European History and Culture: Learn the Classics from The Owl

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

"If you seek far more knowledge, background, and content than the travel guides in your local bookstores can ever provide, or if you have ever come away from a tour feeling frustrated by yet another dry recitation of facts and figures--The Owl is for you!"

One of my very favorite things to get in the mail is a weekly newsletter from the Owl. Always informative, the Owl teaches me about European culture and history in a very readable, interesting format. The last few weeks have focused on the statue of Julius Caesar found in the Rhone (was it Caesar, or someone else?)...Every week, I delve in and explore, feeling very lucky.  The editor of the Owl, Catherine Lapp, agreed to be interviewed for our site - AND, she has come on board as our Classics Editor! Look for her first column here in September.  I asked Catherine to share the Owl with our Wandering Educators, so that you, too, can be enriched by this extraordinary writing. Here's what she had to say...

WE: Tell us a little bit about The Owl...

CL:  The Owl is a travel e-letter that every week takes its readers to beautiful places of history and culture mostly throughout Europe.

The idea of creating The Owl originated in my passion for travel and the ancient world. I am a classicist, have loved ancient Greece and Rome since childhood, and have spent years traveling the Mediterranean. I have a passion for discovering countries, people, art, and stories behind the scene. I wanted to share that passion.  It is so exciting to travel to historic sites and progressively understand the people and their culture. 

I chose the owl as our symbol because in ancient Greece, it was the sacred bird of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and resourcefulness. The owl has a superior night vision that makes it the perfect travel companion. The owl guides you through the obscurities of travel, history, foreign countries, languages, and cultures.

I have mostly explored France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey and I love the ancient world, Renaissance Italy, and everything Byzantine—so most articles I sign are on those subjects. Then I have a talented team of writers who contribute articles to The Owl as they travel—or as they find news they want to share. For example, we recently ran an article on the so-called “stolen antiquities” in Western museums that Greece and Italy want returned. The Owl mostly travels to Europe, but we don’t fear to explore other places—we made a detour through China lately—as one of our usual contributors was traveling there and had stuff to report.

One of the ideas behind The Owl is to recreate the historic Grand Tour. I like the idea of young people traveling throughout Europe to enhance their education and discover the world on their own, firsthand. In the 17th and 18th centuries, at the height of the Grand Tour, the people going to Europe were mostly young British gentlemen of means who would journey first to Paris, the capital of elegance and etiquette, and then usually continue towards Italy and its innumerable classical and Renaissance treasures. It was a cultural trip for these youngsters. They could also escape their parents’ watch and the aristocracy’s rigid education. Needless to say, they would sow some oats on the way. But they would also bring back home a different perspective on society and culture—and a lot of souvenirs that have significantly influenced British and later on American cultural history.

The Owl is recreating some of the Grand Tour tradition by offering its readers the excitement of travel and discovery. We also like unveiling some hidden truths behind well-known places, famous people, or pieces of art .


WE: I love receiving the newsletter—I always feel like I finish it a bit richer for knowing more. You sure do delve deep into travel - What do you try to provide for your readers?

CL:  Precisely that: feeling a little richer…knowing a little more about the places you may travel to some day… adding a grain of salt to places or famous people you think you know… providing a few tips about where and how to travel… awake the urge and pleasure of discovering the world… give one more dimension to our lives by looking into the lives of the past…connecting past and present.

I also try to provide a pleasant reading experience. I like The Owl to be written in a lively style and with a sense of humor. And I try for every issue to be beautifully designed with an enjoyable layout and well-chosen photos.


WE:  It seems that in today's world, no one reads the classics, yet they are more pertinent than ever. Could you expand on your company's ideals for this?

CL:  My company, Agora, got its name from the ancient agora, the marketplace of every Greek city and the center of social activity where people came not only to buy and sell goods, but also to exchange news and ideas.

We believe the classics to be a discipline that develops the ability to reason critically about the modern world and allows to view the present from a multi-faceted perspective. We believe that learning from the past can make your personal and professional life better. We think that experiencing civilizations past and present is the best way to broaden your horizons and promote your personal development.

WE:  Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

CL:  Yes. We are reviving the tradition of the Grand Tour in two different ways. 

First, every year, we organize a tour to Europe, a sort of “Essential Grand Tour” that takes our group to the destinations that a Grand Tourist wouldn’t have missed –Paris, Venice, Florence, Rome—plus a few surprises. We always try for the group to be accompanied by seasoned travelers, historians, or publishers that turn each tour into a wonderful and entertaining learning experience. The next Essential Grand Tour will take place from March 16-30, 2009. We’ll post more information shortly in The Owl.

Second, we are organizing our very first semester abroad. It isn’t the usual semester where students stay in one place, but a unique experience where they spend three weeks studying in Normandy, then tour France, Italy and Greece before spending another three weeks studying and reading the Great Books of western civilization in a venue near Izmir, Turkey. Details will be available soon.

And in order to help Owl readers, travelers, and students become acquainted with the great texts of Greece and Rome, we have published an anthology of Classical literature titled The Essential Classics.  From the epic stories of Homer to the philosophical insights of emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius, The Essential Classics is a bountiful anthology of one thousand years of ancient literature presented in translations made by British and American scholars now considered classical works in their own right. You can check the website and order a copy.

WE: Thanks so much, Catherine - and welcome to! I am happy to share this great information with our readers.