners’ to lead and encourage discussion of the destinations we have seen or are about to see. A sharing of ideas, insights, and information in a common pursuit of understanding is immensely fruitful. Finally, I make myself available at lunch or dinner, on our coach journeys, or whenever there is a free moment to answer questions and engage in discussion.

Q. What sort of topics do you like to include in your presentations?

A. My general approach is to combine the historical with the topical, the past with the present. When travelling along the Danube, for example, I explain how this region came to be so contested, why divisions between the various ethnic/religious groups have been so explosive and where the current conflicts might be headed. This will involve – among many other things – talking about the struggle between Christians and Muslims for domination of the Balkans, the rise and fall of the Habsburg Monarchy, the impact of the two World Wars of the 20th century and the current intrusion of Russian and Turkish interests.

Q. What do you enjoy most about accompanying Smithsonian Journeys travelers?

A. I have always enjoyed talking, discussing, and debating about European history. To do so with Smithsonian Journeys travelers, who are invariably intelligent, interested, and appreciative, is a particularly rewarding experience. Furthermore, having these discussions in a comfortable – even luxurious – environment, in one of the five-star hotels or on one of the five-star river boats used by Smithsonian Journeys, is uniquely enjoyable. As we travel through such a rich variety of locations, all with historical associations, the past can be made to come alive and the present given an extra dimension of meaning.