The Grand Tour of Europe
Updated: May 4, 2022
"Look, Brent. I guess this means we don't go to Europe. You know Mother said if we got expelled from another college we couldn't have our Grand Tour."
"Well, hell! We don't care, do we? What is there to see in Europe? I'll bet those foreigners can't show us a thing we haven't got right here in Georgia . . . "
- Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind
"The tourist is . . . the other fellow."
- Evelyn Waugh
The Grand Tour of Europe as a finishing school for young aristocrats may have originated under the Tudors. It was a means for young and privileged members of society to see the great masterpieces of Western art and architecture that, until that point, had been only plates in books. And as time went on, it became "the thing to do". It required great wealth as aristocrats required servants, tutors, letters of credit and introduction, and a carriage for transportation needed to be purchased. In some cases, the tour could last years. The grandness of the Grand Tour came to an end with the French Revolution, by the mid-1800s it became available to privileged Americans, and then later, the bourgeoisie (i.e. you and me).
As Katherine Morais stated in the March 2014 issue of Barron's, "The grand tour was also an important and practical means to teach wealthy scions how to responsibly manage money. After fending off the usual parental harangues about profligacy, Henry James returned home after 11 months in Europe having spent just 379 pounds of the £1,000 his father gave him for the trip. As his grand tour ended, James wrote home, making clear that he had been neither extravagant nor parsimonious but prudent, primly stating, 'I have lived at the best hotels and done trips in the most comfortable way.'"
While the Grand Tour has no doubt lost some of its grandness (at least the way I did it), it continues to this day, though for most in a more understated way. It is still a way for non-Europeans to see a Europe that previously had just been only seen on the internet or tv, and for most of us, unlike Henry James, it is still a budgeting challenge.
As in today, back in the day, some people doubted the value of sampling other countries, cultures, and cuisines. Many Americans found that the Grand Tour of Europe was actually the road to perdition, as exposure to the Continental lifestyle of good food, stimulating culture, and tolerance led to gambling, drinking, and the lack of respect for the sabbath. Ever wonder what the fourth line of the song Yankee Doodle meant by "stick a feather in his cap and called it macaroni"? Well, it was originally sung by British military officers about Yankee soldiers during the Revolutionary War¹, . . . and it wasn't a compliment. Macaroni was a pejorative and referred to those that returned from the Grand Tour and took up dressing and acting like their Continental counterparts, think powdered wigs, heels, and ridiculous hats.
Please find below my thoughts based on the "Grand Tour" I made in 2017-2018. While mine was servantless, tutorless, letterless, and carriageless, it still served the purpose of introducing me to the great masterpieces of Western art and architecture, as well as some good eats and better conversation - all at a reasonable price of $9,000/month. Please note that while it is far from a definitive guide, it may provide some useful information (as sometimes one person's details can be very useful . . . if only to serve as an example of what not to do).
1. You may want to start your tour with a bang by starting with Paris or London, though a more economical idea may be finding inexpensive airfare from where you are to any city in Europe. Does it really matter if you start your tour in Munich or Lisbon instead of Berlin or Rome?
2. Don't plan too much - think of yourself as a flâneur (in the Nassim Nicholas Taleb sense of the word). Let your inspiration in one city lead you to the next. If your Grand Tour is less than 90 days, then this inspirational approach can definitely work. If your Grand Tour > 90 days, then your inspiration will be stifled by the Schengen Agreement (see below), which you will need to become intimately familiar with.
3. There was a time when the Eurail pass was the way to get around the Continent, but that time may have passed. I didn't use one on my Grand Tour, though did travel by train on occasion (Paris to Aux en Provance, Munich to Berlin, Bucharest to Rouse). European train travel is still a luxurious and efficient, albeit expensive option (it is far superior in coverage and comfort to the US though just as expensive). Today's discount airlines may be a cheaper and faster alternative with outfits like Wizz Air, Ryanair, EasyJet, etc. almost providing complete European coverage. In many cases, a bus may be an even cheaper, though much slower alternative. It depends on your timeliness, your wallet, and how real you want to keep it.
- The Man in Seat 61, provides train travel advice that is as broad as it is detailed.
4. Don't stay in hotels. Airbnbs are plentiful in most cities, though in a few, like Vienna and Munich there were none to be had. I used Booking.com extensively to book private Airbnb-like apartments. An added benefit of staying in a private apartment is the owner can be a great source of information about the local area.
- I am still in contact with the gent who rented us a place in Prague. He even took us out for drinks the night before we departed.
- In Aux en Provance we stayed at the private home of a couple we had met while staying in their Airbnb when they previously lived in Philadelphia.
Note: a downside of using booking.com is that you cannot negotiate the price.
5. Keep a journal, otherwise, it will become a giant blur.
6. Learn a few words in the local language prior to arriving in each country. A little Bon Jour², Morgen, Egészségére, As-salamu Alaikum, and Ciao can go a (very) long way.
7. Drink the local stuff: You didn't travel all the way to Budapest to drink a Jack and Coke, so try some tsipouro, schnapps, vodka, and pálinka (though be careful, "no smoking").
- Visit Lisbon vs. Barcelona. Barcelona has become quite trendy. You may want to try Lisbon as it will be more charming, have fewer tourists, and be significantly less expensive.
- I found Budapest to be as charming as Prague or Munich, but much more economical.
9. If you need to leave the Schengen Area UK/Ireland is the easiest option, though it may be a great excuse to visit Isreal (a little bit of Europe in the Middle East or the Middle East in Europe) or Morroco. Croatia or Eastern Europe³ may also be an option.
10. Maybe you'll learn something about yourself, maybe you won't, either way . . . don't expect an epiphany.
11. You don't go to a coffee shop in Amsterdam to drink coffee. You drink coffee in a café . . . and smoke cannabis in a coffee shop.
12. Don't pack too much. If it doesn't all fit in a carry-on case, then you don't really need it. Though this is what will happen: You will disregard this specific piece of advice, pack too much, and then when it is all over, realize this was the only piece of advice I gave you that was worth a damn.
The Schengen Area comprises 26 European countries that have officially abolished all passport and border controls at their mutual borders. The area mostly functions as a single jurisdiction for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. The area is named after the 1985 Schengen Agreement signed in . . . Schengen, Luxembourg. Basically:
After you clear customs and enter the Schengen Area, if you keep within the 26 countries, you will never have to clear customs again.
A non-EU visitor to Europe can only stay in the Schengen Area for 90 out of 180 days and therefore needs to educate themselves accordingly, though there is an app.⁴
Take all advice about where to visit with a grain of salt (except of course this epistle). I planned a week-long stay in Brussels only to be informed by friends, that there was nothing to see in Brussels. Well, there was, along with some good beer, and better frites⁵.
While visiting Europe to inspect art and architecture is still a valid reason for an American to conduct a Grand Tour, I think there may be even more important reasons:
1. The democracy, capitalism, religion, and educational system, that American's think uniquely American all originated in Europe.
2. To observe another option to America's current version of democracy, capitalism, religion, and educational system. Places where there are more than two political parties, a non-Darwinian economic system, a kinder gentler version of religion, and an educational system that produces graduates who speak more than one language, one of which, English, better than some Americans.
- only in the States, can a man be called intelligent who knows how to speak only one language (ok, maybe Great Britain also).
3. To observe some just plain good ideas:
- a transportation system that, while not necessarily cheaper, actually works, whether it's a bus, tram, funicular, railcar, cable car, auto, subway, plane (ever visited LGA?), ferry, or donkey.
- a handheld credit card terminal that is brought to the table at the end of a meal so a customer can pay by credit card, but not let the credit card out of their possession so it can be copied for future credit card fraud (and then have the cardholder wonder "how did someone get my credit card number?").
- restaurant prices and bills that include the tax and tip (Well that's only France, but it's still a damn good idea).
- put down those Kraft cheese singles (I was almost an adult before I realized it wasn't even cheese) and take a bite of some Manchego, fresh Mozzarella, grilled Halloumi, ripened Camembert, etc.
- the metric system - nuff said.
- while Porto is famous for the eponymous wine, if I were you I'd instead drink the red wine from the Douro Valley. I've extensively sampled them (x20, all for <$10), and never a clinker.
- same for rosé from Provence, though not as many and not as inexpensive.
- while the "fashion" in Paris can be quite watchable, I'm talking about a region of the world where people care about how they dress. That guy with the t-shirt that says "I'm with Stupid ---->", is definitely not a local.
While visiting the Continent you may need:
- A Room: see The After Action Report: The Lodging Protocol
- An Auto: see The After Action Report: The Rental Car Protocol
- A Flight: see The After Action Report: The Flying Protocol
- Make sure your credit card does not have a foreign transaction fee and your ATM card does not have an international withdrawal fee. I used the Capital One Venture credit card and ATM Card.
- Know someone that lives in Europe? Then start being extra nice to them, as there is nothing like experiencing Europe with a local (and maybe you'll get some free digs to boot).
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details which while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ The Revolutionary War is also called the American Revolution or the American War of Independence (by the British). It should not be confused with the War of the Rebellion (which for you southern sympathizers means The Civil War).
² When you walk into a French retail shop you will be greeted by the words "Bon Jour" (English "Good Day"), you in turn reply . . . "Bon Jour". That is just the way it is and if you ask me it is quite civilized. I was amazed by the number of tourists who did not do this.
³ If you are of a certain age, Eastern Europe may conjure overcast visions of the Cold War with soldiers in odd-looking uniforms manning guard posts overlooking rolls of barbed wire. Well to many who live in Eastern Europe, this is ancient history, so much so that they no longer live in Eastern Europe, they live in Central Europe, with Eastern Europe reserved for countries to the east that were previously a part of the Soviet Union. When I was in Budapest, young folk had no qualms about informing me of this fact.
⁴ Leaving the Schengen Area for one day does NOT cause a reset. It is a running total: you cannot stay >90 days within the last 180. What if you stay more than 90 days? You may face a ban on reentry and a fine, though I have never heard of a first-hand experience. I have also heard that Germany is much more stringent than Greece. Hmmmm, didn't see that coming.
⁵ France and Belgium both claim ownership of Frites or what Americans call French fries, though they may have been invented in Spain.
My Grand Tour of Europe lasted from Sep 2017 to Jun 2018 and consisted of the following:
Keflavik, Iceland: A 45-minute stopover. Welcome to the EU.
Paris, France: When people ask what my favorite city was, I tell them Paris (I mean it's Paris for Christ's sake!).
Aix-en-Provence: Walking in the footsteps of Cézanne (pronounced "sāyz anne", ya know, like ya's frum Brooklyn).
Paris, France: While the Louvre and the Musée Picasso were stunning, the best part was people watching from an outdoor café.
Normandy, France: Ever wondered why so many men died at Omaha Beach vs. Utah, Sword, Gold, or Juno?
Brussels, Belgium: Everyone asked us why? It was actually was quite nice.
Budapest, Hungary: Paris on the Danube, only cheaper. Plus we visited with a friend (it's nice to have someone on the inside).
Bucharest, Romania: The best haircut I ever received at Mr. Blade (that and a shot of Jameson).
Ruse, Bulgaria (Pyce, България): You know you've reached Bulgaria when you don't even recognize the letters.
Sofia, Bulgaria (София, България): Pronounced SOH-fee-uh. Admired Che Guevera's beret at the Museum of Socialist Art
Tel Aviv, Israel: Miami on the Med. A lot of young people who speak perfect English and eat $28 pizza.
Jerusalem, Israel: Met a group of Palestinian women on the Dome of the Rock who shared with us their lunch of hummus, radishes, dolmas (Arabic: mahshi), cherry tomatoes, and conversation (via a Christian Arab interpreter Birsharar, who later scammed us at lunch). A Tony Bourdain moment. Also a Mount of Olive's DIY Walking Tour & Dead Sea and Masada DIY Tour.
Petra, Jordan: Met our guide Muhammad and our driver Muhammad, who guided us through Jerash, one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy, and arranged for us to meet the mother in law of Mrs. AAR's friend's granddaughter.
Rum Wadi, Jordan: Stayed at a semi-authentic Bedouin camp. Toured Valley of the Moon where The Martian, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and numerous other movies were filmed. Beautiful red desolation. The Jordanian version of Monument Valley.
Tel Aviv, Isreal: Late overnight arrival with next day departure to . . .
Barcelona, Spain: Attended a concert by the violin virtuoso Ara Malikian, who does an impressive cover of "Kasmir de Led Zeppelin"
Lisbon, Portugal: We had a better time than Barcelona (and cheaper). Partook in Ginga (sour cherry liqueur), G&Ts, and pastel de nata.
Porto, Portugal: Never mind the Port, more Duero Valley wine please!!! Took the #500 bus to Salto o Muro for Caldeirada (fish stew).
Marrakesh, Morocco: More couscous please!! Yves Saint Laurent Museum, it was a lot of tourists but still worth it, especially the art of Jardin Majorelle.
Aït Benhaddou, Morocco: The set of Game of Thrones (I literally went around the world, and this is the only place my niece and nephews cared about). The starting point of our Moroccan Road Trip, which took us through . . .
Tondra Gorge/Tinghir, Morocco: Stayed at Riad Dar Bab Todra, which is run by a bunch of teenagers (The Kid's Place), then onto the Moroccan Grand Canyon (Tondra Gorge).
Merzouga, Morocco: A semi-authentic Berber camp in the middle of the Sahara, a half an hour camel trip from civilization. It's cold out here and I sleep with all my clothes on.
Midelt, Morocco: Stayed with Mustafa (his wife and two sons) at his Hostel Kasbah Izoran. Cold, but delightful.
Meknes, Morroco: Inbound viewed the Barbary Macaques sitting in a tree.
Chefchaouen, Morocco: Received a speeding ticket from the Royal Gendarmerie (الدرك الملكي المغربي). The Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie takes speeding very seriously but does not take American Express. Attended a local wedding in a mountain village (bride on a donkey, husband in a tight western suite, hashish anyone?) - A true Tony Bourdain moment.
Fez: Morocco: Like all medinas, it is a maze of narrow alleys and souks, so I constantly noted where I was, so I could ensure I knew how to get home. Famous for its tannery, but as I already smelled the one in Marakkesh, decided to give it the go-by.
Rabat, Morocco: Took the train from Fez. Everyone told us that the port cities in Morocco are to be avoided, but we quite enjoyed Rabat. Dinner at Le Dhow, which is located in a dhow (excellent), watched the World Cup in the hold cum nightclub.
London, UK: Stayed in Battersea, which due to lack of Tube access, may have been a bad place to stay. Saw the play Mary Stuart in the West End (excellent). The Imperial War Museum: they don't make military museums any better than this.
Reykjavík, Iceland: The land of $12 beer, budget accordingly. Took a dip in the Blue Lagoon and toured the Golden Circle.
Belfast, UK: Saw the Cupar Way Peace Wall which separates the Catholics (Falls Road) from the Protestants (The Shankill) - sometimes a wall can do what religion can't. Took The Troubles Tour - An AAR Must Tour.
Liverpool, UK: Had a drink at the Philharmonic Dining Rooms. A friendly conversation with a local who was kind enough to buy me a pint. The most beautiful loo I ever took a leak in.
Stonehenge, UK: Prior to '78, you could trod amongst the stones, but all those tourists ruined it for me. Now I could only see it all from 10m away.
London, UK: Spent a night at Gatwick Airport before flying to . . .
Prague, Czech Republic: The beer is cheaper than water . . . oh yeah, that and the Charles Bridge. Michael "Prague" was our host.
Bratislava, Slovakia: Had a drink (or two) at the Skybar with bartender Miro and discussed the finer points of cocktails and was rewarded with . . . free cocktails. Visited the UFO Bridge for beer o'clock.
Vienna, Austria: Caught up on my Wienerschnitzel and Walked in the Footsteps of History. (Hitler's that is, at the Heldenplatz).
Salzburg, Austria: Took a Sound of Music tour (what else could one do?). Stayed at Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel, which translates into Four Season Hotel. Prior to our stay, Mrs. AAR called the hotel on the phone, and they must have known she was an American as they answered the phone "Four Seasons", my wife then figured she had dialed the wrong number, as I would never book a room at THE Four Seasons. When we arrived we realized that while it was not THE Four Seasons, it was a very nice hotel. Visited the "oldest staircase in the world" at the Hallein Salt Mine.
Munich, Germany: Walking in the footsteps of Hitler. Downtown Munich was completely destroyed during WWII. Though it was not very industrial it was heavily bombed by the Allies as it was the birthplace of Nazism ("it was personal"). It has been completely rebuilt to look like it was prior to the war.
Berlin, Germany: I stood at the spot where Hitler committed suicide and wondered "Am I the only one that thinks this is really cool?!". Met up with The Goddaughter and toured The Reichstag. Walked in the Footsteps of History at the Brandenburg Gate.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Created a DIY canal tour by renting my own canal boat which allowed us to enter "the forbidden zone”. The Escher Museum in The Hague was quite nice.
Zagreb, Croatia: Croatian Museum of Naive Art (who needs school) with its art on glass.
Rovinj, Croatia: A quaint city on the Adriatic with Italian influences.
Prijebul, Croatia: Visited the nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Zadar, Croatia: Along the waterfront is a sea organ where the waves interact with the organ in order to create somewhat random but harmonic sounds.
Šibenik, Croatia: Croatia has some of the best roads in the world, perfect for a road trip.
Split, Croatia: Visited The Ivan Meštrović Gallery ("Meštrović was the greatest phenomena among the sculptors of today" - Auguste Rodin). Note the ć is pronounced "ch".
Podgora, Croatia: A quaint village directly on the Adriatic, which allowed me a very pleasant swim.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: A very beautiful walled old city filled with too many tourists.
Glasgow, UK: Visited with good friends over an Aperol Spritz and met the Connacht Rugby team (does it get any better than that!). Attended a confirmation at St. Aloysius Church which contains the only Last Supper painting I've ever seen that that has Jesus and his Apostles gathered 'round a U-shaped table (like they were at a business conference).
Warsaw, Poland: Visited the Warsaw Rising Museum and took a class to learn how to make pierogi and drink wódka.
Krakow, Poland: Visited Auschwitz and noted work does not make you free.