The pilgrimage trail of Via Matilda covers three regions of Italy and nearly 200 miles. I traversed it in a mere hour and a half.
I had signed up for the excursion — albeit one taken via computer while sitting at a table — with Context Travel, a company that in a pre-pandemic world offered private and small-group tours guided by scholars for “travelers who love to learn.”
The company was one of the first tour operators to adapt after the coronavirus all but shut down global tourism. It now carries on its mission by presenting web-based opportunities, from a 90-minute survey of Japanese gardens in Kyoto to a six-part course on the history of Venice. Increasing numbers of tour companies are offering online experiences to would-be travelers as a way to earn some cash during the downtime, but also to plant seeds for those who might sign up for an in-person experience when worldwide travel is once again open and safe.
Context Conversations, as they are called, cost $36.50. The first one in early April — “Istanbul Through the Ages” with author Thomas Madden — sold out in six hours. Context recently expanded its options to include multipart courses.
The members-only travel company Indagare calls its offerings Global Classroom. The experiences are open to members and friends (basically, anyone who logs onto their site) and include a lecture about the Jewish revival in Poland and a cooking class on Vietnamese street food ($15). Indagare also has a podcast, Indagare Global Conversations, and Camp Indagare, a weeklong kids’ camp with virtual stops in Ancient Egypt and the Tower of London.
Online-only experiences with G Adventures, a small-group tour operator, include “Explore Peru’s Inca Trail, in your slippers,” and “Antarctica: warm and cozy edition.” Airbnb Experiences also shifted to online in April, when its meditation with a Buddhist monk may have appealed to people newly stressed out by COVID-19.
For my part, I was happy to mentally escape to Italy for 90 minutes, roaming from Mantua, in the Lombardy region, through Emilia-Romagna and on to Lucca, in Tuscany, following the Via Matilda. The path, named after the 11th-century countess Matilda of Canossa, passes crumbling hillside castles and old villages. Guide Kate Bolton-Porciatti, a professor at Instituto Lorenzo de Medici in Florence, shared her enthusiasm, knowledge and photos with me and about 20 other would-be hikers during a Zoom call.
When it ended, I felt I had visited a new place — and I started scheming for the day I would actually go.