Salami on the Spanish Steps

By Richard Turen
Richard TurenAny news that serves to curtail one's total and complete joy while visiting Italy is cause for concern. We must talk about this because some of you -- a great many, I suspect -- will have to decide how you are going to gently break this news to your Italy-bound clients this coming summer season.

Tour operators, too, will have to deal with this new threat to Italian tourism.

The sad fact is that I will no longer be able to sit on the Spanish Steps in Rome with my notepad, a bottle of San Pellegrino con gassata and a salami panino.

Rome's new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, has issued a decree that has much of Italy abuzz, and public opinion polls seem to suggest that most Romans think the mayor has bitten off just enough to chew.

The decree, which took effect this month, bans eating and drinking on the streets of the city center. It is now illegal to sip a water bottle or savor a slice of pizza while sitting on the stones surrounding the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum or the ancient Pantheon.

This wasn't exactly a decree that was anticipated after the swearing in of the new mayor.

He formed a new political party called the Freedom Party, but that name did not hide the fact that he is the first "rightist" mayor of the city since the end of World War II, a 50-year-old who cut his political teeth as the head of Italy's post-fascist youth movement in the 1980s.

Last April, after victory seemed imminent, a number of his young supporters celebrated in a gathering on the steps of the city hall with the saluto Romano, the infamous Mussolini stiff-armed salute that the Nazis soon adopted.

How well the decree is working depends on whom you ask. Locals think it is about time, feeling that tourists have gotten out of hand and that they disrespect public monuments and treasures of the past when they slurp Starbucks iced lattes while walking amid the ruins.

Virtually all Romans believe that the tourists lack any true sense of style, a rather serious allegation in terms of the virtues Italians hold dear.

What motivated the mayor to outlaw that which most of us have done in the streets of one of the world's favorite cities?

He explains it by alluding to "episodes in contrast with the most elementary norms of urban decorum."

Italy, of course, has some rather more pressing problems involving mounting debt. It would seem that preaching to tourists about the need for a change in behavior, telling them that they cannot be themselves in Italy, is not going to be a boost to tourism.

Sadly, it is now possible for a political candidate in much of Western Europe to score points with the local electorate by combating the rise of slovenly tourism. Having been a resident of Italy, I know that it is true that how you look is generally thought to be significantly more important than how you feel. The Italians, my friends who live there tell me, have had it with supersize Americans, snacking publicly as they sit almost anywhere their butts will fit, or doing a slow amble about the city center eating as they walk because they heard that if you sit down in a chair at a cafe or snack bar you are likely to be charged an extra euro or two.

Many Italians, I sense, are feeling that budget tourism of all types and nationalities is dragging down the local style meter, and the crowds are making Rome, Venice and Florence look like an American shopping mall on a rainy Sunday.

But there is a subplot here. While the politicians talk about curbing slovenly tourist behavior, the real goal of this decree and others like it is, I believe, to keep the homeless out of the city center. Any person with an open bottle or eating bits of food outdoors near a monument where tourists gather is susceptible to a fine.

The fines range from 25 to 500 euros, and the police have some discretion as to the amount.

While the government of Rome is proceeding with what the local newspaper, La Republica, dubbed "the war on the sandwich," new archaeological evidence has been found that Julius Caesar was killed as he sat in a chair presiding over a meeting of the Roman Senate. Not many steps away from that very spot, in the archaeological area called Torre Argentina, snackers toss their empty gelato cups along the pathways.

There is, I must point out, some underlying science in the mind of the mayor regarding this decision to ban strolling with food and impromptu picnicking at monuments. The numbers are clear: Rome is an ancient city of just over 2.5 million people that tries to absorb 11 million tourists a year. In fact, if you count just the visitors at the Colosseum, you have doubled the population.

The science suggests that tourists are dangerously spilling liquids on first century artifacts -- by mistake, perhaps, but it has occurred year after year, and no one denies that it is getting worse.

This spilling of liquids actually came up twice this week. While I was writing this column, I saw an American Airlines press release that seemed to blame passengers for the seats that have loosened from their moorings on a number of their 757 jets. The American official referred to the effects of spilled liquids over time, eroding the fittings on the nuts and bolts that hold the seats to the floor.

In other words, when seats come loose on these planes, it is the fault of the passengers, not the fact that American and virtually every other major airline now outsources substantial repair and overhaul work to overseas contractors with low labor costs. (Hey American, when the union guys in Texas screw on nuts and bolts, they stay fastened. You might want to go back to that.)

So airline safety and now the world's most important historical treasures are being threatened by the same culprit: travelers who can't keep their liquid in their cups. We're spilling when we travel domestically, and apparently we're doing it overseas, as well.

Of course, the decision of the Italians to try to enforce "urban decorum" is not limited to Rome and points in the south of Italy. Venice, Florence and Bologna, Italy's best food city, have all enacted similar decrees.

Our clients need to be informed that not all Romans agree with the new ban. A report in Time magazine described the formation of a "gourmet flash mob" of locals who occupied the Piazza del Campidoglio. The protesters were "armed" with gelato, panini of all sorts and square pizza slices raised high in the air in a taunting manner.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at rturen@travelweekly.com. 
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