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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin ‘SORRY, ROME IS CLOSED TODAY’

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

November 1, 1988 -- Last August I spent thirteen days on Royal Cruise Line’s Royal Odyssey for a "Great Capitals of Europe" itinerary. This is always an excellent way to sample a cluster of destinations in a comfortable environment – see what you like and what you don’t like, which enables the traveler to decide where to come back to spend more time next time. We started off in London (Tilbury) and ended up in Villefranche on the French Rivera next door to Nice and Monte Carlo.

What follows are extracts from my notes:

Lisbon: Enveloped by a benign neglect. Shortly after our visit, a devastating fire swept the city, particularly the older neighborhoods. This is certainly not the way I would have tackled the problem, but maybe this Portuguese capital will look a little less dowdy the next time around.

Rome. Hot, hazy, and hordes of tourists from whom the Romans have fled. This is, I imagine, a gentler invasion than the earlier ones by the Huns, the Goths, and the Vandals, but it is an invasion nonetheless. The sacred grounds of the Vatican, particularly Saint Peter’s Square, are chocked with casually clad sightseers; the perimeter ground is clogged with motor coaches, their engines spewing out poisonous fumes and deafening decibels. The drivers understandably wait stoically, if not patiently, for their tour groups to return. They keep the air-conditioners running in the August heat. (Who can blame them?)

The Sistine Chapel drew rave reviews from my fellow travelers, despite the rigors of the visit. Shirts stick to clammy skin. Sweaty faces, puffy eyes. The tired tourist returns gracefully to his refrigerated bus somewhat weary but pleased. A motorcoach from West Germany parked next to ours has a broken air-conditioner. The driver is disgusted and disgruntled. Our driver sympathizes with a Roman shrug of his shoulders.

The area below the Spanish Steps is under siege. The fountain is barely visible; the sightseers are nine deep. This is a melting pot today in more ways than one. Dozens of languages flow in the humid air. Only the younger people seem oblivious to the heat.

On the way back to the ship, I wondered: Just where is this flood of mass tourism leading us? How much more on a given day in August can a city like Rome absorb? Is there a limit? If yes, when will it be reached? Who will tell the hopeful pilgrims that Rome is a city of finite dimensions, rooms, services, space? We’re sorry, but Rome is closed today; there’s just no more room.

Best meal of the trip: al fresco lunch at Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona. Touristy maybe, but splendid bread, pasta, and grilled sole. Also a wonderful mixed salad, a sinful tartuffo (shared by seven of us), and a refreshing Frascati house wine. All for about $28.00 a head. Not bad for Europe in the summer of 1988.

Paris. Have you ever noticed that if Americans are not shopping, they’re eating? Another delightful lunch and reasonably priced. Even more so at a time when the dollar’s spineless posture abroad strikes uncertainty into the average tourist’s budget. A pleasant outdoor setting at a café/bistro on the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. At a total cost of $62.00 for four. This included drinks and mineral water, an excellent muscular bread, ham and melon, veal pate, and a salad Nicoise. Most surprisingly the service is downright friendly. Paris in August, while reportedly devoid of Parisiens, is visibly rife with visitors. We elected to skip Notre Dame and several other first-time requisites because of long lines and not enough time. (Four younger members of the group, aged seventeen to twenty-two, had never been to Paris. Despite the crowds and a heavy afternoon rain, they were impressed by this forever handsome and at times frustrating city.) Someone remarked that if Rome is a museum, the Paris is a romance.

Amsterdam. The welcome sign is always out. A city that seems to attract the young and the youthful. The boat ride along the canals is comfortable and instructive; an hour in the Rijksmuseum gave us Rembrandt and his peers, among others. Many of our fellow cruise passengers preferred the nearby Van Gogh Museum. Amsterdam’s charm is low-key but enduring.

Bruges. Not long after we arrived from a nearby seaport at this engaging and lovely small city, I developed the feeling that Belgium is underrated as a destination. Maybe there’s not enough hype, or maybe the perception is too business-oriented because of Brussel’s role as headquarters for the Common Market. Bruges is a city of cobblestone streets, lots of greenery, a cathedral, and charming small cafes.

Gibraltar. As seen from the Royal Odyssey, the famous rock and the garrison community it shelters draw more passengers to the deck than any other event on the cruise. Most of the passengers were attached to cameras, which got quite a workout from the shifting view of Gibraltar provided by the ship’s captain.

I believe that it’s seven miles across to Morocco – a strategic strait indeed.

This sail-by reminded several of us independently of The Captain’s Paradise, a long-ago black-and-white movie with Alex Guinness as a skipper with a timid, conservative British wife in Gibraltar and a swinging lady friend in Morocco. Halfway between the two points, he switches the photo on his desk and his character to suit the occasion. Clever and witty. (Oh yes, he does get his comeuppance.)

Palma de Majorca. This Spanish island, sultry and subtropical, provided further spice with a castle and cathedral, as well as smart shops (Majorca pearls) and outdoor cafes. A renowned resort mecca for sophisticated and well-to-do Europeans. Beach and tennis and disco…

Barcelona. I chose to skip this stop as it was Sunday and we were told that almost everything was closed. Next time.

Ajaccio. This port in Corsica is renowned for its ties to Napoleon, who was apparently born there. The museum bearing his name is closed the afternoon we are in town. The natives are friendly and helpful in this French possession. Maybe next time there will be a chance to get into the countryside, which we were told is wild and handsome.

The summer of 88 was supposed to see a decline in U.S. traffic to Europe because of its weak U.S. dollar. Europe was going to be expensive for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. At the time I wrote this column, it was too early for definitive statistics, but the flight from New York’s Kennedy Airport was jammed, the Royal Odyssey filled to capacity, and the accents we encountered in most of the cities were heavily American. It may not have been a record summer, but I doubt if anyone stayed home because of the U.S. dollar. At least not from what I saw and heard.

By the time this column sees print, the Royal Odyssey will have been transferred from Royal Cruise Line to Premier Cruise Line.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.