Nine hours travelling, squalid sleeping arrangements, too much to drink and money lost during late night card games. Not a scene from a 20th Century teenage gap year, but a young person’s 17th Century Grand Tour, in which they would experience the renaissance period first hand.
Some of the sights one might have seen on their Grand Tour!
Despite the criticisms expressed about young people’s traveling ambitions in their year between A levels and University, the gap year is not the modern phenomenon we consider it to be. Dating back to the 1600s, the young person’s tour around Europe was a time of personal development, first hand education and discovery away from their responsibilities back home. Often the lucky traveler would begin their journey from Dover to Calais, travelling through France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland before landing in Italy to view the home of the classics they would have read about in school.
Sounds Fun – Could Anyone Go?
Sadly not. At the start of its existence, the Grand Tour participants were limited to wealthy men travelling after their Oxbridge days, in an educational rite of passage. In later years, the tour was opened up to females. The author Elizabeth Craven wrote a number of travelogues based on her experiences, and the Parminter cousins built their house A La Ronde in Devon to showcase the treasures collected on their own tour. However, many women were unable to raise the funds necessary to support their globetrotting ambitions.
A la Ronde, where the Parminters showcased their treasure trove.
Why? Was It Expensive?
Yes, very! Not only did tourists need money to support their traveling costs, they also needed additional funds to buy souvenirs from the places they visited. Many bought so much that they were forced to have trunks sent back to England filled with the items they had purchased, including Piranesi prints, small mosaics and books written in various foreign languages. A number of these artifacts can still be seen in museums such as the National Gallery, perhaps longer lasting legacies than the Facebook messages sent today.
However, due to the dangerous travelling conditions in which roads were controlled by highwayman and bandits, most young people did not carry money with them on their travels. Instead they used paper credit to draw on their families London bank accounts (almost like the “bank of mum and dad” today). This credit was also required when a traveler reached the wall to a new city where a bribe was needed to be granted entrance from the guard on duty.
So…Parents Were Financing Their Child’s Education?
Not quite! Although young tourists did visit cities of importance to their classical studies, often accompanied by teachers and tutors, many also took part in a number of other social activities. The drinking, gambling and flirting that has become synonymous with today’s gap year experience was rife among 17th Century sightseers.
Sounds Exciting – Where Do I Sign Up?
Don’t be quite so quick to get involved! Although much of the trip was exciting, enabling a young person to discover areas which they had previously only read about, the conditions were poor. Many inns were found off the beaten track where dirty sheets and bedding were common. Indeed some travelers were urged to take their own cutlery for when those provided by hotels were not suitable!
Another issue was the actual travelling. It took 5 hours to sail from Dover to Calais and most trips required long coach journeys between tourist attractions. The weather also increased these journey times. Heavy rain caused flooding and snow created road blockages, resulting in many being away for longer than originally intended.
The sights of Paris one may have witnessed on their Grand Tour of Europe!
However, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the terrible conditions tourists did get the opportunity to experience a new country very different from their own, sampling new food, including broccoli and parmesan cheese, while also meeting new people.
So next time you hear someone who has just finished their A levels recounting their plans to visit “Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam” in their year off, don’t dismiss their ideas as the self indulgence of today’s youth. Remember the basis of the gap year and perhaps use our ancestors experience to warn them of the potential dangers ahead.