Christopher Hibbert: The Grand Tour

June 8, 2015

9780297178422I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Grand Tour, on which the sons (only) of the leisured/idle rich were sent in centuries past to roam through Europe, and Christopher Hibbert‘s book was a good opportunity to delve into some of the details. I am always particularly keen to read about the actual travelling in previous centuries (see my post on travel in the middle ages here) when it was rather more complicated and arduous than in our day. Crossing the seas, and also crossing mountains, and the nature of overnight accommodation en route were all very different.

By and large the sons of aristocrats ate and drank, posed and whored around a lot, as well as complaining at great length about the inhospitality of Johnny Foreigner, his dreadful food and drink and boring landscapes and buildings; at least, this is the impression that comes across from Hibbert’s account. The writer Tobias Smollett seems to have been one of the worst in this regard. It’s clear that travellers didn’t usually set out to learn from their travels, and improve themselves, even though that might have been the intention of the fathers who laid out the necessary money…

I found myself thinking that, sadly, not a lot has changed, really: there are a lot of people now, with more money than sense, who seem to feel it’s necessary to travel the world and tick off places on a bucket list, and post comments on social media. And the English do not seem to have become any less xenophobic than they were centuries ago; many still expect to be able to consume recognisably English food and drink wherever they are in the world, a possibility obviously made much easier nowadays by multinational food and drink companies. I do wonder why some people go abroad at all…

To be fair, Hibbert does write about some travellers who liked what they saw and put up with the hardships of travel way back then in order to see what was different, and learn the languages, who came back home, and with what they had seen, influenced the art and architecture of this country in many different ways. If you have followed some of my thoughts on exploration, travel and tourism on this blog, you will be aware of my ambivalence about a lot of the travel that happens nowadays; surely one goes somewhere different in order to meet and talk with other people, participate in and enjoy the differences, to compare other lifestyles and manners with our own, to learn from the experiences. Certainly, that is what I have enjoyed about my travels.

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