There was no escaping it. Try as one 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 journeymen, many of whom were 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, up to the next masterpiece hidden from proper view.
Michelangelo was a visionary genius for painting not only the walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, but primarily its ceilings. Over half a millennium later, it does allow for an unobstructed view, however tightly packed the masses are, however tense the neck muscles become.
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 Italy’s Rome, not at the Vatican.
It captured in a few claustrophobic moments the challenges top tourist destinations now face across Europe – be it Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Venice, Rome or Belgium’s Bruges.
“Memories which someday 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 for memories to truly shine.
But hold on. There is another way, and you don’t even have to give up a visit to a place like Rome.
One day 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 2,000-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 or country. But what you will lose in namedropping – “I was at the Uffizi” – 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:
1. 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 1,600 were served at once in Roman times, are awe-inspiring and you find better patterns for floor mosaics there.
2. 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, though the tourist hordes don’t know about it.
3. 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 clogging the uneven streets, pick nearby Utrecht as your base. The canals have a charm all their own and you will find a similar waft of aroma coming out of its many “cafes”.
In Italy, instead of Florence, spare a thought for Ferrara.
When in Belgium, bypass Bruges and go for nearby 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 exactly 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 in this overwhelming world of mass tourism.
Just head off the overly trodden track. And with a bit of imagination, that can be done even within Rome. — AP/Raf Casert