There was a time when there were no organised trips, tour operators or cruises. Interrail and Erasmus stays were unthinkable and young Europeans had only one way to get to know the world: leaving for the Grand Tour. This particular journey was undertaken by young people of a good family more or less at the age of 21. Just like the modern Erasmus and a sort of sabbatical year, the Grand Tour served as a rite of transition from youth to the adult world. Accompanied by a tutor, future rulers, artists or writers went on the discovery of the culture of their continent, through the works of art of the past centuries, the findings of antiquity or coming into contact with great men of science. During the trip, the young man was able to learn about life outside his court, learn new languages, commission portraits or buy works of art.
Between study and fun
For the young man, the Grand Tour was also an opportunity to get to know the outside world: take part in lavish city festivals, mingle with the locals and learn about the wild side of life. The final destination of the trip was usually Italy, with its countless traces of past civilizations and the impressive number of paintings, frescoes and architectural works. The mandatory stages were Venice, Rome and Florence, but there were those who travelled to Naples, to discover the ruins of Pompeii or even further down, to Sicily and the remaining signs of Greek culture. The movements always took place along a well-defined route by previous travellers: it was not advisable to leave these routes, because of the high risk of banditry. In the absence of a real network of hotels or tourist facilities, travellers tended to stay in inns or private homes, often suggested by friends or acquaintances who had made that experience before them. In the journals and in the notes of the travellers there are various references to the quality of the accommodation they have stayed in or to the courtesy of the landlords. After all, the term “tourism” derives from the Grand Tour, as we understand it: a way of travelling as an end in itself, characterized by the desire of travellers to know new things and exchange options for their experience.
The illustrious names that have decided to embark on the famous journey are many: Montaigne, Stendhal, John Ruskin, the poet Keats and even the writer Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. But those who left more traces of their passage are perhaps the famous writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the English poet George Gordon Bryon. Their Grand Tours will have had very different itineraries and also diametrically opposed motivations. If for Goethe it was essentially a trip to Italy to discover the artistic and historical beauties, for Byron it was a more turbulent journey, which starts from Portugal, passes through Venice, but reaches the dangerous Constantinople and extraordinary Greece.
So let’s go on to the discovery of the main destinations of their journey, letting us be inspired by what might be your next personal Grand Tour. Below you will find an infographic that collects the main stages of the Grand Tour for the two most significant characters in the history of this singular journey, the German writer and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the English poet George Gordon Byron.
Many of the Grand Tour travellers, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, belonged to the abbreviated or aristocrat class. Their journey began with a difficult crossing of the Channel from the cliffs of Dover to Calais, in France, in the direction of the first major stage: Paris. It is here that the young man of high hopes got his official entry into society and above all he was updated on trends and fashions of the moment. In the years of the Grand Tour, in fact, Paris was considered avant-garde in terms of taste and refinement. Establishing the necessary relations and renewing the entire wardrobe, the young man could continue his journey south, stopping at Dijon, Lyon, and then across the Alps, in the direction of Turin or Milan.
Among the first cities that the cultured traveller once crossed in Italy was the splendid Verona, with its priceless treasures. The main attraction is the magnificent Roman amphitheatre, one of the best preserved in Europe. To record the amazement for this discovery is Goethe in his “trip to Italy”. It is indeed the first great monument of antiquity that Goethe no longer admires and appreciates its incredible state of conservation. But Verona also amazes due to its Renaissance works of art, especially those of its most important painter, Paolo Caliari, known as Veronese, whose works can be appreciated in various churches. Goethe, however, also expresses a certain dismay for the dirt that is observed in public areas and how it is impossible to find clean accommodation in the city.
The city on the lagoon was a strong call for many young Europeans not only looking for artistic treasures but also strong emotions. The Serenissima was in fact well known for its brothels, for gambling and for a whole series of attractions for a young man eager to know the world. The famous poet Byron knows this very well. He lived here between 1816 and 1819, with an army of 14 servants and unusual domestic animals, including two monkeys, a fox and two mastiffs. He was staying at the Mocenigo palace on the Grand Canal and here he began writing his famous Don Juan. The young poet was a genuine dandy with unusual habits: for example, he says he reached the island of the Lido of Venice by swimming. It was he who gave the name of “Bridge of Sighs” to the covered bridge that connects the ducal palace to the New Prisons, the first building in history to be born with the specific function of prison.
Goethe tells in his “Journey to Italy” of how he accelerated his journey, ending up spending only three hours in Florence, for the irrepressible desire to reach Rome. Finally, what he had seen in drawings, paintings or reproductions was open to him in all its grandeur. Goethe has achieved what he considers the capital of the world and can immerse himself in the contemplation of the monuments of the ancient Roman empire. In his diary, he records all the wonders he can see every day, such as the famous portraits of cardinals made by Tiziano Vecellio or the loggia frescoed by Raphael. He regrets, however, how modern buildings tend to conceal or ruin ancient buildings or monuments, comparing the architects who were contemporary with him to the barbarians who invaded Rome in previous centuries.
But the Grand Tour could not be defined as such if we did not reach the Magna Graecia, or Sicily, and the traces of the Hellenic culture of the times of Homer and Pythagoras. The trip obviously here was more complicated, but it was always a valid alternative to Greece, much more dangerous to visit at the time because of the Turkish domination. Travellers often stopped in Palermo, Messina or Taormina, where there is a splendid Greek amphitheatre still used today for outdoor shows. Curious is an anecdote reported by Goethe on his stay in another important Sicilian city: Catania. The German writer tells how he found on a wall of a house the rather negative “review” of an inn called “The Golden Lion” and how, for his misfortune, he found himself staying that same night.
At the time called Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul represented the highlight of the Grand Tour of Byron, rather unusually (usually this was a country banned because of the Napoleonic wars, but our poet was a type that was not discouraged). He found himself in the city between May and July 1810, having the opportunity to admire the Hagia Sophia and the immense city walls. In a letter addressed to his mother, he described the Turkish burial places as “the most beautiful places on earth”. Of this Turkish period we do not have many documents written by Byron directly but by his loyal companion John Cam Hobhouse. It seems that the poet was too intent on exploring the city until late at night, only to go home drunk. There is obviously no shortage of heroic achievements: in 1810 he swam the Dardanelles Strait.
Among the last destinations of Byron before returning home is Athens. Here he finally comes into direct contact with the Greek myths and traces of that past that has fueled his writings and his romantic fantasies. Enjoy the Acropolis and Parthenon, but also the pristine beauty of the landscapes and the simple life of the place. He writes to his mother saying: “I arrived here in four days from Constantinople […] you people from the north cannot imagine what a summer there is in Greece”.