Cities all have their iconic sites. The postcard sites that make you immediately think of the city. Even in travel familiarity drives people. Rome has a bunch of very iconic sites. These are however the sites that are mobbed with tourist hordes and the touts which feed off the crowds. It makes being a quieter traveler in those places somewhat difficult.
I get it. it makes sense to see the things the city is known for. I am not immune to this lure and being in Rome I wanted to see the Roman stuff too. I am however slowly getting over the “big sites”. They don’t really do it for me as much anymore, and the hordes both of visitors and hangers-on just make my quiet contemplative style harder to work through. Here though are some of the iconic bits of Rome and how it made me feel to be there.
Of the free things to do in Rome, Trevi is probably the most famous. We went twice. Once, the second night in Rome on a whim to see something of Rome. Simply stated, Trevi is a madhouse. If you see postcards of the tranquil square and clear bubbling waters with no people crowding in, they are probably taken at 7am on a Tuesday in February. In the summer it is insane.
The fountain is indeed very beautiful. Things are a tourist draw for a reason I suppose. There is a set of wide steps leading down to the fountain itself and all of these were covered in people all trying to take pictures. Pictures of themselves, their loved ones, the fountain itself. People trying to throw coins in the famous ritual and those just sitting.
Trying to find a spot on a wall can be hard. I had people push me aside to get on the wall, or even politely ask me to “get out of their picture”. (Umm.. what about the other thousand people there?)
Amidst all of this are guys selling Polaroids of you or offering to take your picture (for a price I assume). And saying No once is not enough. Sometimes it takes 3 times and they will just be back in a few minutes. In the square away from the steps are people peddling all manner of glowing, squeaking things. Why? Because the sentimental souvenir of Rome is the squeaky slime doohicky you bought near Trevi Fountain?
All in all, the peaceful atmosphere I had hoped for was not at all there. It surprised me a bit.
The Spanish Steps are another open air tourist draw and only a few blocks from Trevi. Here at least space is a little easier to come by. In the day, the people are all huddled into the one corner of shade. At night it just didn’t feel that crowded to find a place to sit on the steps and watch the tourists. Ali and I sat for a long while talking and watching.
As near Trevi, there were a lot of guys walking around selling roses. The tactic was a bit aggressive though. They would walk up and nearly shove 3 roses into your hands, hoping you would react by grabbing hold. Presumably then they would ask for a few bucks.
I have nothing against people trying to make a life and making money to feed themselves. Despite this it spoiled the sights for me and I have a hard time believing that they make enough to actually support themselves. Certainly there were a couple of girls holding roses, so it must work a little bit, but it feels like exploitation of a dream. Certainly it isn’t 100% legal as they all seem to scatter when the police drive through.
The steps are indeed interesting, but in the end are just steps in a hilly town. Just with a fancy name and proximity to a convenient metro stop to draw people.
Arguably the most iconic building in the city. The tour we took of the Colosseum really was interesting, but pretty much the only way I enjoyed it was that we got to skip the line and got into some of the behind-the-scenes areas with our group. At that point I could breath and have a few minutes to think, hear the stories and absorb it all.
This is where I realized a bit of why the hordes get to me. It strips away my ability to BE in a place and think and contemplate. If I am elbowing for a picture or constantly telling someone “no I don’t want a fucking flower” I cannot seep into my mind and feel the romanticism of the place. The present reality breaks the fantasy.
We had to walk through the normal public areas of the Colosseum to leave after our tour and even just a few minutes overwhelmed my Introvert Protection Bubble and I needed out.
The Day of Everything
The hordes are quite apparent in the Vatican too. I wasn’t impressed with the Sistine Chapel on its own, though the rest of the day being squeezed between Blue Group 7 and the lady with the stuff bear on a stick was a lot to take. This was the point at which we learned why. Our guide on the Vatican tour was talking about the cruise ships. The passengers are apparently promised a “day in Rome” and that during this day they will see “everything.” That is such an insane proposition to me.
So yeah, it seems they are told that in their one magnificent day they will see the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and perhaps other things. Oh also note that the cruise port is at least an hour away from the center of Rome.
I am a slow traveler and I get that others are not. They have limitations (time,money,etc) and yet still have desires, but sheesh. To quote a Friends episode, “you just described a weeks worth of stuff.”
Tourism is big business. As with Trevi and the Steps it is small business as well. There is a lot of money in feeding tourists, which is very apparent when you go walking around within a few blocks of any site in town.
Menus are in English (maybe Italian too if you are lucky) and several times we had people coming from other places across the street to shove their menu in our face while we were looking at a different restaurant. Again I get this is your livelihood, but have some respect for me as a person.
Italy has a reputation for great food and it feels like a shame to have tourism reduce it from pride to an economic imperative. And again it feels like the setup strips me of both the time and the ability for contemplative thought. All the menus are roughly the same with no way to judge quality and someone asking you “two to eat?” ever few seconds.
Any Port in the Storm
It isn’t 100% like that. Definitely don’t overlook the smaller places. Walking away from the Vatican, we got overwhelmed by the restaurant atmosphere and ducked into a pizza-by-the-slice place. I ordered a pair of calzone after I heard an Italian in front of us talk to the guy behind the counter. In the 30 minutes we were there, the only English came from people wandering by outside. And this place was squeezed between souvenir stands, so it was close too.
How to deal?
I seem to notice the crowds more and more. Perhaps as I am getting older, I am getting more contemplative and less tolerant of crowds. I don’t like feeling like a sheep. I really don’t like feeling like I am being taken advantage of. I do still want to see a few of the iconic places, but the crowds are driving me away from wanting to spend any time near them. This I think is the draw of the fabled “off the beaten path” places, simply a nice place that I can get a seat and am not overwhelmed by the press of humanity.
Avoidance is one option. Just don’t go to the sights? Though that seems unpleasant always avoiding the popular places. Though this can take the form of going at odd times of the day or the year. For restaurants, this is my favorite choice.
Patience is another option. Try to be patient, though that gets tested with an elbow to the side or another cheap plastic whatnot being shoved in your face. Eventually though if you push gently through the crowds you will get to see what you want, you and 1000 of your closest fellow humanity.
I am sure there are other options too. I don’t want to stop traveling, but I need to figure out how to deal with the steady increase of tourism and crowds. Any thoughts?