Trampling on the wonder of travel
Where has all the glamour gone? I'm sitting on the terrace of the Wunderbar Caffe, which overlooks the Ionian Sea in Taormina in Sicily.
This exquisite ancient town, established even before the Greeks arrived in the region in 734BC, has in more recent times been the location of the Taormina Film Fest, which has brought movie stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren to the terrace of the cafe. Greta Garbo and Truman Capote have also enjoyed cocktails there. It was Tennessee Williams' favourite hangout.
Taormina was also the backdrop for Michelangelo Antonioni's super-chic 1960 movie, L'Avventura, which starred Monica Vitta, the It Girl of Italian cinema at the time.
So, you can see why I was excited that Taormina was on the itinerary of a 10-day tour of beautiful Sicily. And it is magnificent, winding steeply from the sea to an ancient Roman theatre, with charming narrow streets and medieval alleys. I would have been able to enjoy those streets if two enormous cruise ships hadn't disgorged passengers at the same time.
As I entered the village from one gate, a sea of ambling people in shorts, t-shirts and baseball caps came towards me from the other direction, about six abreast, which is about the width of the streets.
The passengers had been divided into groups of about 40, according to busloads. For one cruise company alone, we counted about 28 busloads.
Eventually, I struggled to the Wunderbar, in a plaza in the middle of town. It was a pretty fabulous spot, if you look out to sea, but the square is also tourist central. There were souvenir stalls and a white Maserati on display in a plastic tent. Tourists stood five deep by the wall, taking shots of their ship.
I had been thinking that old-time glamour of Italian jetset haunts such as Portofino, Taormina and Rome was coming back into fashion, but I realised that while many of these places have stayed essentially the same architecturally, the world of travel has changed. It's all about mass rather than quality.
There were tourists in 1960 too, but there weren't several cruise ships, each carrying more than 2000 people, docking each day.
While I appreciate that Taormina's economy depends on these cruise ships each summer, it's such a pity that the mass has overwhelmed the individual experience of some places.
Maybe I'm being a snob, but I don't come to Italy to look at people wearing shorts and to sit in restaurants dominated by Americans ordering Diet Coke.
Fast forward to Florence, where the breakfast room of my elegant hotel is overrun with American tourists wearing shorts, jandals, exercise gear and, yes, ordering Diet Cokes.
This is a very expensive, chic hotel and, while I appreciate everyone has the right to have the holiday they wish, I just don't understand why you would stay somewhere gorgeous and not get into the spirit of it by at least ditching the jandals.
Of course, I should have known to avoid Italy in summer. And yes, I'm a tourist too, although I hope I'm sensitive to place and culture.
The democratisation of travel allows more people to experience the world outside their limited home environment, which in theory is an excellent thing, but only if that traveller embraces the experience and doesn't merely want to transport home to other places.
Perhaps you can never be a local, but the old-fashioned concept of respect still applies, and that includes respecting other travellers.
Sydney Morning Herald