Last week, I was in the Florence Baptistery by 8.30 a.m. That used to be early enough to avoid the crowds and admire the Baptistery’s east doors by Ghiberti — the Gates of Paradise, as Michel-angelo called them.
No longer. As I stared at the 13th-century mosaics in the apse and Donatello and Michelozzo’s tomb of Antipope John XXIII, a group of bored Italian teenagers started hugging each other and gossiping on the front pew next to me.
It was the same all over town. In the Piazza della Signoria, tourists flocked round the copy of Michelangelo’s David at 8 a.m. Next door, they were queuing to see the Botticellis at the Uffizi before the gallery opened at 8.15. And this was in early spring, long before the mass tourism of summer.
Unless you can fork out a fortune for a private tour of the greatest hits of Florence — or Rome, London or New York — that’s it. We have reached peak tourism. We have killed the things we love by swamping them.
And yet… Just a few streets away from the Piazza della Signoria, at the Bargello museum, I had Michelangelo’s ‘Pitti Tondo’, a bas-relief of the Virgin and Child, to myself. Upstairs at the Bargello, I stared, alone, at the original bronze panels entered by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the Baptistery doors competition in 1401 — according to legend, the moment the Renaissance began. And by then it was mid-morning, when the tourist crowds were at their biggest over at the Baptistery, staring at those door: copies, in fact, of the original, unlike the panels I was gazing at in glorious solitude.
Over and over again, the most famous places in Florence were crammed while, yards away, extraordinary spots were utterly empty. Five minutes’ walk from the Ponte Vecchio, in Santa Trinita Church, I had the Sassetti Chapel to myself. I enjoyed its 15th-century frescoes so much that I returned later that same afternoon. Still empty.
Given the horrors of international overcrowding of the world’s beauty spots, the answer is to rethink the Grand Tour.
First, you could go to different towns altogether. Fiesole, up in the hills, just five miles from Florence, was completely empty at ten in the morning. I looked over the 1st century bc Roman theatre to the Tuscan campagna beyond and, all the way to the horizon, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
The same applies in Britain. When a man is tired of London, he isn’t tired of life. He’s tired of his fellow tourists — and he should jump on a train to, say, Rochester to see its Norman-Gothic cathedral and its Norman castle. I went there last autumn, and had both cathedral and castle to myself, apart from two French tourists in the castle giftshop. Admittedly, it was a filthy day, and I went just before the last entrance time. Still, these are just yet more useful strings to the Not So Grand Tourist’s bow: make your time of year and time of day as unfashionable as possible.
Even in big cultural towns and cities, all you have to do is reconfigure your targets. Say goodbye to the famous places; they’re lost to the crowds. Say hello to the hidden gems. Don’t go to Buckingham Palace (packed); visit Spencer House (empty). Don’t go to St Paul’s Cathedral (packed); go to Wren’s city churches (empty).
Don’t go to the packed Houses of Parliament for Westminster Hall; go to Middle Temple Hall for lunch. It’s the finest Elizabethan hall in London and no one’s there, except a sprinkling of barristers. The hammer--beam roof, the minstrels’ gallery, the table made from the timbers of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, a huge Van Dyck of Charles I, the spot where the premiere of Twelfth Night was held in 1602… All on open view, all unrestricted by the swinging backpacks and bodies of fellow tourists. Close by are the Temple Church, with its medieval tombs of the Knights Templar, and the Gothic Revival splendour of G.E. Street’s Royal Courts of Justice: both nearly tourist-free. You have to book lunch at Middle Temple and check opening times for the Temple Church. But that’s a small price to pay for empty beauty, particularly if you’ve trekked halfway across the world to track it down.
A little investment of time reaps a bumper harvest of aesthetic thrills. If you play your cards right, and at the right time, you can even see those greatest hits when they’re empty — and free.
Go to Westminster Abbey at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday — the Not So Grand Tour does mean you have to get up early — and you can take Communion at the holiest spot in the whole place: the shrine to Edward the Confessor, the abbey’s founder. His monument doubles as the altar and, as you kneel and pray, you are surrounded by the tombs of Henry III, Edward III and Henry V. On the two occasions I’ve been, there have been fewer than half a dozen worshippers in the heart of royal and spiritual England.
The canon of European architecture has been literally set in stone for well over a century. Go to the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum — themselves empty, incidentally — and you’ll see copies of the old favourites, first installed there in 1873: Trajan’s Column; Michelangelo’s David; those Gates of Paradise from Florence.
I’m not saying that seeing the copies in South Kensington is as good as seeing the originals. Yet it is time to spread the net wider and diversify the Victorian canon. We may have reached peak tourism — but only in some very small hotspots, and only in very few cities and towns. This summer, it’s time to take your own Not So Grand Tour.