Just for a moment, close your eyes and think back to the good old days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Remember how, when you went on holiday, you would take a day trip to a historical site, climb to the top and take off all your clothes? Or perhaps when you went out for a romantic dinner, photographed your tiger prawns, then drove over to your best friend’s house to show them? No? Nor do I.
Earlier this month, four tourists were arrested for stripping naked at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and now face up to three months in jail. When I read the story over breakfast in a Rome hotel, I was more depressed than shocked. For the last six weeks that I’ve been train-hopping around Europe, my faith in the future of mankind has dwindled so far as to make me wince at the sight of tourists. Where once travel was a passive activity, it has now morphed into an aggressive, competitive sport. It’s no longer enough to slip into a city at night, stroll the streets by day, and leave as quietly as you came. Now you have to make your mark by scratching your name into a wall, airing your genitalia on a holy mountain or banging a padlock onto a bridge. It’s the travelling equivalent of taking a long drawn-out piss all over your neighbour’s front porch.
I first felt revulsion for the trend while walking hand in hand on the Pont des Arts last October. Paris’s bridges form the backbone of the city and are synonymous with romance, popping up in most art and literature. Yet, in 2008, couples began attaching metal padlocks to the Pont des Arts and throwing the keys into the water to symbolize their unbreakable love. Never mind that the keys are probably covered in sludge and littering the riverbed, the thousands of locks conceal the bridge’s original beauty and Parisian authorities have had to remove 45 tonnes of the dirty metal to prevent the bridge from collapsing. Padlocking these historical pieces of art is nothing short of vandalism. And if your relationship needs a padlock to signify its security, then you probably need to reconsider that relationship.
But the madness doesn’t stop there. Last week, I visited Juliet’s balcony at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. There is no evidence that the Capulet family ever lived there, yet the city dines out on the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the walls in the courtyard below the balcony are covered in handwritten letters to “Juliet” from tourists who use chewing gum to attach their notes. Even Verona’s clock tower has succumbed to the abuse. With a panoramic view of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the river running along the periphery, it’s a spot of peace high above the main piazza. After climbing more than 300 steps, I reached the bell tower, only to find the walls and the grand old bell itself covered in graffiti. Did Olga and Georg really need to scratch their names into its rim? Was Glenda so oblivious to his affections that Marco was compelled to tell her on 8 December 2014 that he “hearted” her and deface the brickwork of the artist who built the façade? Would Fabio declare his love for Betta across a painting in the Louvre? Maybe clip a padlock onto The Thinker’s little finger? If the answer is no, then maybe he should think about why he did it here. As I crossed the Castel Vecchio bridge at night, I climbed onto the brick ledge and shuffled along to gaze at the river bubbling below. It tumbled in the glow of the streetlamps and I had an overwhelming sense of calm as I stroked the clean surfaces and admired the loveliness of the structure. But there it was. Like architecture’s answer to herpes, one nasty little padlock had appeared and it was bound to spread its disease. Verona’s mayor has responded by issuing fines, but it begs the question: where does this compulsion come from?
I fear it is part of the growing desperation to be a part of the story, to be seen and heard having a good time, all the time. It’s not enough to stand before the remnants of the Berlin Wall and absorb the enormity of all it represents; the experience is apparently enhanced by taking a photograph of yourself in front of it to tweet, post on Facebook or hashtag on Instagram. Heaven forbid anyone think you weren’t ever there. The greatest irony is that these people feel their experience is heightened, the immersion greater, when the truth is that the magic of travel eludes them.
A Korean couple sat at a table next to me in Florence filming each other eat. She held her camera under his fork, as he ate his penne rigata and veal ragu, and giggled. He filmed her poised with a forkful of rare steak. For more than one hour, the two of them photographed each other’s tiramisu, napkins and wine glasses, and exchanged no fewer than seven or eight words. I looked around at the restaurant and wondered, would they be able to describe the vintage wine cases lining the walls, faded at the edges? Would they remember the warm smell of fresh rosemary in vases, the murmur of voices and the sound of the first glug from a newly opened bottle of wine? Had they even noticed their table was an old barrel bottom? I’ve always erred on the side of the flâneur, strolling around observing the city. I’m pretty awful at taking photographs and hate carrying a camera, but I sometimes wonder whether my mind’s eye draws in more than any camera ever could. Balzac described flânerie as a science or “gastronomy of the eye”, but I fear that tastes have changed and if we are now a society that has to take naked photos at a historical site to enjoy the experience, then we are all the worse off for it.