Today the jewelry and souvenir shops lining the Ponte Vecchio—in medieval stalls once occupied by tanners, farmers, and butchers—are closed until further notice.
For several weeks now, response to the Coronavirus global pandemic has shut down many businesses throughout the world deemed non-essential. Tourist destinations have been the most vulnerable to the virus, and Italy was hit particularly hard.
The vibrancy of Florence that we experienced, just months ago, may be temporarily hindered, but the city’s vulnerable antiquity is receiving beneficial relief from mass tourism. Society must now consider how to responsibly re-engage in life and productivity in a healthy, beneficial way. Can the travel industry thrive in a new manner that also protects the places we all love?
Ponte Vecchio Peddler
It’s hard for me to imagine Florence today, void of roaming tourists. Just six months ago we were among the masses at the Ponte Vecchio. People flock to the area around this medieval bridge, bustling with sightseers and vendors alike. Finding an opening for a closeup view between posing selfie-takers at midday proved a challenge.
We headed downstream to the Ponte Santa Trinita where idyllic views of the Ponte Vecchio crossing the Arno River had enticed me to stop and take photos. I kept my intuitive traveler senses on high-alert, well aware of notorious pick-pockets preying on unsuspecting tourists. A friendly peddler from Senegal stopped our boys as we crossed.
Aaron stood watch while the man offered each of our boys a “free” gift—handmade bracelets that he tied to their wrists. He claimed to admire Manchester City, whose jersey Cole wore, and spoke of playing football (soccer) in his homeland. He talked compellingly about his life’s challenges. The most skilled salespeople tug at your heartstrings, which they well-know lead to your purse strings.
The man had genuinely warm, though weathered, eyes and smile; so admittedly, I felt badly to decline any purchase despite his relentless pursuit, instead giving him a couple of Euro for his requested coffee. Still, he insisted the boys keep their bracelets and wished us all well on our journey. This man is just one example of the influx of immigrants and refugees into many touristy cities.
I always feel a bit conflicted. On one hand, I feel impelled to help a complicated situation, in my limited capacity; on the other, I don’t want to foster constant pestering by feeding it. Although I may become annoyed, pushed to be less sympathetic, it’s a conscious effort to never succumb to intolerance.
Travel is a privileged position—wanting to peacefully sightsee and enjoy the food and culture in places without hassle. Maintaining a grounded perspective is key.
The “Bucket-Lister” Magnet
Florence is a living, breathing museum. Architecture, fountains, and statuary are found around every bend—so much to discover without stepping foot indoors for the vast collection of paintings, sculptures, and relics. It’s really no wonder the city gets inundated with visitors each year.
Tourism is a major industry throughout much of Italy, and its third most popular destination after Rome, then Venice, is Florence, which receives over seven million visitors each year. These numbers can create quite a challenge if not managed.
Space is minimal between narrow, winding Florentine streets. Firenze, as the Italians call their city, was the epicenter of the Renaissance and is tightly loaded with historic masterpieces. The historic center is compact and very walkable. Interconnected piazzas provide open space to relieve the density; that is, unless you end up in one of the squares with hordes of tourists.
We didn’t immediately feel the masses. When we first arrived, we crossed the piazza of Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. The facade of geometric green, pink and white marble is typical of Florentine Renaissance church architecture. Here people milled about and relaxed at cafe tables facing the plaza, but it was free of congestion.
Our apartment was just off the plaza, a short walk to some of the main attractions. After our midday arrival following a long rail journey from Geneva via Milan, and with only two nights in the city, we had immediately set out to explore.
As we made our way down the cobbled medieval street near the Duomo, the red tile of Brunelleschi’s (pronounced: broo-nuh-‘leski) immense, 15th-century, egg-shaped dome came into view.
First impressions influence perceptions, but even a short stay can give a sense of a place. During our stopover, we gained a brief feel for the city—and a delicious meal—without completely breaking the (Swiss) bank. What can you do in a single evening in Geneva? I wondered how much we would learn about this place…
Between the scaffolding required for restorations, human congestion increased, making the passage feel tighter. The energy became increasingly hurried.
In the Piazza del Duomo, a large cluster of people surrounded one side of the octagonal Baptistery to view Ghiberti’s golden Gates of Paradise. These doors are this master’s work of art, and a must-see on any art lover’s bucket list.
Turning around, we looked up at the tricolored Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The bell tower, Campanile di Giotto, soared vertically next to this majestic 13th-century Duomo (Italian cathedral). My mouth sat agape as this cathedral had for nearly two centuries without a roof until innovation finally found a way to top it.
From here, we continued to the even more crowded Piazza della Signoria wrapping the Palazzo Vecchio, adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery. People flock here to see the amazing works of art in the gallery and sculptures filling the courtyard. But all of these people take a toll on this centuries-old city—and our sanity.
A greater sense of calm was found in the morning hours. Before the throngs descended upon the tour book must-sees, we were able to more pleasantly experience the main sights without being suffocated. When the masses arrived later into the day, we escaped down side streets and into plazas with lesser-known gems, like Piazza di Santa Croce.
A Future for Sustainable Tourism
Traveling is a relationship that necessitates give and take. During a visit, we all want to take in the amazing sights, but also have a responsibility to give back to the community and respect the culture.
Sustainable tourism brings a welcome (and needed) boost to many economies. Enjoying local food is part of the experience. Our purchases provide sources of income for residents. Travel can expand awareness and allow us to see the world through a different lens.
The concern is over-tourism. Imbalance is created by the sheer quantity of people visiting just for the day—busloads transported in part by massive cruise ships—in a mad rush to check off bucket-list items. The city becomes overrun and littered; sculptures smothered by selfie-stick-wielders; damage to irreplaceable treasures compounds.
Yet today, there are no tourists crossing the bridge or roaming the plazas. The much-needed income tourism provides has been stifled, suspended until further notice. The silver lining through all of this: relief of overuse to the historic center. Air quality and waterways everywhere have been given a chance to clear.
With this pandemic, we move into a new age of unknown. The world has received a wakeup call. One thing is certain: this is the dawn of renewed opportunity for a healthier, more sustainable future—a chance to do things better. We have an opportunity to move forward with greater awareness, clarity, and intention.
Everyday we made a stop at Vivoli, the oldest gelateria in Florence, for the best artisanal gelato and a perfect cappuccino. I used my broken Italian to ask the barista for restaurant recommendations. His initial hesitation quickly changed to enthusiasm as he sensed my authenticity and composed a list of local favorites, handwritten on a scrap of paper.
From that list, I was able to secure a prized reservation the following evening at Trattoria Cammillo across the river, although not until late, so we filled the time with a pre-dinner, sunset climb to Forte di Belvedere.
Finally seated in a cozy room under a brick herringbone, barrel-vaulted ceiling, the restaurant proved to be a treat worth waiting for. We indulged a bit by ordering a thick Fiorentina steak of local Chianina beef—the best bit of beef I’ve ever sunk my teeth into—and a bowl of fresh spaghettini covered in shaved white truffles, paired with a flight of Tuscan wine tastings. Amazing.
Experiences like these are why we travel—to engage in the culture and to get to know their essence. As I well-know marrying into an Italian family, in Italy, food is love.
In a warm glow of light, we walked back across the Arno. The city revealed another appealing quality. The comforting atmosphere is welcoming, like that of a warm embrace. Florence is the kind of place we would like to return to one day.
Now, as I sit in relative confinement in California, relishing this time with my family, grateful for health, our home, and outdoor space, I miss the small pleasures brought by travel—simple things, like sitting among locals at a cafe, experiences that don’t cost a fortune (although occasional splurges are nice too).
Also on my mind is the Senegalese peddler on the bridge, and others just trying to build a new life, or simply survive, however able. They are drawn to cities with the most saturated tourism. Right now that source of income has been stripped away. There are no tourists to prey on.
Meanwhile, local businesses that also depend on visitors are shut down, threatening the economy and cherished social outlets.
Beyond needing an infusion of general health and global prosperity, my hope is for restored vitality. My spirit yearns for socialization, for exploration, and for travel. I hope that, through this experience, we take away a greater respect for one another, for our stunning planet, and for all of the world’s treasures.
We all want to get back to normal. But there will be a new normal. And we must do so carefully. There is no vitality without health and safety. Then once life and travel are able to resume, we can take conscious steps toward a healthier, more sustainable future—one that better considers the very places and features that we travelers like to visit.
So back to my initial question: Can the travel industry thrive in a new manner that also protects the places we all love? And I’m still wondering: How can visitors, like me, aid those in need without fostering their undesirable pestering?
A special shout-out of gratitude to all of the people on the frontlines who provide healthcare, food, and necessities for all, and to all of the scientists rigorously working to find a cure. My family’s thoughts are particularly with those who are suffering—families who have lost loved ones, struggling or shut down business owners, and people who have lost their jobs. May the end of isolation come soon, and may the light on the other side be even brighter.
For more information on Sustainable Tourism, visit Sustaining Tourism: Traveling Towards a Global Sustainable Future.
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