Every so often, we get a reminder how well our instincts have worked out in choosing the Expatriate lifestyle in Italy. At this point, in becoming more comfortable in Ascoli Piceno, awareness of the original relocation decision priorities has started to fade into the background. It seems we are so pleased with how our lives have turned out, we don’t feel much of a need to re-examine how we made the decision to settle in Ascoli in the first place. And then we have an experience that says, “Oh yes, these are some of the reasons we decided to live in Ascoli!”
We just completed one of those ‘re-epiphanies.’ Three special friends from the San Diego area came to visit us early this September and have just returned to California. We spent three wonderful and very busy weeks with them. We met in Rome on their arrival and then spent five days in an endurance trial to see some of the sights. Then it was on to Ascoli for four days.
As we suspected they would, our visitors found Ascoli a highlight of their Italian experience. Their exposure to Ascoli was made all the more immediate by the warm and positive personal equation that has also been so important to us. First, there was an extension of hospitality at the apartment of our ever-kind friend Jo during a day at the beach on the Adriatic. And then their visit was capped off by a very well attended, fun-filled welcoming party at the Ascoli family home of our very close friend, Serafino. Our American friends have commented these expressions of kindness were some of their fondest memories of their entire experience in Italy.
In addition to welcoming our American friends, a delightful couple from Canada, who have just arrived to settle here, were also part of the festivities. Our new Canadian friends are an acquaintancship that was made through and as a result of this Blog. Having them also here in Ascoli, to finally be face-to-face, is a real pleasure for us.
Next, it was on to four days in Florence and then four days in Venice. We had hoped that being beyond the July-August traditional summer tourist peak times in Italy, things might have been more sane. Under the best of circumstances, deciding on what to see in the cultural bonanza that is Italy is challenging. But when you add in hordes of tourists, the experience becomes a mixture of positive anticipation somewhat offset by frustration. The sights and the potential they represent is mind expanding. But having to contend with a mass of tourists can be a serious detraction from what you came to experience.
That is particularly true as a result of what appears to be the increasing size of guided tours. I have a sense it is not only the numbers of tourists that has increased it is also the size of groups navigating through small spaces. The electronic age has enabled large groups to be herded through cultural sites. The tour guide has a microphone connected to a mini-transmitter. The trailing mass, more or less following, is equipped with mini-receivers and the ubiquitous ear buds. It appeared some of these ‘herds’ reached almost fifty or seemingly more. Before the electronic injection into the process, groups needed to be small so the guide could be heard in a less than full volume, un-amplified voice. But now, entire populations swarm, en-mass, through cultural sites in undulating waves of humanity.
I was personally looking forward to a re-visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. No matter how good the quality of a reproduction of a work of art, there is something very special standing in close proximity to an original piece that is considered significant in the development of western art. When I found myself in the large room of the Uffizi in which the Botticelli piece “The Birth of Venus” is displayed, all I could perceive of the picture was a mass of humanity at least ten if not more ranks deep in front of the work. What I could see of the work was perhaps the top-most ten percent plus the top of its frame. There were at least two tour groups camped in front of the piece with another two guided hordes waiting in the wings to become yet another human barrier to observation. I hope I am not becoming misanthropic nor agoraphobic, but I have to confess I do not find confining, jostling crowds to my liking.
There are also moments of challenge on the streets in simply attempting to navigate between sites where masses of guided tours can form yet another barrier. If one has any sense of humor left, it is an interesting spectacle watching two separate guided tours attempt to cross at right angles. I wanted to buy a red umbrella and hold it over my head to see how many people I could get to follow me. But Arlene wouldn’t let me do it – spoil sport!
I personally find having to navigate through masses of humanity to be very frustrating. And that frustration only adds another component to the natural fatigue that a full diet of walking, often with stairs involved, can inflict on a traveller. In fairness, the other people we encounter trying to experience these cultural icons aren’t any happier to have me there than I am in encountering them.
So that has to bring me back to the question of how to deal with the reality that much of Italy is an important tourist destination. When it comes to sites with significant cultural attraction, I have to readjust some of my objectives. I thoroughly enjoy photography. An accepted convention is that a photo of a site might be done in bright sunlight with the production of resulting vibrant colors and sharp images. However, in the summer at the more popular tourist sites, you simply have to accept that the equivalent of the entire populations of any number of small, American mid-western towns is likely to be between your lens and what you want to photograph.
I have determined if I want to photograph culturally interesting architectural sites during tourist high season I need to go to the vast number of other places in Italy that are truly wonderful but the average tourist doesn’t know about. Italy has an incredible array of wonderful examples of late Renaissance architecture in breathtaking settings that are ‘off the beaten track.’ Another feature of many smaller towns and villages with significant sites is they tend to still observe the Italian tradition of the long mid-day break. So, with the sun high in the sky in the early afternoon, I can wander about camera in hand through nearly deserted town squares and literally hear my own footsteps.
For the so-called principal sites, I plan to go back to them in off-season. For example, last December just before the official start of the Christmas Season on the eighth, we went to Rome and Florence. We had leisurely, un-crowded strolls through St. Peter’s and also in St. Croce in Florence. We could also take our time being absorbed in museums and galleries. Ah, the joy of living here and having that option.
Coming full circle, one of the factors we chose Ascoli Piceno is precisely because it is ‘off the beaten track.’ Ascoli is recognized as being among the locations having one of the most beautiful town squares in all of Italy. The Renaissances Quintana re-enactment during the summer is a phenomenon. Ascoli was, fortunately, spared much of the devastation brought on Italy during the Second World War. There are still standing examples of architecture going back to Roman times.
And yet, even at the height of the tourist season, we can still navigate through town with ease. An occasional guided tour is little more than a curiosity as opposed to a serious obstacle. Daily life in Ascoli still reflects much that is so wonderful about traditional Italy. And then there is the dilemma brought on by the financial crisis of 2007-2008 that also decimated the Italian economy. As in other places, significant numbers of manufacturing jobs were lost. Places like Ascoli see tourism as a means to inject needed capital into the local economy. The local government is taking determined strides to attract tourism to Ascoli. We have had the pleasure of been introduced to the Mayor of Ascoli, Guido Castelli, on several occasions. He has graciously expressed his personal appreciation to us for writing a Blog that informs Americans and others about Ascoli. We have held our own counsel and refrained from remarking, “Be careful what you ask for!” We are afraid it is all too easy to overdo a good thing. The people of Ascoli deserve and need a brighter economic future. But somewhere there is a very difficult to define balance. Too many places in Italy appear to have lost something of their soul in being dominated by tourism and the distortions that can come from too much of it and with the negative impact on traditional Italian life.
I’m in a quandary because I admit to a sense of guilt in preferring to see Ascoli remain the charming ‘traditional Italy off the beaten track.’ But tourism is probably a more promising and more near term solution to bringing much needed capital into the area.
We probably mentioned in an earlier commentary about meeting some visiting Canadians during summer last year who were interested in Italian Renaissance Art. They were attracted to some significant artists who painted and sculpted in this region. They expressed their delight in having ‘discovered’ Ascoli. As we concluded our conversation, one of the party said, “For God’s sake, don’t let Rick Steves find out about this place!”
So now identifying ourselves as residents of Ascoli Piceno, we want what is best for this community. The people are wonderful and they deserve a better future. So as in much of life, the issue is where to strike a balance.
In the meantime, we also want to say we are great fans of Rick Steves. But for now, with regard to Ascoli, we want to say to him, “Trust us Rick, you really wouldn’t like this place – honest!”