Anne here, inspired to talk about about the Grand Tour. I've been reading Pat Rice's blog about her recent trip to Greece and Rome, also Nicola's blog about her recent canal trip (scroll down,) some reminiscences by a few wenches about places they've been, and finally, Wench Andrea/Cara headed off to Morocco and is sending back delicious morsels of travel snippets. And all the time my feet have been growing itchier — and no, this isn't about athlete's foot. It's travel my feet itch for, new paths, new places, new sights and smells and sounds. But alas, I'm not going anywhere except virtually. Hence my own little blog about the Grand Tour…
From the seventeenth century onwards, the Grand Tour was the traditional coming-of-age experience for young men of the British upper class — a rite of passage. It is said that the original practice arose when the sons of Royalists were sent out of England, away from Oliver Cromwell and his henchmen, to the safety of the continent. Apart from saving their lives, it also benefited the young men, to see and experience the life, politics and culture of other countries, so it grew to become a kind of finishing" process for aristocratic young men.
After completing their education at Oxford or Cambridge, young men of means would be dispatched, usually in the care of a respectable scholar or tutor or a minister, to tour the continent, absorb the culture, view the remnants of classical antiquity (a large part of their education had been based on Latin and Ancient Greek) and "finish" their education by seeing the actual places and art works instead of simply reading about them and seeing black and white drawings or copies, to hear the concerts and operas by the greatest musicians of their day and so on. We're so spoilt for that today, having the finest music and the world's best art at our fingertips.
The young men would also practice and improve their language and social skills. The intention was that they would leave England, a callow youth and return, a mature man of some sophistication and polish.
What it often was:
In practice, many of the young men were as interested in fine art and ancient civilizations as young men today — in other words, not. For them the Grand tour was a chance to have adventures, particularly of the sexual kind — and some of the journals of these men chronicle their sexual adventures in much the same way as they related their experiences of the local cuisines, wines, social events and hunting expeditions. A slang term for the young men was "bear cups" and the tutor in charge of these young blades was known as a "bear leader" — you can imagine why. Pity the poor scholarly fellows, no doubt living a long-cherished dream of touring the sites they'd studied all their lives, but at the price of supervising a clutch of rich high-spirited young bloods, all out for a good time.
Art aside, the Grand Tour was the young men's chance to learn how to go about in society, to practice their social skills and acquire polish among the aristocracy of Europe, to test themselves out in a variety of different situations, and if they disgraced themselves, they left the disgrace behind when they moved on. They experienced dangers, difficulties and hardships — they might be moneyed and travel with servants, but foreign travel was still arduous and dangerous — there were bandits in the mountains and pirates in the Mediterranean. The roads were often rudimentary, the hotels often a crude inn with a group dormitory — all the journals refer to being devoured by fleas, bedbugs and lice, and sickness from bad or spoiled food was common.
Not all the tourists were young men. Honeymooners, all kinds of people who could afford it and had a taste for adventure went. I have a book of letters from a young woman who traveled in a party with an Irish lord and his wife and various others. His wife gave birth several months into the trip, and the baby was simply delivered, then sent home with a nurse, while the parents continued on their journey.
They brought back souvenirs of all sorts — often chunks of genuine antiquity — a kind of genteel vandalism, and thought nothing of carving their names in Roman columns and Greek temples — Lord Byron carved his initials in the Temple of Poseidon in Greece (see below). Grand Tourists also delighted in commissioning portraits of themselves by the most fashionable painters of the day, posed in front of some grand site of antiquity, or among famous works of art. So in demand were the top artists that it went to their head somewhat. In 1758 Grand Tourist George Lucy wrote:
'I have shown my face and person to the celebrated Pompeo Battoni, to take the lines thereof, I have sat twice & am to attend him Again in a day or Two; They are great men and must be flatter'd, for 'tis the Custom here not to think themselves obliged to you for employing them, but that they oblige you by being employed.'
I love this Batoni portrait of Colonel the Hon. William Gordon posing amidst chunks of statutory in front of the Colosseum in a tartan garment that is part kilt, part toga.
The Grand Tour Today
It's much the same today, isn't it? The bear leaders have disappeared, but the rite of passage is still very much in evidence. I'm not sure about other countries, but in Australia and New Zealand it's very much a rite of passage for young people to load up the backpack and head off to see the world, visiting Europe in particular, where many of our ancestors come from, but often traveling overland, through Asia, heading north, to Europe. Sometimes it's the "gap year" between school and university or between study and work, sometimes it's for an indefinite period.
I've done it myself, several times, taking my first Grand Tour when I was twenty. A school friend and I headed off, landing in the UK, where we spent the first few nights sleeping on the floor of a tiny cramped flat in London where my friend's sister was living with three other girls. They'd all been there at least a year, and were working to amass enough money to fund the next stage of their travel. Some of them had been away from home five years or more, traveling alone, but meeting up with people along the way. They might have been homesick occasionally, but they were never lonely. This particular group worked as domestic staff, sourced through an employment run by two elderly, slightly eccentric and madly well connected and titled European ladies, who'd lost their fortunes in WW2 and now staffed half the stately homes of England and Abroad. And word of mouth kept their books full of Australian and NZ girls on working holidays.
And what a window it was into how the other half lived. The girls told tales of fantastic trips to the Caribbean or skiing in the Alps, where the nanny—of course— went too and was taught to ski or snorkel along with the kids. A friend of mine worked in a Scottish castle as a scullery maid and regularly had saucepans and more dangerous implements thrown at her by an irate and eccentric cook. Another had a job in Italy where all she had to do was drive the children to school each day and talk to them in English — the rest of the day was hers. When each girl moved on, they passed their contacts on — the employment agency was very happy to employ girls who were educated, independent and resourceful.
From the UK we went across country to Paris, through Italy and Germany, and though Yugoslavia to Greece. Greece them wasn't the slick tourist destination it is now. When I first went to places like Mykonos it was beautiful but simple — not at all touristified, let alone expensive and sophisticated as it is now. It was more like the Greece that Mary Stewart and Gerald Durrel wrote about. Most of the ancient sites were unfenced and unguarded. One morning we climbed up to the Acropolis and had breakfast of bread, cheese and olives and coffee in a thermos, alone on top of the world as the sun came up — not a soul in sight. Magic.
We had our share of adventures — ghastly accommodation, theft, being stranded, dodgy locals, bad food, illness, some scary and downright nasty moments, but I wouldn't trade them for anything. Traveling like that, more or less alone, dependent on our own wits and resources, dealing with whatever came up, tested us and gave us the kind of self confidence no amount of study can give.
The next generation is doing the same kind of thing. My nephew was on his Grand Tour and stopped off in Scotland, where he's been for some years now, living, working, falling in love and getting married there. My niece stopped off in Bali on the way home and also fell in love and stayed. My original backpacking friend has a son in Vienna right now, and a daughter who recently came back from her own grand tour year away and another friend's son is in China. Mind you, they skype and text and phone home, instead of sending the occasional post card as we did, but that's all to the good for anxious parents.
However travel isn't just for the young. Another rite of passage we have in Australia comes when people retire. It's very common here for people to head off on their own Grand Tour around Australia, sticking to the coast, more or less, and traveling in a loop around the whole country, often taking a year or more to do it, sometimes never returning home again. We even have a name for them — grey nomads. Do a google search for the term and you'll see what I mean.
And just as it is with young people traveling, people meet up and connect and make friends and pass along advice and information. I like the sound of that. I'm not in grey nomad territory yet — I've still got a few overseas adventures in me yet, I think, but it's nice to know that when I finally grow up, I can become a grey nomad.
So how about you— have you got itchy feet? Where would your dream trip take you? Is it a rite of passage for young people in your area to go traveling? Are any kids you know off somewhere exotic now? And do you have grey nomads?
I'll give away a copy of my own "Grand Tour" story— my second book, Tallie's Knight, to someone who leaves a comment.