The first British tourists were young, mostly male, 17th, 18th and 19th century elites who embarked on long trips around the continent once they had come of age (around 21 years).
Ostensibly it was all about immersing oneself in foreign culture, visiting ancient ruins and admiring Rennaissance art. In reality, the custom of the Grand Tour was just as much about fun and debauchery. “I remembered the rakish deeds of Horace and those other amorous Roman poets, and I thought that one might well allow one’s self a little indulgence in a city where there are prostitutes licensed by the Cardinal Vicar,” wrote James Boswell, the Scottish diarist, upon arriving in Rome.
The Frenchman Charles de Brosses, who was living in the Italian city at the time, commented: “There are some who will have left the city without having seen anyone but other Englishmen and without even knowing where the Colosseum is.”
And often those that did go sightseeing were wholly unimpressed. One Grand Tourist, Hester Lynch Thrale, described Switzerland as the “Derbyshire of Europe”, for heaven’s sake.
Here are a few more choice quotes from early visitors to Europe’s great cities.
The first port of call for most Britons undertaking a Grand Tour would be Calais, or perhaps Le Havre or Ostend. They would typically be accompanied by a tutor, or even a small army of servants. This would be their first glimpse of the sights, sounds and smells of the Continent.
“Calais is a sort of enlarged King’s Bench prison; the English fugitives live within the rules, and the French inhabitants make it a rule to oppress and distress them.”
Philip Thicknesse, A Year’s Journey through France and Spain, 1789
“Everyone is struck with the excessive ugliness (If I may apply the word to any human creatures) of the fish-women of Calais, and that no one can forget. Here are dull shops, quiet streets, a large Cathedral, and a large Place or square with Town-hall.”
Dorothy Wordsworth, Journal, July 11, 1820
Montmartre hill with Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in Paris. Photo: Getty Images
A French-speaking guide would usually be hired, and the Grand Tourist would head for Paris, by road, or by boat along the Seine.
“It is the ugliest, beastliest town in the universe.”
Horace Walpole, Letter to Thomas Gray, November 19, 1765
“The people of Paris are much fonder of strangers that have money, than of those that have wit.”
Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766
“To a person of great fortune, in the heydey of life, Paris may be preferable even to London; but to one of my age and walk in life, it is, and was ten years ago, the least agreeable place I have seen in France. Walking the streets is extremely dangerous, riding in them very expensive… The city of Paris becomes a melancholy residence for a stranger who neither plays at cards, dice, or deals in the principal manufacture of the city: ready-made love.”
Philip Thicknesse, A Year’s Journey through France and Spain, 1789
“Paris is a filthy hole.”
Benjamin Robert Haydon, Diary, June 1814
Lake Geneva: Not to everyone’s taste.Photo: iStock
From Paris, the Grand Tourist would often head to Switzerland, visiting Geneva and Lausanne.
“I was not altogether delighted with the manners and appearance of the inhabitants…”
William Hazlitt, Notes, 1739
“Such uncouth rocks and such uncomely inhabitants… I hope I shall never see them again.”
Horace Walpole, Letter, 1739
“I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva, and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.”
John Keats, Letter, 1819
“This is a dull sky-and-water atmosphere, after the blue sweaters of the south; and the English locust of course prevails of it.”
Arthur Hugh Clough, Letter to F.T. Palgrave, August 7, 1849
“All the women were like used-up men, and all the men like a sort of fagged dogs. But the good, genuine, grateful Swiss recognition of the commonest kind word – not too often thrown at them by our countrymen – made them quite radiant. I walked the greater part of the way, which was like going up the Monument.”
Charles Dickens, Letter, 1853
Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain.Photo: iStock
Sometimes a diversion to Spain would be taken, to visit Barcelona.
“At Barcelona we had the pleasure of seeing the Fandango danced… it exceeds in wantonness all the dances I ever beheld… A good Fandango lady will stand five minutes in one spot, wriggling like a worm that has just been cut in two.”
Henry Swinburne, Travels through Spain, 1779
“To all but commercial travellers a few days will suffice.”
Richard Ford, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, 1865
“Of society, which is after all the least interesting feature in a country, there is little.”
H. O’Shea, A Guide to Spain, 1865
Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal) in the Retiro Park in Madrid. Photo: iStock
Occasionally they might continue to Madrid and Seville.
“The walking is very unpleasant… the general fault of the streets is their narrowness. In one of them it was with difficulty I kept myself so near the wall as to escape being crushed by a carriage. A friend had a button on his breast torn off by a carriage in the same place: accidents must have been frequent here, for it is called The Narrow Street of Dangers. La Calle angusta de los peligros.”
Robert Southey, Letters Written During a Journey in Spain, 1797
“Madrid, as a residence, is disagreeable and unhealthy, alternating between the extremities of heat and cold, or, according to the adage, tres meses de invierno y nueve del inferno: three months of winter and nine of hell.”
Richard Ford, A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, 1855
“God worked six days, and rested on the seventh: Madrileños rest the six, and on the seventh… go to the bullfight.”
H. O’Shea, A Guide to Spain, 1865
“At best Madrid is a hole, but in rainy weather it is a place fit only to drown rats in.”
Henry Adams, Letter, 1879
Milan Cathedral. Photo: iStock
The traveller would face a tough crossing of the Alps into northern Italy, often via the St Bernard Pass. The wealthiest tourists would be carried over the rough terrain by servants. The first port of call in Italy would be Turin or Milan.
“Milan is striking – the Cathedral superb – the city altogether reminds me of Seville – but a little inferior.”
Lord Byron, Letter to John Murray, October 15, 1816
“The people here, though inoffensive enough, seem both in body and soul a miserable race. The men are hardly men; they look like a tribe of stupid and shrivelled slaves, and I do not think that I have seen a gleam of intelligence in the countenance of man since I passed the Alps.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letter, 1818
“Beastly Milano, with its imitation hedgehog of a Cathedral, and its hateful town Italians, all socks and purple cravats and hats over the ear, did for me.”
D.H. Lawrence, Letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, October 23, 1913
Old town, Florence. Photo: iStock
They would usually spend a couple of months in Florence, to admire the Renaissance art in the Uffizi Gallery.
“There is no such thing as justly describing the fine things that we have seen today… Art has here brought fiction so near upon the verge of reality, that the line between them is too nice to be drawn by words.”
J.P. Cobbett, Journal of a Tour of Italy, 1830
“Brute force shall not rule Florence! Intellect may rule her, bad or good, as chance supplies – but intellect it shall be!”
Robert Browning, Luria, 1846
“Of course it is very dead in comparison [with Paris] but it’s a beautiful death, and what with the lovely climate and the lovely associations, and the sense of repose, I could turn myself on my pillow, and sleep on here till the end of my life; only be sure that I shall do no such thing.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Letter, 1852
“Everything in Florence seems to be coloured with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”
Henry James, Letter to Henry James Sr, October 26, 1869
St Marks Square: Ghastly. Photo: iStock
The itinerary would often include stops at Pisa, Padua and Bologna, before Venice – one of the highlights of most Grand Tours – was reached.
“There were 2,000 courtesans in the city, whereof many are esteemed so loose that they are said to open their quiver to every arrow.”
Thomas Coryat, early 17th Century
“There is no great City so proper for the retreat of Old Age as Venice.”
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letter to Lady Bute, Dec 5, 1758
“Of all the towns in Italy, I am the least satisfied with Venice… Old and in general ill-built houses, ruined pictures, and stinking ditches dignified with the pompous denomination of Canals; a fine bridge, spoilt by two rows of houses upon it, and a large square decorated with the worst architecture I ever yet saw.”
Edward Gibbon, Letter to Dorothea Gibbon, April 22, 1765
“…such a mixed multitude of Jews, Turks and Christians; lawyers, knaves and pickpockets, mountebanks, old women, and physicians; women of quality, with masks; strumpets barefaced; and, in short, such a jumble of senators, citizens, gondoliers, and people of every character and condition, that your ideas are broken, bruised, and dislocated in the crowd, in such a manner that you can think, or reflect, on nothing…”
John Moore, A View of Society and Manners in Italy, 1781
“The facility of being wafted from place to place in a gondola adds not a little to [the Venetians’] indolence… they pass their lives in one perpetual doze.”
William Beckford, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, 1783
“This town cannot be a wholesome one, for there is scarcely a possibility of taking exercise.”
Hester Lynch Thrale, Observations… in the Course of a Journey, 1789
“If cheapness of living… and pretty women, are a man’s objects in fixing his residence, let him live at Venice.”
Arthur Young, Travels, 1792
“A city for beavers.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, June 1833
The Trevi Fountain, Rome.
From Venice the Grand Tourist would head for Rome, to study the ancient ruins and art of the Baroque and Renaissance periods. The Italian capital was the high point of the Grand Tour. For many it was the farthest point from home and it offered the excitement of seeing both the most famous ruins and some of the most celebrated works of art in the world. True, some tourists were profoundly unmoved by it all. In 1762, the 4th Duke of Gordon managed to obtain the services of the greatest antiquarian of the time, Johann Winckelmann, as a guide. When they pulled up outside the Belvedere Palace at the Vatican, the young aristocrat refused even to step out of his carriage.
“Vile in its origin, barbarous in its institutions, a casual association of robbers and of outcasts became the destiny of mankind.”
Lady Morgan, Italy, 1820
“You pass over miles of barren common, much like Hounslow Heath; and when, at last, you arrive at the gate of the Eternal City, the first impression is, I think, a feeling of disappointment… the habits of the people are in some measure restrained by the presence of the English. Still there is quite enough left to make me believe the Romans the nastiest people in Christendom – if I had not seen the Portuguese.”
Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, 1820
“I am in Rome! Oft as the morning-ray Visits these eyes, waking at once I cry, Whence this excess of joy? What has befallen me?”
Samuel Rogers, Italy, 1822-34
“Nothing can be more depressing to those who really value Rome than to meet Englishmen hunting in couples through the Vatican galleries, one looking for the number of the statue in the guide-book, the other not finding it; than to hear Americans describe the Forum as the dustiest heap of old ruins they ever looked upon… or, of the Colosseum, that ‘it will be a handsome building when it is finished’.”
A.J.C. Hare, Walks in Rome, 1871
The city of Pompeii was an ancient Roman town-city near modern Naples, Italy. Photo: iStock
Some travellers would also visit Naples, and the recently-discovered ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
“The most populous of cities relative to its size, whose luxurious inhabitants seem to dwell on the confines of paradise and hell-fire.”
Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of his Life, 1796
“It is a country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels.”
Horatio Lord Nelson, Dispatch to Lord St Vincent, September 20, 1798
“On entering Naples, the first circumstance that engaged my attention was an assassination. A youth ran out of a shop, pursued by a woman with a bludgeon, and a man armed with a knife. The man overtook him, and with one blow in the neck, laid him dead in the road. On my expressing the emotions of horror and indignation which I felt, a Calabrian priest, who travelled with me, laughed heartily.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letter to Thomas Love Peacock, December 22, 1818
“This is the negation of God erected into a system of government.”
W.E. Gladstone, Letter to the Earl of Aberdeen on the state of Naples, 1851
“‘See Naples and die.’ Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently.”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869
Mt Etna between roman ruins in Sicily. Photo: iStock
An adventurous few would continue south to Sicily.
“The lower class of Sicilians generally seem to take it for granted, that a stranger thinks them both silly and knavish. In numberless instances they have begun their conversations with me by defending themselves against suspicions which I had not given the least hint of my entertaining.”
Henry Swinburne, Travels in the Two Sicilies, 1785
“The fatigue of ascending Etna is the only thing that has not been exaggerated in it – [that] and the abominableness of the Government and the vice and abject wretchedness of the people.”
S.T. Coleridge, Letter to Mrs S.T. Coleridge, December 12, 1804
Even fewer would continue to Greece, which was still under Ottoman rule.
“It is the only place I ever was contented in.”
Lord Byron, Letter, 1823
Vienna, Austria.Photo: iStock
On their return, the travellers might stop first in Innsbruck, before visiting Vienna.
“It is dangerous to walk the streets in the night, for the great number of discorded people, which are easily found upon any confines.”
Fynes Moryson, An Itinerary, 1617
“The streets of Vienna are not pretty at all, God knows; so narrow, so ill built, so crowded, many wares placed upon the ground where there is a little opening, seems a strange awkward disposition of things for sale; and the people cutting wood in the streets makes one half wild when walking; it is hardly possible to pass another strange custom, borrowed from Italy I trust, of shutting up their shops in the middle of the day.”
Hester Lynch Thrale, Observation in the Course of a Journey, 1789
“We heard of Vienna being a rival of Paris… We found Vienna a small city that fringed off into Shantyville.”
Lilian Leland, Travelling Alone, A Woman’s Journey Around the World, 1890
Berlin, Germany. Photo: iStock
A stop would often be made at Dresden, before the tourist would call at Berlin.
“If Berlin strikes by its regularity and the magnificence of its public buildings, it impresses not less forcibly with a sentiment of melancholy… An air of silence and dejection reigns in the streets.”
Sir N.W. Wraxall, Memoirs of the Courts of Berlin, 1779
“Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre overcrowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysees, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size… In the Berlin cafes and restaurants the busy time is from midnight on till three. Yet most of the people who frequent them are up again at seven. Either the Berliner has solved the great problem of modern life, how to do without sleep, or, with Carlyle, he must be looking forward to eternity.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1900
Some time might be spent studying in Munich or Heidelberg, before the Grand Tourist returned to Britain via the Low Countries.
“It’s a singular place, and one difficult to write of with a serious countenance. It has a fine lot of old pictures, but otherwise is a nightmare of pretentious vacuity: a city of chalky stucco – a Florence and Athens in canvas and planks. To have come thither from Venice is a sensation!”
Henry James, Letter, 1872
The Telegraph, London
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