There’s no denying the Grand Tour was partly a summer holiday, the grand tourists leaving England, and later America, to travel to ‘The Continent’, invariably crossing the Alps to spend some months in the sunshine in Italy – under a parasol of course. But it was about so much more than lazing among the wildflowers sketching landscapes, catching butterflies, and reciting poetry while gazing out to sea.
A rite of passage from the 17th to the early 20th centuries for the more intrepid travellers among the privileged classes, the Grand Tour was not only about discovering Europe, it was also about discovering oneself. There was loads of soul-searching involving endless questions about the nature of our existence to whoever would listen. You’ve seen Portrait of a Lady, right? I guess it was a bit like a gap year – but with more luggage, nicer clothes, and way less alcohol consumption.
For a grand tourist, the purpose of the trip was to educate and enlighten oneself. Travelling was thought essential in order to know the world and the Grand Tour was all about becoming cosmopolitan. This was achieved by learning languages, developing skills in drawing, painting and music, clambering about historical sights, admiring frescoes in churches, picnicking among ancient ruins, that sort of thing. And of course, by reading poetry, history, philosophy, literature, and guidebooks.
The grand tourists weren’t too different to today’s backpackers, I guess, following the same well-worn tourist trails set out in their Baedecker, the equivalent of a Lonely Planet or Footprint. Like many travellers, the grand tourists followed their guidebooks scrupulously, ticking off places as they visited them, and doodling pictures and writing notes about the things they saw.
The handsome, red, hardbound book was so popular that ‘baedekering’ became part of everyday language in the early 20th century. Baedekering was used to describe travellers who took a trip with the intention of chronicling their journey, the more ambitious hoping to write a travelogue or guidebook. I suppose Baedekering was a bit like journalling or blogging, wasn’t it? (Unfortunately researchers have learned that some of the grand tourists wrote their travel ‘memoirs’ before they travelled, copied from other guidebooks. Of course that would never happen today, would it?!)
Grand touring was also a bit like couchsurfing, I imagine. While the grand tourists stayed in purposely-built inns on the routes they followed, they also relied on invitations from connections. The better connected they were – if they knew a baron or count, for example – the more chic their accommodation, and more sophisticated their entertainment. No strumming guitars and singing Oasis songs around a campfire for these guys – it was all about piano recitals in salons, and lounging around private boxes at the opera.
I must confess (that’s the kind of thing, they said), I’ve always been a romantic at heart and have always been fascinated by the Grand Tour – since I read Henry James as a teenager, and saw Room with a View. Yet Terence and I have had little time to read poetry while working as travel writers, and we’ve had to set our stopwatches upon entering museums and galleries.
So the opportunity to do a contemporary Grand Tour of sorts was another reason we’ve been so eager to do this project. Exactly what our style of Grantourismo will entail I’ll save for another post. Let’s just say that you can expect to find us doing more than frolicking in fields of wildflowers. Although we’re certainly planning to take plenty of time out to gaze at the sea.