Saturday, June 15, 2013

Italy: Loved To Death

I'll begin with this very good article I read a while back before I went to Italy:

Is Venice Being Loved To Death? (Christian Science Monitor)

The idea expressed in this article, that Venice is becoming basically a Disneyworld, is something that echoed through my mind in the many places I went to in Italy. There's the idea you have in your head of silently contemplating the sculptures of Michaelangelo or marveling at the paintings of Botticelli or Da Vinci, and then there is the reality of standing shoulder to shoulder in a packed and overcrowded piazza or museum trying to see them, with an endless stream of Chinese tourists trying to get their picture taken in front of them. There's the idea of you climbing the steps of an ancient Duomo or visiting an art museum, and then there's the reality of lines and queues to get in. There's the image of being in a piazza or a park, and then the reality of being harassed by beggars and street vendors.

The problem is, of course, that if you want to see these things, a few billion of your fellow humans want to see them too. And in the age of globalism, now they can. As the article mentions, when a few billion Chinese and Indians get the money to go everywhere, it's game over. You may say Peak Oil will put a stop to this, but I can tell you that it certainly has not to date.

I kept imagining what the leading lights of the Renaissance, this amazing flowing of the human spirit and creativity, would think if they know that these works of genius had become kitchy backdrops for Chinese tourist photos in the twenty-first century. What would the architects, painters and scupltors who crafted this beautiful country over the centuries, embodying their deepest faith, their hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and attempting to express that which is most noble in the human spirit, what would they think seeing the gawking Chinese tourists who see David with the same eyes as they see Mickey Mouse, and the Duomos and piazzas with the same eyes as the the fairy-tale castle at Disneyworld, with Italy as the Magic Kingdom?

And now you can see why the Spenglerian notion of the death of the West is no more a mere theory to me.You get the idea that the West has done it's business, and has given to the world what it's going to give. It is a finished work. The endless proliferation of David and Leaning Tower of Pisa trinkets in tourist stands underscores this notion.

And how could I leave out the salesmen and street vendors? If you are in any tourist areas in Italy you are mercilessly and relentlessly hounded, accosted, molested, badgered, and harassed by a veritable army of impoverished third-world salesmen from Africa and Southeast Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh? I'm not sure from where). Every piazza and major thoroughfare is lined with these guys selling the most ridiculous and useless crap imaginable, and to say they are ubiquitous is a vast understatement. Everywhere you will see these sad people, who are probably immigrant debt slaves, standing there all day long doing things like tossing down a ball of rubber goo on a board on the ground in front of some of the most beautiful places on earth. You feel a mix of anger and pity at the same time. What was once perhaps a minor nuisance is now and epidemic. Here's one reviewer on Pisa (which I did not go to):
Every time I have been here, the vendors are MORE aggressive and rude and pushy. They have booths of about 2-3 blocks coming in from the west side and then once in the pizza there are more of the same junk. It is sickening to have such a world wonder and then allow the ones trying to sell mostly junk to sloppy tourists take over this plaza. I know Italy is trying to figure out how to handle this, but something needs to be done soon. Vendors certainly do not like yo to take pictures because they are afraid it may get to the authorities, and many are illegals or here under other pretenses. I personally am not afraid of them, but many seem as though they are ready to fight you if you look at them too long or ignore their high pressure sales pitch.

It is too beautiful to ruin this area any further.

Oh, but It's not just Pisa. To a degree, this is everywhere. but I found it most oppressive in Florence. It's not just bad, it's overwhelming. In Milan at the Sforzesco castle, most of the people there were large groups of Africans bent on harassing and shaking down tourists for money. I was not left alone, I had to literally yell at and push off one particularly aggressive African who would not stop harassing me (who then laughed in my face). A horrible experience. Everywhere in the area I was accosted by Africans, bums, beggars and the like; I could barely get off a photo, and I left as quickly as possible. Yes it can be that bad. I was ready to join the northern League and vote for a new Mussolini who would send in goons with billy clubs to deal with this lot.

Some people just brush this sort of thing off, but, I'm sorry, I'm not the type of person who likes ignoring people or having to make sure and avoid eye contact all day long. I very rarely have to deal with that where I live in America, and I missed not being able to go from point A to point B without seeing salesman and beggars everywhere. Here's a similar discussion about Paris, but I found it to be much worse in Italy.

Italy is, in short, a tourist trap.

And it pains me to say it, because the Italians are just as much victims as the rest of us, and seem to be helpless to do anything about it.

And yet it is a beautiful country. Everyone wants to come here for a reason. I walked through the Galleria in Milan. I went to the top of Milan's fairy-tale Duomo. I overlooked Florence from the top of Santa Maria Del Fiore. I crossed the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the Rialto bridge in Venice. I stood in the Piazza San Marco. I walked through the Uffizi and the Accademia. I stood in the Colusseum and the Roman Forum. What can I say about these places that hasn't been said? They are everything you can imagine and more. Of course everyone wants to go there. Two thousand years of history has crafted one of the most interesting and unique places on earth. The Italians are lucky people.

The Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II of Milan
Do I regret it? No, not at all. but I would not do those things again.

So now for some practical tips. Milan has a metro almost identical to that of Paris, so coming there from Paris was a big benefit. It's easy to get around, and it's size, newness and industrial nature dilites the tourist trappy feel. Like in most of Italy, there's plenty to see from Roman times through the Renaissance, even if it's not the "name brand" stuff. Hotels are pricy; I stayed in a one star hotel, and it was the most uncomfortable bed I've ever slept in. Internet access was 5 Euros for 24 hours, and the desk clerk seemed to be a little clueless, if friendly. Milan is often overlooked, but I you're willing to spend a bit more for a nice room, I would recommend it. Oh, and if you're planning on seeing the Last Supper, book well in advance  (you are allotted only 15 minutes to see it, because the fresco is vanishing).

The Duomo of Milan.
Bologna - terrific city, and I had by far the nicest Airbnb flat I had. It's a beautiful medieval city. You'll still be accosted somewhat; for example, if you're eating outside, some salesman will try and sell you flowers if you are with a companion, and beggars will still rattle a cup in your face. Still, it's enough off the beaten path to the extent that you can actually enjoy it. I stayed a bit outside of the city center on a bus route, which was perfect - close enough, but far enough away to live in the real Italy. I even had the opportunity to go to some kind of outdoor market/communal kitchen project which I think was some sort of left-wing thing, since I saw signs for 'antifascisti' and 'anticapitalismo' (Bologna, home to the world's oldest university, is known for left wing politics). Well, I couldn't talk to people to find out for sure, but I did get a good plate full of food for 2 Euros (and washed my own dishes after). So in just a few days I went from fascist to anti-fascist. Oh well, welcome to Italy.

Medieval city. Cloudy weather.
BTW: The latest recession trend in Italy is aperitivi. This can be a little confusing, but essentially you pay for cocktail and get access to an all-you-can eat buffet. I made the mistake of going to a sidewalk restaurant because I wanted to try the Bologna cuisine that is supposedly so spectacular that I kept reading about in my guidebooks. Well, no one is eating that. My server pointed out the aperitivi to me, but undaunted I ordered the lasagna al ragu. Well, everyone, and I mean everyone besides me, was eating at the buffet. And the lasagna wasn't good at all, I've had better in Milwaukee. So if you're eating at night, do as the Italians do and have some aperitivi. Incidentally, as far as I could tell, there are no cafes in France or Italy in the sense that they just serve coffee (although there are Starbucks in Paris), there are only restaurants with table service. So actually, I missed just being able to sit in a cafe (I'm writing this in one).

What else were the Italians eating? Well, despite it's reputation, I had trouble finding restaurants in Bologna (as everywhere else, the street pizza places and panini are delicious). But in my neighborhood north of the city, a burger bar called "Well Done" served up a fantastic cheesebuger with tap beer, and was packed to the gills (it felt like a bit of home), as was the Chinese restaurant down the street. I got the distinct impression that "Italian" restaurants are mainly for tourists, whereas Italians prefer to eat at neighborhood burger joints and Chinese restaurants, just like Americans. Don't believe the hype - eat what you want. I'm told a lot of the smaller restaurants have gone under, and Italian home cooking is probably more confined to mama's kitchen nowadays, unless you want to spend a fortune.

Venice is crowded.
Venice: a day trip for me. I wish I could have spent the night. Yes, it's crowded, VERY crowded. Somehow I didn't mind too much, maybe because it really is the most beautiful city on Earth. I just wandered the city; if you want to get into anything in Venice such as the Doges' palace or the Accademia, get tickets well in advance or forget about it. Stay off the beaten path and explore, it's probably okay. Spend a night in Venice to see it after dark, when it's much different. Because it's so small and there are so many tourists, the more aggressive street vendors are somewhat tamed and limited.

The Grand Canal
Florence. Don't go to Florence. Seriously, just don't. It's extremely crowded, expensive and touristy. And confidentially, aside from the famous buildings, I thought it was rather ugly (and devoid of green space). Like Venice, it's become nothing but a shell of it's former self, full of gawking tourists, naive backpackers, kitchy salespeople, beggars and crime. Yes, it's the home of the Renaissance, but it's more like a Renaissance Disneyworld than anything else. Beggars here are aggressive, persistent, and ubiquitous. They don't just bow their heads on curbs here;  you'll get a cup rattled in your face on average every twenty minutes of so. If you must go, say in Bologna and take the train; the national service trains get there in less than an hour. Florence is too small to handle the amount tourists here, and I think there is about one vendor for every two tourists. There are enough cheap handbags in this town alone for every man, woman and child on earth. Never in my life have I seen such an aggressive sales atmosphere (and I'm an American!) and I hope I never will again.

"Take my photo!"
Rome: I lucked out, my flat was in Trastevere, just across the Tiber from the Centro Storico. Trastevere is the classic Rome, narrow cobblestone alleys, vine-encrusted orange stucco buildings, neighborhood shops and churches, and restaurants everywhere, It's apparently the nightlife district for Rome, so this was the only place I ate in restaurants extensively. Restaurants here cater more to tourists and tourist eating styles (Italians generally eat lighter dinners earlier in the day).

Trastevere: Roman neighborhood
Trastevere (meaning across the Tiber) is considered to be the home of the last "real" Romans. Its charm apparently means that it's becoming more trendy and expensive, unfortunately. My AirBnb flat was about $150 a night, but for it's location, that was very reasonable if not downright cheap. There's also a Hotel Trastevere in the area. Many people stay near Termini in Rome, but from what I've heard, don't do it - stay here instead. The bus takes you right there. Trastevere is nice, despite the usual tourist annoyances, for example, If you're dining outside, street musicians will come up and play a tune whether you wan them to or not (I didn't) and then rattle a cup in your face. Sigh.

Rome is a very walkable city, despite it's size. Explore on foot. Metro is limited - only two lines, so you'll be stuck with the bus. Buy a 3 or 7 day pass, and use the English language ATAC web site (again, internet access is important). The web site isn't perfect (who knows the address of famous sites?), but you will probably able to figure out how to get around. Obviously, places like the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter's Basilica will be crowded, especially on weekends. Whatever you may have heard about the insanity and chaos of driving in Rome, I can assure you, it's much, much worse. I'm amazed I only witnessed one accident.

Hanging out with a few hundred friends at the Spanish Steps
I got a bit dewy-eyed waking around the Colosseum and the Roman ruins. Lifetime dream accomplished. Just so surreal to walk in the footsteps of the Caesars that you can't even process it. And yes, the impermanence of society is driven home here like nowhere else. I was amazed at just how much of the ruins are buried, and how much lower the city is from the modern city. Empires crumble and life moves on, that's how it is. And yes, I gave a thought to the fact that my own city is already crumbling into ruins.

'Sic transit gloria mundi'
Big picture advice - stay away from tourist places. Instead of Milan, go to Bologna. Instead of Venice, Go to Verona or Padova. Instead of Florence, go to Sienna. If you must to to the most popular places, spend as little time as possible, and stay elsewhere.

Agritourismi - I sort of wish I had some time in the countryside or on a farm. I wasn't brave enough to try and drive around here, even though they drive American style (whip on the left, cars on the left). Driving is pretty crazy over there. I wish I could have seen rural Tuscany and Emiglia-Romagna, although be warned - the U.S. customs forms you must fill out upon reentry will ask you if you have had contact with livestock. I have no idea what happens if you say yes to the question, so you may want to do some research. Has anyone out there worked on organic farms overseas?

I don't think I ever managed to understand the Italian rail system. There are national and regional train systems. The regional trains are cheaper and are often late. The national trains are more expensive and have priority on the rails, so they are mainly on time. I don't think I was more than 15 minutes late on any trip, and they aren't that much more expensive, since you're expecting to pay for transportation anyway. The Eurail Pass as far as I can tell is total waste of money. It meant that I had to buy my tickets at the window, which was very inconvenient, and I still had to pay from 10 to 20 Euros each time. Much easier is using the kiosks which have an English language option.

Most public transportation works on the validation model, see this.

Aer Lingus is highly recommended, especially their transatlantic flights (I watched The Hobbit on my way over: unexpected journeys seemed to be a good theme). They speak English, the plane is comfortable, the food's not bad and the stewardesses are pretty. Chicago is their hub, so if you live near Chicago like I do, it's very convenient. Most places around there have some sort of bus service to O'Hare. Part of me wished I'd just stayed in Ireland. maybe next time.

If I did it again, I would love to just sit on the street in restaurants in Paris or Rome and watch people. I did not see a single person in any of these places alone, however. Traveling by yourself can be a lonely and isolating experience. Not only do feel like an outsider, but you have no one to talk to. You literally don't know anyone in the entire country. You don't even speak the language, so you can't communicate with people, and these are very social cultures, where it seems like everyone is out enjoying the company of friends, lovers, companions. But then I realized my life in America is much the same, even though I speak the language, just more familiar. So France and Italy may not be ideal for solo travelers.

In the end, you forget about all of the problems of living in the U.S. and miss the laid-back and uncrowded atmosphere of home. I missed knowing exactly what to do in a restaurant, and where to find a good cafe and being able to walk into a place and be able to communicate with people. I missed having my own place. I missed the food, because I eat well here.

By temperament, I am the type of person who would rather have a unique experience where other people aren't. My rule of thumb, and it served me well throughout life, is that if everyone is doing something, you should probably do the opposite. I can think of no more awful experience than standing in lines at Disneyworld. But, in effect, that's what I ended up doing.

So, for my next trip, I want to get well off the beaten path. I wouldn't mind doing some kind of hiking or outdoor travel, since I will certainly be alone. Maybe Yellowstone of the John Muir trail. I've often thought of South America. Something about South America attracts me. Unlike Europe, it seems like a work very much in progress rather than finished. And since I speak Spanish (although not fluently), things should be a bit easier. Any recommendations?

Yurp Part 1: Paris


  1. Thanks for the write up.

    I had a good time hanging out in the Leblon area of Rio. Safe rich-people area. Worst part of that trip was going to christ the redeemer... just a big touristy mess.

    1. I think that's what every "touristy" thing is or is becoming. That's why I'm sticking to nature hikes or cultural immersion from now on.

      Found on Reddit:

      Reddit, I am going to Italy for a couple weeks, and I have three wallets that I intend to get pickpocketed. What should I put in them?

  2. Has it occurred to you that tourism is very much like peak oil, in that we've 'used up' all the easy to access destinations that were once off the beaten path, and now one has to search harder and go further to reach those isolated havens of unsullied adventure?

    It's the way of everything.


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