The first time we went to Rome, we were amazed when we stopped at the ticket office of the first museum on our list. Our tickets were free! We had arrived during the Settimana della Cultura, a week in which all city and state owned museums were free. We took full advantage, taking in museums we might otherwise have skipped: the Napoleon family museum, the Corsini Gallery, and the Villa Farnesina, where Raphael entertained his mistress while he created the latest in home decor for his wealthy boss. Best of all, we had the luxury of short, repeated visits to the big, exhausting museums like the Capitoline and the various locations of the National Museum of Rome. Ever since, we have tried to plan a trip around the Settimana. But dates are a closely guarded secret, announced with hardly any lead time.
The reason for the secrecy is that the free week was always meant to benefit locals more than tourists. But this spring, for the first time in 14 years, there is no Settimana at all. Authorities decided that with the current economic crisis, they cannot give up a week of admission fees. To add insult to injury, non-residents have to pay 1 Euro on top of the regular admission price, all the time. This rule was adopted in 2011, the same year the “tourist tax” of 2 to 5 Euros per person per night was imposed on all Roman lodging. The amount depends on the number of stars the hotel claims. Even campsites are taxed, though.
These extra fees seem minor compared to the total cost of a trip to Italy, but they are annoying to the traveler, the ticket seller, and the hotel keeper. The lodging fee has to be paid in cash, separate from the hotel bill. Considering what tourists contribute to Italy’s economy each year, this nickel-and-diming of visitors seems short-sighted.
Italy is expensive to begin with, and travel there can be frustrating. Italian cities and towns are stuffed with priceless art treasures, yet the museums are some of the worst-kept in Europe. Many buildings are crumbling, dusty and dark. Hours change without warning. Admission fees are high. It sometimes seems as though the cultural authorities exploit their treasures but fail to safeguard them.
In spite of all this, I love Italy. The cities and towns themselves, large and small, are free open-air museums of art, architecture and history. The churches contain some of the greatest treasures and are generally free, or they ask for a small donation. Italian people are friendly, kind and proud of their heritage. A bewildered tourist clutching a map on a street corner will soon have a local resident offering to help. Since Italians generally live in small homes, they spend a lot of time in parks, cafes and strolling their cities. Street life is colorful and endlessly fascinating. The food is wonderful. A little research makes a trip affordable (For me, the research is almost as much fun as the trip itself). And the memories are lifelong. Bella Italia will always beckon!