Sankha Guha: Man About World

Visit the Vatican before the vandals return
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The Independent Travel

In the wake of the Madrid bombings, perhaps we Londoners feel safer when we go somewhere (anywhere) away from our city, but I became aware that nerves are jangling in Italy as much as they are here. Rome was on edge when I visited last week. Lest we forget, Silvio Berlusconi's government also supported military action in Iraq,

In the wake of the Madrid bombings, perhaps we Londoners feel safer when we go somewhere (anywhere) away from our city, but I became aware that nerves are jangling in Italy as much as they are here. Rome was on edge when I visited last week. Lest we forget, Silvio Berlusconi's government also supported military action in Iraq,

and so Rome must rank nearly as high as London on al-Qa'ida's hit list.

St Peter's Square is an obvious target. Not only is it the location of the Pope's weekly general audience, drawing devout crowds of over 12,000, but at most other times it is thronging with tourists. Following a gradual relaxation over the past couple of years, the kind of security imposed after 11 September is back and making its presence felt. To get into the basilica now, visitors must face long queues, airport style X-ray apparatus, and increased police presence.

Once inside, there is a poignant reminder that security is not a new fangled concern. Here in a side chapel, Michelangelo's sculpture Pietà - for my money the single greatest art treasure in the absurd cornucopia of the Vatican - is forced to lead a lonely existence behind a bullet-proof glass screen.

The threat in this case preceded al-Qa'ida by some 30 years, and came in the shape of a hammer-wielding nutter. Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian who vandalised the priceless statue in 1972 was not convicted on the grounds he was insane. Instead, we have been punished.

I remember standing before the Pietà as a child, Pre-Toth, and being transfixed. Children now have to peer at it from about 30 feet away. At that distance, nobody can appreciate the sheer sensuality of the worked marble or be fully moved by the calm power of the Virgin Mary's gaze bearing directly down upon them.

My childhood memories of the Pietà are carved in stone, but to any eight-year-old today the experience must be diminished. Threats have to be countered, of course, whether from al-Qa'ida or a lone madman. Sometimes, though, the very measures we use to protect ourselves are a capitulation.

'Miracolo!'

The ring road around the eternal city is truly eternal - especially if you are in a rush to get to Fiumicino, the international airport. Having survived the arbitrary stop-go traffic (more stop than go), I arrive somewhat pre-frazzled, but in good time for an orderly check-in. Alitalia has other plans.

For 15 minutes the staff dithers about this and that, finally telling me that I have been bounced off the flight. Yes my ticket is in order, yes I have arrived on time, and no I will not be travelling. Nor can I get another flight.

Sensing that my blood pressure is rising, the check-in woman assures me that the airline is entirely within its rights - they are, she says, entitled to overbook flights by 30 per cent.

She is wrong. Shockingly, there is no ceiling to overbooking. Most scheduled carriers estimate there will be a 10 per cent no-show, but airlines can overbook as much as they want. The only constraint is that, as well as the next available flight home, they have to offer bumped passengers instant "denied boarding compensation" (DBC) in the local currency (in this case €150).

No whisper is made to me of compensation.

Miracolo! Check-in woman pulls a business seat out of a hat at the last minute. I am effusively grateful but fully frazzled. Much of the stress could have been avoided from the outset - all she had to say was that despite a full flight she was doing her best to upgrade me.

Now I have to race to the gate with only 25 minutes left to take-off. Security is on maximum alert and the 50m queues at the X-ray machines make this unlikely. Scrambling and breathless, I arrive at the gate 10 minutes after the flight should have gone to find it has been delayed by an hour and a half. Check-in staff must have known this but chose to let me run the concourse steeplechase in a flat panic.

The Consumers' Association says, "Bumping is bad customer service whichever way you look at it." And the Air Transport Users' Council welcomes new EU rules effective next year which will double compensation rates and help to "concentrate the minds" of airlines.

In the meantime, Alitalia: send your staff to charm school.

Cheesemonger

The film Under The Tuscan Sun is released this weekend, but anyone drawn to it in the hope of getting a real glimpse of Tuscany will be sorely disappointed.

Frances Mayes's novel (on which the film is based) is in familiar Peter Mayle mould - the mid-life escape from modern urban pressures to a bucolic neverland in another country, another time. In the book, Mayes's reverence for the whole Tuscan deal is a bit irritating - anything slightly quaint and more than five minutes old is treated with the kind of awe that Americans seem prone to. But there is no denying Mayes's passion for the place.

The landscape around Cortona is vividly recreated, the evocation of Tuscan produce and cooking (she is a foodie) makes you salivate, and the people she encounters are rendered with empathy and love.

The story, inevitably, is about the restoration of a crumbling ruin.

Welcome to Lalaland. Mayes's autobiographical tale is transformed through the addition of "a fiery romance with sexy local Marcello"; other locals are reduced to folksy caricatures; the dialogue is trite; figuratively speaking, the subtle flavours of pecorino and scamorza are swamped with that peculiar, waxy, bland cheese that Hollywood produces in such quantity. Yeuch!

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