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Author Tony Perrottet
Tony Perrottet - Click to Enlarge
 
The Original Roman Holiday

Australian author Tony Perrottet on retracing what may be the world's oldest grand tour—a multiyear Mediterranean itinerary originated by the ancients.

Nearly two millennia ago, Roman scholars, families, emperors, and a few well-heeled women kick-started what is now considered the world's largest industry—travel. Tourism was born in part because Augustus had rid the Mediterranean of pirates, highways were safe for travel, and inns and guides could be found throughout the ancient world's wonders—all of which made the exploration of Italy, Greece, Asia Minor (now Turkey), and Egypt possible for the first time ever.

Surprisingly, as Australian author Tony Perrottet discovered, the Mediterranean's sights, and sightseers, have changed little since A.D. 100. Following everything from ancient guidebooks to letters excavated from Egyptian sands, Perrottet was able to view this premier vacationland through the eyes of its original tourists, and to discover the Mediterranean anew [Read "Playground of the Gods" in the March 2003 issue of Adventure].

The account of his four-month tour, Route 66 A.D., comes out in paperback next month as Pagan Holiday. Here, Perrottet explains what it's like to take what may be the world's oldest package tour.

NGA: Can you describe what an average ancient Roman holiday was like?
 

Wealthy members of society, [who were] very educated, very sophisticated, chose an itinerary based on the great wonders of history and myths they'd read about all their lives. The grand tour would start in Rome, then [proceed] to Naples, the seaside resort of antiquity.

Then they would go over to Greece, which was like the Old World for the Romans. They loved to go to Athens and to see where Socrates lived, where Plato debated, to the Parthenon and the Acropolis. After Greece, you could go to any port and negotiate directly with the captains of merchant ships going across the Aegean. So you'd sail anywhere you'd wanted.

The Romans weren't very interested in the Greek islands, which were inhabited by shepherds and fishermen. [Most travelers would head directly for] modern Turkey (Asia Minor in antiquity), one of the wealthiest provinces in the empire. All the great spas were there.

But the whole aim of going to Turkey was to visit to the ruins of Troy. Homer was like Shakespeare, [and the Iliad and Odyssey] were regarded like the Bible. Going to Troy was like a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Priests would show off the armor of Achilles or the sword of Hector—completely spurious [artifacts], but there were also war graves of great heroes to see.

Then they would get a boat down to Egypt. Alexandria was an extremely exotic place for Romans, it was a crossroads of Africa and Asia and Europe. They would go to the Pyramids and take a Nile River cruise, stopping at tombs along the way.

[The tours took] two to five years. Two, just for the sheer logistics of it, was about the average.

 
NGA: Why would ancient Romans take this tour?
 

It was very much like the grand tour of the 18th and 19th century. These were aristocrats—antiquarians or poets or writers or lawyers—who had a great deal of money, and it was considered part of your education to go.

You weren't really a complete person until you'd seen these amazing things, very much like the English nobles of 18th century who felt that they had to see Paris and Rome and Florence.

The Romans thought that they should go and meet the philosophers of Athens, see the Acropolis, the Pyramids. Which is still one of the reasons people travel today.

 
NGA: Does anyone still take two-year trips?
 

Well, Australians will go away for two years, commonly. When you finish college, you'll [often] go off and bumble around Asia. But it is considered part of your education or part of your growing up.

I think in America, it's much more puritanical, and employers will look askance if on your resume they see you've wandered around for two years—whereas in Australia, they'll actually be concerned if you haven't seen the world.

When you come back you're more of an informed citizen, and you don't have that sort of endless longing of having missed out on something, which I get a lot from Americans, like, "Oh man, straight from college to schlepping along." And then before you realize it, it becomes harder and harder to go off on one of these trips.

   
NGA: Your inspiration for your trip was the "world's oldest guidebook"?
 

Yes, it was a book called The Description of Greece, written by a guy named Pausanias around A.D. 160. There were actually hundreds of these guidebooks, and this is the only one that survived intact.

Pausanias traveled very widely—he was actually born in Asia Minor—but he spent ten years wandering around Greece, describing every great sight. Some of it is incredibly turgid, because he gets into every sort of obscure mythological argument, [like] why a statue in Olympia is clasping a piece of fruit, and it will go on for pages and pages.

He was very precise—no guidebook writer today would spend ten years writing a guidebook. It's actually a paragon of the art, and archaeologists have actually gone back and used this book to excavate Delphi and Olympia.

When I saw this, it made me realize that you could actually use this today, because all the places he went were the places I wanted to go to. I wanted to go Olympia and climb the Acropolis and look at the Parthenon.

But one of my dreads was to just find piles of rubble overrun with tourists—so it occurred to me that you could look at the ancient world through Pausanius [and other writers] and see it with this double vision, and get back to the ancient reality of what it must have been like.

   
NGA: What was it like to walk in the footsteps of these ancient tourists?
 

Initially I was shocked at the sheer whirlwind of tourism the Mediterranean has become. I went to Pompeii—where millions of people go every year—and it was incredible. I was thinking, Wow, I'm never going to be able to penetrate beyond this chaos.

But the ancient Roman tourists had a very different sense of travel in the sense that they didn't expect to be the only person going to these places. There was even a philosopher who argued that [even though] the Olympic games were uncomfortable and crowded and everyone collapsed from heat exhaustion, he always put up with it because it was an amazing spectacle.

Tourism, in a sense, is a metaphor for life. It can be difficult, but you're not going to give up, because there are great wonders and experiences that make it worth it.

So you can take this philosophical attitude, that there's always going to be chaos at these great places, and in fact there always was in Roman times.

 
NGA: So what were these tourist attractions like in ancient times?
 

There are great descriptions of guides who would prattle on with their rote spiels and who wouldn't answer any questions, souvenir guys, everyone pushing and shoving.

It wasn't the austere, dreamy world that we imagine. It was actually crowded and gaudy and exasperating. So once you start accepting that, then you realize you're in this great tradition where travel has always been difficult in many ways.

To realize that they were bitching about the food and accommodations and getting lost—you realize our modern experiences really echo the ancient tourists'.

 
NGA: A lot of modern travel is a quest for new experiences. When did that begin?
 

It's sort of a romantic idea. In the 18th and 19th century there was this whole movement of individualism in poetry and philosophy, the idea of the private vision and how something affected you personally. [Travel] changed from what had earlier been the pilgrimage tradition.

All through pagan times and the Middle Ages, you went to Jerusalem or Rome to see exactly the same things everyone else saw—that was the point.

One of the curious things today is that we have both of these traditions. We still want to see the Colosseum, but we expect to be the only ones to do that. [The idea of] being the only person in the last valley of Tibet, and the frustration of finding an ATM machine there, is what drives travel writing in a way—that comic tension between the two. I don't know what the solution is.

 
NGA: Before this book, what was your travel ideal?
 

I definitely went into the tradition of going to remote places, like Tierra del Fuego or Zanzibar. So doing this book was going [in the opposite direction] to the most overtrodden places on Earth. And in fact, by following the ancient Roman tourists, I did end up having a unique, individual experience.

I think the bottom line is also that no two experiences are the same. Even if you're wandering into the Colosseum with 50,000 other people, you can still have a unique experience. It doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

 
NGA: Are more people planning their trips around ancient itineraries?
 

Yes, I see a huge pattern of that happening. Because modern travel is no longer adventurous or dangerous—not necessarily. You're not going to where no man has gone before. But by using these historical sources, you get to go to these places and see them afresh.

You get to imagine what it was like when the world was an incredibly new and original thing, and [as an author] you do get to write about something original.


Portrait courtesy Lesley Thelander
—Nicole Davis


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Related Web Site

Route 66 A.D.
Read more about Tony Perrottet's Mediterranean adventure.

Travel Package: Classical Journey Through Greece
Vacation with an esteemed historian on this National Geographic Expedition.

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March 2003



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