Italy: new home of the pub crawl?

ROME — Two years ago the manager of the Cork’s Inn, a cozy little Irish pub near the Colosseum, banned groups on organized pub crawls from entering.

“It’s disgusting," the manager said. "Herds of young tourists barge in, drink as much as possible in 10 minutes and then move on to the next pub. Shouting, singing and puking on the pavement. Allowing such things, just for the sake of earning money, goes against my morals.” 

Following the example of other European cities, Rome, once a symbol of “traditional” home-made culture made of pizzerias and a moderated nightlife, has turned into a destination for alcohol tourism.

The piazzas and streets of the Eternal City host Anglo-Saxon-style binge drinking and pub tours. Groups of up to 150 tourists — Germans, Americans, Swedish, British, many of whom are under 16-years old — roam the capital at night escorted by Italian guides.

For 20 euros each they visit the trendiest bars with the cheapest prices. Most pub crawl tours are organized by foreigners living in Rome (Russians and eastern Europeans) who recruit local youths to entice the tourists from popular historical sites, such as the Colosseum and the Spanish Steps.

Two “in” places are the Bulldog Inn and the Drunken Ship, famous for beer contests and wild foreign student parties.

“It’s a crazy time,” said 19-year-old Linda from Norway. “Here, drinks are less expensive than elsewhere and at the same time you enjoy sightseeing.”

But the reveling does not always end so happily. Last summer, a 20-year-old Australian tourist went skylarking from a bridge after one too many Tequila shots, fell into the Tiber and died.

Italy’s capital has drastically changed in recent years. At night, some historical areas of Rome turn into open-air toilets covered in beer bottles, broken glass and empty plastic cups. Adolescents (tourists and Italians) hang out till late and crowd Roman bridges and Renaissance monuments, drinking and smoking marijuana.

Picturesque Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, where in 1600 philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake by the Holy Inquisition, has a double identity: During the day, the traditional open-air market fills the air with the scent of fresh fruits and baked bread; at night, beneath Bruno’s monument, it’s the smell of beer and vomit that seeps into the nostrils.

Many residents can hardly recognize their home town.

“Rome used to be different, tourists were happy with sightseeing and a good pizza,” 56-year-old Rosa Di Gianni said. “Now it’s hell. At 4 a.m. the shouts of drunk teenagers wake me up. I really miss the Rome of my childhood.”

The drinking habits of Italian youths are also degenerating, worrying parents and the government. According to a recent survey published by the Italian health authorities, 1.5 million youths aged 11-24 regularly binge drink. 

The legal drinking age in pubs in Italy is 16 and serving alcohol to youths under 16 in pubs and restaurants is illegal (supermarkets and stores are exempted). But many cities have introduced extra measures in order to tame wild nightlife excesses. 

The proliferation of local initiatives is in fact creating some confusion. Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s center-right mayor, declared drinking off-limits in certain piazzas and launched vigilante street patrols.

City Councilor for Commerce Davide Bordoni said that the "goal is not punitive but to encourage safe night amusement and fight the city’s degradation.”

However, there are too few police patrols at night.

“Some minor pubs don’t respect the law and sell alcohol to kids,” 18-year-old Giacomo said.

But there are also some positive examples: several nightclubs (especially beach discos) use “safety-drivers” to deliver tipsy teenagers home.

Milan was the first Italian city to reaffirm the ban on selling alcohol to under 16-year-olds, by introducing a 450 euro fine for both vendor and teenage consumer.

The initiative came after an incident last August in Piazza Vetra, heart of the Milanese nightlife, when a 14-year-old was caught by the police gulping vodka. Unable to stand upright, she fell and smashed the bottle, then unabashedly continued drinking, cutting her lips with the glass.

The city's mayor, Letizia Moratti, endorsed a moral crusade, saying that “if the ban can save even just one teenage life, that’s already enough.” The ban aims at spreading awareness among youth and giving support to their families.

In Milan, 34 percent of 11-year-olds have already abused alcohol. The pub crawl is popular here as well and after 2 a.m., illegal foreign alcohol vendors (mostly Asian) roam the streets looking for minors.