When I was a student, and in the first flush of a love affair with European art, every holiday became an opportunity for an art tour. At the end of term, I would set off with impossible numbers of books and a minimal wardrobe to cover as many of the great museums, galleries, churches and other sites of culture as I could, wherever it was in Europe. I sought out basic accommodation, contended with complicated train timetables and erratic buses, and often travelled miles only to find institutions closed or the custodian missing. Lunch was regularly cancelled in order to squeeze in one more cultural high before dinner. My long-suffering boyfriend, also an art lover but with a broader sympathy for the pleasures of wine, local food and long siestas, named these expeditions “Pozzo Tours”, after the character in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, who keeps his slave, Lucky, tied to him with a piece of rope. It was, as he viewed it, a kind of martyrdom.
Today, art tours are a much more indulgent business. Such are the numbers of people eager to season first-class tourism with enlightenment – comfort with bildung, perhaps, in a modern-day version of the Grand Tour – that the expert-led cultural tour is a burgeoning sector of the travel market. These journeys offer privileged access to sites or private collections not generally open to the public, together with the genial companionship of a specialist in the region. The intellectual enhancements are then matched by hotels and restaurants that, while cosseting the weary traveller, provide a different entry into the local culture. Cazenove + Loyd’s Inspired Journeys, for example, feature a contemporary art tour of Cuba, with access to private collections and bespoke performances, and one of Amsterdam accompanied by a preeminent Dutch portrait painter, taking in private views of the recently reopened Rijksmuseum and the Six Collection. And the Ultimate Travel Company has long partnered with the Art Fund to offer European cultural tours led by local curators and experts. Some leading museums also offer curator-led art trips to specific regions, cities or art fairs for their patrons.
In September last year, however, a new provider entered the fray. Christie’s auction house and luxury-travel specialist Abercrombie & Kent launched a partnership, Christie’s Travel in association with Abercrombie & Kent, to offer a “collection of cultural journeys”. What makes the marriage is clear: Christie’s, eager to find new clients and nurture old ones, brings a global network of art experts, together with strong relationships with leading private collectors in every region, while Abercrombie & Kent has the know-how to deliver luxurious expeditions to even the most far-flung parts of the world. What differentiates the Christie’s tours from those offered by other operators is the breadth and depth of expertise; each trip is designed from first experience to last by one of the auction house’s specialists, leveraging his or her long-cultivated relationships with collectors, sellers, artists and institutions in each market. So while the concept – of a place seen through the art insider’s lens – may not be groundbreaking, the calibre of expertise is promised to be.
Christie’s first expedition was to New York, focused around the Jewels by JAR exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, led by Christie’s jewellery expert Raymond Sancroft-Baker. A second trip to India recently took place under the guidance of Dr Hugo K Weihe of Christie’s New York, and later this year a further voyage will be undertaken to southeast Asia.
But while introductions to the exotic offer one kind of excitement, I was after another – the particular pleasure of diving deeply into a slice almost of home turf. It was thus that I set off in December on a trial foray into Europe’s medieval hub – the cities of Maastricht, Aachen and Brussels – accompanied by Christie’s charming and erudite managing director of continental Europe, Professor Dr Dirk Boll. This was a foretaste of its trip to the Maastricht art fair, which will take place next month, from March 11 to 16.
Maastricht – a small and picturesque Dutch city on the southernmost finger of Holland, wedged between Belgium and Germany – is most famous for the Maastricht Treaty, the founding document of the European Union, which was signed here in 1992. However, for the past 26 years Maastricht has also hosted The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF, first picture), the world’s leading fair for art, antiques and design. Unlike Art Basel, Frieze or the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, TEFAF encompasses almost every art form, from Sumerian antiquities to contemporary art, from Dutch Delftware to Japanese lacquer, from Venetian glass to German silver, and from fine Georgian furniture to 20th-century prints. At its heart, in the unlovely but functional purpose-built Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre (the MECC), are the luxuriously appointed stands of Old Master, impressionist and modern painting galleries from all over Europe and America. Here, available to buy, are key works from a shared European history of culture that reaches back over centuries. Entering the fair on VIP day, as you would on the tour in March, you will become aware, amid the throngs of visitors from all over the globe, of concentrations of loden-clad collectors from the immediate region, where patronage and connoisseurship have been embedded for centuries. These are people whose ancestors may well have collected the early Flemish landscapes, the Dutch flower paintings, the German silver beakers, the Limoges enamels and the French illuminated manuscripts that are still available at the fair. Today, these visitors will be on the lookout for the 16th-century Augsburg silver cup, the rare photograph by Charles Nègre, the unique Tibetan màndala or the Max Ernst monochromatic painting (all available this year) to complement their collections. Among them, too, will be some of the most adventurous buyers of 20th-century and contemporary art. It is this quintessentially northern European world of collecting to which Professor Dr Boll – or Dirk, as he soon becomes – is going to introduce me.
Brought up in the central German city of Kassel, 300km to the east of Maastricht, Boll possesses the perspective of a native. He qualified first as a lawyer before taking further studies in art management, and has worked in Brussels, Hamburg, Zurich and London. We are just an hour into our journey when he tells me a story that links the art-loving Protestant Wilhelm VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1682-1760) not only with Maastricht, but also with Napoleon and the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where half of Wilhelm VIII’s pictures still reside. This is just one of Boll’s many anecdotes illuminating the political and personal dramas that underlie the formation of many of Europe’s great art collections. Our hotel for the night will be Schloss Bensberg (third and fourth picture) – of which more later – formerly the home of another German princely collector, the Catholic Prince-Elector Palatine Johann-Wilhelm II of Düsseldorf (1658-1716), whose vast Rubens collection now hangs in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
Already my head is swirling with religious wars and dynastic marriages but, thankfully, Christie’s has organised lunch at the Tout à Fait restaurant in the heart of historic Maastricht, where the travails of the art market, past and present, can momentarily be forgotten. Tucked down a pretty cobbled street, just round the corner from the astonishing, castle-like Basilica of Our Lady, it has a rather bland modern interior, but this is offset by some delicious French food, including beignets of rucola and a sorbet of nettle with my brook trout. Had I an extra day, I would also have been able to enjoy dinner at the 17th-century Château Neercanne, apparently the only terraced castle in the Benelux, blessed with a fabulous view and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Our first stop in the afternoon is Aachen, scene of a central moment in European history. Just 30 minutes from Maastricht, at what is now the meeting point of Holland, Belgium and Germany, Aachen was chosen in the 790s by Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, to be the centre of his growing empire, even before he was crowned Emperor in Rome in 800AD. This was, in many respects, the first capital of western Europe.
On a cold, clear winter afternoon, the famous Dom or Cathedral (second picture), with its distinctive contorted cupola and spire silhouetted against a deep blue sky, offers a forceful image of temporal interwoven with spiritual power. Here we enter first the famous 8th-century Octagon, the only part of the church whose structure dates from the time of Charlemagne, and which was modelled by its architect Odo of Metz on the 6th-century Byzantine church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Although the interior was almost entirely refaced with green and white marble and glittering mosaics in the 19th century, Charlemagne’s original political message is still clear in the choice of rounded Roman arches and ancient pillars, transported from Italy. Up a circling flight of stone steps, we are confronted directly with the brutal yet beautiful simplicity of the throne he had constructed, allegedly using marble slabs taken from the floor of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Although it is thought that he never sat on this throne, it was created as a symbol of his authority, and between 936 and 1531, 31 German kings ascended to the throne to mark their imperial status. The later Gothic “glass chapel”, the two extraordinary gold shrines said to contain holy relics, the gold pulpit studded with jewels, and the many dazzling treasures in the renowned Cathedral treasury demonstrate forcefully how the cult of Charlemagne ensured Aachen remained a hub of power and wealth for centuries. They underline, too, how intertwined fine craftsmanship has always been with politics and religion, the paymasters.
After a tour of the pretty streets around the Cathedral, Boll whisks me away to the baroque splendour of the Prince-Elector Palatine’s early-18th-century Schloss Bensberg, now part of the luxurious Althoff Grandhotel Collection. It was inspired by Versailles, although with its own wonderful pepper-pot domes and symmetrical wings. You can imagine the wide corridors humming with the elector’s household going about their business. I sleep on luxurious feather pillows in a suite in a castle tower, as if I were a Medici princess. My double bed is raised on a plinth, in an airy alcove with a view across the courtyard and with curtains that can be drawn to screen the space. The hotel has responded sensitively to the grand proportions of the castle, hanging sumptuous curtains that draw attention to the large windows and high ceilings, and providing a big sitting area with elegant pale-gold furnishings. Far from being crammed into a commercial conversion, you feel you are a family guest. Down long corridors we repair to the hotel’s Trattoria Enoteca for a delicious meal of pungent casseroled meat. The three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Vendôme is presided over by one of Germany’s finest chefs, Joachim Wissler, but, alas, on the Tuesday night we visited the restaurant was closed (this will not be the case in March).
In the morning, I enjoy a startling view of Cologne Cathedral from my window, before stretching out in the hotel’s gorgeous 12m swimming pool. Today we leave the distant past for the 20th century and a magical corner of this flat, watery territory: the Museum Island Hombroich, a park and museum established by collector Karl-Heinrich Müller in 1987. Here, in more than 62 acres of meadowland, Müller invited three artists – landscape gardener Bernhard Korte, sculptor Erwin Heerich and painter Gotthard Graubner – to create a total environment to house his important collections. In the morning mist, ducks fly from the ponds as our private guide leads us along paths linking the various austere geometric buildings, created by Heerich from reclaimed Dutch brick, that dot the landscape. Inside each building, the guide explains, is housed part of Müller’s marvellous collections of east Asian art and antiquities, alongside works by Jean Fautrier, Lovis Corinth, Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Calder and Yves Klein. The impression of a single distinctive sensibility is overwhelming, despite the deliberate eschewal of labels, and it is delightful to rest momentarily in the simple café overlooking the gardens. We progress to the Langen Foundation (fifth picture), which is just across the road on a former Nato rocket base, housed in an exquisite glass and concrete building designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. This is home to Viktor and Marianne Langen’s extraordinary collection of European 20th-century painting – especially abstract art – and their extensive collections of non-European art, brought back from intrepid journeys in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Peru, Mexico and China (sixth picture, from one of the foundation’s 2014 exhibitions The Image of God in East Asia). The couple also created one of the most comprehensive collections of Japanese art in all of Europe.
The next stage of my journey is to Brussels, founded in the 10th century by a descendant of Charlemagne, which is where the March group will begin their vfoyage. Ensconced in the heart of the city, just behind the picturesque Grand Place, and in the extreme comfort of the Hotel Amigo, once a 16th-century prison, I regather my forces. The room’s decor is blandly indifferent to context, but dinner has been arranged in the legendary Comme Chez Soi, with its charming art-nouveau building and elegant interior, where the sole with Riesling mousseline and shrimps restores my energy. Here, Christie’s local director, the delightful Roland de Lathuy, reminds me of how the tension between cultures in this part of the world has given rise both to the exemplary French food we are eating and to the idiosyncratic art-nouveau and art-deco architecture to be found in Brussels.
The following day, I am escorted further into the distinctive local culture when I visit the Magritte Museum. This is just one of various specially arranged treats – including a visit to a private collection – that Christie’s will make available to the tour group in March, depending upon the particular interests of the travellers. Thinking about Belgium’s struggle to define a national identity, I begin to understand Magritte’s determinedly original approach to surrealism. His images resonate with the art, of a similar period, that I have seen at Hombroich. Magritte’s wit, however, is entirely his own. The visit is thus a cheerful end to my journey – and will make an inimitable launchpad for Boll’s party in March.