The Grand Tour of Europe

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

"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").

8. Options:

- 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:

  1. After you clear customs and enter the Schengen Area, if you keep within the 26 countries, you will never have to clear customs again.

  2. 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


Misc:

- 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).

A European Travel Icon and the Eiffel Tower

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.



A European Travel Icon and the Brandenburg Gate

Addendum

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?