The Smell of the Continent

Christina Hardyment revels in a century of European exploration

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Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Author: Richard Mullen and James Munson
Publisher: Macmillan
Price (RRP): £20

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A peach of an idea: take the conveniently neat century between 1815, when intrepid English travellers crossed the Channel almost before the cannons of Waterloo had cooled, and 1914, when the shutters abruptly fell between Britain and Europe with the start of the First World War. Then study the escalating phenomenon of British culture-vultures, invalids, gays, hedonists and bankrupts setting out, courage high and hearts aglow, to explore every nook and cranny of the continent.

It was the booming British economy and the advent of railways that turned a handful of wealthy travellers into torrents of tourists, many of them shepherded by the enterprising Thomas Cook. Soon the middling sort were on the move as well as the gentry, directed to the ‘Lions’, as the must-see sights in Paris and Switzerland, Vienna and Rome were known, by constantly updated guidebooks.

From the 1840s, these were dominated by John Murray, who pinched his hugely successful format from Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent by the redoubtable pioneer rambling rose, Mariana Starke. Murray told you what to pack, what to wear and where to stay. Hippolyte Taine likened one to “the interior of an English head… which contains many facts and few ideas”. Heavy, expensive and distinctly posh, they were soon challenged by Baedekers and Bradshaws, travelogues and novels.

Such literature was essential because everything was unfamiliar, even perilous. Reading the hilarious and hair-raising ways in which travellers battled with inadequate passports, unfamiliar food, noxious sanitation, flea-ridden pensions, uncertain postal services, bumpy roads, bandits and gigolos, one is filled with a huge admiration at their determination – and the degree of their success in bringing at least some of the comforts of home to the continent.

Over the century, travel was democratised. Magnificently equipped horse-drawn travelling carriages gave way to public ‘diligences’, more or less luxurious trains and throngs of bicyclists. With the arrival of the car, the first ‘automobilists’ brought elitism back with lots of noise. The absence of speed limits in France meant that the devotee of speed could “peg down the accelerator pedal and go all day”. Peasants shouted “Assassin!” at Kipling as he roared by.

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In their introduction, Richard Mullen and James Munson explain that the material for their book was garnered on index cards over three decades, ever since both became fascinated by the subject while writing Oxford doctorates on the Victorian travellers. There is, however, nothing tediously academic in their presentation. The only problem is that the snowstorm of engaging and arresting quotations from guidebooks, travel diaries, intimate letters, novels, magazine articles and biographies keeps you constantly flipping to notes and the bibliography, and may well leave you with a further reading list as long as your arm.