I was standing at the crossroad of the Four Fountains in Rome taking pictures before heading down the road to visit the next baroque church when a voice addressed me “Signora!”. I lowered my camera and turned around to see a middle-aged, impeccably dressed man, standing there, a folder under his arm. He introduced himself, careful to ensure me that he had no other intentions but to give me some information about those fountains seeing that I had an interest in them. Before I could answer he launched into a full lecture about them and all the less-known artistic sites of that particular area: hidden gardens and churches, sculptures and frescoes, sites that the middle of the road tourist will never see or know about. He peppered his descriptions with anecdotes; his knowledge was astounding and his passion for art and Rome evident in the fact that he hardly took a breath, his flow unstoppable.
The information he was offering was interesting and precious, but how would I remember all of it? The things to see, the locations, the historical facts and figures were pouring out of his mouth at incredible speed because he was running out of time, going to take the metro, going to work. Things where getting jumbled up in my mind.
A pause eventually came when describing a particular site where the Emperor Adrian “used to get ready, dressed in gold like… like – and here his voice broke and his eyes got moist – dressed like the Sun God would then parade through the streets of Rome!”.
In that moment I knew that this person wasn’t an ordinary Roman; he had been sent to me personally when in the morning I had wished to experience the city in a different way, a special something I couldn’t name. In that pause, as I was looking into his eyes wet with tears, his emotion transferred to me and the shining image of the Emperor dressed in gold appeared in my mind.
When he recomposed himself he shook my hand and left as suddenly as he had appeared and I was left in a drunken state to deal with an overload of information about places I now wanted to see at all costs. Able to recall only a few I started to roam the area finding some and missing others until I just let myself be guided by the surrounding artefacts: the towering statue of a warrior was dramatically pointing in a particular direction into a wide piazza full of light and life, flanked by imposing buildings.
A stone dragon perched on the roof of a church invited me to enter its dark and deserted interior, whose hidden internal door led to a tiny but magnificently proportioned courtyard. Out again into the sunshine I went around dozens of fountains where the water spouted from the mouths of masks, lions and all sorts of mythological water creatures which grinned at me. That day I experienced Rome as I never did before.
I returned to my island in the North and three days later I was walking along the shore looking out at sea when I was reminded of another encounter of many years before. He was a local man I used to meet in my daily walk on the Flaggy Shore. He would always stand against a low stone wall for what looked like hours on end, his sight lost seawards in the
direction of Galway Bay, his dog sitting faithfully beside. He would greet you with the familiar nod and return his gaze to the sea.
Intrigued by his statue-like posture I approached him one day making a casual comment about the beauty of the bay and about him looking out at it for hours, how did he do it? What was his secret?
The answer came, in this beautiful thick Clare accent that unfortunately prevented me from understanding a single word. “I’ll have to find the answer by myself!” I concluded and took position against another wall a little further down the road.
To conclude I think that a new type of tourism is called for here: one where we, the visitors are explorers while the visual symbols and peculiar human presences are the vehicle of communication between the spirit of the place and us. So be aware next time you go on a trip, undercover guides are all around us. Bon voyage!