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I like a bit of art when I go on holiday

It's been many years since there was anything holy about the summer holidays, though even lounging about on a sunny beach somewhere has - looked at in certain lights - a sacramental aspect. But as Britain begins to bustle its way through airports, railway stations and motorway service stops en route to its annual vacation, one thing is certain: the cathedrals, concert halls and art galleries will be hot and jammed with tourists. So too will the airport bookstalls and theatres, the museums, the castles and the historic homes. The reflex towards art is one of the most striking qualities of European life. There are architectural wonders in almost every village, museums and exhibitions in every town. And the continent is always alive with the sound of music. A couple of students busking on a guitar and a flute, beside an Alpine lake or on the Mediterranean seafront, is sufficient to attract a small knot of passers- by with ice-creams.

One of the sometimes neglected aspects of getting away from it all is our tendency to hit the high hills of great art while we are about it. Masterpieces give muscle to our holidays, which feel self-indulgent without a bit of purgatorial queuing and genuflecting before famous sights (or sites). There is nothing remotely paradoxical about this, except for the fact that we end up agitatedly pursuing things, for one warm week or two, which we routinely neglect in our everyday lives. People who haven't been to the National Gallery in years (such as myself, if we're naming names) feel obliged to sweat for hours in order to shuffle round the the Louvre, the Prado, Versailles or any other of the aesthetic landmarks of Europe. People who don't go inside a church even on Christmas Day plan entire holidays around pilgrimages to Notre Dame or Chartres. Men and women who spend their days filling forms or tapping at computers suddenly develop an acute interest in Romanesque arches, Tolstoy's novels, rococo ceilings or forgotten stories from the Thirty Years War.

Actually, there is a rather nice irony in here, after all. Aesthetic pursuits are usually thought of as serious stuff, several notches above lazing beside a pool or dozing in a deckchair. But actually they are different aspects of the same urge - the desire to take a vacation. Moreover, the culture vultures who migrate between Salzburg and Paris, Florence and Madrid usually feel that tourism is somewhat spoiling the experience. They would prefer the Piazza della Signora without all those smoky coaches poisoning the Tuscan air. Yet it is tourism which brought them there themselves, and tourism, to a large extent, which pays for the upkeep of these fabulous monuments. Much of our own cultural life - pretty much all West End theatre, for instance, or the endless repeats at Stratford-upon-Avon - is financed primarily by overseas visitors. And the great art galleries of any capital are, apart from their being national treasures, tourist attractions.

Cultural activity, of course, has always been a leisure pursuit. It is what we do on our days off, what we engage with over and above what we have to do to keep us fed and clothed. It has also always taken quite a bit of affording. European art in particular has always been intimately bound up with the spending habits of the aristocracy or their modern equivalent, the corporate rich. There weren't many sallow orphans on the Grand Tour; Henry James didn't have to jostle with tour guides while he waited for his gondola; Hemingway didn't have to wear a stupid sombrero or sing "Y Viva Espana" when he strolled to the plaza de toros.

Publishers, in particular, know all too well that theirs is a two-horse town. The hardback market flourishes only in the run-up to Christmas, and paperbacks are snatched in July for beach or poolside entertainment. Indeed, an ultra-realistic bookseller once admitted, in a burst of candour, that the reason why blockbusting paperbacks were so popular with sun-worshippers was that there is no TV on the beach. It is not a very glamorous truth, and not at all the kind of thing that would show up in opinion polls, but perhaps there is nothing more to the cultural exercise we take on holiday than the crude fact of our being temporarily released from the slavish grip of television. Momentarily bereft of our favourite soaps or sports shows, we turn in a panic to Renaissance geniuses or Gothic masterworks.

All art is escapist - it makes us forget ourselves. And sometimes it really is the intellectual adventure that counts. The only day I have ever spent in Dublin was whiled away in bars, reading a novel. And I once spent a revelatory few days in an icy Venice, reading Jan Morris over cups of hot chocolate, skidding out occasionally to see some dazzling sight or other by way of illustration. It was a long way to go to read a book, but who cares? Maybe travel does broaden the mind, after all - just don't move about too much once you get there.