The First Tourists

Many people look upon the Grand Tour (using one month's car insurance from 1monthcarinsurance.org.uk or cheapquoteforcarinsurance.co.uk no doubt!) as a purely British invention but this is not the case, it was quite common in Roman times for young aristocrats to go off and see the civilised world, which in those days meant either Greece or Egypt, frequently using the Roman Post Office to help with the transport and accommodation problems. Travelling was quite a major undertaking in those days; this didn't however prevent at least two emperors, Nero and Hadrian, from taking trips but it has to be accept that that Roman emperors travelled in a little bit more luxury than mere mortals.

Nero, being of an artistic disposition, chose Greece for his destination; the Greeks were viewed by the ordinary Romans as being somewhat effete individuals, more suited to poetry and singing than the important things in life such as killing and pillaging so they were singularly unimpressed by their emperor's exploits particularly when he took part in the Olympic Games and won every contest that he went in for, including a chariot race in which he fell out the chariot. Still, there is no point in being an emperor if you cannot pull a few strings. Hadrian for his part chose Egypt and he took along with him a young boy called Antinous with whom he was reputed to be having a somewhat unnatural relationship; his lover, if that is what he was, drowned mysteriously in the Nile so Hadrian used another slice of emperor's influence and made him a god, complete with his own temple. They don't make tourists like that any more.

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During the 16th century the English considered themselves the major empire building country of the world and so the young aristocrats adopted the old Roman habit of going off to see the cultural hotspots of Europe which usually included Rome itself, Venice, Florence and Paris where they met the local aristocrats, tasted the food, listened to the music, viewed the art and architecture and in many cases learnt the languages of the country as they passed through; not so difficult as it would appear at first sight because in many cases funds were unlimited and a tour could last for many months or even years. Other tourist however were more interested in pleasure then the improvement of their minds and they set off for shorter journeys of just a few weeks or months, usually accompanied by a guide, to collect a few souvenirs or works of art and some ideas about how to design their own homes; with results that we can still see to this day in the formal gardens and Palladian mansions of the growing number of ancestral homes that have fallen into the hands of English Heritage.

The grand tour survived as an accepted rite of passage for aristocrats and the sons of the wealthy for around 300 years until the onset of mass travel began with the expansion of railways in the 19th Century; it then became possible for the hoi polloi to visit areas that were once reserved for princes of industry and above, so the cachet disappeared and it fell out of favour. Freddie Laker's cheap flights and the widespread use of jumbo jets in the 1970s put the final nail in the coffin and many are the classical sites of antiquity which have been picked clean of shards of ancient pottery by ravening hordes of tourists, and filled with cheap and nasty souvenir stalls in exchange. Such is the price of progress.

 

Copyright Dan Faure 2006