When April with its fresh showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, tourists begin to crowd the buses and trains, making everything run slower as they shuffle along with their tote bags and Canons. Of course I don’t really mind the tourists that much, especially since — in a city as big as Rome — the masses of visitors can be avoided fairly easily. On the other hand, in small towns such as Florence the lines for many sites are hours long during the low season, and students in study abroad programs (a.k.a. Americans) take control of the streets at night as they prowl around in packs. But it does bother me how much even a big city like Rome changes when mass tourism arrives.
A visit to the Keats/Shelley house beside the Spanish Steps was a strong reminder of how different things once were — and I don’t just mean the ability of poverty-stricken poets to afford apartments on Piazza di Spagna. In one of the rooms was a portrait of Shelley composing Prometheus Unbound while sitting in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. I barely recognized these ruins since in the portrait they were covered in plants and surrounded by trees in the country while the Baths of Caracalla I had been to earlier in the week were clearly in a city with a ticket stand at the entrance, railings carefully telling the visitor where he could or could not go and guards to make sure you didn’t stay too long and climb on a wall and start writing a poem.
The Forum itself was free only a few years ago and Romans of the present city would mingle with each other in the evenings the same way Romans of the past had done, but now only tourists mingle here, after paying for the 10€. ticket. This new source of money is great for the archeologists who receive some of the revenue and maybe people will value a site more if they have to pay good money for it, yet I can’t help but feel like some of the experience of these ruins is lost when they’re only open for a few hours a day and you share every moment with hordes of people impatient to take their picture in front of the big arch thing on the left by the three broken-off columns so that they can go somewhere cooler and eat some lunch already.
But some visitors are actually interesting, like the pilgrims who came to the Vatican for Easter. Unfortunately for this year’s pilgrims, April’s showers drenched everyone who came to Mass. But, despite that, this year St. Peter’s Square was filled with genuinely enthusiastic people from all over the world. Everyone waved the flag of their home country; judging from this, there seemed to be someone from every country in the world with any Christian citizens in it, from some small South American nations to the neighboring countries of Europe.
And it was impressive how patient everyone was while waiting in the cold and rain while priests distributed the Eucharist to so many thousands of people. Between these pilgrims and those who come to see what is left of the ancient city (I don’t think anyone comes to see modern Rome, but they should), you’d think Rome — and Italy in general — would be swamped with visitors. It may be, but it’s still not too hard to find small villages, even close to Rome, where as soon as they learn where you’re from, they all addresses you as “America” and feel pleased to have met someone from that country.
As I discovered recently, even in resort towns in the world famous Dolomites, you can still ski a couple of miles to the next village and pass by an old man wearing peasant garb with three or four teeth in his mouth strenuously chopping wood amid the snow in the shed beside his dilapidated Alpine chalet. I suppose there are some places that will never change. RLD
Original Author: Oleksander Bilyk