Too many tourists spoil European sites Crowds: The crush of visitors is putting historic places at risk.

November 16, 1997|By Linda Matchan | Linda Matchan,BOSTON GLOBE

When I visited Europe in 1972 with my college boyfriend, we made a beeline for Stonehenge, the famed prehistoric monument in the south of England.

None of my reading about Stonehenge prepared me for this spectacular site. There it stood -- a ring of huge, geometrically-arranged stone slabs lugged great distances over many lifetimes -- standing isolated, unheralded, and nearly un-touristed at the side of a road on Salisbury Plain. We walked among the ruins, touching and photographing surfaces that had been pounded centuries ago by stone hammers.

This summer, I went back to Europe with the boyfriend (now husband) and our two children, and we returned to Stonehenge.

I barely recognized the place. The monument may have been sitting unaltered on Salisbury Plain for 4,000 years, but the last 25 have certainly done a number on it.

Even early in the morning, it was hard to find a parking space, because the site was crawling with tourists. To get to the ruins, we had to pass through a concrete tunnel under a heavily-trafficked highway and squeeze through crowds in the gift shop and the Stonehenge Kitchen (featuring "Megalithic Rock Cake" and "Heel Stone Bread Sticks"). We couldn't approach the stones because they were roped off; in some places, we had to stand back at a distance about half the length of a football field. Tourists saw the stones by circling them, merry-go-round style, and carrying audio-interpreted recordings that explained their significance.

"It was roped off because there was so much damage to the

stones," explained Carolyn Ronning, a tour guide for English Heritage, the organization that maintains Stonehenge. "It's sad. People were going to Amesbury [a nearby town], and hiring hammers and chisels and taking pieces of the stones away. They were painting it with spray paint."

Stonehenge may be an extreme example, but the ravages of tourism and contemporary life -- on top of the ordinary ravages of time -- have affected many of the historic legacies in Western Europe.

International tourism soars

The number of international tourists to Europe has nearly tripled in the past 25 years, jumping from 130,000 visitors in 1972 to 351,612 in 1996, according to the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization.

Stonehenge now draws three-quarters of a million visitors a year, compared with fewer than 100,000 in the early 1970s. Ten years ago, about 400,000 tourists visited historic Venice; now the number is closer to 2 million. Some 10 million people flock to the the Eiffel Tower and to Notre Dame Cathedral every year. And million pour into the Tower of London complex each year. The queues to see the crown jewelswere so long and unwieldy that in 1994 Historic Royal Palaces -- which is responsible for the tower's conservation -- had to open a new Jewel House to display them.

"A century ago, travel was limited to a handful of upper-crust people on the Grand Tour," says Ellen Delage of the U.S. #F Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. "Now, travel is more accessible and less expensive, and there is hardly an economic class in the U.S. that doesn't get on an airplane several times in their lives, to go somewhere on vacation. And a lot of places are over-visited."

Universal problem

Crowds were everywhere this summer -- and they were often huge, jostling and impatient, making it difficult if not impossible to visit destinations we'd enjoyed 25 years ago. At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, there were so many tourists queued up for tickets, we gave up and left. We didn't go back to the prehistoric caves of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in France, either, since you now have to call two weeks in advance for tickets. And though our kids were lobbying for a visit to Neuschwanstein, the dream castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, we were cautioned against it by a tour book.

"To make a very long story short, we spent nearly two hours trapped in line, unable to go backward or forward, reading graffiti left on the walls by other bored tourists. Then we were rushed through six rooms and out into another gift shop in 25 minutes flat by a fast-talking guide. In tourist season, the wait begins on the road, miles before you reach the parking lot," wrote the authors of "Europe by Van and Motorhome."

Indirect, secondary effects of all this tourism include air pollution from cars and buses that park near historic sites and keep the engines running while the tour group is off touring.

In Arles, France, pollution has caused so much damage to the exterior of St. Trophine Church -- one of the last remaining vestiges of the country's medieval religious heritage -- that the New York-based World Monuments Fund has initiated an urgent restoration program.

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