Our recent trip to Paris, highlighted in last week's post, has confirmed what I was expecting is taking place in the world of Travel - the slow death of trust in the visitor by those at work in the tourist industry, and particularly by the management of a specific attraction. No longer perceived by them as a visitor respected for playing a minor role for the upkeep of the venue through payment of his admission fees. Instead, as I see it, rather to be perceived as a burdensome modern-day tourist: Complaining, annoying, dissatisfied, impatient, a nuisance, and worst of all, a potential source of a terrorist threat. In the back of the mind of every staff member, each one of us visitors could be a suicide bomber intent of blowing the attraction sky high, with the cost of his own life as well as taking the lives of everyone else within the vicinity.
And all this became immediately apparent when we approached the Eiffel Tower, indeed the very symbol of Paris, on our wedding anniversary. At both at the north and south approaches, there were some things present which certainly weren't there the last time I was in Paris in 1985 - Security gates, where the bag belonging to each visitor was searched. This together with long queues at the Tower entrance gates snaking along switchback-style to hide its off-putting true length. Fortunately for us, due to our morning arrival, this queue wasn't very long, and we estimated around a ten to fifteen minute wait as we watched three or four tellers busy selling admission tickets. However, credit goes to one of the staff members for noticing my wife's wheelchair and singling us out for fast-track admission, bypassing the queue.
The whole set-up was quite different to that of 1985, my last visit to Paris. Back then, on my own, people milled around the base of the Tower after arriving from both Champs de Mars to the south and from the Trocodero, north across the River Seine, without coming across any security barriers. Hardly any queues for the lifts going up, my ascent to the very top to admire the dizzying views of the city was quite uneventful by comparison to the efforts needed to get up there at present.
Whether it's to do with the stereotypical view of the panicking Italian, with his arms gesticulating in an emotional tirade over something which has no evidence of ever having occurred in his country or vicinity, there was one significant change when visiting the ancient Catacombs de San Giovanni, in the Sicilian city of Siracusa in 2007, also as part of our wedding anniversary celebration. Here we saw something which wasn't there when I last visited the attraction as a lone backpacker in 1982. It was a recently-completed departure lounge, not too dissimilar from an airport lounge except it being smaller in size and capacity. After paying the entrance fee, the visitor would wait in the lounge until the right time for the tour escort to arrive. By then, a significantly-sized party would have assembled in the lounge, which would then be led by the escort through a locked door into the Medieval churchyard and its ruins, and into the ancient tunnels. Furthermore, photography was forbidden during the tour.
|Catacombs of St John, Sicily.|
Alex, who was on the tour with me (no wheelchair back then), seemed quite happy, as were everyone else in the party. But I wasn't. Because in 1982, during my first visit, there were no tour escorts, no waiting lounge, no restricted sized parties. Instead, I along with everybody else, simply paid the entrance fee and then was free to enter the churchyard and underground tunnels at will, and I was allowed to saunter along at my own pace, taking photographs, and remaining until I was satisfied in seeing the better part of what was originally an ancient Greek aqueduct, before the early Christians used the tunnel walls to carve out what looks to be hundreds of niches to bury their dead. So how did I feel about the 2007 experience? Simply this: I, as an adult tourist, cannot be trusted to wander through the tunnels on my own like I did in 1982. It added to what I could clarify as a personal insult. The rest of the party, including my wife, did not appear to be in anyway unsettled by the comparatively short timeslot the escort allowed for the duration of the tour.
By checking on the Internet, it does look as if Italy had gone into panic mode where trust in tourists are concerned. Before 2007, my last visit to Italy was in 1982. Back then I had a wonderful backpacking trip throughout the length of the whole country, using the Ferrovie de Italia national pass ticket, allowing me to use any train without limit throughout the three week duration in Italy. Starting and finishing at Milan, Siracusa was the furthest point south I managed to reach, which also took in stops at the holiday resort and historical town of Taormina, with its famed ancient Greek and Roman theatre and spectacular vista points, and also a hike up to the rim of the active crater of Mount Etna. And I also stopped in Rome, like I did in 1973 and 1975. On both these occasions I was able to walk directly into the Roman Colosseum as easily as walking into a superstore, as well as amble without any restriction into the Basilica de San Pietro, and for a fee, made my way up to the Cupola.
Looking at recent Internet photos, I was not at all surprised at the now-limited entry into the Colosseum. Although tour parties seems to be well encouraged, unlike the Catacombs in Sicily, according to what I have read, one can still enter the attraction alone and as an individual. But the one significant change is the erection of fencing at all but two of the arches, the entrance and exit, whereas before, one can enter the Colosseum at any arch, just as countless generations did before.
|Roman Colosseum - with fenced off arches.|
The fencing off the multiple entrance arches, in my mind, has brought something of a shameful sense of distrust to the present tourist, if there's no better way of wording. Furthermore, there is an airport-style security check at the entrance, and according to the latest news, there is talk of forbidding entry of day-packs into the monument, let alone a traveller carrying a rucksack. Really, the magic in travel has evaporated. How fortunate that I was born at a time when it was not too late to travel whilst in my early twenties, and did what countless generations did before me, just amble into the Colosseum, free, even if just to while away the time.
The same applied to the Basilica de San Pietro, at the Vatican. Even in 1982, while stopping at Rome for the day on my way to Milan on an overnight train, I chose to visit the Vatican. I recall sauntering casually through the main entrance door, and a while later bought a ticket to climb all the way to the Cupola, the circular balcony on the summit of the dome, where there are excellent panoramas of the city. At present, although as with the Colosseum, one can enter the church as a lone tourist, and entry is still free, nevertheless, everyone has to go through a security check, where bags are constantly searched, causing long queues to form.
The pros and cons of modern travel! Just two weeks prior to writing this, we were on the super-fast, non-stop Eurostar train journey from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. (And there were airport-style security gates at both St Pancras and Gare du Nord stations.) To me it was an exciting experience to whiz under the English Channel at 100 mph 162 km/h through a tunnel which entrance is located in England and its exit is already in France. Yet I recall with nostalgic fondness of the old boat-trains which pulled out of London Victoria, rattled through Kent to terminate at Folkstone Harbour, then to board a ferry to cross the Channel (a proper ship with bars and restaurants, and not a catamaran, as it is now), then to board an awaiting train at the French port of Boulogne, and remaining on the train as it first pulls into Paris du Nord terminus, then shunted around the edge of the French capital to Paris Gare de Lyon terminus, then sent on its way to Italy via the fast route to Dijon, then after stopping at Modane to have our passports checked, passing through the tunnel of Mont Cenis Pass under the Alps to emerge in Italy, with Bardonechia being the first Italian stop. By the time our train pulled into Roma Terminus, it has been roughly 24 hours after leaving Boulogne. The old boat-train to either Rome, or to Milan through Switzerland, was my means of European travel up to and including 1982.
All that, along with easy access to all the ancient attractions, made Travel a source of simple, innocent joy. Nowadays the presence of security gates everywhere I visit, the lack of trust towards the tourist by the industry as a whole, as well as introduction of entry fees at sites that were once free for anyone to enter, has spoiled the joy of innocent travel to those born in the Baby-boom generation. But at least I can say what it was like to have experienced it.
I guess our younger generation has grown up with our present form of travel, and has never given it a second thought on what it might have been like during bygone years. For example, a present-day student visiting the Catacombs of St. John in Sicily would be glad to be part of an escorted tour group, without the slightest thought that some 34 years earlier, the same student would have had the opportunity to amble freely in the tunnels at his own pace and duration.
But in another way, I'm thankful for the extra security now in place. After all, I would feel very queasy if I saw a group of Muslims board the plane I have just boarded. It makes me think about how these site managers must feel when a group of Muslims enter their historic premises, especially if Islam consider these sites as "offensive to Allah" - and therefore must be blown up and demolished. This has been happening recently to ancient archaeological sites across the Middle East. Let's face it: It is the threat of these Islamic terrorists that has robbed Travel of its innocent joy.
I think all this could be a start of a partial fulfilment of the prophecy made by Jesus Christ, when he warned:
On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint with terror, apprehensive on what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.