Join us for a (virtual) Grand Tour of Europe this summer

Pins marking destinations in Europe
Image: Charles Clegg/Flickr

Being cooped up at home has given us a renewed appetite for travel. Most summers we would dream of exploring new lands or revisiting some well-worn favorites. This year COVID-19 had other plans for us.

Restricted largely to our homes as the coronavirus continues to spread (we’re looking at you, USA), we set out to find new ways to satisfy our wanderlust. Why not, we asked, resurrect the Grand Tour from the 18th century, but from the comfort of our homes?

Remind me. What’s the Grand Tour?

In the 17th and 18th centuries wealthy young aristocratic English men would set off on an extended journey through the great European cities. Often accompanied by tutors, they would spend months, even years, learning languages, studying art and the classics, and deep diving into antiquity.

Departing from Calais they traveled first to Paris, then on to Geneva. The ultimate destination was Italy—in particular, Rome and Venice, the two cities considered to be the cultural capitals of the known world at that time.

“Nothing can be compared to the new life that the discovery of another country provides for a thoughtful person. Although I am still the same, I believe to have changed to the bones.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

Travel was arduous.

Carriages bumped over rutted roads. Once in Geneva their carriages were abandoned as they took to traveling over the Alps from Geneva to Turin on foot. Or, if money were no object, the young man might enlist servants to carry him over the mountains.  After a brief stay, they would move on to Rome, and eventually to Venice.

Image Duke on Grand Tour Preudhomme
Image: Segment of Portrait of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton, on his Grand Tour with his physician Dr. John Moore and the latter’s son John, Jean Preudhomme (1732-1795) / Public domain.

Studies in art, history, and literature were only part of the education these proper young men received. European society was much more liberal than society at home, so the learning part of these tours often gave way to drinking, gambling, and romantic liaisons.

On the way home a gentleman might tour through northern Europe, perhaps a term at Heidelberg, then continue on to Berlin, Holland, Flanders, and other far-flung locations. Thusly educated he would return to his family’s seat and begin his adult life in government or diplomacy.

Women followed suit, with tours focused on art and music

Image women on GrandTour
Image (cropped) from Music and the Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century by John A. Rice

While mostly the realm of the young British gentleman, some wealthy adventurous women enjoyed Grand Tours of their own in the 18th century.  Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, socialite, writer, and friend and biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, travelled through Italy in the late 18th century during her second marriage to Italian singer Gabriele Piozzi. As a writer and observer she approached the travel narrative as an experience of the senses, culminating in the introspective Observations and Reflections Made in the Course of a Journey Through France, Italy, and Germany (1789).

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, née Spencer (of the Althorp Spencers, great-great-great-great aunt of Diana, Princess of Wales.), had two sojourns in France, between 1789 and 1793, the first with her husband and his mistress, the second when she became pregnant by her lover, Charles Gray, and was exiled abroad until after the child was born. During this time, she and her companions travelled through France, Switzerland, and Italy, eventually settling in Naples.

By mid-19th century more women travelled: steam engines powered ships and trains and made travel less expensive, easier, and safer. Consider American Ida Saxton, the future wife of U.S. president William McKinley. In 1869 Ida and her sister Mary spent six months on a grand tour of Europe. Their letters home were compiled into the book, Grand Tour of Ida Saxton McKinley and sister Mary Saxton Barber, 1869.

During the Edwardian era upper-middle class as English women began to lead more independent, adventurous lives, Grand Tours became part of their formative education. E.M. Forester offers us a window into their world in A Room with a View, in which Miss Lucy Honeychurch spends time in Florence and Rome with her overly-fussy spinster cousin and chaperone.

The Blue Hare (virtual) Grand Tour of Europe

Map of Europe with footprint overlay
Image: Adapted from Kraken44 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

While we may not be able to experience other lands in situ, with a little imagination we can create enjoyable virtual visits, especially through film. Thus, the concept of our own Grand Tour of Europe was born.

We selected five movies with a distinct sense of place, that absorb us into their cities and countryside, enable us to sink into the place, to escape into their unique cultures if only for a few hours. Like the Grand Tours of old we begin our travels in England and after a few stops on the continent we wind up in Venice.

But why be limited to the two hours of a film?

Let’s immerse ourselves in each of the locations we visit. See the sights, find the key attractions, sample the food, drink the local libation, buy some souvenirs–if only for a day. Let it be a virtual escape.

Each week for the next five weeks beginning July 26, 2020, we will send Blue Hare subscribers a virtual tour of a region in Europe. In addition to that week’s film, you will receive descriptive overviews, books, recipes, and ideas for recreating the local environment in your home.

The map above gives you a hint of where our Tour will take us. Here are a few more clues.

  • After a busy day of sightseeing here travelers enjoy a dish of tea and Stargazy Pie.
  • Wear sturdy shoes. You may get blisters on your feet as you walk these lands.
  • Countless people would love to spend a year among these fields and vineyards
  • In this villa perched over a colorful harbor your cares will melt away.
  • The only creatures in my lagoon sing songs of love. That’s amore.

In 1907 Edith Wharton set out by automobile with her husband and her friend Henry James to tour the French countryside. Her compelling travelogue, A Motor-Flight Through France, is a good place to begin your own virtual Grand Tour.

Blue Hare subscribers will be the first to receive each week’s Tour destination. Sign up to join us.

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