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Means of Transport

The importance of a good means of transport

Thanks to continual improvements in the railroad system, over the fairly long span of time for which the vogue of the Grand Tour lasted, there was constant progress in the convenience, speed and efficiency of means of transport. The pages devoted to the subject in the accounts of travelers are many and couched in tones that vary widely, from the prescriptive (what characteristics the vehicle ought to have), to the anecdotal (which can oscillate between the ironic and the dramatic, depending on the gravity of the event related) and even to the inspired vision of those who see the means of transport as a window on the world, be it the outside one, the landscape, or the inner, human one, made up of the microcosm of passengers.

There is nothing surprising about the importance attached to the subject if we take into account the disparity with the comforts of the modern era and consider the fact that, in 1740, it took Charles de Brosses a whole grueling day to get to Florence from Bologna by stagecoach, for going up and down the Apennines was no easy thing. In fact, if the mountains he encountered while passing through the papal state were «good little devils of Apennines» the ones on the Tuscan side were «more difficult to tackle», rough and wild.

Thus the safety, comfort, speed and, last but not least, dignity of the means of transport were not secondary concerns but vital ones. Traveling in comfort was the fundamental requirement of the whole organization of the tour. Of course the word “comfort” could mean different things to different people. Not only did financial resources vary widely from one traveler and another, but also inclinations. Whether one loved speed or preferred to go slowly, whether one regarded the comforts of home as indispensable or believed that travel also entailed making some sacrifices for the sake of adventure and discovery, whether one appreciated company or hated chatter: all these indisputable differences, and above all, naturally, money, determined the different choices and modes of the journey.

The carriage as protagonist

Personaggi in carrozza in un'incisione settecentesca dello Zocchi

The centrality of the theme unfailingly signified the centrality of its protagonist: the carriage. Between the saddle horse on which Montaigne traveled toward the end of the 16th century (a means of transport still used by John Evelyn in the middle of the next), the primitive and heavy carts of a few decades later and the comfortable cars of the railroads on whose tracks Thomas Cook made his fortune as a pioneering tour operator, centuries went by in which it ruled unchallenged, a tangible symbol of the age of great journeys. Hand in hand with its modernization, this ancestor of the modern camper became a status symbol , the subject of ever more minutely regulated treatises and the worthy inspiration of a poetic prose that extolled its appearance and functions. The pleasure of the journey actually commenced with the operations connected with the choice and fitting out of the carriage, a pure delight not yet tainted by the discomforts of the real journey. Well into the 19th century (1840), John Ruskin (already!) had words of nostalgia for the coach journey and rancor for the public and organized one that made use of the railroad: «The poor modern slaves and simpletons who let themselves be dragged like cattle, through the countries [...] they imagine themselves visiting can have no conception whatever of the complex joys and ingenuous hopes, connected with the choice and arrangement of the travelling carriage in old times.» This was a refined pleasure restricted to a fortunate few, although anyone undertaking a tour of those proportions would certainly have had a well-to-do background .

The alternative for travelers

Gentlemen traveled by private coach, whose impressive appearance was intended to announce the wealth of its owner in advance. The less well-off could choose between the public stagecoach, which was fairly slow and not very comfortable, making the journey by changing horses or hiring a vehicle and trusting in the good offices of its coachman proprietor. These were the possibilities with which the vast majority of travelers who set out on the long tour had to reckon.


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