During the 1980s, I lived in Venice intermittently for a couple of years. I would spend a month there, then three in Oxford, another two months in Venice, then two in Madrid, and so on. I didn't live like a tourist in Venice; instead, I tried to fit in with the lives of the people who were kind enough to welcome me into their homes, although naturally, I would look in at the odd church or palace if I happened to pass one on my daily walks. I used to go to the Rialto market, to the street market in Campo San Barnaba and to the supermarket in Campo Santa Margherita. I learned to take the strangest short-cuts simply because certain streets were impossible to walk along, clogged as they were with slow, vociferous flocks of tourists.
At the time, I was struck by the fact that Venice seemed to be the only city in the world where visitors did not behave as they did in the other cities I knew--that is, with more or less the same respect as you would when visiting someone's house. When at home, you can put your feet where you like, make a mess, lie down on the sofa or the floor--I'm very drawn to the floor myself--play whatever music you fancy or turn on the television whenever you want. But you would never do such things in someone else's house. The foreigners visiting Venice, however, took the city by storm, as if no one actually lived there and the city was some kind of theme park entirely at their disposal. Worse, they hadn't even paid an entrance fee, which might have given them some sort of temporary right to act this way.
"The poor Venetians," I used to think. "They're just as busy as people are anywhere else, with the same obligations to meet and, given that there's no road traffic, rather more difficulty in meeting them. It's as if the inhabitants don't exist or have nothing to do, as if they have no need for silence, as if the city were simply an empty stage or a deserted set on which each tourist can do as he or she wishes."
What I did not foresee then was that this barbarous, inconsiderate way of visiting a place would become the norm and would affect many other cities that attract tourists. A little while ago, the journalist and literary critic Manuel Rodriguez Rivero was telling me that on a trip to Prague, he had been warned not to try to cross the famous Charles Bridge between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. because of the crowds.
People who visit Florence nowadays stand little chance of being afflicted by Stendhal's syndrome--a condition that got its name from the 19th-century novelist's ecstatic reaction to the marvels he encountered in Florence--because it's hard to catch so much as a glimpse of the city's many beauties. Its walls are hidden by innumerable heads--not always accompanied by brains--and its buildings trampled by the hordes. The same is true of Rome. The last time I was there, I was staying in a hotel near the Pantheon and I walked by it every day. Yet there was no way I could venture into its interior, which was like a subway car in rush-hour, only much noisier.
Needless to say, these tourists are not interested in seeing anything; they are merely concerned with taking stupid photos on their stupid cell phones just so they can come out with the most stupid phrase of our times: "I've been there." The only possible response to such a statement is: "So? So what if you've been there? It is of no consequence whatsoever. Nowadays, even the most idiotic person can go anywhere. Traveling to `must-see' places vulgarizes, rather than enhances, a person's character."
Madrid and Barcelona are also becoming tourist-ridden. The former has an additional burden: all Spaniards now consider it to be "their city" and are more and more inclined to adopt the vandalistic habits of the tourists who invade places like Venice. People traipse around in gangs, shouting, singing and clapping, and because Madrid has a reputation for being a "swinging" city, they feel they have to prove this late at night by vomiting and urinating against buildings.
But then something very similar is happening almost everywhere. No one now behaves like a "visitor" in London or in Paris, in Budapest or in Edinburgh, in Salamanca, Toledo, Seville or Granada. These cities are merely stage sets for the enjoyment of tourists who don't care two hoots about the feelings of the inhabitants.
The only answer is to go to places that have not yet become tourist spots, although that is becoming increasingly difficult thanks to Sunday supplements (like the one I write for) and all those travel sections that are determined to leave no stone unturned and which are gradually allowing every pleasant place in the world, one by one, to fall into the hands of the hordes.
I recently spent a few days in an extraordinary Italian city. What makes it extraordinary is, in part, the fact that the hordes have not yet arrived, the hordes who prevent others and themselves from seeing anything, who put their feet up on the tables and throw their trash on the sidewalk, who look without seeing and to whom looking and seeing are unimportant because they do so only through a camera. Logically enough, I will not give the name of the city, just in case I decide, one day, to live there.
(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.)
Javier Marias is an award-winning author and columnist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been translated into 34 languages. His most recent book is the novel Tu Rostro Manana 3: Veneno y Sombra y Adios.
By Javier Marias