After the Virus: Rome without Tourists

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St.Peter’s Square, Rome

I did not think it possible to go to Rome and not once hear English spoken. Yet, on a recent trip over several days, we heard nothing but Italian. It was nothing less than astonishing.

During past trips to that city I usually found myself dodging lumbering tour buses, being shoved off sidewalks by phalanxes of tourists, and stepping around stationary couples holding folded maps upside down or squinting at their cell phones in the sun. Once, I was stuck walking behind a gaggle of American teenagers loudly complaining that they couldn’t find a McDonalds.

We live about four hours northeast of Rome. Last week we visited Rome to experience this historic moment that is unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes. Due to a lack of customers, many hotels were closed, as were some shops and restaurants. Many of the places that were open were closed by 10pm.

In contrast to other countries, the Italian government has been diligent about enforcing protocols regarding covid-19. Three months ago, the country was at the top of the list of infections and deaths. But after a continuous, lengthy lockdown, the spread has been almost entirely brought under control. Italy’s ranking in the pandemic tragedy has dropped to tenth place, while the U.S. Brazil, and the U.K. have soared upward. Other countries like India and Peru are now bumping Italy downward with their spiking rates.

Vatican Museum

In order to see the Sistine Chapel, one now needs an appointment, as the Vatican Museum limits the number of people inside at any one time. We arrived at 10 for our Vatican appointment and were called to the door a few minutes later. After a security and temperature check, we were in. Everyone wore masks. For the next two hours, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the many luxuriant corridors and galleries containing art and artifacts.  When we finally entered the Sistine Chapel it was occupied by only a handful of people. And there it was, the famous work by Michelangelo, the glorious ceiling with the finger of God touching the finger of man. 

Piazza Navona

In the center of Rome, cafes and restaurants normally bristle with tour groups ordering from fixed price menus as part of their packaged experience. During our three-day stay there, visitors were so few in number there were barely any itinerant street vendors. Gone were the guys who aggressively shove a cheap “friendship token” into your palm and then want money. Nowhere to be found were the beefy men dressed in faux gladiator costumes and wooden swords, tricking visitors into paying for a mock-heroic pose.

The resident population of Rome has been hovering at slightly less than 3 million for years. But each year the number of tourists has steadily increased to the point that 9 million people pour into into the city annually. Most of these visitors stream in during the summer months. And many of them occupy lodging within the historic center of 12 square kilometers (roughly 4.5 square miles). Now that tourists are not part of the mix, their absence is palpable — both day and evening. Rome — usually wildly frenetic and inundated with noisy trucks, buses, bikes, motorcycles, not to mention careening taxis — is now actually calm and restful.

Italy is finally emerging from the rigidity of the lockdown, and its severe economic effects. The last thing it needs is a second wave of the corona virus. So, while people living within Europe are allowed to visit Italy, Americans are not. In the past, the largest block of visitors to Italy has come from the U.S. The absence of Americans is noticeable. That people from other countries are not present may simply be due to a lag in time. It takes time to plan, book, and travel. Hence the likely reason we heard almost no other language but Italian.

Interestingly, Italians were out in sizable numbers, strolling about, shopping, and lounging in cafes. Most wore masks in between eating and drinking. Folks were enjoying gelato or aperativi in every direction. People came out on to the streets and piazzas with their families. In the return of the evening passeggiata, they slowly strolled the Piazza Navona. Teenagers horsed around on the grounds around the Coliseum. At night the streets and back lanes in the center were serene, with soft murmurs coming from outdoor cafes. 

Itinerant vendors tossing flimsy plastic “birdies” with LED lights into the air were, thankfully, not to be seen anywhere. The last time we were there in the fall, public spaces were randomly invaded by annoying columns of people charging along on Segways. Now, the city is filled with tiny stand-up rental scooters or “e-scooters.” This form of personal transport barely disrupts people on foot. My wife tried one of these and pronounced the experience excellent, save for the stretches on bumpy cobblestone streets.

Just as Venice is now considering ways of controlling the annual tides of visitors, so surely will Rome. For one, the number of housing units displaced by Airbnbs needs to be severely curtailed. There are tens of thousands in the center alone – way too many.  Moreover, whole sections of the city should be closed to traffic, as other European cities have recently been doing. Italy has had limited vehicular access zones for some time, but many are not well-delineated or signed. Tourists often violate them without realizing it. 

Street markets, small shops, and cafes need to be nurtured through regulatory, financial, and taxation reforms. For example, small, family-owned shops, services, cafes, and restaurants could be given a tax amnesty for a period of time. Smaller towns and provinces could be provided with grants in return for adopting marketing plans and hiring people to manage them. Visitors could be offered “ItalySconto” cards giving discounts on products made in Italy. 

Moreover, there are literally thousands of great places to visit in Italy. They are charming, brimming with rich history, and filled with people who are genuinely friendly and helpful. Not everyone needs to jam into the handful of places that get mentioned in every generic travel article about Italy ever written. Those travel writers themselves need to get off their keyboards and discover new destinations. All of these initiatives should be underpinned with an ethic of “responsible tourism,” recognizing the balance of supporting the local economy while protecting the environment and national heritage.

Like the Venetians and Florentines, Romans are discovering that they can have a much better city with many fewer tourists. Perhaps some roads should lead away from Rome.

3 COMMENTS

  1. What a treasure to have these close, intelligent impressions of beloved places now untrampled–at least temporarily.

  2. Umm….well…are you not an American tourist? It’s just those others that are so dreadful. I agree. I first came to Rome in 1962. My digs were at a pensione overlooking the fontana Trevi. I found the place in Arthur Frommer’s “Europe on $5 a Day”. It was December. I drank my first cappuccino at a caffe on the street below. It was the first time I ever drank coffee that tasted good to me. I saw no other tourists. I bumped into John XXIII at a little church in Monti. I stumbled through their language and the Roman dialect, and they all seemed to love it. Their laughter was so genuine. I found Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy in the little church where the Vatican had hidden it.

    La citta eterna has called me back often. I’ve lost count, but over twenty times. I have no personal friends there, but the city and the Romans have always been more than welcoming to me. The people I’ve met seem like friends, and I wonder what has become of them: the woman at the news kiosk in Campo di Fiori; the barista at Bar Farnese just down the street; the waiters and la signora at my old trattoria in Trastevere; the desk clerk who gives me tips on where to dine in Testaccio. I wonder…..are they ok? Sick? Dead? Will I ever get back? And if I do, will I be just one more American tourist?

  3. Let’s hope it’s just bad weather and not another pandemic that keeps the hordes away next time. I had the good fortune to return to Italy for the first time as an adult in the hundred-year winter of 1984-85, when Rome’s streets and sidewalks were sheets of ice, the mid-morning temperature in Florence was -15 C, and ice formed on the edges of Venice’s canals. (Ask older Italians and they still sometimes shudder and say, “Che inverno brutale!”)
    It was empty, English-free, and sublime. Then again, as we change the climate, the next extreme weather there won’t be another icy blast from Siberia but Saharan heat or worse, as the northern Mediterranean get scorched and desertified.

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