Nothing makes me happier than to experience a new city or to take a vacation or revisit some of my favourite cities in the world and enjoy seeing them again.
There are so many beautiful cities in the world that have their special charm: the picture postcard perfect beauty of Paris where each tuft of grass is manicured carefully; London throbbing with life and activity; the near magical Marrakech straight out of the pages of One Thousand and One Nights with its souks and snake charmers; and New York with its skyscrapers and maddening traffic.
However, even if you are a well-travelled person, nothing prepares you for the splendour of Italy and the utter grandeur of Rome when you see it for the first time. Many years ago, when I went to Rome I was totally blown away.
Nothing prepares you for the utter grandeur of Rome, whose greatest artwork is the city itself. But its attraction for tourism also has to do with its sense of security and freedom
Rome is a magnificent open-air museum and numerous times and ages exist in it coexist. For me, there is no other city in the world that can be compared to Rome; it gives you a new perspective of time and space and takes you on a time travel.
Every single part of Italy is beautiful, with the elegant cities and rolling green mountain landscape in the north, the breathtaking natural beauty of the lake resorts, the romance of Venice and in the rustic beauty of the South with colourful houses on the seashore. Every inch of Italy is filled with natural beauty and one can never be quite sure as to which part is more beautiful.
Rome, however, is extraordinary because it is the ultimate showcase of the zenith of human creative genius. So much of art is displayed at each and every corner you turn that it overwhelms you. The city is a blend of ancient and modern where magnificent old buildings stand proudly alongside modern architecture.
The city is the custodian of thousands of masterpieces of arts and crafts in museums and galleries that are filled with them. But once you start exploring you realise soon enough that the greatest artwork is Rome itself.
Each cobbled road, every piazza, fountain, statue and building is a treasure. You can take a walk for half an hour along a road and see a thousand-year-old house where people are still living or an old church with beautiful stained glass windows or a magnificent, almost-forgotten statue of a deity half covered with moss standing inside a garden. Rome is an adventure and a mystery where treasures are found at each bend and you never know what you might find next.
Then there are the famous buildings which attract millions of tourists from around the globe. The breathtaking Trevi Fountain; the Pantheon, perfectly preserved for 2,000 years; Piazza Venezia with the impressive Altare della Patria; and the Galleria Borghese with some of the famous sculptures of Italian Masters Bernini and Canova and, of course, the Vatican museums, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica — each place unrivalled in its grandeur.
Rome is the Eternal City, built by the great and mighty Caesars who ruled the Roman Empire, which spanned almost the whole of Europe, Northern Africa and the Levant. Walking inside their city, you can still feel their presence in it. When I stepped into the Colosseum for the first time, I felt as if I was transported back in time. I could almost see the arena filled with spectators, looking at the royal stand where the mighty Caesars must have perched on their gilded chairs, surrounded by the ladies of the royal household, in their flowing stolas, bedecked with jewels.
I could imagine the gladiators fighting with wild beasts and hear the roar of the crowd. It is hard to understand how a society full of artists could enjoy the bloody games so much but, perhaps, that is also a part of the mystery of Rome and we can only partially understand some dimensions of it.
The old architecture from the time of the Roman Empire is remarkable but what we see in Rome today is the collective effort of the architects, engineers, artists and painters for more than 2,000 years. The signature design of Roman architecture can still be seen around the world. With so much of history preserved in one place, it would take several lifetimes to see all that Rome has to offer.
It is because of the presence of such brilliance that Rome can reduce you to insignificance and overwhelm you completely. No other city in the world has this power.
But it is not just the buildings and artwork that makes Rome such a huge tourist attraction. The most important reason is that the successive Italian governments and people have done a tremendous job of creating the environment where it is possible to see, experience and enjoy this city.
As a tourist, I do not have to be conscious about anything but the spectacle in front of me and enjoy myself without feeling insecure, or having to worry about my attire. I have travelled there alone many times, without having any trouble at all. This sense of security and freedom is the real secret of the success of tourism in Italy.
Rome offers safe and secure accommodation and meals for every budget — from cheap bed-and-breakfast places to five-star hotels and expensive fine dining and shopping. It has a good public transport system and facilitates pedestrians. It has bustling places, full of tourists and quiet neighbourhoods with cobbled streets and small shops and, of course, pizzas and pastas for everyone.
The current government in Pakistan has declared tourism to be a priority and believes that a lot of foreign exchange can be earned through it. But the fact is that, like any industry, tourism also needs a lot of input before becoming profitable. The top-most requirement being security; can we realistically say that a woman or young couple can travel to any city or resort in Pakistan and feel fully secure? Are there good boarding and lodging facilities available for all budgets? Uninterrupted power supply in summers? Is there good quality food available at the most far-flung places? Enough roadside rest areas? Emergency and medical facilities? In the absence of these comforts, there is little probability of international tourism off.
In order to promote tourism, Pakistan must also learn from the example set by cities which are at the top of their game as tourist attractions.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2019