17 July 2007

Holidays in the past

The Roman's Virgin Mistress, my current book that is out on the shelves this month, takes place in the seaside resort of Baiae (the modern-day name is Baia). It is where the upper class Romans went to escape the extreme heat of a Roman summer. Situated on the northern tip of the Bay of Naples, Baiae was littered with expensive villas. It remained the resort of choice from the late Roman Republic through to the Empire. The Emperor Hadrian, for example, went there to take the waters towards the end of his life. It was abandoned during the 1500s due to malaria outbreaks and was rediscovered during the 18th century. It helped to fuel the late 18th century fascination in the Roman period and was where early archaeological diggings took place.

Holidays, vacations and resorts are not something, people generally think of when they think about the past. And yet, nearly every society had some system of festivals or travel.

In medieval times, pilgrimages to holy shrines were popular. There are stories of pilgrims being crushed in Rome as crowds surged forward during Easter celebrations. There was also a system of inns to cater for the pilgrims. Later, one only has to think about the Grand Tours.

Much of the free time of the less well off revolved around community activities -- so you have the tradition of football matches and even the tradition of wakes weeks. Even when I first came in the North East of England, people still spoke in terms of the Newcastle fortnight -- when the factory workers went on holiday, often to the local seaside resort. However with the advances in the transportation network, and changes in working habits, holidays are no longer such a community based activity.

When I went last summer to Adirondacks, it was interesting to see how the resorts had developed there, and the different nature of the resorts as the general prosperity increased. I was also struck by the similarities they had with the Roman resorts -- places where the normal rules of society were relaxed and the clothing became less formal.

As we are now in prime vacation/holiday time, I wonder what other similarities or differences that people between today's holidays and those of the past. Festivals and holidays used to be community based, but now they are far more family based. Is this a good or a bad thing? Enjoy your summer holiday wherever you take it. After all you are continuing a tradition that stretches back to the dawn of humanity.