Lord Charles FitzRoy, founding director of Fine Art Travel, has been a friend since university, but I am ashamed to say that I had never sampled one of his tours until I finally flew to Madrid in November. The trip was a revelation, not just because of what I saw of Madrid but also because I discovered that Charles, whom I had always perceived as charmingly vague, is in fact a stickler for detail and a born organiser, a fact that is obvious as soon as I meet the other 23 people in our group. For a start, we are all thrilled that, as part of the package, we are wallowing in graceful luxury at the beautiful Ritz Hotel.
Later, as we sip wine in the Ritz’s elegant lobby, I ask Charles how he pulled off such a deal. He grins boyishly, ‘I sort of bullied them. I’m quite good at persuading people to help me.’ It’s as close as he comes to boasting.
I realise later what an understatement this is as we begin exploring the city. Fine Art Travel claims in its brochure to ‘open doors’ and, with Charles at the helm, it does exactly what it says on the packet. Exclusive, private visits are the cornerstone of the company’s appeal and success. Almost unheard of, we visit Spain’s most celebrated museum, the Prado, privately and with Carmen Ruiloba, an eminent lecturer, as our guide. ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m doing here at 8 o’clock on a Saturday,’ she laughs, standing in front of an exquisite painting by Velázquez, ‘but the way Charles asked me, I couldn’t refuse.’
We also have a private tour of the Thyssen Museum, this time guided by Charles. We manage to see the vast, eclectic collection in under two hours and not feel cheated. ‘Oh, it’s just like editing,’ says Charles when I commend his knowledge of what to leave in and, more important, what to leave out. Charles has an instinctive grasp of what the group wants to see as he steers us deftly from one room to another. ‘I think we’re a bit Goya-ed out, aren’t we?’ he laughs, breezing through one gallery to land us in front of the perfect Duccio that has us all cooing appreciatively.
He also arranges for an extraordinary visit to the Palacio de Liria, one of the homes of the ageing Duchess of Alba, now sadly better known for her dalliances with men under half her age than for her magnificent heritage. The palace contains a renowned art collection, including Titian’s portrait of the Duke of Alba and Goya’s portrait of his close friend the Duchess, rumoured to be his lover. Just down the street, we visit the more discreet but also impressive mansion of the eminent Santa Cruz family, where we are received for preprandial drinks and canapés by the daughter of the Marques de Santa Cruz, Casilda Fernández-Villaverde, la Condesa de Carvajal. We sweep up the stairs, past the vast lanterns that her ancestor captured from the Turkish galleons at the Battle of Lepanto and into the first of her many drawing rooms. The glamorous Condesa is clearly delighted to see Charles, warmly welcomes us and takes us to her private chapel to see the bullet holes in the altar, a grim souvenir from the Spanish Civil War.
I ask Charles how he manages to ensure such a charming reception for such a large and mixed group. He gives me an elusive answer, ‘There’s an unsaid thing about private houses. An Englishman is an Englishman.’ When I press him, he implies that people trust him not to take people into their houses if they might behave in an unappreciative or uncivilised manner. This is surely a tall order for a travel company, by no means at the cheap end of the market, fighting over a diminishing pool of clients as the recession bites. Surely he would welcome any clients at all, however barbaric? ‘Actually, most of our clients have been coming for years and some of our 2009 tours are already full,’ he says, almost apologetically.
I talk to the group over many delicious lunches and dinners. ‘This is probably our 11th trip,’ says Don Wakefield. His partner, Sara, is equally enthusiastic: ‘We always see and learn so much and we’re so beautifully looked after.’ To ensure this, Charles always travels with a ‘tour leader’, usually Jane Rae, who was integral to the company from its beginning in 1984. Bilingual in Italian and extremely efficient, she is indispensable to the smooth running of the tours. ‘Did you know Jane’s a wonderful nanny?’ one woman in the group asks me. When I look taken aback, she laughs, ‘to us!’
On offer for 2009 are trips to Naples, Rome, Palladian Veneto, Istanbul, Munich and Salzburg. Lecturers include Robin Lane Fox and Alexander Waugh. In Istanbul, Charles has secured some especially glamorous private visits, one aboard a yacht. ‘It should be fun,’ he says. By now, I have realised that this apparently vague and understated remark really means that the trip will be exquisitely organised and superb. Fine Art Travel seems to have hit on a recession-proof formula of artistic explorations of the world’s most beautiful cities in great comfort, style and, above all, privacy. Like so many other people, Charles has identified people’s longing to get behind closed doors. What puts Charles that step ahead is that he is one of the rare few able to open them.
Fine Art Travel
Tel: 020 7437 8553