I'm out of touch with modern tourism

Rather than take in Renaissance Florence, we really wanted to visit the Prada factory outlet
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The Independent Online

The day before we left we studied the forecast. Rain in Rome, chilly in Naples - good, I thought, that'll keep the tourist numbers down. We'll breeze through Rome, the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Via Appia in a couple of days, have Pompeii to ourselves and then head north to socialise.

The day before we left we studied the forecast. Rain in Rome, chilly in Naples - good, I thought, that'll keep the tourist numbers down. We'll breeze through Rome, the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, Via Appia in a couple of days, have Pompeii to ourselves and then head north to socialise.

A Polish friend is in the process of converting a 14th-century barn in Montevarchi into a des res less expensively but more stylishly than Russell Crowe, who's bought a palazzo up the road in San Giovanni Valdarno, birthplace of Masaccio, or Sting, who has just taken possession of an entire medieval village near Arezzo.

I'm clearly out of touch with modern tourism. Rome was heaving. There was a three-hour queue for the Colosseum, unless you were prepared to fork out double for a guided tour. Needs must when the devil drives, I said stoically, counting out €16 per head, the devil in this case being my son's ancient history professor who reckons, quite rightly, that pretty pictures in textbooks are no substitute for the real thing. Let us hope Ryanair also flies to Sparta, Mesapotamia and Carthage.

In retrospect I'd have paid €16 not to have the guide who told us endless jokes about ancient Roman pissoirs, courtesans and pizza and made us all have our photographs taken next to a gladiator whose mobile phone kept ringing. It was a far cry from my last visit to Rome as a member of the press corps covering the royal progress of the newly married Prince and Princess of Wales through Italy. They had the Colosseum completely to themselves, unless you counted the hordes of international paparazzi desperate to be the one who got the first ever shot of mini-skirted Diana's knickers as she got in and out of her various limos. Rumour had it that the photographer who took the first picture of Princes Stephanie of Monaco water-skiing topless made enough from worldwide syndication to buy an estate in Scotland.

One of the best things about our brief visit to Rome was the improbably named Pensione Barrett someone had recommended we stay in, slap in the middle of town and within walking distance of everything worth seeing. Instead of that depressing little tray you usually find in your room next to your bed featuring mini kettle, tea bags, instant coffee and powdered milk, ours at the pensione had a magnificent espresso coffee machine that roared and rumbled when it came to its climax and would have taken pride of place in the most fashionable Knightsbridge trattoria.

No one makes better coffee than the Italians or offers cheaper train travel. For the price of a standard return ticket from Waterloo to Guildford you can get an express train from Naples to Florence which must be 10 times the distance. Don't worry, this isn't going to descend into the usual "grass is greener" British whinge. The one thing I remember about the summer I spent as a student in Rome was that it was so damn hot you couldn't find a patch of green grass to sit on anywhere. Robert Browning, I dare say, felt the same. Hang on, didn't he and his romantically consumptive wife fetch up in the Eternal City at some stage on account of her failing health? Maybe that's how our hotel got its name.

Being a tourist, a genuine historical (audio in 11 different languages) guide-carrying tourist - "press pause while you locate the second century BC painting on the left wall of the larger cubiculum depicting Dionysius doing something lewd to a satyr" - is incredibly exhausting. Six hours wandering around the ruins of Pompeii, fascinating though it was, left me feeling about as larva-ed out as some of those grotesquely twisted figures petrified for ever by the volcanic ash from Vesuvius in AD79. "I know you'll want to spend some time in Florence. There's a very good Botticelli exhibition at the Uffizzi," said our hostess. Certainly not, we said. Renaissance Florence was far too modern for our purposes. We'd really far rather spend the morning at the Prada factory outlet where you can buy £20 shoes that would cost you £300 in London.

Florence in the 21st century can certainly teach Ken Livingstone a few tips about traffic congestion and pollution. If you buy an electric car to drive in the city the local authority will pay towards the cost and you can recharge it for free. There are plugs all over Florence - I saw a driver refuelling just round the corner from the Ponte Vecchio. The models we saw were tiny, silent and beautifully designed but that's Italy for you. I bet Leonardo da Vinci designed the prototype.

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