when in Rome
. . . don’t do what everyone else does
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.