Grand Tour: A guide to the Early Modern “Gap Year”

This piece will look at how (for those who could afford it) getaway and travel to the European continent from the British Isles in search of culture, experiences and exposure to perfect foreign languages, particularly in the 18th to 19th centuries. Usually they would be accompanied by tutors or a companion. This custom was known as a “Grand Tour”.

A Grand Tour was considered a rite of passage for mainly, young aristocratic gentleman upon completing their academic studies. This usually occurred when they were twenty-one years of age, although that is not to say this custom was only attributed to wealthy young gentleman to acquire ‘good taste’ in society. Sometimes wealthy young women, referring to debutantes partook in this venture, signalling she has come of age and old enough to marry. For others who could not afford this venture from both sexes, they might have been lucky enough to find a patron to sponsor them.


The Route-



Typically, the route started from the Port of Dover and from then on to the Belgium coast at Ostend or the French coast at Calais. From there the journey took these young travellers to Paris, the Alps, Geneva, the Rhine to Basel and ultimately (for most) to Rome and Naples. However, it was not unheard of for travellers to go further west to Madrid or further east to Greece. To a large extent, Paris, Rome and Venice were the main cultural centres in Europe and for Paris in particular, French was the chief second language amongst the aristocracy and as such many wished to refine these language skills. Moreover, the roads were more developed towards Paris and Rome unlike further east and towards the Iberian Peninsula.



What did they do?

Often travellers would venture to European cultural centres, chiefly in Paris, Venice and Rome, usually accompanied by their tutors from home to keep a watchful eye. Many were drawn to the historical sites of the Coliseum, Patheon, Pompeii and Herculaneum further south to name but a few. It was also a popular pastime to view renaissance style art in galleries and occasionally from some travellers have their portraits painted, depicting their time on the continent. It was typical for the traveller to travel for up to 3 years, which included six months of travelling and the rest of the time living in a European city.

Touring these sites in Europe was considered the epitome of high society as it enabled them to possess extensive knowledge of the classics and antiquity, namely art, culture and architecture. Acquiring this knowledge on tour largely helped with networking and obtain suitable marriage prospects. For aristocratic younger men, they needed to appear cultured to maintain their prospects in society, otherwise they would suffer. This extensive knowledge was used to distinguish a gentleman’s rank. Cultural pursuits were undertaken as they had the wealth and time to acquire it, thus distinguishing them from those who acquired their income by trade, whereas a gentleman’s wealth was inherited/made from the land.

Aside from the cultural aspects of the tour and immersing oneself into the sites, some traveller’s behaviour was nothing short of merry and ostensibly debauchery, which included drinking, gambling and romantic endeavours.




Why did the custom end?

The custom came to an end during the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) when the French Empire fought a coalition of European nations, thus becoming too dangerous to travel. From this point the form of travel switched inwards to the wonders of Britain, namely The Lake District as made famous by the English poet William Wordsworth. When the conflict ended the custom resumed, again for those who could afford it from wealthy backgrounds. This was particularly evident for women to venture down towards the cultural centres of Paris, Venice and Rome. However, the duration was drastically reduced for days instead of months/even years and that it was considered more of a pastime for women travellers.

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