I love cities. I love the sounds, sights, and scenes. I love the smells and scents. I love getting lost. I love finding the quirkiest shops. I love meeting people on journeys. I love the nightlife. I love sitting in a cafe, watching people go about their lives, thinking about who they are and what moves them. Yes, I love most everything about cities.
That said, I will never again go to Rome or Venice during Italy’s peak tourist season.
So. Many. People.
I hesitate to use the word “sheeple”, in part because it’s a bit crude, but mostly because I was very much one of them, and likening myself to any other animal would be a slight to the duck. Nevertheless, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the herd, I cannot deny what I was reduced to. One of many. A face in the crowd.
I’m like the opposite of Ariel in The Little Mermaid. I wanna be where the sheeple aren’t.
Everywhere I travel to I do my best to seek out some sort of narrative. Something powerful, inspirational, or, at the very least, interesting. I do this by talking to people. Locals, travelers, drifters. I try and get a pulse on their life, on the lives of their countrymen, and draw out something more collectively meaningful. This is how I learn, how I derive value from my travels, and what I enjoy writing about the most.
In both Rome and Venice this proved to be a challenge. Sheeple don’t have much of a narrative to speak of. They are in too much of a hurry. That included myself.
The interwebs tell us that sheeple are “docile, foolish, or easily led”. That is not to say that every tourist in Italy is a sheep-person in their normal lives. Rather, this is what touring any of Europe’s great cities does to us humans. I fell into this when I arrived in Rome. I was naive about this leg of my trip.
“I’ve never been! There’s so much to see! It’ll be great!”
True…there is much to marvel at.
Rome was founded almost 2,500 years ago. Once the seat of the widespread and dominant Holy Roman Empire, Rome became an important political, religious, economic, and cultural site that endured even after the Empire fell. It is considered by some as the first ever metropolis and today is the largest city in Italy and 4th largest in the European Union.
Indeed, Rome has many fascinating landmarks to boast of. Too many if you ask me. I would gladly consult the Roman authorities about dialing back the number of incredible Neoclassic and Baroque-style buildings on seemingly every street corner. Of course, I would not have them tear the buildings down, just simply drape some scaffolding over a few of them as if they’re “being worked on”.
(I’m not kidding. If this would lead to one less person – just a single person – stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take a picture or selfie at every frickin building, it would be worth it.)
Clearly you are listening to the voice of a jaded man. One whom has had stinky sweat rubbed upon him one too many times, whom has been shoved aside by hurried tourists one too many times, whom has been whacked by whirling selfie sticks…one too many times.
As you can see in the pictures above, the horde/host/herd of people was out in full force for my day touring Rome’s center. People are yelling at each other in illegible tongues. Cameras and iPads and GoPros are being waved around. The body odors from a thousand different lands mix with the thick waft of cigarette smoke. The sun is beating down and there is no breeze to speak of. The sheeple are on the move.
And I am among them. For despite all my irritation, I am still captivated by Rome, right? Seeing all these amazing sights is totally worth combatting the throng…right?
I tell myself this as I head to a new country the following day. The country within a city. The seat of the Pope. The Vatican.
Vatican city is a walled enclave of about 110 acres. Permanent residents number 842, making it the smallest country in both area and population. The Pope holds principal executive, judicial, and legislative power, though he delegates decision making to other agencies within the Vatican.
The Vatican’s economy is based almost exclusively on tourism. The sale of stamps, coins, medals, other mementos, and museum admissions, supports the small population and upkeep of the facilities. I somewhat happily pay into this when I arrive at the Vatican. Opting for a guided tour wasn’t cheap, but there was absolutely no way I was going to stand in the seemingly endless line. Plus I like to learn about what I’m seeing.
Our guide, Marcelo, is great, but the zounds of people touring the Vatican Museums give him little room to breathe, both literally and figuratively. He leads us into the belly of the beast.
Our group of about 20 gets split up easily and often. Poor Marcelo has the unfortunate task of herding us sheeple through a veritable stampede, all while trying to enlighten us on what we are looking at. His microphone, which we all have corresponding headsets to, is ineffective at a certain distance. Even when I’m close to him, it fades in and out. Thus I miss a lot of what he’s saying.
All in all we cover a lot of ground. We are forced to. There’s no time for admiration or veneration, no time to get lost in the art.
We trudge through the Museo Pio-Clementino, Museo Chiaramonti, Modern Art Museum, and Raphael Rooms, before finally arriving at the pièce de résistance, the Sistine Chapel.
Michaelangelo’s finest work is a tour de force without peer. The sheer detail captured in each scene on the ceiling is highlighted by the well-known centerpiece, the Creation of Adam, where god is seem reaching out to the first human man. On the altar wall, the Last Judgement is seen, which Michaelangelo built over a four year period between 1536 and 1541 almost 25 years after he finished the ceiling. It is a grand depiction of the second coming of Christ, and the final judgement of all humanity.
There are no pictures allowed, but that does not deter some people. The radiant beauty of the art also does not deter people from pushing their way through the crowd. I grow tired of rubbing elbows with the other sheeple. A few minutes later Marcelo meets us at the exit.
After a walkthrough of St. Peter’s Basilica, I am eager to get out of the herd.
Pizza is the remedy.
Moving on to Venice the following day, I hoped to have more luck with avoiding the masses. Unfortunately luck was not on my side.
Upon arriving by train for my one full day in Venice, I am reminded of the expectations my Uncle Jimbo set when I told him I was coming here.
“Canals! Tourists! Canals! Tourists!”
He also suggested I skip Venice, rent a car, and get lost in the Italian countryside. I should have heeded his advice. What I found in Venice was more sheeple, many of the American variety.
Of course, Venice is beautiful and unlike any place I have ever seen.
Canals, gondolas, colorful buildings, narrow streets.
To be clear, this post is not intended to dissuade you from visiting these two amazing cities. I mean, listen to me, whining about having to grapple with hordes of tourists, unable to appreciate the blessings of travel. Numb to the beauty of old world Europe. Bitter. Hardened. Annoyed.
I’m a bit disgusted with myself while re-reading this. Above I simply glossed over St. Peter’s Basilica, by many accounts the centerpiece of the Christian faith. A colossal Baroque-style wonder. The world’s most renowned piece of Renaissance architecture. A place where the Pope regularly preaches. Where, supposedly, the first pope is buried, St. Peter himself.
And Venice! In my bitterness I fail to do in justice.
A collection of 117 islands separated by canals and connected by bridges. Amazing architecture, no cars, winding streets, open plazas, fancy shopping, live music and street performers. The inspiration for innumerable Venetian ports all over the world. It’s great, really, believe me (starting to sound like Trump here).
In all seriousness…Go to Rome, go to Venice. Just consider my advice, with a grain of salt of course.
Everyone should see the great cities of the world. But if you’re planning a trip to Europe to see the Barcelona’s and the London’s and the Rome’s, don’t go during peak tourist season, and consider working in a trip to the countryside of whatever places you’re visiting. I’ve been lucky to experience both in my two months of traveling, and I have found that places untouched by tourism/Westerners tend to be more rewarding.
And so I wish I had taken to the Italian countryside to complement my stays in Rome and Venice. Even us sheeple live and learn, right?
The one piece of advice I demand you follow is this: Definitely eat as much pizza as possible if you visit Italy.