Mary McGillivray

Calling to all the Historically Curious community – we have someone special to introduce: Mary McGillivray, historian, art lover, and veteran rover of Europe!

Your ultimate guide to taking on the continent

In the days of yore, young men with means, particularly in the United Kingdom, ventured out on the “Grand Tour” at the end of their education. The length of the trip could vary, depending on interests and cash reserves. Yet it usually focused on intellectual and cultural exploration: to absorb the grandeur of Greek theater, to stand in awe below the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceilings, to taste the richness of French cuisine. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, British women began to travel as well. As with their male counterparts, they sought the education and refinement that the continent could offer. Some of them wrote remarkable travel logs and journalism, which people back home devoured. Yet in many cases, woman could not enjoy the same travel experiences as men during this time.  Luckily, we now live in a world that’s far more equal, where men AND women can embark on life-changing travels. And though the “Grand Tour” definitely needs some modern updates, its core mission remains valuable. Today, we’re going to discuss how that might look, especially for solo female travelers, eager to experience the marvels of Europe. To help us we’re bringing in the one and only Mary McGillivray!

The roots of the “Grand Tour”

First things first. Let’s go a bit deeper into what the original “Grand Tour” was. As we said, it was mostly for young men with deep pockets. Typically, they’d embark on this trip as a rite of passage, after taking their degrees but before joining the workforce. The most traditional “Grand Tour” began at the Port of Dover. Then, travelers crossed the channel by boat to Belgium, and from there, made their way south via countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, all with a key destination in mind: the cultural and historical riches of Italy. At the time, travel for women was rarely possible without a chaperone, though the mass adoption of railways led to some amount of change.

From the castle heights at the Port of Dover you can see England and the continent!
From the castle heights at the Port of Dover you can see England and the continent!

Mary’s modern tour of Europe

Now, let’s shoot back to the present! Mary, our history-loving guide, has decided to follow some of the original stops of the old “Grand Tour” but with a decidedly modern twist. She began her exploration deep in the Swiss Alps. In a nod to the 19th century, Mary explored this magical place via the Bernina Express, a remarkable train route that begins in either Chur or St. Moritz, and then chugs along over 55 viaducts, through 39 tunnels, and by countless scenes of natural wonder and small village charm. For Mary, the views out the enormous windows of the train were unforgettable, especially when they reached 2328 meters in altitude.

Seek thrills on rails and stunning views on train rides in the Swiss Alps
Seek thrills on rails and stunning views on train rides in the Swiss Alps.

Italy, Tirano

Next stop? Italy’s Tirano, a town of great allure which you can reach by train. Now, you might think you know a bit about Italian food, but in the deep north of the country, there’s tons to explore. Mary tasted unique mountain dishes such as sciatt (fried cheese balls made of buckwheat), chisciöl (a pancake made with water, salt, buckwheat and cheese), and pizzoccheri alla valtellinese (a type of pasta that’s typical of this region and made with buckwheat). Be honest, had you heard of these dishes before reading about them here? Aside from tasting the food, be sure to visit the Santuario della Madonna di Tirano, a church built in the early 16th century after locals believed the Virgin Mary appeared there in September 1504.

Lovely Tirano, Italy, awaits your exploration
Lovely Tirano, Italy, awaits your exploration.

Italy, Siena

From Tirano, Mary began a journey south toward Siena. Painted in hues of burnt umber and rich ocher, Siena is the quintessence of old Italian elegance. At its heart stands the zebra-striped cathedral, which is a local symbol and is known as one of the most gorgeous churches in all of Europe. Mary explored each nook and cranny of the building, admiring its esoteric idols and the ancient religious stories that go along with them. Next, Mary visited the Palazzo Pubblico, an imposing structure whose construction began in 1297 and where each of the city’s leaders has lived. Today, the building also houses the Civic Museum, a place where you can dive deep into the history of Siena and the region broadly.

Put on your walking shoes to see all of stand-out Siena, Italy
Put on your walking shoes to see all of stand-out Siena, Italy.

Italy, Rome

As the last stop on her journey, Mary arrived at the glorious city of Rome. In the 18th and 19th centuries, before cameras were widely available, tourists turned to local portrait painters for a souvenir. One painter, Pompeo Batoni, captured the likeness of thousands of visitors in his workshop, which still exists! Mary visited it at 25 Via Bocca di Leone. These days, taking a picture is as natural as breathing. But bucking the selfie trend as Mary sometimes likes to do, she opted for something more anachronistic and had her portrait drawn by a local artist. This is a unique way to remember your travels once you’ve returned home.

You'll breathe history in the romantic old streets of Rome
You’ll breathe history in the romantic old streets of Rome.

Tips and advice: traveling solo as a woman in Europe

Are you just starting to plan for your solo female trip? Not sure where to go, how to get around, what are the best practices when it comes to safety? That’s totally normal. Our best advice? Lean on those women who have already done their “Grand Tour.” We asked Mary to prepare her most important tips so that you can venture out on your own. Here is what she wanted to share:

  • Europe is one of the safest places on earth, especially for women. You can explore countries from east to west, north to south with the confidence that you are secure.
  • A few things you might want to consider to make your journey even safer: Carry a photocopy of your passport. Keep one bank card on you and one at your lodgings. It’s also great to have a bit of cash. If you’re staying at a hostel or a communal space, make sure your belongings are safe. Only take registered, legal taxis.
  • Buy a local sim card (don’t be stingy on this one!) with good coverage in every country you will visit, and invest in a portable power pack to charge your phone on the go. Always having access to your phone and internet will give you peace of mind as a solo female traveler, and make getting around easier!
  • And finally, trust your gut! Your good judgment will guide you well.

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