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Book Review: The Grand Tour: the European Adventure of a Continental Drifter by Tim Moore

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Tim Moore doesn't do ordinary. Certainly not as far as travel is concerned. He's walked the breadth of northern Spain with a donkey, cycled the Tour de France route and capered across the sites on the London Monopoly board. In The Grand Tour he goes back in time to follow the footsteps of Thomas Coryate, a 17th-century Somerset writer. Coryate’s unprecedented hike through western Europe rehearsed what, two centuries on, would become the Grand Tour. Returning home, Coryate wrote the first European travelogue, introduced the fork to the English table and the umbrella to the English language.

Inspired by this trail-blazer in tights, Tim Moore sets out to repeat the feat. But not on foot. Instead, he opts for a carriage designed by Messrs Rolls and Royce, a battered Silver Shadow that’s well past its drive-by date. Allowing Coryate to dictate his route, Moore sets off for France, making his way through northern Italy before taking a hair-raising trip round hairpin bends in the Alps. After journeying across Switzerland, he arrives in Germany and finally reaches the Netherlands.

As in his other books, Moore adopts a sardonic, gently mocking style. Some American reviewers have found his remarks about Serbs, Germans and Italians to be in bad taste. But Moore’s approach is never cruel, and if he’s good at poking fun at others, he’s not slow to ridicule himself. A hapless attempt to steer a small boat through the waterways of Venice offers a flavour of Moore’s mockery.

As well as not knowing what I was doing, I never knew where I was going. One minute I was sobbing gently along the Rio della Misericordia, the next I was out in the bloody open sea, with car ferries and barnacled buoys and foghorns and an enormous gale straight in my teeth, and the boat which had seemed so enormous as I ricocheted from one crumbling palazzo wall to another suddenly seemed a stupid child's toy, complete with stupid child. And try as I might – to the extent of regularly defying one-way signs and gesturing boatswains – there was just no avoiding the brutal maritime anarchy that was the Grand Canal. Gondola ferries criss-crossing, vaporetti zig-zagging, barging barges full of builders' rubble and beer bottles, and the pilots of all bellowing "Sinistra! Destra!" and calling me all the names under the rain.

Comedy, of course, can only take the reader so far, and one of the reasons why Moore’s writing is so enjoyable is his ability to juggle humour and history, facts and farce, medieval misadventures with Moore-ish mishaps. Combining an account of the history of Milan with a description of a hare-brained attempt to smuggle an anchovy pizza into a hotel requires some fancy footwork. But the segue is effected smoothly and seamlessly.

In the midst of his traveller’s travails, Moore doesn't forget the inspiration for his trip. Quoting extensively from Coryate’s book, Moore uses it as the perfect counterpoint for his own journey. He may take issue with Coryate’s less appealing qualities – bigotry and anti-Semitism among them – but Moore has a sense of Coryate’s spirit, and the further he goes, the stronger it grows. A blistering walk from Heidelberg to Frankfurt brings it painfully home to Moore that Coryate made it from England to Venice and back without so much as a skateboard.

Both Coryate and Moore safely reached journey’s end, and both wrote accounts of their epic voyages. But whereas Moore’s has proved hugely popular, Coryate’s literary efforts were not blessed with good fortune. In a poignant finale, Moore describes the hi-jacking of Coryate’s book by malicious rivals who took to sniping at his stories and belittling his achievements. In response, Coryate embarked on an even more ambitious journey, only to end his days alone in India, while remaining a laughing stock at home.

Yet, all is not lost. Tim Moore has dusted off Coryate's accomplishments and held them up to be celebrated. Smaller minds made him the butt of every joke, but, four centuries on, Thomas Coryate can have the last laugh.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!