During the 18th and 19th centuries, the sons of noble families often booked a slow journey across continental Europe. Often traveling with a private tutor, or sometimes even with their families, these very privileged young men would pack heavy trunks, board ships or wagons, and sail or ride to the continent. For British travelers, this usually meant sailing across the English Channel, then hiring a French guide to escort them to Paris and across the country, through Switzerland, and down to Italy. This was the most typical route, but there were many, and of course Germans and Poles and other ethnicities chose vastly different routes.
During this long travel, these well-heeled offspring absorbed culture, admired art and science, and chased local girls, in no particular order. Catholics sometimes pursued different routes from Protestants, though both presumably dragged themselves through a lot of churches and cathedrals, down naves and transepts and apses. It was expected from all the young tourists that they would return home from the journey carrying books, scientific instruments, objets d’art, and other artifacts. Later in life, these items would be put on display to impress visitors with their worldliness. Young painters and writers usually did a much lower-cost version of the same itinerary.
Anyways, this tradition was called the Grand Tour of Europe. More than a few enterprising 18th-century publishers sold guidebooks targeted to these young art tourists, making them the precursors to Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, or Moon. When railroads became widespread across the continent in the mid-1800s, the cost of travel was reduced even further, and the nouveau riche children of the upper-middle classes were able to join in the fun, including young women. Today, it’s even more accessible: new college graduates often scrape together some money to do the broke backpacking thing in Europe for a couple months before moving on with their professional lives.
Unlike those young travelers from centuries ago, I’m definitely not in my twenties, I’m definitely not an aristocrat, and I definitely don’t need to prove my status to anybody. Plus, I already studied the Renaissance liberal arts during a year at Oxford University, I’m paid regularly for my writing and editing in the field of European history, and I have watched a hell of a lot of Anthony Bourdain. So I didn’t want to undertake a European tour for the normal reasons.
But I do enjoy exploring places I’ve never been, usually the more exotic the better, with an eye to writing fiction. Plus, as a digital nomad who works remotely, I’m free to go where I want, when I want. That’s why I decided to undertake my own Grand Tour, sticking closely to the itinerary described above: France, Switzerland, northern Italy, then finally reversing up to England and Scotland. Most of the places were new to me.
I’d meant to do this last year, but planning travel in pandemic-stricken Europe during 2021 was no easy task. It felt like navigating a hallway of buzzsaws. Things were so fluid, borders rolling open, then snapping shut, entry requirements changing monthly, that it was easier just to wait.
Here are a few observations and highlights.
As a metropolis, it’s possibly the biggest cliché in the world. Maybe that was why this superstar primate city honestly didn’t fire me up too much. I stayed in both Montmartre and Le Marais, and the problem wasn’t the food (obviously terrific), or the people (surprisingly friendly), or the attractions (world-class). No, the problem was the scale of the city—bedrooms, doorways, chairs, tables, everything was three-quarters size. I’m not claustrophobic, but there was almost no relief for this 6’2” male with broad shoulders and long legs. I take up room and Paris doesn’t like to grant that.
Also, after traipsing through the Louvre and Versailles and other sites, I started to feel tired. Historical tourism burnout is real. Constant daily visits to crumbling structures make children whine, lower backs ache, interest wane. Unless you have the passion of an archaeologist or professional historian, the sites soon blur together. Personally, I don’t spend more than ninety minutes in any museum, if I can help it.
But don’t misinterpret me. The vin chaud in the streets was delicious and climbing the steps up to the Basilique du Sacré-Couer felt truly iconic. From a literary perspective, even though the city is well-trodden ground, next year I’ll be cowriting a romantic mystery set in 18th-century Enlightenment Paris.
I elected to spend many weeks here, in a beautiful modern rented condo overlooking the River Saône. It was a good decision. There is much more room in Lyon than in Paris, and it is France’s premier gastronomical city, the home of Paul Bocuse and many other chefs. In the first two weeks, I visited a few classic boucherie lyonnaise to sample the old menu items such as quenelles (fishcakes) and saucisson de Lyon (sausage) and salade de lyonnaise (with bacon, eggs, and croutons). Soon, however, I realized these classic restaurants were all more or less the same, so I switched to modern eateries, such as Breizh Café for the savory galettes.
But my biggest takeaway was that the French really excel at breakfast foods. It’s the pastries such as the Paris-Brest or apricot tartlettes, the many quiches, the terrific breads. Just don’t expect great coffee; the French don’t care to do it very well. There’s better coffee in the United States, no joke.
The city has an ancient quarter with a gorgeous Roman amphitheater, a strong history of silk and weaving, breathtaking plazas with hundreds of people sipping beers in the cold spring nights, and a great network of trams and subways. I even went to my first professional European soccer match, Lyon v Angiers, which was sedate.
One afternoon, I climbed up to the Croix Rousse and accidentally stumbled into a massive political rally featuring Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing candidate for president of France. I couldn’t understand his speech because my listening comprehension is basement level, but he came in third to Macron and Le Pen a few weeks later.
My recommendation: Go to Lyon and stay for at least a week, if not longer. It’s better than Paris for living.
I spent Easter Sunday weekend here and didn’t see too much because half the city was closed. Yes, it’s mind-bogglingly expensive, and the home of high-end wristwatches, with Patek Philippe advertisements on nearly every corner. But the Red Cross Museum was unexpectedly touching, with its exhibits on humanitarianism and refugee crises. Still, the north wind off the lake was brutal and I can only imagine how rough the winter gets there. The Swiss people felt much livelier than the French people in the previous stop, but that’s probably the difference between a quieter regional city like Lyon and a glamorous international city like Geneva.
It’d been 15 years since my feet last touched The Boot. Italians are still Italians – fun, maddening, loud, obsessed with food and drink. I stayed in the Porta Romana neighborhood, near Bocconi University, and the old man at the café on the corner could make the world’s best macchiato in about half a minute. I drank three every morning.
The Duomo is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the city, but the tapestries and art in the Castello Sforzesco gave me a quick thrill of discovery. Strolling the canals in the Navigli district was beautiful. But overall the city isn’t as romantic as Rome, which is like saying an apple isn’t as sweet as high fructose corn syrup. There’s no reason to even pit them against one another. It’s not a fair fight.
At five o’clock every day, I enjoyed an aperitivo, which is the Italian, and Milanese, tradition of happy hour. For seven euros, you get one cocktail and a wide array of carby snacks like pizza, ham and cheese sandwich, etc. If you’re a light eater, it can even serve as dinner.
Recommendation: Head to the Navigli canal district, pick a bar, order an aperitivo, and enjoy top-shelf people watching as the sun goes down.
A quick visit to the city of dreaming spires taught me three things.
One, memory decays with time, because I had completely misplaced the location of the Turf Tavern, an old favorite.
Two, young Brits are obnoxious drunks. The drinking scene wasn’t pretty when I was a college kid there, and nothing seems to have changed despite the new alcohol policy enacted by the UK government. They’re loud and sloppy and their bad reputation on the continent is well-deserved.
Three, punting on the River Cherwell is still stressful and overrated. A paddle is a thousand times better than a pole. I will die on that hill.
Recommendation: The leather sofas in the back room of the King’s Arms, which dates from 1607.
I hadn’t expected to like this city in the southwest of England as much as I did. My coworking space was closely situated to my historic apartment in the old city centre, and the beautiful Temple Meads train station was a quick half mile walk. I went out dancing at nightclubs for the first time in three years. That felt good, so the next night I went out to an energetic rock gig by a young Welsh band in the hull of the Thekla, a cargo ship anchored in the harbor.
Nearby, the city of Bath was a bit of an overpriced tourist trap, which I gather it’s been for centuries, but the Royal Crescent was worth the visit, especially for architecture nuts.
It was only a week, but I’d return here for a longer stay.
I was partly holed up with a bad head cold here, but it wasn’t my first visit anyways. Little needs to be said except that this remains the most atmospheric city in the UK. (Bonus: Stumbling onto Adam Smith’s tomb in a cemetery.) Someday, when I plunge into historical or fantasy writing, I’ll come back here. It’s inspirational.
Fort William, Scotland
This small town in the Highlands serves as a hub for those who are climbing Ben Nevis (the U.K.’s highest mountain, just outside of town), visiting whiskey distilleries, or fantasy fans who dream of traveling to Hogwarts. Let me explain that last one. In the Harry Potter movies, the century-old historic Jacobite steam train stood in for the famous Hogwarts Express. The real train continues to depart every morning at 10 am sharp, burning coal on its way across the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (also seen in the movies). The seats are packed to the gills with members of Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor houses. I was told that Slytherin tends to keep to themselves. I took said train and it was really a special experience. Another experience was a classic high tea at the Inverlochy Castle Hotel, which is about the only thing a normal person can afford there.
All I knew about Glasgow came from stereotypes: impossible accents and druggy poverty. Happy surprise to find out that it’s nothing like that. What I saw was a normal functioning city with beautiful green lush Victorian parks and a strong central business district. There were a lot of clouds and some sun. The highlight was my impeccably stocked Airbnb, with fantasy books, board games, and no less than fifty bottles of liquor.
Overall, I found several new things to like about the UK.
- Clotted cream. It’s not available in the US because we haven’t legalized unpasteurized milk. This delicacy sits somewhere between heavy cream and butter, fat-wise. I never really understood scones until slathering them with this stuff.
- Doner kebabs. Lamb (my favorite), chicken, or veggie—they’re healthy, affordable, and portable. I wish we had more of those options in the US.
- Parks. The Victorians knew how to make you linger in a way that others don’t.
I also found quite a few things not to like about the UK:
- The cost of living in London. Even if I’d wanted to spend more than one night there, I couldn’t have.
- Bad clothing. I’m no expert, but Brits really don’t know how much about patterns or colors. Once I spotted a girl wearing a shirt that was divided in two parts and clashed with itself.
- Marmite. Holy Christ, one tiny taste had me gagging in horror. It was like eating a rancid bouillon cube. Be better than that, England.
And that was the end. I didn’t do any writing during this time, as I was busy with other work and tourism. But I did plan in detail a new, large body of fiction – two ambitious new mystery series plus a historical thriller trilogy. Working from outlines is essential for me; as a ghost, I tried “pantsing” (writing without an outline) and it doesn’t really yield the best results, at least not for mysteries. When my travel ends in the next few months, the publishing will return. I’ve learned that it’s one or the other, in my brain.
Anyways, it’s a big world. Let’s go see it all.