Long live the Grand Tour!
02.12.2008 -2 °C
“Beginning in the late sixteenth century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit Paris, Venice, Florence, and above all Rome, as the culmination of their classical education. Thus was born the idea of the Grand Tour, a practice which introduced Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians, and also Americans to the art and culture of France and Italy for the next 300 years.” (see “The Grand Tour,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, at www.metmuseum.org).
Our Grand Tour was not nearly so grand as the travels of those young aristocrats, but it was grand enough for us. For our family of four to travel to nine countries in ten weeks, was an incredible undertaking. And it was indeed a grand and wonderful time for all of us.
Like those young aristocrats, we began in London, but our tour was really anchored in Italy, the country in which we spent the most time of all of the countries that we visited. We spent well over two weeks in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Lucca, Rome, Pompeii, and the Cinque Terre.
Also, like those young Americans who took on such a Tour years ago, we began our adventure by traveling to Europe the slow way, aboard an ocean liner. We were on the Queen Mary 2 (we flew home from Paris at the end). Those six days at sea were glorious and a very grand way of starting out, although it was difficult for Margaret to make the transition from her pampered life of sophistication on the ship to our decidedly not-so-glamorous travels once we reached the U.K. During our adventure, we stayed at a few hotels (the Elbflorenz in Dresden and the Hotel Palma in Pompeii) and Bed & Breakfasts, but mostly we stayed in apartments (when we didn't have friends we could hit up for free accommodations). A few apartments were attached to b&bs. The nicest apartment was in Rome. In Paris, we rented an amazingly tiny apartment, but it was well-equipped and very efficiently laid out. But, the Queen Mary it was not.
On our Grand Tour, we explored art, religion, history, food, and other local attractions. Our adventures took us from the sublime (the Orangerie in Paris, the Bellini show in Rome, David in Florence, and high mass in Vienna, for instance) to the opulent (Schunbrunn and Versailles) to the ridiculous (the Blue Wonder in Dresden, the obsession with correct change in southern Italy, etc.) and the silly (like, Spamalot). John discovered his devotional side, lighting candles and praying in almost every church or cathedral we visited (he especially liked the places that had kneelers). One of the key aspects of our Tour was learning how to navigate cities and train networks, as we never once rented a car. Just the simple act of travel was sometimes a challenge; always part of the adventure!
In the places we visited, we learned about power and wealth, and the consequences of abuse of power and the extravagance of wealth. We marveled at the legends of Prague and the grand vistas over the Rhine in Germany and over Paris at night from the Arc de Triomphe. We enjoyed learning more about favorite cultural icons (like the Beatles walking tour in London). We spent a fair amount of time high above ground (the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Untersberg in Salzburg, the Eiffel Tower, etc.) and far underground (the salt mine in Salzburg and the catacombs in Rome and Paris, for example). And, we tried our best, though mostly unsuccessfully, to stand up for ourselves when confronted with the tyranny of tour groups.
We discovered unpleasant truths about what can happen when groups of people believe that they are the only ones to whom God speaks. And, we wondered how the brilliant and amazing culture of Rome could morph into . . . . well, what is now southern Italy.
We explored and climbed over ruins in Germany, Rome and Pompeii. John created a rating scale for ruins and castles. His favorite ruins were Rheinfels Castle and Pompeii. He hated anything that required a guided tour (like Burg Eltz), although he liked audioguides, at least for the first ten minutes or so.
We walked over many bridges in Venice, and trails in the Cinque Terre and along the Rhine. We experimented with local customs and language, although we must admit that we found Czech almost indecipherable. Our efforts to teach the children “please,” “thank you,” and “hot chocolate with whipped cream,” in the languages that we encountered came to a screeching halt in Prague. We owe a million thanks to our B&B host in Prague, Jiri, and his wife. We would have been lost without them. Almost everywhere we went, we met other travelers from all over the globe; we enjoyed swapping stories and ideas.
And, then, there was the food: schnitzel in Germany and Austria; Nutella all over Europe; crepes in Paris; currywurst in Dresden; chocolate, frites and waffles in Belgium; the pizza and pasta, and the fresh anchovies, in Italy; and those mouth-watering chocolate dipped digestives in London. And, the beverages: hot chocolate; coffee in Italy; Riesling from the Rhine; beer in Belgium; and the lovely tradition that brought the food and beverage together—the dipping of cookies in sweet wine in Italy.
Here’s a little poem that Margaret wrote about one of her favorite food items:
An Ode to the Baguette in Paris
O you are so delicious
And wonderful to devour
O Baguette I wish I could
Stuff my suitcase
With you, O Baguette!
And, the friends. “Old” friends: the Basdens in London; the Yeowell/O’Connell family in Belgium; and the Andonova family in Geneva. And new friends: the Mills family, whom we met on a bus in Salzburg. We can’t wait to see you all again!
We cannot end our blog without some mention of the family opera, which has been referred to occasionally. This opera, such as it was, became an important part of our journey, lifting our spirits when things got tough—in terms of our surroundings or in our almost constant togetherness. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to write lyrics really, but we did manage some titles and assignments:
Opening: “O Come On, Just One More City/Just One More Week” Mom
“Why Am I Not Traveling with Grandma?” A lament from Margaret
“Mind the Crap Please” John (based on the oft heard refrain on the London tube, “Mind the Gap Please,” only this time in recognition of the tremendous amount of dog poo we encountered on the streets of most European cities; John came up with his refrain all by himself)
“Why Won’t the Cash Machine Work?” a lament/duet by Mom and Dad
“The Castle Song” John
"The Lorelei Song" Duet: Margaret and John
“What Are They Not Teaching You in that School I’m Not Sending You To?” Dad
“I am a Klingon Warrior/Worrier” Margaret (Margaret had a habit of attaching herself to one of us for extended periods of time, insisting on holding hands even in the safest environments; she also worried a great deal)
“It’s All Part of the Adventure” the big number to finish the first act, led by Dad
“The Blue Wonder” Dad
“The Bread and Cheese Song” Margaret
“The Map/Public Transport Song” Duet: Margaret and John
“The Schnitzel Song” John
“I Will Not Sleep, I Will Not Nap. I Am Morally Opposed to Rest, although I Am Always Tired When I’m Walking!” Margaret
“The Blue Book Song” (including a chorus of “Where can we go and see no blue books? Dresden! Dresden!”) All of us (the “Blue Book” refers to the much spotted Rick Steves guidebooks that we saw everywhere we went, except Dresden; by the end of our trip, we were really, really sick of seeing blue books)
“I Am a Walking Pharmacy” Mom (Each of us was assigned a suitcase. In addition to our own clothing, etc. in our own suitcase, each of us had something else. Margaret got the schoolwork. John got the dirty clothing and the guidebook information. Joseph got the rain jackets. And, Mom got the drugs—the Advil, the cold medicine, Tums, etc., etc.).
Finish: a reprise of “It’s All Part of the Adventure,” perhaps with a little “Just One More City” (especially now that we are home and dealing with real life again)
Our Grand Tour really defies summary. But, for those who may be reading this and contemplating such an adventure (or a smaller version) for themselves and their families, we cannot recommend the Grand Tour more enthusiastically. It wasn’t always easy and being together so much had its pitfalls, not to mention the challenges of language, culture and getting around in unfamiliar places, but we learned a great deal about Europe and about ourselves.
We learned that a smile goes a long way when you don’t know the language and an effort at a simple “please” and “thank you” in the local language goes even further. We also learned how important it is to understand the various layers of how to make someone feel welcome (good signs are key!). We discovered that art and culture are vital elements to our society; they not only reveal our unique qualities, but they help to bring people together. We also realized that, though the destination was important, the journey often holds wonderful and meaningful surprises. We will never forget that crazy quest out to the Blue Wonder bridge in Dresden, which was a big disappointment, only to find that that journey led us to a delightful street fair on German Unity Day, where we not only feasted on local “delicacies” (who knew there were so many ways of serving sausage??), but were looked after by an old man who couldn’t speak a word of English. And, Dresden itself, started off to be just a convenient place to spend a couple of days between the Rhine in Germany and Prague. We ended up loving that city.
Our Grand Tour is finished. Although it's hard to imagine that we will ever do such a thing again, we are so grateful for the opportunity for at least one adventure like this. Everyone should be so fortunate. Like those early aristocrats, we set out to learn about art and culture. But, we discovered early and often that art and culture are not simply to be found in museums or in tourist hotspots. They are lived out all over the place.
The world is certainly getting smaller. On the morning after the presidential election, for instance, we were in the Cinque Terre, a remote place in Italy. In our room at Egi's Rooms (at the top of a very, very long flight of marble stairs), we had no television or radio or internet access. At the train station (we were traveling to Geneva that day), we couldn't even find a newspaper. But, it didn't take long to figure out the results of the election. It started with talk on the station platform and then, when we got to the next train station, those rumors were confirmed by cable tv. The world is getting smaller, but you can't really experience it by watching television. Get out there! And, don't just get out there, allow some time to get off the beaten path. There's a lot to see and experience.
So, there you have it. Goodbye! Auf Wiedersehen! Arrivederci! Ciao! Au Revoir! Doei! Na shledanou! Cheers!
This is the blog entry that ends like this. So long!
The Reisert Family
Susan, Joseph, Margaret and John