I’VE always wanted to go to Rome. Last week I did.
In particular, I’ve always wanted to see the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Sistine Chapel. Annoyingly, I still want to see those things.
I have never been a huge fan of tourism: people gawping at a few attractions while locals try to shaft them for each pound, euro or dollar they bring with them. Unless you speak the language, you’re another cog in the giant cash-extracting machine of mass tourism.
Everyone and their dog are in Rome at the moment. A sea of people ambling around, unable to take in much of the beauty as they are bumped around in crowds denser than those seen at music festivals, all the while avoiding the African scammers (Hey brother, where you from? Want a bracelet?) and pickpockets.
Visiting the Trevi Fountain is like entering a rugby scrum. Hundreds of people scramble to position themselves for a photo to prove they have been there, before skulking off to have an €18 pizza nearby. A Google Maps review puts it best: ‘Unbelievably crowded during the day, still crowded at midnight; zero ambiance, but everyone still trying to get the best shot for their insta and pretending it’s awesome. Quintessential example of global tourism turning what’s probably an awesome place into something completely unbearable.’
Other ‘attractions’ were no better. Vast, interminable queues snaking around the city, with thousands of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever is inside. Often you need tickets to enter, but in a typically corrupt and Italian way there is none to buy: they have been hoovered up by tour agencies who resell them for double the price.
Even Papa Francisco is in on the hustle. To enter the Vatican, on the face of it, costs €17. However, you will end up paying about €50 to gain admittance, forced as you are to have a guide. If you plan to see all the ‘must-sees’ across the Eternal City you’ll end up forking out many hundreds of euros to do so.
When you get in – wallet lightened – you’ll be cheek by jowl with ten thousand other souls, shuffling uncomfortably past exquisite works from antiquity, unable to appreciate them for more than five seconds as the tide of humanity pushes you inexorably to the next just-about-seen must-see.
Take the Sistine Chapel. One could study its ceiling for hours. Yet after shelling out for a guided tour you are given approximately two minutes, before being moved rapidly on by your guide who, in my case, spoke with such a thick Italian accent I could not make out which language she was trying to speak in (Anda lookit deez statachu – verya beautiful okey?).
Not that the problem is confined to Rome. In Florence, streets of stalls selling cheaply made leather goods (all ‘Made in Italy’, they assure us) are manned by Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants. My girlfriend, wanting to buy a bag, showed an interest in one gaudy example.
The vendor quickly ushered us to the shop adjacent to the market. While inside I said to the missus that I would rather spend a bit more on a bag not from a tourist trap, upon which we announced that we’d ‘think about it’. Hearing these words, the kindly seller of leather tat started to shout irately: ‘You say you buy! You say you buy! You come in my shop – you buy!’
Quicker to anger than normal (must have been those holiday vibes), I promptly engaged in a slanging match and told him what to do with his bag in my coarsest Anglo Saxon. The heavy-pressure tactics of third-world market traders raised my hackles; no doubt many have simply forked over the demanded cash to avoid confrontation.
Yet thankfully the beauty of these places can make up for so much of the horror of being a modern tourist, for whom the indignities start with the 4am alarm clock for the 7.30am plane.
The quiet churches that adorn Italian cities and their architectural beauty are testament to the richness of their history and greatness of our continent’s civilisation. Chuntering along in a train, one can take in the countryside and the hilltop castles. For a second or two it’s enough to make you feel like a Remainer before you shake yourself back into sense.
It is enough to make you realise why all the world wants to move to Europe: we have created, in this fractious continent, something unmatched elsewhere. And yet for decades we have done our utmost to ruin this unique inheritance in almost every conceivable way.
But still – what a lovely place. At least it would be, were it not for all the tourists and grief that brings. However, writing that, I feel like someone complaining about being stuck on a busy road: you are not in traffic, you are the traffic.
Next time I’ll go in January or February, or to somewhere off the beaten track. Just as modernity has corrupted the beauty of so many things, mass tourism has made many of the most beautiful places in the world resolutely ugly to visit.
This article appears on Frederick’s Newsletter and is republished by kind permission.