Seamus met two charming, well-dressed guys on the steps of the Duomo with credentials around their necks. Before the afternoon was over we were out €40, two hours of our lives, and being threatened with the mafia.
Climbing the Duomo was really the only thing on my list of things to do in Florence, because of course, I needed to take some award-winning photos that the other 837 tourists hadn’t managed to capture that morning.
But today…today I’m already worn down. It’s one of those suffocating days where crowds of people ramble through the streets and envelop you heedlessly as if you were a blood-smeared Michonne in a dire moment of the Walking Dead.
And so it happened…
1) The Hook – Two friendly, dapper guys who speak perfect English grab your attention. They’re all smiles and can’t resist throwing in a “my friend” because you guys are completely and totally friends now, right? Your bud, who has a “licensed tour guide” badge hanging from his neck and a NAME TAG for god’s sake, wants to take you on a private tour of the Duomo. He’s going to explain in extremely clear and detailed language about the artwork, the architecture and how and why it was built. Yay, learning!
2) The Bait – For only €30 you not only get a charismatic guide (and pal), you skip all of the lines and entrance to the Duomo, the baptistery and the crypt, the dome and bell tower. Line-skipping?? Sounds like an early pizza lunch to me.
3) The Switch – Your homey will not actually be the one taking you on a tour. But don’t worry; a colleague, nay an expert, will guide you. But first, please sign up with the administrator. You know that intern-type that might easily make monetary mistakes? Yes, enter her. She charges you only €20 for the tour and you don’t say anything because she’s running the books and if she says it’s €20 instead of €30 why should you argue?
4) The Handoff – Amidst sign-up sheets flying and euros flitting between wallets and zippy pouches, without so much as a half-hearted request to be friends on Facebook your new BFFs and their admin girl are gone. There are 14 in the group, ready to meet Maria, the tour guide no one signed up for. She is whisper quiet, lacking in discernable personality and has an accent so thick you could toss pasta in it.
Before she can give you your audio receiver, which amplifies her voice once inside the cathedral, she must collect your driver’s license (WTF?). She explains that the receivers cost €75 each, and the company takes it out of her paycheck if she doesn’t return them, so this is insurance that we’ll give them back. In fact, today she is working for free since she already lost two last week. Janky green plastic receivers are handed out and I can’t imagine how this costs €75. It’s flimsier than a garage door opener without the benefit of opening my garage door. I’ve bought iPod Nanos that cost less. Who keeps these things and WHAT ARE THEY DOING WITH THEM?
Never mind. As Maria takes you into the cathedral, all hopes of learning fade into the tapestries as you realize you can neither hear nor understand 75% of what she is saying. The other 25% are a sad testament to the fact that she has a knack for dryly droning on about the most insubstantial details possible. Actual tears of boredom are real. People get their IDs back and leave.
5) The Dupe – The tour mercifully ends and Maria thanks the remaining eight members of the group for sticking it out and listening to her dull monologue. Or at least that’s what I heard in my head.
But now the reward! Climbing the Dome! Let the NatGeo-worthy picture taking ensue! Record-scratch, what? Maria has no idea what you are asking. Sorry.
You argue you paid for entry to four more monuments, including climbing the freaking dome. She goes into her “I’m really clueless” speech. Which is followed by her “can you please give me back my €75 receivers because already I’m working for free today?” plea.
6) The Double Cross – For most, this is where it ends. You give back your transmitters. You get your IDs. You feel a little stupid. You walk away.
But for us, this is where it gets good. Two French tourists do a sleight of hand. They palm their receivers as if to give them back. They get their IDs. They retract the receivers. “We’ll give these back when you give us our tickets to climb the dome.” Ka-zzzing!
Now that this scam isn’t going as planned, Maria suddenly remembers she has a mobile phone and knows how to use it to make actual phone calls. Her disappeared tour hawkers, despite being completely unavailable moments before are now on the scene and ready to talk business.
They ask how much you paid for the tour? You say €20. They counter that they told you all monuments were €30, why didn’t you pay that? They can’t give you tickets to everything if you don’t pay the full amount, so why didn’t you correct the confused admin girl when she was collecting your money?
Mathematical trickery aside, you continue to demand the promised tickets. Your French compatriots hold their receivers hostage. Turns out those guys that weren’t really your friends after all, can produce tickets, but you must wait 30 minutes while they walk back to the office and get them. The French insist on having the police sort it out. Maria asks god why she keeps losing receivers.
A fifth person, the “manager” shows up to help sort out the confusion that you, the consumer, have created. And by sort out I mean use a lot of gestures and threaten that if the receivers are not returned, she will send the mafia after you. This is not the sort of side job I envision the mafia picking up, but I guess times are tough.
Sensing futility, or at least the need for a burrata crostini, we begin to back out of the argument which now involves two hawkers, two French tourists, one mafia-adjacent manager, a confused administrator and an anguished tour guide down by two transmitters. Again.
7) The Resignation – We slip away and head to the Central Market for Pinot Grigio and sympathy. I feel defeated because I should know better. I’m an experienced traveler and a cynic. Yet, I still fell victim to the travel scams in Florence. This isn’t my first passport stamp. It was an off day and I wanted to trust those guys, but that won’t happen again. I hope this helps you, too.
Because the truth is that if you are willing to walk about 100 feet over to the ticket office on the left side of the Duomo you can get a ticket for all five monuments for €10. No line skipping, no sleep-inducing guided tour, and no drama.
Get your own tickets to climb the Duomo for €10.
hello/good day = buon giorno (bwohn jor-noh)
goodbye = arrivederci (ah-ree-veh-dehr-chee)
please = per favore (pehr fah-voh-ray)
thank you = grazie (graht-see-ay)
cheers! = chin chin! (cheen cheen)
one = uno (oo-noh)
two = due (doo-ay)
three = tre (tray)
Have you ever been scammed while traveling?