ROME — On the first day of their trip, the American tourists climbed to the top of St. Peter's dome, admiring Michelangelo's architectural marvel and its panoramic view.
“We came here for St. Peter and the Colosseum, but when they offered us this experience, I just wanted to go,” said Joseph Purdy, 72, a retiree from Rehoboth Beach, Del.
The juxtaposition of scenic and tragic is hardly new to European tourism. As Purdy noted, “You may go to Germany for the beer and the castles, but the Holocaust did happen there, Hitler happened, so you wouldn’t understand German history if you didn’t take into account concentration camps, as well.”
But as people begin to travel the world again for the first time since the start of the pandemic, there may be an increase in demand for the sort of tourism that involves more than stunning sites.
“This is what mass tourism has been gradually morphing into,” said Vincenzo Nocifora, professor of the sociology of tourism at Rome’s Sapienza University. “I’m no longer leaving so as to just ‘see’ things. I’m seeking an experience. I want to go home enriched by something meaningful.”
The United States has seen that instinct evident in people making pilgrimages along the new Civil Rights Trail.
U.S.-based tour operator Overseas Adventure Travel has included what it calls “controversial topics” in its programs for many years. New this year, though, was the hour devoted to “how the Vatican and the Italian authorities have handled decades of abuse allegations.”
For that, the tour company flew in Francesco Zanardi, one of Italy’s most vocal advocates for survivors of clerical abuse.
Zanardi, 51, lives in Savona, in northwest Italy. Starting when he was an 11-year-old altar boy, he says, he was raped by a priest at least once a week for five years.
A framed, smiling portrait of Zanardi from around that time was on display in the artist studio where he met the visiting Americans on the outskirts of Rome.
He was offered a place to sit, but he remained on his feet, constantly moving around, as he asked whether anyone knew why people like him choose to call themselves survivors.
The tourists all said no.
He talked about how too many young victims attempt suicide, about how often they develop drug or alcohol addictions.
“I used to have a problem with drugs, as well, and tried to kill myself four times,” Zanardi said. “But unlike me, so many other friends didn’t make it. Those who remain — they are the survivors.”
Then, with a matter-of-fact delivery, he told the audience how his mother had taken her own life once she had come to realize what had happened to her son. The tourists audibly gasped.
Bette Robbins, 74, kept flinching and shaking her head in solidarity, as she took in the most painful details of Zanardi’s life story.
Robbins, who spent most of her life in Seattle as a city official, said later that this was her fifth or sixth time vacationing in Italy but the first time she had met an abuse survivor.
“That I know of,” she added.
She said she felt angry about the abuse Zanardi suffered, and angrier still about how neither the Vatican nor Italian prosecutors seemed to be taking the problem seriously enough.
“The public needs to be outraged,” she said.
The experience of the afternoon session would stay with her, she said. “It won’t go away for a long time. I won’t forget this.”
Not all the tourists in the group joined for the session — two had opted out, according to representatives from the tour operator.
“They just couldn’t bear it,” said Simona Salvatori, senior vice president of the Italian branch of Grand Circle Corporation, the parent company.
Anthony Pontorno, 66, the husband of Purdy, from Rehoboth Beach, said he was initially hesitant to go.
But he appreciated that Zanardi had “put a face to” the church abuse scandal.
“Not that we ever thought it didn’t happen,” Pontorno continued. “But here was this human being — it was no longer a news article.”
The tourists peppered Zanardi with questions: “What does the pope say?” “Are some countries doing a better job?” “Do you go to church today?” “How are your days now?”
He answered that Pope Francis had done little to compensate victims, that Italy was a decade behind the United States in addressing the issue, that he no longer went to church but that his days were “quite normal.”
“Victims are subjected to psychological, emotional and social deprivation,” he said. “If they learn how to cope with those, life can move on.”
At the close of the session, the tourists gave Zanardi a round of applause.
There was no time for follow-ups, since a second group was already outside, waiting for their turn.
“Have fun visiting Rome!” Zanardi said earnestly.
The tourists went back to their hotel.
Other days of their trip would include visits to the cliffs of Sorrento, the traces of Pompeii and the volcano at Mount Etna. They would also discuss the Italian mafia while in Sicily and the murder of an investigative journalist in Malta.
But on this night, according to their schedule, there was “time for one more gelato before bed.”