Nicola here. Back in the 18th century it was considered part of a gentleman’s education to take the “Grand Tour,” a trip through Europe with Italy as the main destination. The young, upper-class man of means and rank would set out, accompanied by a long-suffering tutor or family member, on this educational rite of passage and would return home supposedly with a greater understanding of classical culture and often with some works of art tucked under their arm. The phrase “bear-leader” that you come across in Georgette Heyer originated with the poor tutor/chaperon/guardian who had to try to keep the youth out of trouble and instill some knowledge in him!
With the advent of mass tourism in the nineteenth century, these itineraries were opened up to the rest of us; women, families and those without a title (!) who would take a guide book along rather than a tutor. So, when we (my husband and I, to quote the late Queen) planned a holiday to Italy to see the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we decided to take in at least a few other elements of the Grand Tour on our way – a journey through the Alps, some shopping in Milan and a stopover in Paris!
In the 18th century a common itinerary for the British traveller would start at Dover with a crossing of the Channel followed by a river boat journey as far as the Alps, up the Seine to Paris or the Rhine. We did the modern version of this, taking the Eurostar to Paris and then getting another train to Zurich and from there to Chur in the Swiss Alps. Chur, considered to be the oldest town in Switzerland was a total delight to explore, with a medieval old town full of beautiful buildings. On our first night we had a meal in a traditional Swiss restaurant and retired to our bed as exhausted from eighteen hours of travelling as no doubt our 18th century predecessors would have been!
From Chur we headed over the Alps into Italy. This was a tough part of the journey for the Grand Tourers of the 18th century as they would need to dismantle their carriages and larger luggage in order to be able to travel over the Alpine passes. In some cases, their servants would carry them if the terrain became too rough, or they would hire special sedan chairs and bearers. In contrast, we took the Bernina Express which was an amazing scenic four-hour trip on the highest railway across the Alps, up to the snow line and then down into Italy. It was quite disorientating to step out into the snow on top of the mountains then to be greeted with sun and palm trees when we reached the Italian border!
And so on to the beautiful city of Turin, where we stopped for lunch between trains before journeying on to Milan. Unlike our earlier counterparts we weren't greeted by the British Consul as honoured visitors, but took the metro to our hotel instead and from there set out to explore a city beloved by earlier tourists. Milan is classy with a capital C – the shopping and the fashions are amazing even to someone like me who isn't really into that sort of thing, and the history was fascinating. A literal highpoint of our trip was a rooftop tour of the cathedral with its amazing, intricate carvings and views across the city. We also visited the fifteenth century Sforzesco Castle, which was particularly interesting as it was so different in structure and style from the castles of England and Northern Europe.
Unlike the 18th century tourists, we didn’t take in Florence, Rome, Pisa, Padua, Bologna or Venice. We left those for another trip as we only had 10 days rather than the year the Grand Tourists often had at their disposal. This was where the Tour allegedly got friskier; Lord Byron wrote to his mother that he had fallen in love with the wife of his Venetian landlord. James Boswell wrote of the “liberties” he had enjoyed with some Venetian ladies. Venice at carnival time had a particular allure, with the opportunity to be masked and pretend to be anyone you wanted to be!
For us, however, the main part of the trip was to Naples and Sorrento, and from there to visit the Roman ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villa Oplontis. In the 18th century a visit to Naples was often associated with an interest in studying music. The Neapolitan School, a group of well-known composers, was based there in the 17th and 18th centuries and it was a significant centre for opera. After the re-discovery and excavation of the ruins of Pompeii in the middle of that century they became a tourist attraction too and the most adventurous visitors would attempt an ascent of Mount Vesuvius.
Wench Christina has written a wonderful blog piece about Pompeii here so I’ll just add that I found it quite overwhelming; fascinating and incredibly poignant at the same time. Knowing how the city had been destroyed, and seeing Vesuvius still sitting there glaring down at you made it feel even more atmospheric and standing in the empty arena early one morning with the sun blazing down I could almost hear the roar of the crowd and see the gladiators emerge from the shadows!
Whilst Sorrento is utterly charming and relaxing, Naples is a city like nowhere else I’ve ever been; vast, noisy, buzzing with life and energy. We were staying in the old town, right next to the cathedral, and walked through the tiny alleyways, breathing in the history and vibrant present of the city. The food was amazing. It’s ruined takeaway pizzas for me forever! All around are the memories of the original Greek and Roman city and the centuries of history that followed – churches, statues, castles with stunning paintings and mosaics and views acroos the bay of Naples to Sicily. It's a place I'll never forget.
No doubt our eighteenth century tourists felt that too as they travelled home via Paris or Austria or Germany. A number of them published their stories of the Grand Tour – with drawings – to educate and inform, or so they said, but perhaps just to impress their family and friends on how much culture they had absorbed and the exciting adventures they had experienced!
Have you ever been inspired to visit a place after reading someone's diary of journal of a trip? Where would you like to go on your "Grand Tour"?