when in Rome

. . . don’t do what every­one else does

Hawke's Bay Today - - LOCAL NEWS - — Raf Casert, AP

TRY AS I might, there was no way out but to go with the dense flow of sweaty hu­man­ity. This was the Vatican Mu­seum with its end­less gal­leries of some of the finest art West­ern civil­i­sa­tion had ever pro­duced — scores of high­lights ob­structed from full view by fel­low tourists, many try­ing to make the most of a once-in-a-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence.

One hap­less tourist took pic­tures of the ex­plana­tory pan­els, un­able to stand still and ac­tu­ally read them, be­fore be­ing swept up and moved along.

Michelangelo was a visionary ge­nius for paint­ing the ceil­ings of the Vatican’s Sis­tine Chapel. Over half a mil­len­nium later, it does al­low for an un­ob­structed view, how­ever tightly packed the masses are.

This was a weekday in early au­tumn, when trav­ellers in most des­ti­na­tions ex­pect high tourist sea­son to fi­nally give way to a sem­blance of ci­vil­ity. Not in Rome, not at the Vatican.

It cap­ti­vated in a few claus­tro­pho­bic mo­ments the chal­lenges top Europe tourist des­ti­na­tions now face — be it Am­s­ter­dam, Venice, Rome or Belgium’s Bruges.

“Mem­o­ries which some day will be­come all beau­ti­ful when the last an­noy­ance that en­cum­bers them shall have faded out of our minds,” Mark Twain wrote in his famed travel re­port through Europe, the Mid­dle East and North Africa, The In­no­cents

Abroad. With over­tourism grip­ping the great trea­sures of hu­man­ity, it seems a lot of am­ne­sia is in or­der. But there is an­other way. After the suf­fo­cat­ing zom­bie ex­pe­ri­ence at the Vatican Mu­seum, you might be for­given for furtively looking over your shoul­der at the Palazzo Mas­simo alle Terme mu­seum and won­der, “Where is ev­ery­body?”

The art is as un­beat­able as at the Vatican. Try find­ing a bet­ter 2000-year-old dis­cus thrower, and won­der how so much hu­man ex­pres­sion could be put in a bronze like the boxer. And here you can cir­cle it from ev­ery an­gle with nary an­other tourist in sight.

What it comes down to is an ac­cep­tance that you might not see ev­ery top-five at­trac­tion in a city. But what you will lose in name­drop­ping you will gain in true travel ex­pe­ri­ence and a sense of ad­ven­ture to go off the beaten track.

Here’s how that phi­los­o­phy plays out on a visit to Rome, even if it might sound sac­ri­le­gious to some: Skip a visit to the Colos­seum. Don’t worry, you will get plenty of great views of it from so many streets around there. In­stead, try the Baths of Cara­calla. The ru­ins of the baths, where 1600 were served at once in Ro­man times, are awe-inspiring. See­ing 10 great paint­ings up close beats see­ing 100 be­hind a for­est of selfie sticks. So head for the Palazzo Do­ria Pam­philj. Lore goes that when Pope In­no­cen­tius X saw Ve­lasquez’s por­trait of him there, the pon­tiff is said to have ex­claimed “Troppo Vero!” — too true — and kept it away from the pub­lic eye for far too long. Many con­sider it the finest por­trait in his­tory. Rome is so sat­u­rated with the great­est art that the list goes on for­ever. Too many sweaty shoul­ders to get a great view of stat­ues of the leg­endary Bernini on the Pi­azza Navona? Head to slightly out of the way Santa Maria della Vit­to­ria and see per­haps his great­est work, the sculp­ture de­pict­ing The Ec­stasy of Saint

Teresa. I won’t say more, but read the ac­com­pa­ny­ing text in the church and you’ll find some re­li­gious writ­ing which could put

Fifty Shades of Grey to shame. You might even switch cities on your itin­er­ary. In­stead of Am­s­ter­dam and its choc-a-block crowds, pick nearby Utrecht. The canals have a charm all their own and you will find a sim­i­lar waft of weed com­ing out of its many “cafes”.

In Italy, in­stead of Florence, spare a thought for Fer­rara.

When in Belgium, by­pass Bruges and try Ghent, and what you lose in quaint­ness, you win in stu­dent grit. In­stead of ubiq­ui­tous choco­late shops, you get state-of-the-art bak­eries.

But stop! Last time I checked this spring, it seemed the hordes had dis­cov­ered Ghent’s scenic Graslei wa­ter­front and had tourists almost spilling into the river.

It is a cau­tion­ary tale since the last thing an in­trepid tourist now needs is to have some­one tell them where to go. That is how tourism turned into over­tourism.

For 19th cen­tury Twain, the “no­blest delight” on his grand tour was “to be the first — that is the idea”. Then he came to Rome and re­alised the im­pos­si­bil­ity of his quest. “What is there for me to touch that oth­ers have not touched,” he asked.

The chal­lenge for the 21st cen­tury is almost the in­verse: in­stead of the trav­eller touch­ing some­thing, the chal­lenge is how to be touched by some­thing, to find some­thing inspiring. Just head off the overly trod­den track. With a bit of imag­i­na­tion, that can be done even in Rome.

The baths of Cara­calla in Rome are awe-inspiring.

Far left, tourists ride in a horse­drawn car­riage in Bruges, Belgium.

Left, a long wait to get into the Vatican in Vatican City mu­seum.

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