Ted Scheinman, writing in aeon magazine, asks: “Can today’s travel deliver on the promise of the Grand Tour – or is the idea of edifying travel utterly bankrupt?”
The original Grand Tour was an obligatory element of a gentleman’s education, whereby you saw the greatness that was Rome and also got to drink obscenely and mock the Dutch and fondle washerwomen across Europe.
The stated goal was to edify England’s future ruling class in aesthetic and political terms, and the results back home comprised a boom in the arts, a whole new idiom of writing, hangovers by the hundreds, and lasting cases of the French pox.
Today we find the residue of this tradition in study-abroad programmes, semesters at sea, exchange programmes, gap years, and anything done by us Australians in our peripatetic period (roughly between the ages of 18 and 28).
But one begs the question: Why?
What use is all this meandering and backpacking, these soi-disant ‘journeys of self-discovery’, these shufflings through the Louvre, these youthful fumblings with unfamiliar brassieres in hostels that smell of overcooked kidney beans?
There is no single answer. Some travel is good and righteous, whereas other travel does ill to the world and little good to the traveller. In this respect, travel is no different from politics or art or sex. Given a larger and more heterogenous species of travellers in the past two centuries, it follows that we must consider a larger and more heterogenous sense of travel options.
Such a survey will confirm that a New Grand Tour is possible in the 21st century, even if it suffers from the failures of Grand Tours past.