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The Grand Tour: A Seventeenth Century Gap Year

Nowadays, interrailing through Europe has become a well-worn path, with many Brits crossing multiple borders, hopping through a huge diversity of cultures and experiencing some of the richest histories in the world. However, whilst soaking up the romance of Paris and exploring the antiquities of Rome, some of the hidden history of these continental treasures has been lost. Travellers both young and old are unaware of whose footsteps they are following in, as they pass through ancient cities, driven by an inexplicable urge to travel. This urge, however, is actually an echo to one of the most decadent, prestigious and exciting aspects of history: the Grand Tour.

The Grand Tour was the playground of the young aristocracy, a travelling route that centred around Paris and the provincial towns of Italy. Historians have generally accepted that the tour began in the seventeenth century and spanned until the nineteenth century, by which time it was the set itinerary for foreign travel. Although we may now take a year out to travel, many of these tours would last up to two or three years, largely due to the long periods of time spent thoroughly investigating European cities and the slow modes of transport that prevailed at the time.

However, while some adventurers, like our very own D.H. Lawrence, walked to Italy, for most the introduction of the railway in the mid to late nineteenth century radically changed the Grand Tour and the way that people experienced travel. Much like today, the time spent away was dramatically reduced as people embarked on whirlwind tours of the continent. With less time now allocated for travel, many needed a more concise plan to see what were considered the most ‘important’ sights; and so the guidebook was born. These new books gave tourists an easy option while they were herded through the fashionably accepted histories and sights of different cities.

Nicely polished, convenient, and package-like, these holidays were not, however, to everyone’s taste. Like today, many were still left wondering what they were missing. The countries on the Grand Tour were rich and diverse and many Romantics in the 19th century rejected the idea of a set path, taking an anti-tourist stance and advocating the unknown and the dangerous. Still, while there were disputes about the execution of travel, the tourist and the anti-tourist were ultimately there for the same reason as their ancestors were. Even since the sixteenth century, the traveller went to the continent to learn, through wide and constantly evolving means. Some simply experienced the continent; they drank, talked to people, ate the indulgent foods and dabbled in the forbidden (courtesans can be found in many a young man’s travel diary). Others joined academic institutions like the prestigious one in Padua and immersed themselves in Italy’s vast knowledge of arts, philosophy and science. The tour became the pinnacle of education, the ultimate learning curve and an opportunity to improve one’s position at home.

While interrailing today might have not the same prestigious values that the Grand Tour had at its heart, it still shares similarities. In all of us, there is a bit of an anti-tourist, following in the Romantic footsteps of Byron and Dickens, that wants to ditch everyone else, embark on an adventure and live like a local. And while newly gained knowledge of European history might do no more than help win a pub quiz, the experience of travel and the sense of freedom it provides helps us all learn how to handle independence. The Grand Tour is the grandfather of the gap year and we all have to thank it for our travelling roots.

Sarah Hughes

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    3 April 2012 at 02:11
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