Tourists are a double-edged sword. The good side, of course, is the money; the bad is that they clutter up your town.
Some people turn up their noses at Tourist Attractions and Tourist Towns, but the fact is that a church or museum or street becomes an “attraction” because it really does have something to offer. So unfortunately, if you want to see that special thing, you need to be in that exact place where everyone else is enjoying it with you. Even though you’ve seen the Coliseum in thousands of photographs, when you round a corner in Rome and see it in real life for the first time, it can take your breath away. Rome is almost large enough to absorb the amount of people who want to enjoy her treasurers, but in my opinion, Florence is not. As for Venice…..forget the problems with the pilings under the city; I think it’s sinking into the sea under the weight of all the tourists.
A huge difference between Florence and Venice is that most tourists stay in Florence, so the beautiful part of the city has a constant glut of outsiders no matter where you go, no matter what time of day or night. Once you could safely visit in late April and early May without lines around the corner to get into the various museums and churches. Now winter seems to be the only safe time. Also — a lot of the churches, where once you could just walk in off the street, now charge. But if you’re interested in the incredible array of treasures Florence offers, you really should see them – crowds and cost notwithstanding. When it comes to art, I just don’t think there’s any other place in the world that’s packed to the rafters with as much as Florence.
On the other hand, many of Venice’s tourists are only day-trippers, and day-trippers can mean litter. I’ve heard people say that they found Venice to be dirty. And it’s true that at the end of a tourist-saturated day, the town does have a lot of trash — mostly strewn around by the very people who are doing the complaining. But the next morning, before that day’s hordes descend on the town, the shopkeepers and trash collectors have the pathways and piazze miraculously spotless.
This means that the visitors who stay for the night actually get to experience La Serenissima (as she’s been called since way back when) at her most serene. You can leisurely stroll, and it’s hard to imagine a more romantic place for strolling than the narrow walkways with their picturesque bridges connecting the canals. Mornings and nights are the magical times…magical because you’ll be able to enjoy the wonderfully moody atmosphere without having people bump into you.
The Umbrian town of Assisi is another whose celebrity is both a blessing and a curse. St. Francis is THE most venerated saint in Italy, and his town has been arranged to take advantage of that. You just know that the humble St. Francis would be amazed to see the unbelievable number of tacky shops selling small figures wearing his trademark robe. He could perhaps understand that the incredible basilica under which he’s buried has served the purpose of translating his message through works created by some of the world’s greatest artists. However, he might ask why the small shack where he chose to die, which at that time was in the worst section of town, now has an enormous church encasing it. And he would probably think that the large amount of land that’s devoted to housing tour buses would be better used as housing for the poor. Of course, today there aren’t many poor in Assisi because it’s so prosperous with all the churches and tacky gift shops honoring St. Francis.
You have to be there in the quiet of morning and night to really enjoy the beauty of the town’s pink/gray stone, and have time to admire how beautiful the flowers are in the round flowerpot holders that seem to be attached to every house. During the day, the only thing you’ll notice is the camera-carrying tourist who just stepped on your foot.
The Tuscan hilltop town of San Gimignano, between Siena and Florence, falls into the same category as Venice and Assisi. This is the town with the towers that you almost always see on TV or in a magazine whenever the subject of hilltop towns comes up. It also was the site for the movie “Tea with Mussolini”. There are several approaches to the town, and unfortunately, the most direct one from the motorway is the only one where you miss the gorgeous view. If you arrive via the back roads, however, the approaches are absolutely beautiful, with rolling fields leading to the surrounding wall, behind which rises the golden-stoned town with its 14 remaining towers.
Originally, there were 72 towers. When you’re in the town now, it’s impossible to imagine 58 more towers hovering above you. Surely walking on the streets had to have felt like you were walking in deep canyons. The 14 of today seem to be the perfect number – enough to make the town truly unique, yet not too many so that the town feels oppressive.
The original builders of the towers probably said they were doing it for defense. But you can see how this could easily turn into a show of power and wealth as each new tower got bigger and more impressive. When the governing body decided that no tower could be higher than the official town tower, someone built twin towers. I don’t like to make sexist remarks, but I think it’s pretty clear that this is definitely a male thing.
I first visited San Gimignano in 1990. Our guide was an elderly woman who had been born there, and she just could not understand all the hoop-la that tourists had recently started making about what she considered her little backwater town. Italy has changed a lot in 20+ years, and if that woman is still alive, she not only understands the hoop-la, but as one of the few people back then who spoke English, I hope she’s also profited. If she didn’t, there’s a good chance she can no longer afford to live there. The town you see today has been scrubbed and polished. Gone are the soot from the buildings and dirt from the streets. Previously abandoned buildings are shops and restaurants. Flowerpots are everywhere.
So unlike 20 years ago when cars could drive in and out of San Gimignano, today tourists must park below the town in the supplied parking lots, then walk up one of the two main roads to the center. But if you spend the night there, you can leave your hotel in the morning, choose a cafe in the piazza at the top of town, sip a cappuccino and watch the waves of people come toward you. There’s a busload of American high school kids, followed by a large group of Chinese tourists, followed by an even bigger group of elderly Italians, followed by a small group of Germans in motorcycle clothes, followed by…… You get the picture.
As I said, it’s best to stay in these places. Then during the day, you can visit some of the equally lovely but less tour-bus-intensive near-by towns, enjoy the incomparable countryside and at day’s end, return to experience these too-popular-for-their-own-good places in peace.