Venice and the Stendhal Syndrome

(do not use again)

by Rick Steves, October 30, 2020

As we've had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

One night, I was with a tour group of older American women gazing at the Bridge of Sighs. We were talking about Casanova, the famous Italian author and lover who was sentenced for spying in the Doge's Palace. He crossed that saddest of bridges, casting one last look at Venice, before descending into the prison.

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My tour group and I were absorbed in Venice. Suddenly, as if stepping out of an old movie, a debonair Italian man walked up, embraced a woman from my group, and gave her a deep and passionate kiss. Her glasses nearly tumbled into the canal. Five other women lined up and took their turn.

The man walked back into his movie. We all stood there in stunned silence — surprised at the man, but just as surprised at the women. Then Dave, my assistant guide, took off his shoes, stripped to his boxers, and dove into the canal. Venice is a seductress. She tempts people to do things they don't normally do.

For some, the beauty of Venice can be too much. The 19th-century French novelist and art critic Stendhal became physically ill in Italy, overcome by trying to absorb it all. He gave his name to a syndrome all travelers risk.

Arlene had a classic case of Stendhal Syndrome. Many years ago, she was on one of our tours a day ahead of the tour I was leading. Throughout the trip, from Amsterdam to the Rhine to the castles of Bavaria, she left me notes and messages describing her enjoyment, which approached ecstasy. In the Tirol, she left me a postcard — which I still keep on my office wall — of hang gliders soaring through the Alps past King Ludwig's fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein. She circled a distant glider and marked it, "This is me!"

Arlene's tour arrived in Venice, followed by my group the next day. As usual, we got off the vaporetto at the Rialto Bridge stop, and I marched quickly ahead of the group to the hotel to arrange room assignments, so the road-weary gang could immediately go to their rooms and relax. As I approached the hotel, a chill filled the alley. The boys at the corner gelato stand looked at me in horror, as if I were about to be gunned down.

Then, from the dark end of the alley, I saw her. Sprinting at me was an American, hair flying like a Botticelli maiden, barefoot, shirt half off, greeting me as if she were a drunk bride waiting for her groom. It was Arlene.

I climbed with her up the long stairway to the hotel lobby, humoring her as she babbled about how she loved Venice and she loved me and life was so wonderful. My friend Sergio, who ran the hotel, said simply, "Okay, Rick, now she is yours."

Arlene had flipped out the day before. Her tour guide opted to leave her in Venice and let me handle the problem. Sergio had watched her all day long. Taking me to her room, an exhausted Sergio explained, "She threw her passport and room key from the breakfast room into the Grand Canal. Look at this room." She had been given the small room normally reserved for bus drivers. Strewn with dainties and cute knickknacks, it looked like a wind chime sounds.

Sergio said if she continued to run half-naked through the streets, she'd be arrested. A doctor on the tour sedated her the best he could. My assistant guide, role-playing the happy groom, took Arlene by ambulance boat to the hospital while I carried on with the tour. A sensitive and creative person, Arlene had thrown away her regulatory drugs and overdosed on Venice.

Later, while waiting for her husband to call from the States, I packed up her things. Underwear was draped from old-time Venice prints on the wall. Tiny touristy souvenirs — a doll in a dirndl, a miniature glass bear with a red nose, a cow creamer, three shiny Mozart chocolate balls — were lined up on the windowsill.

Arlene's husband flew over and checked her out of the hospital. With the help of her medication, she recovered and went on to continue her love affair with Italy.

When I returned to my office after the tour, Arlene had flowers waiting for me with a thank you and an apology.

I understood. It was Venice.

This article was adapted from Rick's new book, For the Love of Europe.

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