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When in Rome

September 15, 2009
by Martin Snapp
photograph of a cruise ship on a river

Cal Discoveries trips take you to places most tourists don’t see.

It’s amazing what people learn when they travel. For example: The best way to drink vodka.

“Take a scimitar, hold the blade flat between your hands, set a very large cup on the blade, fill it with vodka, slowly raise the scimitar, and bend at the waist until your mouth engages the cup,” explains Ron Guptill ’54, a retired construction equipment business owner. “I learned that last summer from some Cossacks in Kiev.”

Guptill was on a tour of the Crimea and Ukraine run by the California Alumni Association’s Cal Discoveries program. Along with about 200 other amateur history buffs, he visited many legendary sites. Such as Balaclava, where the charge of the Light Brigade took place. And Odessa, where Sergei Eisenstein filmed the famous Odessa steps sequence in his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin. They also went to the Livadia Palace at Yalta, where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt carved up Europe among them at the end of World War II.

“Yalta was amazing; you can still feel the ghosts in the room,” says Rev. Victoria Wells ’62, a Presbyterian minister. “Not only is all the original furniture still there, they have candid photos that you never see in the history books. You can see how terribly ill FDR was. It was almost magical standing on the spot where these events happened.”

The leaders of the trip were Donald Raleigh, distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina, and Goldman School of Public Policy visiting professor Harold Smith. A former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy during the Clinton administration, Smith was in charge of dismantling Soviet nukes in Ukraine. “They really made it come alive for us, especially Harold’s description of the sensitivity of the negotiations,” says Wells. “It was a look at the country you’d never get as a casual tourist.”

This was only one of the more than 75 trips Cal Discoveries arranged in 2008, and a similar number are scheduled for this year. The trips planned include a behind-the-scenes look at London’s theater district in July with playwright Lynne Kaufman, including a performance of Hamlet starring Jude Law—and the opportunity to schmooze with him afterward. Another trip in late July will follow in the footsteps of St. Paul with Cal Professor Emeritus Fritz Tubach to visit the amphitheater in Ephesus where Paul preached and the island of Rhodes where he was shipwrecked. In April you can eat your way through Tuscany, take a hands-on cooking class in Siena, go wine-tasting in the Chianti valley, and hear a performance of Gregorian chants by monks at the medieval Abby of Sant’Antimo. There’s also an unusual opportunity at the end of February to travel through the military history of the Holy Land, from Biblical times to the present day, with Col. John Chere ’82, Army attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.

“These are not shopping trips,” says Jackie Olson, director of Cal Discoveries. “This is affinity travel—trips for like-minded people who want to have an educational component.”

Cal Discoveries was founded as “Bear Treks” in 1974, but “we changed the name in 2006 because we wanted to reach out to younger alumni,” Olson says. “When we talked to people, they’d say, ‘Oh yes! My grandparents went on Bear Treks!'”

You don’t have to be a Cal grad to take these excursions, but there is a sizable Cal contingent in each group. Most trips cost under $5,000, but a few—such as a trip around the world on a private jet—run more than $50,000.

Some destinations are offbeat: Take the upcoming cruise to Antarctica led by former congressman Tom Campbell. “Not that he’s an expert on Antarctica; we’ll have other specialists on the trip for that,” says Olson. “But if our tour leaders have a broader range of knowledge, they can talk about anything. He has an insider’s view of the economy from a Congressman’s point of view, and he’ll share that with the other passengers.”

Cal Discoveries Associate Director Kris Jameyson says the key to the program’s success is its ability to offer opportunities to experience a place as the locals do.

“We call it ‘cultural immersion.’ For instance, our annual Yuletide trip to Salzburg and Vienna includes visiting the traditional holiday markets and drinking hot spiced wine, eating sausages, and shopping for hand-carved wooden ornaments. All the families hang out there. It’s their party, and you get to be a part of it.”

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