Is The Grand Tour Still Grand?

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Step right up. Come on in. If you’d like to take the Grand Tour…well then, Europe awaits. But relinquish fantasies of elegant Louis Vuitton steamer trunks because these days all you need is a selfie stick.

Yes, the selfie stick is a real thing and an incredibly depressing comment on the narcissism of our day. But way way before all this social media…

In the 1600’s young, upper class gentlemen from Britain journeyed to the European continent for what was called The Grand Tour. Considered a vital stage of their education, they would travel for weeks, months, sometimes even years at a time in order to experience the art, architecture and culture of antiquity. While individual itineraries varied, a Grand Tour often started in Paris, and Italy was compulsory, namely Venice and Rome.  And their modes of transportation? More variety than Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Train and Automobiles. Boats, trains, carriages. Picture an entourage of servants trekking across the Swiss Alps. But the lengthy journeys were worth it because the idea of a first-hand classical education was not only valuable, it was essential. The Grand Tour was a veritable rite of passage.

I suppose before experiencing a rite of passage you must actually book passage. Book passage. What a lovely phrase. One of my favorite scenes in Godfather II is when a trainwreck Connie shows up with her new beau to ask Michael for money. She says they are heading to Europe and want “to book passage on the Queen.”

Americans began to take Grand Tours, as did other countries. It modernized, of course, with time. But the elegance of travel remained for many eras. Have you ever seen the old movies on TCM? An Affair to Remember was on the other day and the fanfare with which they sent and received cruise ships in those days was nothing short of glorious. Streamers, paparazzi, champagne, and flowers.

You’d think the efficiency of technology and the speed of travel would improve the transportation experience. But it hasn’t. First of all, who has the time to take off work and head down to the docks and throw streamers at a Carnival cruise ship while your loved one disembarks? Certainly they can just grab Uber and meet you at house, no?

And the accommodations! A seven hour economy flight to Europe is so cramped you’re pretty much in the crash position the entire time. Forget “getting there is half the fun.” Just pop a Lunesta and wake up when it’s time to flash the passport and wrestle your way through customs. It’s sad but true: the very European travel that was once so magnificent and stately is now cramped and ignoble.

And while on the Continent, do travelers care as deeply as they once did about the art and architecture of antiquity? It’s certainly no longer considered an essential aspect of personal growth and knowledge in a world where we scoff at the notion of majoring in liberal arts, opting instead for a more practical degree in business or marketing. So many tourists today are missing the near-spiritual connection to history and humanity as they wave their selfie stick in front of St. Peter’s to get their perfect shot for a real time social media post. (yes, I admit I am guilty of this…without a selfie stick though.) It’s less about experience, more about self-documentation.

There was no such thing as a social media when I first went to Europe. I was nine years old in 1980 when my father’s company transferred him to London. Ours was not a high-style Grand Tour experience by any stretch, but I will never forget the awe of seeing Europe for the first time. Because despite the tedious flights, the unnerving crowds, the cheezy cruise ships eclipsing the views of Venice, the fact remains that one’s first trip to Europe is, and hopefully always will be, a rite of passage filled with wonderment.

1980 – My first time in Europe. First England, then Wales, then Paris. Then more European travel as a family that was so hilarious we believe European Vacation secretly filmed us the entire time


1984 – My husband Tom ventures to Europe for the first time. He had just graduated and backpacked for six weeks with another guy from college


2000 – Sophie’s first trip to Europe was to Italy. But she was only one year old so she recalls niente


2008 – Sophie goes to Paris and London. She was eight years old, looked at all the guide books ahead of time, and soaked up every morsel. She fell head over heels in love with everything she saw

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Christine in Paris in 1980

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Sophie with my mom in Paris in 2008

Just last year we took a family trip back to Italy with my parents. It may have been the very best trip I have ever experienced. One of the key factors that brought the art and sightseeing to life in a new way was travel guru Rick Steves. My mother gave Sophie roughly eleven hours of Rick Steve’s DVDs about six months before the trip, and Sophie devoured every last one. In turn, Sophie exposed Tom and me to the magic that is Rick Steves, so we downloaded his free podcasts that walk you through places like St Peter’s in Rome, the Academmia in Florence, and the basilica in Assisi. He intertwines rich details and accessible art history lessons with mildly dorky but strangely hilarious comments. Like when he talked about the statue of David having “tight buns.” Or called St. Francis the “Hippie of Assisi.”

We love Rick Steves. I mean we love love love and worship Rick Steves.

So you can imagine our delight when we discovered he was coming to speak in Austin! Sadly, Tom was out of town working but last Wednesday Sophie and I ventured out on a school night to see and hear Rick Steves at the Paramount Theater.

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Rick Steves at The Paramount, Austin Texas, December 3 2014

It was incroyable! He is bright, a wonderful orator, and very funny. The packed house was in stitches much of the evening. When he started the program he gave a nod to all the exciting travel destinations around the globe but explained Europe was his main beat. “Honestly,” he continued, “I’m just trying to get the average American traveler to think past Orlando.”

As complete Europhiles, Sophie and I needed no convincing. We have zero problem daydreaming about a trip to Switzerland or Scotland or Turkey. Though she is green she doesn’t get to go, Sophie can’t resist discussing details of the delayed honeymoon Tom and I will be taking in 2015 to Italy.

Luckily, Rick Steves brings Europe to life in person even better than he does on PBS. Needless to say we stayed until the bitter end so Sophie could get a guide book signed and snap a pic with her guru. She’s keeping it on hand to send back to him in a few years with her resume when she applies for a job with his travel company.

He could not have been more gracious.

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Rick Steves was very personable

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Sophie with Rick Steves!

The concept of the Grand Tour has faded against the landscape of modern travel realities. Unfortunately pesky details like time, money, school and work seem to hold us back from more frequent travel. Our precious and infrequent European adventures last a mere nine days if we are lucky. But they are so worth it. Because at the end of the day, while the process of travel itself may have lost its luster, Europe itself is still oh so very, very grand.


Tom and Sophie in front of St Peter’s in Rome 2013


Tom, Sophie and Christine in Florence with the Ponte Vecchio in the background 2013

3 Comments on “Is The Grand Tour Still Grand?

  1. My dad will be envious when I show him this post. When I visited him at Thanksgiving I caught him awake watching Rick Steves in the middle of the night. He is fairly obsessed. On the subject of the Grand Tour… I don’t know what my English ancestors were doing in the seventeenth century, but if they made it to the mainland it was probably as servants accompanying a wealthy, beardless youth or as soldiers fighting in some war. Actually, I think military service remains one of the best ways for people without means to see the world. (Not that that’s what people sign up for.) Hope you enjoy the trip back to Italy!

  2. Wonderful post. And timely one for me. My 10 year old son and I will have a week in Rome in April. Just last night I showed him 2 YouTube videos to help teach and inspire for the trip. After the first video -(5 min long and amazingly lame) he said – “that video actually makes me less excited to go to Rome”. Then I found the Rick Steve’s film of Rome. Much more inspiring and educational. Any particular places -beyond the obvious- that you’d recommend for an architect and his ten year old son ?

    • I would definitely download the free Rick Steves audio guide for St Peter’s. it was a highlight for us. and I strongly suggest standing outside St Peter’s and gazing in awe at the statues perched high and the amazing dome, etc. I also love the Piazza Navona at night and its incredible fountains. we also did a tour of the colosseum that included a trip down to the underground level as well as a newly opened top level. the bottom was cool and eerie, the top provided fantastic views of the forum which we walked through afterwards. I LOVE ROME! If I think of anything else I will certainly let you know…..

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