By Renée S. Gordon
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
–V. Van Gogh
The concept of traveling for purely personal knowledge and entertainment is a relatively new idea but it appears from cave paintings and early Mesopotamian texts that humans were always on the move. Early travels were in quest of food and resources but as early kingdoms emerged rulers began to send representatives to learn about other lands, to establish alliances and bring back written reports. The most famous of the journalist-voyagers was Marco Polo, whose legendary journey lasted more than 20-years, though Muslims and Greeks had been writing and traveling for more than 1,000-years.
Richard Lassels’ 1670 “Voyage or a Complete Journey Through Italy” contains the earliest mention of the “Grand Tour”. In the mid-17th century the custom of a trip to the major European cities by wealthy young men became a tradition. The tour was ritualized with an itinerary crafted to see particular sites and to be scheduled to coincide with specific festivals. In general the trip set out from Dover, England and continued through Paris, Barcelona, the Alps, Geneva, Turin, Milan, Venice, Naples, Rome, Pompeii, Sicily, Athens, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Potsdam, Munich, Holland and back across the English Channel.
The Grand Tour served as a form of finishing school designed to round out one’s education by introducing an individual to European cultural heritage and continental manners and fashion. Visitors could gain exposure to antiquities and masterpieces of art and music firsthand, an opportunity not otherwise available in many instances. The death knell sounded for the Grand Tour during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era at the end of the 18th-century.
Many trace the travel industry’s beginnings to these journeys. Guidebooks were written and, because there were no photographs, local artists sketched miniature pictures of sites and crafted copies of artworks. This was also the heyday of private collections as the wealthy purchased antiquities for display in their homes.
Travel changed with better, more efficient, modes of transportation and with the rise of the working class more people have been able to trot the globe and see, and do and experience. One of the biggest changes is the fact that there are now opportunities for people to gain exposure to masterpieces through traveling exhibitions and performances.
Philadelphia has always been a multicultural mecca with cultural institutions that date from its earliest years. In fact, Philadelphia would be a mandatory stop on any Grand Tour of the United States. As a Philadelphian you can take the tour any day and there is no time like the present. February is a great time to visit special Black History Month attractions and/or to impress your valentine with the cultural, culinary and retail wonders of the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.
Accommodations were always part of the tour experience. With that in mind there is no better place than the “Grande Dame” of Philadelphia hotels, The Park Hyatt Philadelphia at The Bellevue on the corner of Broad and Walnut Streets. This magnificent edifice was completed in 1904. It closed in 1986 and in 1989 it reopened after extensive restoration. Currently the hotel is completing its most recent renovation. The hotel continues to boast the largest suites in the city, world-class service, luxurious amenities and panoramic views. Gourmet dining spaces are abundant and include The Palm, Café XIX and a trendy food court. Many presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have stayed at the Bellevue along with a host of celebrities.
The Shops at the Bellevue are located on the hotel’s lower level and the area is replete with upscale shops with names like Nicole Miller and Ralph Lauren and Tiffany’s. The Sporting Club fitness center is also located here. This state-of-the-art facility is rated the #2 such center in the country.
The Park Hyatt Philadelphia at The Bellevue was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1977, a grand hotel for a grand tour. www.bellevuephiladelphia.com
One of the great pleasures of a tour of the continent was always the new and exotic food encountered along the way and again Philadelphians have won the travel lottery. Although this winter’s Restaurant Week, hosted by TD Bank and the Center City District/ Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, has just ended, you can still access information on restaurants, menus, locations, contests and even recipes. www.centercityphila.org/life/RestaurantWeek.php
Square 1682 is located on the second floor of the Palomar Hotel. This restaurant blends a casual atmosphere with a creative menu. The service is impeccable and the prices are reasonable. Chef Guillermo Tellez presides over this, Philadelphia’s first LEED-certified green eatery and bar. www.square1682.com
Because the Bellevue is so ideally situated guests are within walking distance of most of Phila.’s downtown attractions. No matter which way you turn adventure awaits you. A walking tour of the Avenue of the Arts, east and west of Market on Broad, is a choice. The tour takes in eight major sites such as Macy’s, City Hall, the Kimmel Center and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). www.avenueofthearts.org
If you only stop for in-depth exploration of a single site on the Avenue of the Arts it must be the PAFA. The art collection is one of the nation’s most impressive and covers the period in American art from the 1760s onward.
This stunning edifice is constantly ranked as one of the city’s architectural icons. At its opening in 1876 it was considered tall at 70-ft but now, dwarfed by larger structures, it manages to captivate because of its sheer beauty. Designed by Furness, darker stonework draws the eye upward to a crowning bas-relief panel and red brick configurations.
If possible, the interior is even more awesome. The Grand Stair Hall features a staircase with bronze and mahogany banisters that soar skyward to the thirteen galleries on the 2nd-floor and a vaulted ceiling. The building is a listed NHL.
Adjacent galleries are located in the Samuel M. V. Hamilton Building. Visitors walk east, a few yards pausing, I hope, to enjoy one of Phila.’s newest urban public spaces, Lenfest Plaza. The plaza, once an alley between buildings, has been transformed with sweeping benches, multi-hued pavers and a whimsical illuminated Oldenburg sculpture of a giant paintbrush and splotch of paint.
The current exhibition in the Hamilton Building is the long-awaited “Henry Ossawa Tanner Modern Spirit.” Tanner, a native Philadelphian, was the first African American artist to achieve international acclaim. The exhibition, on display until April 15, 2012, features more than 100 of his paintings, photographs and sculptures. It is the largest collection of his work to have been on display to date, with works on loan from international institutions and individuals. Of special note is the 1896 “Resurrection of Lazarus,” never before seen outside of France. www.pafa.org
Old City is the best place to enhance your knowledge of historic, multicultural Philadelphia. Two of the newest city sites will give you a concise yet comprehensive view of the early ethnic population.
The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, 6th & Market, is an open-air display on the site of Washington and Adams’ presidential residence. Interpretive plaques relate the stories of the enslaved who staffed the mansion and the black community of the era. The tour is free, self-guided and is augmented with on-site video re-enactments. www.phila.gov/presidentshouse
One block away stands the city’s newest iconic structure, the 100,000-sq. ft. National Museum of American Jewish History. The self-guided tour begins on the 4th-floor with an introductory video. The galleries trace the journey of the Jewish people in America from 1654 when two ships landed in New York harbor carrying the first permanent Jewish settlers.
The displays are technologically creative with interactive areas, dioramas, videos and sound and light narrations. One of the outstanding aspects of the museum is its commitment to tell a comprehensive story. The story of Jewish merchants and their involvement in the slave trade is interpreted, as is Jewish participation in the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements. The tour is chronological and you descend into the modern era and even your exit becomes part of the continuing journey. Be certain to check out the views of the city on each level. www.nmajh.org
Our Philadelphia Museum of Art is world famous for its artworks, its architecture and Rocky. A great photo op on the Grand Tour is definitely the museum’s steps. That said, there are real wonders inside.
PHOTO: “Van Gogh- Up Close”
Currently on view is “Van Gogh- Up Close” until May 6, 2012. This is the first major exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh’s work in a decade. Tours, whether self-guided or with audio-guides, begin with a glorious painting of sunflowers. So spectacular is this painting that Gauguin traded Van Gogh one of his works for it and subsequently Degas owned it.
The exhibition focuses on his ability to capture the simple elements of nature, a blade of grass, butterflies, etc., and his ability to create paintings that appear spontaneous but are actually very composed. Highlights of the exhibition are “Sunflowers,” “Undergrowth” and “Rain,” painted from his asylum window. Quotes from letters and journal entries round out a picture of the short-lived artist (1853-90). www.philamuseum.org
Okay! The Grand Tour has been grand but even the most scholarly traveler needs an unorthodox break once in a while and you can always find that in the Franklin Institute. Who would not love the newest exhibit, “Design Zone,” on display until April 1, 2012? This series of galleries links creativity and math in a way that everyone can understand. Interactive stations allow visitors to create a laser light show, design a roller coaster, invent a video game and, I think best of all, become a DJ and make a music mix. Believe me, this is much harder than it looks. www.fi.edu
The European Grand Tour lasted weeks or months depending upon your interests and wealth but touring Philadelphia can be a lifetime commitment. There is much more to see and do at each of the listed locations and there are restaurants to try and theatrical productions and music venues and on and on. You can gather all the info you need online and embark on your very own series of Grand Tours! www.visitphilly.com and www.facebook.com/visitphilly
I wish you smooth travels!
TRAVEL ALERT: The Penn Museum is presenting a series of special programs this month. On Saturday, February 18th from 1-4 PM, the museum will host Imagine Africa free community day with special West African guests the Women’s Sekere Ensemble, the Neo-African Drums ‘n Dance Ensemble and Lady B. There will be additional family-oriented activities.
The Voices of Africa Choral and Percussion Ensemble will perform on Wednesday, February 22nd, 6-8 PM. The performance is free with admission. www.penn.museum.com
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