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CROWDED PLACES


On a visit to Rome not so long ago, I was persuaded to visit the Vatican in order to see the Sistine Chapel and marvel at the famous ceiling, painted in fresco by Michelangelo. I can honestly say that I have never been so disappointed with an iconic work of art. Not the actual painting, I hasten to add, but the whole visitor experience. The queue was long, the wait interminable and the crowd thronging the small space (for it is after all just a chapel) was jam-packed. In order to admire a ceiling, you have to lie down and look up, or at the very least, sit down and look up. On your feet, continually pushed and shoved, looking upwards is distinctly uncomfortable. The best you can do is steal a moment, not enough to appreciate the beauty of Michelangelo’s brushwork and to appreciate the sheer physical discomfort of painting, high up there on a wooden plank, lying on his back. Things were not improved by the hectoring tone of the ushers – more like irate traffic wardens – constantly herding people through and out of the chapel. I was left cross and frustrated. Would it not have been better to limit the crowds of sightseers in order that we could stare and wonder in quiet contemplation? But obviously, the Vatican authorities were more interested in maximising their profits by opening up the chapel to the general public and pushing through as many paying customers as possible in the shortest possible time. Naked commercialism.

On a similar note, there was a photo in the papers recently of the crowds craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, on show for a brief period of time in Paris. Hardly anyone would have got near enough to the painting even to see it, let alone study it in peaceful reflection.

 

We have just returned from a holiday in Croatia. Visiting the city of Split, a delightful port on the Adriatic Coast, we were dumbstruck by the sight of three enormous passenger ships drawn up alongside the landing jetty. Two were as large as the QE2, the third more resembled a skyscraper than a liner. We met a couple who were travelling on one of those ships. Their voyage comprised one-day stops at various well-known ports in the Mediterranean. How many on your boat, I asked. 3,000 was the answer. So that makes 6,000 trippers on the two smaller ships and at least another 4,000 on the larger vessel. In total, some 10,000 tourists were off-loaded into the port daily, that is if the berths that became vacant were immediately filled by another monster of the sea, which seemed quite plausible. Leaving aside for a moment myaversion to sharing a holiday with 2,999 other tourists, it did mean that the old city was teeming with crocodile lines of tours such that it became uncomfortably crowded during the day; any sightseeing we wanted to do had to be done before ten o’clock, the time when the liner passengers had had their breakfast and were lining up behind the raised umbrella of their tour guide. Just too many people descending on one place at the same time. It reminded me of that shocking image(below) of the Doge’s Palace in Venice dwarfed by one of those ocean liners drawn up alongside the jetty.

 

I was discussing with my next-door neighbour our recent holiday experiences. He had been with his wife for a week in Mallorca. “Far too many people,” he said, “Even the locals who rely on tourism were fed up with not being able to move about on their island for bloody tourists. They are even contemplating limiting the number of people coming in. It’s got that ridiculous.” That makes perfect sense to me. Think of the forthcoming Test match at Lord’s for England against the West Indies, Jimmy Anderson’s swansong. The capacity at the ground is 31,000 and tickets were sold out long ago. If you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. It’s as simple as that. If any more were smuggled in, the view, the experience, the day would be ruined for others. You could say the same about illegal immigration to this small, overcrowded island of ours, but that is another kettle of fish that I shall leave to stink.

 

The third disturbing image I wish to share with you is the remarkable photo (above) of the crowded queue of Everest climbers awaiting their time to stand atop of the world. It shocked me to the core when I first saw it. Two questions flooded my mind. Why? Hilary and Tensing were the first to conquer Mount Everest. All those who came after were not,and never will be, the first. Perhaps, there are other ‘firsts’, such as climbing it via another route, or without oxygen or wearing a Mickey Mouse outfit. But soon the number of ‘firsts’ runs out and thereafter it simply becomes a vanity project – look at me, another of my climbing wish lists chalked off, what an intrepid man of the mountains am I! The second question is: to what purpose? Think of the detritus left abandoned by the thousands of climbers, including the bodieslining the route(of which there are a few), frozen in death,those who did not make it, or more probably did but perished on the way down. All the equipment, clutter and junk left by climbing expeditions are disfiguring the mountain. It used to be virgin snow and untouched wilderness. It is no longer. And how much time does each individual get at the mountain top? A quick selfie and soon the next Everest tourist takes his place. No time to take in the view, one that literally has no equal in the world. Surely the authorities of Nepal and China (the Himalayas straddle the border between the two countries) must take action soon and ban any further expeditions. The mountain has suffered enough at the hands, or should I say boots, of Man, who seems intent on destroying what Nature has furnished.

“The problem, dear Brutus…lies in ourselves,” said Cassius to his friend, inveigling him into the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar. I am fully aware that as a tourist myself I am part of the problem. I have visited Venice, Split, the Sistine Chapel and other notable travel destinations and joined the queuesand merged into the crowd, vexed at the number of people intent on doing just what I was doing, these ‘bloody tourists’ getting in my way. The idea of limiting the number of visitors to these scenic spots and visitor attractions holds some merit but I remember looking at the long and stationary queue (or ‘line’ as the Americans call it) to ascend to the top of the Statue of Liberty, and deciding the wait just wasn’t worth it. My altruistic act was anything but; I simply didn’t want to stand in the burning midday sun for an hour and get fractious. Yet it did mean that I was denied the opportunity to look out over the view of the city of New York, a wondrous spectacle on a clear day, such as this one was. Perhaps, in these times of cheap travel and mass tourism we expect too much. It could be said that our generation has been lucky; our parents and grandparents did not travel so much, and the tourist trails were that less crowded. If we really want to save the planet, air travel should be restricted, and we would have to seek out places of interest nearer to home. But would I be happy with that? Probably not. I’ll just have to get up earlier and set off before the passengers on those massive liners have finished their breakfast.

 

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