The Grand Tour

A Carriage with six outriders, from the Pugin Corridor at Chirk Castle

It was a custom among wealthy aristocratic Seventeenth and Eighteenth century young noblemen to take a set Grand Tour of Europe, when they were about twenty one. By the Eighteenth century it had actually become a feature of aristocratic education, but the tradition declined in the Nineteenth century with the advent of the railways, and consequent popular access to that which had been a purely aristocratic preserve.

The major value of the Grand Tour was the exposure of future government leaders to the cultural legacy of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance, with maybe an experience of music which could not be heard elsewhere. For gentlemen, knowledge of some Art was essential, to demonstrate the breadth and the polish of their education.

‘The Tour’ could last anything from several months to several years, and its memory lives on in our own choices for European holiday destinations, with their traditional associations, and the acquisition of ‘souvenirs’ which began with the Grand Tour, although purpose-made Twentieth century paperweights pale against the substantial purchases made by our forebears.

In essence, the Grand Tour was an education – Grand Tourists could return with crates of books, works of Art, scientific instruments and other purchases which would then be displayed in cabinets, libraries, drawing rooms, gardens and galleries, which were purpose built.

It did have its critics – in the Eighteenth century there were those who derided its lack of originality and sense of adventure in following well-trodden routes. Another negative feature which emanated from ‘the Tour’ was the increasing tendency to stereotype the European nationals with whom the British came into contact: French were ‘courteous’, Spanish were ‘lordly’, Italians were ‘amorous’ etc. This tendency is still apparent today, and seems to date from the feelings of superiority shown by these privileged young British aristocrats.

There were other nationalities of young traveller, but the British, via the wealth of empire, were far better off: Danes, French, Germans, Polish and Swedes all travelled the well-worn route over the Alps and back, with the intention of being ‘enhanced’ by the cultural experiences they would encounter.

For the English ‘Tour-ist’, the journey started at Dover. Crossing the Channel to Ostend/Calais, a carriage was then hired /purchased (preferably one which could be dismantled and carried over the Alps) along with the services of a ‘bear leader’ who would complement one’s own servants as guide.

Time spent in France – especially Paris – would be taken up in French lessons, dancing, riding and fencing (French ‘manners’ were essential parts of the make-up of the future politician or diplomat).

The journey from Paris to Switzerland could be arduous, but the wealthy young aristocrat could always depend on being carried over impenetrably blocked passes by his servants!

Into Italy, and the real focus of the Grand Tour: there would be time to visit Turin, Milan and Florence – where a stay of a few months was called for before heading to Venice, the cultural set-piece.

Having stayed in Venice for some weeks, the Grand Tourist now made for Rome, to study the ancient ruins and sculpture from the days of Roman imperialism, also visiting the newly-discovered remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which put much of their journey into perspective. This visit was possibly further enriched by a trek to the summit of Mount Vesuvius.

The usual Tour terminated in Naples, but some extremely wealthy ‘Tourists’ might hire a yacht to visit Sicily, and maybe even Greece itself. For the others, Naples really was the limit of the tour, a town to savour before heading back north, again over the Alps, but this time travelling through the German-speaking parts of Europe – Dresden, Vienna, Berlin – before riding through Holland and Flanders (studying the Dutch masters in more galleries) before re-crossing the Channel and reaching ‘home’, laden with treasures and memories of the cultural experience called the ‘Grand Tour’.