Interview with Martin de Lewandowicz

Martin de Lewandowicz is a rugged Welsh individualist and historian. He is also among our most versatile guides, leading tours in Italy, Britain, and across Europe. Whew! When not guiding tours for Rick Steves, he leads "mindbending tours" (as Rick describes them in his guidebooks) of his hometown castle in Caernarfon, Wales.

Martin, it seems you've been leading tours for Rick Steves forever. What were you doing before that?

It all started when I broke my collarbone playing rugby when I was at college. During vacations everybody used to get a summer job and earn lots of money, but I couldn't with a broken collarbone, and so I went on an archaeological dig. This sparked my love affair with archaeology, which lasted many years. I went back to college and was doing research into medieval Welsh settlement when something called Margaret Thatcher happened. All the money was cut from research, and I found myself with nothing to do. Somebody suggested that I take up guiding, so I established a guided-tour service in Caernarfon Castle. People liked what I did, and invited me to guide for them elsewhere. While this was going on, I bought a restaurant and, not long after, began working part-time with a TV company on a football show (that's real football — where people strike the ball with their feet). One day, Rick saw me working in Caernarfon Castle, and asked if I'd like to try working with his tour groups. Here I am, 14 years later, still trying! So, the short answer to the question is, "I broke my collarbone."

So, now that your collarbone has mended, what keeps you interested in guiding?

It may sound corny, but every time I see anything — painting, building, or mountain pass — I get excited. I can't get bored with things. Across Europe I see differences in the streets, variety in the food, and am always surprised by how people dress, walk, and behave. Every time I see, say, a church, I react to it in a different way to the time before. Beauty still humbles me. How could I lose interest in what I do? I've got the best story to tell and new people to tell it to every tour.

I expected to get a longer answer from you.

Well, since you asked… Our perception of time — the reality of time for each of us — is like one of those big spools of tape you see on computers in films in the '80s. On our time tape, we record events as dots, but we can stretch the tape or let it go slack at will, like an elastic band. When we're excited by what's going on, we stretch the tape so that we can fit more dots on it and time, for us, slows down. Think of a car accident or falling in love.

When we were young, everything was new and we had so much to record that a summer's day could last forever as we stretched that tape as far as we could. As people get older, little is new and events are more repetitive and time passes faster and faster as the years fly by.

So, the best way to slow down time is to constantly do/see/learn new things, and the best way to achieve this is to travel. Leave your comfort zone and preconceptions at home, and become excited again. Since I'm always learning, always excited by what I see, never say or do the same things, and all tour groups are different, I can't get bored. The other thing is that, by stretching the time, you age slower. At least I do. Can you tell?

Yes. And speaking of variety, you have evolved from a Britain-only guide to one who now leads many tours on the Continent as well: Best of Europe, Family Europe, Venice-Florence-Rome, Heart of Italy…and the list goes on. How do you manage different itineraries so well?

I love a good story, and there's no better story than life. I'm very lucky. I get to stand in front of Notre-Dame in Paris and see a statue of Charlemagne, and then I go to Rome and see where Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans. I can go to Palazzo Muti in Rome, where Bonnie Prince Charlie was born and died, and then to Culloden in Scotland, where his army was defeated in the last battle fought on British soil.

There is only one "past," and all the wonderful detail of that past, stretched out in time and space, is interlinked. The more I learn and see, the more I begin to understand this. So, I don't see myself as managing different itineraries, I rather think of it as one big itinerary.

Besides — we could choose to do the same thing all the time, or we could choose to do different things all the time. Which would you rather do?

What's the next country you plan to conquer?

All travel and all countries are good. At the moment, I'd like to get deeper into Italy and France. They are both so varied, so complex, and, of course, they do have quite good food and wine.

I know that you genuinely enjoy guiding our Family Europe tour — yet you are acknowledged in the field as a true history scholar. Isn't it frustrating trying to connect with a group of 8- to 17-year-olds?

The best travelers are those who come with no preconceptions, no thick skin on their comfort zone, and who are prepared to accept others. They're like an open book with blank pages — willing to learn. The best travelers accept "difference" for what it is and not something that has to be judged as being "better" or "worse." They're honest and quickly see the good in other people and places and they're flexible in all situations. Hey! That's young people, isn't it?

Which destination on our Best of Europe tour surprises your tour members the most?

They fall into two groups: (1) The things you knew you should be impressed by before you came and yet they still surprise and impress, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and Venice. (2) The things you hadn't expected would excite you but did: the kindness of the French people, Italian food that isn't like Italian food in the US, the beauty of the Swiss Alps, and the fun of riding a summer luge.

What seems most popular with the kids on your family tours?

First and foremost it's the other kids on the tour. Apart from that, I'd say they really like all of the tour (except for too much art), the food, the castle project at Guédelon, the summer luge, the Eiffel Tower, and Venice. But, above all, I've seen more teenagers struck dumb by the beauty of the Swiss Alps than anything else.

I understand that you've actually met Queen Elizabeth?

Let's say that I've been in the presence of Her Majesty. By that I mean that I was there and she was there, but there were always a few hundred other people there. It's not quite as one-on-one as you might think. She's very small, and has the most surprisingly blue eyes. Ooh, and she lives in a very nice house.

What is your favorite thing to do when you visit the US?

I've loved everything I've seen in the US and have never seen anything I didn't love. The Seattle area (the Olympic Peninsula, the islands, the city, the Cascades) is all gorgeous. The Grand Canyon — what a place! New England is truly beautiful. Las Vegas is a slice of pure American culture, and what a slice. I can't wait to go back.

Do you really collect bits of cockney slang that rhyme?

What I like about rhyming slang is that, like any language, it evolves. To refer to someone as a "third" meant he was a "Richard" (because of Richard III), but then it changed to mean a "Douglas" (after Douglas Hurd, a conservative politician of the '80s). A personal favorite is the modern slang for a British university's lower-second-class degree (2:2), which is called a "Desmond" (Tutu).

Barking, a town just outside London, gives an example of commonly used slang that doesn't rhyme. "Barking mad" is a phrase used in English for someone so crazy that they bark at the moon. Nowadays, you hear "He's three stops down from Plaistow," which comes from the fact that, on the District Line of the London Underground, Barking is three stops past Plaistow. Towards the end of her period in office, a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet referred to her by her cabinet nickname, "Daggers." The interviewer asked him if this nickname came from the steely looks she gave people. "No," he replied, "it's from 'Dagenham.' Three stops beyond Barking."