Crossing the Alps – Grand Tourist style

In the old days, travel, even as a tourist required courage. One of the biggest obstacles was The Alps. The mountain chain that runs from France to Austria in a vast crescent-shaped mass of snow-capped peaks, vertiginous slopes and treacherous rock faces had to be crossed to get to the Mediterranean Sea. The Alps acted as a geographical barrier dividing northern and southern Europe.

To get from Germany or France to Italy this intimidating landscape had to be confronted. The early visitors to Italy had a choice, proceed as far as possible by horse and carriage, and then walk. Alternatively they could hire a sedan chair and be carried over The Alps by a group of burly locals!

The sedan chair ensured that the occupant avoided contact with the ground outside - which could be dirty, slippery and potentially ruinous for one's expensive gown!
The sedan chair ensured that the occupant avoided contact with the ground outside – which could be dirty, slippery and potentially ruinous for one’s expensive gown!
A manner of passing Mount Cenis - August 1755
A manner of passing Mount Cenis – August 1755

Such a journey was not for the faint-hearted. Many of the early ‘Grand Tourists’ wrote of their fear as they were transported up and down steep slopes. Often remarking on the sure-footed nature of their Alpine guides. Whilst fearing that perhaps these muscular fellows would accidentally lose their footing, sending the sedan chair, and its occupant tumbling hundreds of feet to their doom. The ‘chair men’ of Mont Cenis, high in the French Alps, were acknowledged as the most skilled. These were the chaps you wanted to convey you over the high Alpine passes from France into Italy. Although the visitor had to be sure to offer a suitable tip to the ‘chair men’. Failure to offer such a gratuity could have dire consequences indeed. The gentleman comfortably seated in the second picture, has extended his right arm and is pointing with his forefinger, possibly at a particular rock formation or some mountain flowers. I’m sure that the men carrying him are only too delighted to hear his commentary on the landscape as they huff and puff their way through the hills. I’d love to hear the conversation that the two chair men have about their portly customer, over a pint of ale, when their day’s labours are completed.

The map below is an early 20th century relief map, which shows clearly the Alps as a mountain barrier separating France in the west from the green plains of Italy to the south.  This relief map shows the mountains in shades of brown, the darker the brown colouring the higher the altitude. Low altitude plains and river valleys are shown in green.  Lakes and the sea are shown in blue.

Relief Map of the Alps - 1905
Northern Italy – Relief Map of the Alps showing the mountains in brown and the plains in green. Map by Geo. Philip and Sons (1905)

Next time you are crossing the Alps, high in the sky in an aeroplane, please give a passing thought to the chair men of Mount Cenis, whose daily work involved carrying, quite literally, the original Grand Tourists over the Alps. Happy travels!


  • The Grand Tour was a journey that wealthy young aristocrats undertook from the late 17th century. It was an educational journey would complete (in theory) the young person’s education, by introducing them to the art, history and culture of Italy. You can read more here The Grand Tour 
  • For a huge range of articles on Italy, France, The Alps please investigate my blog: Educated Traveller
  • To discover more about The Grand Tour and art why not read about Canaletto and Venice or perhaps about Carnival time and the parties in Venice – Carnival 2020
  • Written and published – 26th March 2018
  • Updated: 27th October, 2018 / January, 2021

7 thoughts on “Crossing the Alps – Grand Tourist style

  1. And there I am sitting in that fancy sedan chair! How cool! Thanks for the education of how things used to be for the Grand Tourists. In my experience, it’s not much different today traveling with Janet and Grand Tourist Travel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I must admit that the thought of Janet – assisted perhaps (out of necessity) by Lucy, hot-footing it over the Alps, bearing me aloft in a cushioned sedan chair, taking care to ensure that I don’t get my gown dirty, is not without a certain appeal…..
    But I mustn’t let my imagination run away with me, so will just congratulate you, Janet, yet again on another most interesting and readable blog.
    As a keen skier who was brought up under the expert tutelage of ruddy-faced yodelling Swiss farmers in Lederhosen, feathered hats and blowing those huge long horns with a bend in the middle to call home the Gruyere cheese in the evening, I was most interested to see that map from 1905 – but which has only served to highlight a question which I suppose even the most basic Geography student could answer, but about which I am not certain, and have never bothered to look up the answer – but – betraying my ignorance – where do the Alps end, and the Dolomites begin? On the map, it looks as if you were saying that all the mountains coloured brown, comprised the Alps – but those just over the border into Italy are surely the Dolomites?
    I look forward to your next blog in a state or perpetual agogness!

    Liked by 1 person

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