OPINION: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches
It’s time for Italy to stop undervaluing its precious artistic heritage sites before they’re lost to neglect and underfunding, writes Silvia Marchetti.
Published: 5 August 2021 09:34 CEST Updated: 5 August 2021 10:37 CEST
At Rome's famed Colosseum, the underground labyrinth was recently restored with funding from fashion group Tod's. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
In Italy even the most remote villages have a handful of churches and smaller chapels. Chiming bells are a regular holiday soundtrack for tourists exploring the country. Most churches date back centuries and are treasure troves of art masterpieces.
But what makes these sites even more alluring is they’re totally free to visit.
Italy boasts amazing basilicas and shrines without entrance fees – bar a few exceptions. A total of roughly 100,000 churches dot the boot, nearly 900 of them belonging to the Italian state, others to local authorities, regions, confraternities and parishes.
Catholics argue that nobody should ever pay for a prayer and God’s house must never be shut in order to welcome believers at all times, but then it often happens that priceless masterpieces are vandalized by visitors and sacred relics stolen. Or, in the worst case scenario, roofs collapse due to poor maintenance tied to a lack of resources.
If a church features unique masterpieces by Bernini and other great artists, and is in reality a ‘sacred museum’, shouldn’t people pay a fee to admire it, thus contributing to its upkeep? At least there would be extra revenue.
Italy’s religious architectural heritage is unique in the world and authorities should cash in on it.
Politicians and governments have long debated whether it is fair and moral to introduce tickets. After all, Italy is home to the Holy See that wants an ‘open church’ policy.
There’s a totally different reality in the UK and Ireland. Westminster Abbey tickets are roughly £20 per person, while St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin charges €8 even if one just wants to light a candle and say a prayer – which causes debate, but at least there’s an income for the body in charge of maintenance.
One could argue that perhaps £20 is indeed a bit too expensive for a ticket, but €2 or €0 is ridiculous. If on one hand free entrance in Italian churches allows everyone to enjoy the mystical experience, on the other it undervalues it.
The Madonna delle Virtu cave church and its ancient frescoes in the southern Italian city of Matera. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP
Other southern European countries are doing a better job in making money from churches and top sites. Entrance to the mesmerizing Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, costs €27, while the Acropolis in Athens is €20.
Italy’s church ticket dilemma is strictly linked to the whole problem of having a ‘cheap’ culture – which comes at a high price.
Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in the world, yet doesn’t fully exploit these to raise revenue for the upkeep of its huge artistic heritage, a part of which is crumbling to the ground due to neglect and a lack of public resources.
Tickets to the country’s archaeological sites, museums, Renaissance palazzos and medieval fortresses are way too cheap when compared to the rest of Europe and to the world.
Think about it: just €16 to visit three sites (The Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill); €2 to admire the stunning frescoed rock crypts in the ancient southern city of Matera. If you’re over-65 or under-18, in most cases entrance is free or reduced. Reporters never pay.
The Colosseum is unique; people come from all over the world just to circle the fighting pit where gladiators fought against lions. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the echo of the bloodthirsty crowds cheering for death. The ticket price should be raised to reflect the ‘experience’ the site offers.
Same goes for Matera: the cave-dwellings date back to prehistoric times. In the middle ages fleeing Byzantine monks took refuge in them and depicted sacred images on the cold, damp grotto walls. Entire families, with their animals, later lived inside these incredible places for centuries, up until the 1960’s. How can all this history and human life be valued at just €2?
But there are also hundreds of other lesser-known, yet just as beautiful, artistic spots which can be visited without spending a single euro.
Tiny off-the-radar villages in Tuscany feature artworks by Renaissance masters, and there are hills surrounding Rome with medieval chapels and healing fountains cited by Dante in his Divine Comedy that have fallen into oblivion.
The archeological site of Pompeii has undergone a major restoration project funded by the European Commission and Italian authorities. Photo by Tiziana FABI/AFP
Spooky ghost towns particularly appeal to foreigners, yet we prefer to leave them to rot rather than cash in with ticket fees which could be used to bring these sleeping beauties back from the grave.
I was shocked when I recently discovered the archaeological site of the ancient Roman town of Norba in the Lazio region. It’s a small Pompeii, but in better shape than the real one: huge stone arched entrances, intact brick houses and breathtaking temples overlooking a green valley.
There was no ticket booth, I walked in and even used the toilet – for free. So I asked: what can I do to help? A boy sitting on a chair humbly said I could leave a tip, if I wanted, as all the maintenance work was carried-out by volunteers.
An Italian politician once said that “culture does not feed you”, meaning the arts and history are not a profitable business able to boost GDP. Truth is, without the needed investments and with low entrance fees to monuments, Italy could starve.
In the long run, having ‘cheap’ access to art can turn out to be counterproductive.
OPINION: Is Italy’s west or east coast the best place for a holiday?
Choosing which coast to visit in Italy can be a tough call, particularly if you’re planning to spend most of the time sunbathing and swimming. Reporter Silvia Marchetti shares her insights on the pros and cons of both.
Published: 4 May 2022 14:53 CEST Updated: 7 May 2022 10:00 CEST
The Tyrrhenian west coast and the Adriatic east one are very different, and each come with their pros and cons.
In my view the Tyrrhenian side of the boot wins, because even though it tends to be more crowded due to the many art cities located along it, its beaches have fewer facilities for families and the shores are more ragged, with rocks and cliffs ideal for solo and adventurous young people.
The Amalfi coast’s picturesque fishermen villages, or Liguria’s Cinque Terre, feature tiny pebble stone bays cut between high cliffs with little space for sun umbrellas and beds.
The Adriatic shore is one long line of adjacent beach facilities that run for kilometres from the northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia region down south to Puglia.
Beaches in the seaside towns of Rimini and Riccione, located along the chaotic Riviera Romagnola renowned also for its wild nightlife, feature up to 50 rows of sun beds and umbrellas in summer.
More sunbeds than sand… Some parts of Italy are heavily built-up with an abundance of services. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)
Beach facilities there resemble open-air condominiums where there are children’s playgrounds, restaurants, sleeping areas, dance floors and changing rooms for clients.
One good thing, though, is the constant presence of bay watchers and lifeguards at each facility, who are present throughout all eastern coastal regions and very helpful if you don’t constantly want to look after the kids. Beach resorts often come with big seaside multi-floor hotel buildings that look like city offices.
To escape the crowds on the Adriatic coast you need to pick niche, rocky spots with very few beaches such as the Conero Hill in the Marche region and the Gargano promontory in Puglia.
While the Adriatic coast’s wide and easily accessible beaches are great for children and older people, the sea is not always clear and there are just a few top scuba diving and snorkelling spots, such as the beautiful Tremiti islands.
The Tyrrhenian sea, which is deeper than the Adriatic, is packed with diving sites: Ustica island in Sicily and Ventotene isle in Latium are Italy’s top diving meccas brimming with barracudas and giant groupers.
There are also more protected marine reserves along the west coast, which guarantees a pristine environment, and more free beaches without facilities and lifeguards. While this ‘wild’ aspect may be attractive to many, it could make some beaches not suitable for families with small kids.
Family friendly beaches tend to draw in more crowds. (Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP)
On the other hand, given its relatively shallow waters, the Adriatic is blessed with reasonable stocks of fish, so if you long for fishing expeditions it’s the perfect destination.
However the real plus point of the east coast is its strategic location facing other Mediterranean countries and allowing tourists, particularly from the US, to expand their holidays and exploit Italy as the door to the ‘Old Continent’. From the ports of Bari and Ancona, ferry boats depart to Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania.
The winning asset of the Tyrrhenian, other than its translucent waters and baby powder beaches, is the huge artistic heritage it offers visitors. The west coast boasts the top must-see Italian cities usually picked by global tourists (Rome, Naples, Florence) which all lie, or are close to the sea – except for Venice (the gem of the Adriatic).
The cultural appeal of the west side makes the central national highway, the A1 – otherwise known as Autostrada del Sole – a very trafficky infrastructure.
There are also mesmerising fishermen villages with a mythological vibe along the Tyrrhenian coast, such as Gaeta and Sperlonga, where it is said Odysseus, the legendary Greek king, landed during his wanderings.
Plus, most of Italy’s UNESCO heritage-listed sites are located along or near the west shore. For instance, the archaeological excavations of Pompeii are among the top tourist hotspots in Italy.
Generally speaking, the appeal of popular places along the west coast inevitably translates into more expensive hotels and travelling costs but it depends on the specific location.
A photo shows a general view of the archaeological site of Pompeii, near Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)
The major west coast lure for sea dogs, sailing amateurs and fans of the tan is that nearly all Italian islands are located in the Tyrrhenian sea and reachable from the mainland.
The two island regions of Sardinia and Sicily are accessible by ferry boat from Naples and Civitavecchia, while the Tuscan archipelago, the Pontine islands and Sicily’s dozens of ‘satellites’ such as the Aeolian, Egadi and Pelagie isles are tropical paradises just a stone’s throw from the cultural highlights.
Even though both coasts are stunning and are worth exploring, personally, I’d chose the Tyrrhenian over the Adriatic any day, and not just because I’m a Roman who lives in Rome.
It has a diversified offer of artistic sites and beaches, inlets and cliffs that allow you to savour the most of Italy in just a few days.
The last time I rented my beach home south of Rome to a French couple, I thought they’d laze all day under the sultry sun. Instead they drove across half of Italy in 14 day trips, visiting Florence, Naples, Sorrento and Calabria.