Tourists Make Italian Cities A Slow Slog—But The Food And Wine Are As Good As Ever

In Thailand the government has closed beaches where tourists have caused the destruction of the ecology and coral. In Venice they have banned leviathan-size cruise ships from docking. But in Rome they can’t even manage to pick up the garbage.

After a decline during Covid, the number of international tourist arrivals in Italy as of May of this year grew by 15 percent compared to the previous year—about 7.7 million, a million more than last year; 68 million visitors are expected this year. Overwhelmingly these tourists are engorging Italy’s main attractions, with ferries bringing tens of thousands every day to Capri and caravans of buses to trip over the ruins of Pompeii.

Throngs line up to take silly photos posed against the backdrop of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The once charming town of Amalfi is now little more than a piazza dominated by cafés and pizzerias with a single uphill street lined with souvenir shops selling bottles of limoncello and t-shirts.

Even those places once considered of secondary interest to tourists, like Milan, Genoa, Bari, Sorrento and Verona have become overwhelmed. Also very wealthy: Tourism is Italy’s largest industry; manufacturing is second.

Nowhere is it worse than in Rome where it can take hours to get into the Vatican Museum; reservations several days in advance to get very pricey tickets to the Villa Borghese; and the crush at the Trevi Fountain makes getting through the crowd a gauntlet of pushing and shoving. The streets are dirty, graffiti is scrawled everywhere on ancient buildings, the buses and trams are unwashed, and the subways are rudimentary. I asked a hotel concierge which number bus to take for a destination, and he said, “I don’t know. I haven’t taken a bus in twenty years.”

To be sure, Italy is not alone in having such boom time woes. International tourism is up everywhere, and Paris, London, Barcelona and even Reykjavik are enjoying record numbers.

One of many post-Covid reasons for the onslaught is warmer— much warmer —temperatures earlier and later in the year, thereby extending the tourism season by at least two months. In already warmer climates like Italy and Greece off-season barely exists any longer, with people traveling year round. Concomitant with such weather are soaring, searing temperatures that cause stifling heat waves in summer. Even those Italians who head for the beaches of Sicily in summer have found the heat unbearable. And air-conditioning is a very rare amenity.

Italy has been far too successful in attracting people from all over the world as much for its widely diverse natural beauty as well as for countless cultural achievements that date back to the Roman Empire. The appeal is as much to Asians as Europeans and Americans, and there will be as many Chinese and South Koreans on line to get into Florence’s Uffizi museum or Rome’s Sistine Chapel as Americans these days.

As someone who has traveled dozens of time to Italy over fifty years, the experience has begun to be more of a slog than a restorative pleasure. Where once I could sit on the Spanish Steps with a cup of gelato, thinking of that idyllic moment when Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck did the same in the 1953 movie “Roman Holiday,” sitting on the Steps is now banned—and well policed —owing to incessant damage done to the monument by tourists.

There is, though, an irony about the tourist invasion that has managed to keep Italy’s food and wine culture alive and well: The fact is that many tourists arrive in a place like Capri or Venice in the morning and leave in the late afternoon, which is a boon only to the souvenir shops and pizzeria owners. Which means that the visitors don’t sit down midday for a fine lunch or stay through dinner, allowing those of us who do, including the Italians themselves, to relax over a plate of pasta and glass of wine.

Nowhere, on a trip to Rome this month, was this more evident than at Al Moro, a restaurant dating back to the 1920s once favored by Federico Fellini and his movie crowd. It is still very popular, and the food is excellent—their specials like fettuccine alla Moro—were perfected decades ago. You may still need a reservation at dinner, but at lunch my wife and I found it nearly empty at one o’clock. Yet just around the corner the bustling, crushing, cacophonous crowds at the Trevi Fountain made getting to the restaurant difficult. These tourists don’t eat at restaurants like Al Moro; they eat pizza or an Italian sandwich if they have time at all.

Over two week’s eating around Italy, from Rome to Sorrento, I ate as splendidly as I ever have. The food, from the glistening fresh seafood displayed on a table inside the entrance to the abundance of autumn’s funghi porcini lavished on pastas and risottos, I sensed no drop in quality or attempt to cater to a tourist crowd. What’s more, prices have not budged from what they were pre-Covid: A very generous plate of rigatoni alla carbonara or tagliolini cacio e pepe might cost 12€ to 14€ in a trattoria and 16€ to 20€ at a more upscale ristorante. A carafe of good house wine may be 12€, and wine lists have plenty of bottles under 30€. And along with this seeming largess you get starched tablecloths, soft lighting, comfortable, un-cramped seating and a wholly civilized noise level. And service is included, so there’s no need to tip.

Thus, while I’ve grown weary of battling the crowds on the streets of Italy, I am never happier than when I go through the door of a restaurant—one I know or one that’s new—to sit down, relax and get away from the madding crowd beyond.

The grandeur that was Rome is still there, but it takes longer and longer to get to see it. But time still stands still in front of a bowl of spaghetti all’amatriciana.

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