originally published March 10, 2012
I try to avoid too much repetition on this site. A couple days ago I took a meandering trip around northern New Zealand since, let’s face it, I’ll probably never do that in real life. So why am I travelling again today? Well, this ain’t your usual road trip. This is the Grand Tour.
For about two centuries this was a noble journey, a rite of passage into snooty nobility and the vast benefits of uppercrustdom. A parallel can be drawn to the Aboriginal walkabout, or the Amish rumspringa, except that it was a tradition about status and trinket acquisition, rather than a transition into adulthood.
It started in England, not as a scholarly journey but as an exposure to the other cultures and sites within the part of the world that was deemed worthy of visiting (meaning where the white people were at). Aspiring artists would make the trip because there was no other way to experience the great classics of art and architecture without actually being there.
The noblemen, especially in Britain but also in a few of the other continent nations, came to view this as a journey you simply had to take in order to hobnob with the uppermost hobnobarians. Guides were regularly hired for the trip – sherpas of the 5-star accommodations along the way. The really wealthy would journey with a fleet of servants. Bringing goodies home to show off was a must. Most important was one’s automatic status as a learned traveler who could share the secrets of the world with those unfortunate enough to have stayed behind.
The Grand Tour was like an Ivy-League college with a tremendously impressive souvenir shop.
The Tour itinerary was not an arbitrary one – most people followed a fairly rigid set of destinations.
If you were setting off from England, you’d start at Dover and take a boat to either Ostend in the Spanish Netherlands or Calais in France. There you and your “bear-leader” (a colloquial term for the guy who shows you around and puts up with your crap) would acquire a coach and set off for Paris.
You’d want a French-speaking guide, as French was the language of the elite in Europe. You’d take lessons in French-type things, like dancing and fencing and eating croissants. You’d pick up as much French society and manners as possible, honing your skills for when you return home to rule over the slack-jawed schmucks whom you’ll be expected to govern and control for your adult life.
From Paris you’d jaunt over to Switzerland, soaking up the culture of Geneva and Lausanne. Some of your fellow Tourists may make the trip to Spain to sample the local culture and local women of Barcelona. Or men. What happens on the Grand Tour stays on the Grand Tour.
Now comes the tricky part. Pull the coach apart and either sell it or arrange for your servants to carry it, as you’re heading up over the Alps. If you’re really rolling in the greenbacks you might have your servants carry you over the rougher terrain. Sure, it’s an adventure, but is it really worth scuffing your shoes?
Now you’re in Italy. You may wish to pause to allow someone to paint your portrait. Maybe you should have a couple of your servants fight to the death simply for your amusement. It’s your Grand Tour, don’t waste it.
After a stop in Turin, it’s off to Florence, where an ample Anglo-Italian society exists for the elite visiting Brit. Check out the High Renaissance paintings and old Roman sculptures in Uffizi, and get an idea of what sort of decorative tchotchkes you’ll want to bring home to shame your neighbors. Go see the tower in Pisa, then fly through Padua and sample the cold cuts in Bologna before hitting the high point of the Grand Tour: Venice.
Venice was to the Grand Tour what Jaws is to the Universal tour. This is the town that the noblefolk would yammer on about at length. You’d then hit Rome and Pompeii, maybe even Greece, then head back through Austria, Germany and Holland en route to rub it in England’s collective face that you’re cultured, and most of them are not.
The exclusivity of the Grand Tour – and yes, some well-funded artists would make a servant-less voyage in order to acquire the knowledge and influence of other cultures, but usually it was just a trip for the rich – lasted from its first incarnations in the late 1600s until the mid-1800’s, when rail travel became widespread. From that point, even the lowly middle-class could make the Grand Tour, so it was no longer a badge of status.
That’s not to say the wealthy gave up on the Grand Tour. They’d still make the trip and they’d still bring their fleet of lackeys. Later in the 19th century it became fashionable for women to take the Tour also, usually accompanied by a spinster aunt as a chaperon in order to keep the young lady’s purity safe from those swarthy Mediterranean ne’er-do-wells, looking for a good time and a quick skronk.
The tradition is still alive today, and a lot of Tourists use the same itinerary as the British elite centuries ago. The Grand Tour may not be a societal rite of passage anymore, but there is value in seeing Europe this way, and immersing oneself in its culture before starting one’s college education / career / jazz-fusion-ska band, or whatever one plans on doing in one’s twenties.
In fact, I think we should look at bringing this back, as a rite of passage for everyone. Maybe taking the classic Grand Tour isn’t fiscally feasible for all but a handful of local young travelers, but maybe we could put together a North American Grand Tour, visiting the most important cultural and scholarly destinations in our own part of the globe, like Broadway, Graceland, and that town where they shot The Beachcombers. If someone is wanting to put together a think-tank for this, I’m in.
As long as I get servants to carry me through the airport.