When not in Rome

We might not have the weather or the food but in music, architecture and fashion the north can offer bragging rights to tourists from the rest of Europe

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You might not expect people who live in Rome, one of the world’s most famously beautiful travel destinations, to be particularly interested in visiting Macclesfield. But that’s exactly what Valentino Bianco dreams of.

“I want to go for a walk in Macclesfield and see if I can feel the aura which Ian Curtis was surrounded by, to try to understand what inspired his lyrics,” the 32-year-old software engineer and hardcore Joy Division fan tells me. “I know people say it’s a bleak place, but there’s a kind of beauty in that.”

We’re sitting at a pavement café in Rome’s atmospheric Celio neighbourhood, espressos between us, repeating the word “Macclesfield” to each other as he tries to get the pronunciation spot on. We get an odd look from some passing tourists, on their way to the Colosseum and Palatine Hill.

“I’d also like to visit Liverpool to see a match at Anfield Road and hear the fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone in the last minutes, whatever the result,” he continues, “And I’d like to drink in a pub there, thinking about how many musicians past and present might have done the same.”

During my six months of living in Italy I’ve been surprised by the amount of Italians who talk to me enthusiastically about past or future visits to parts of the north of England, especially my home city of Manchester, but also Liverpool, York, the Lake District and now, apparently, Macclesfield.

Valeria Ricci: street style is “inimitable”

It turns out I’m not just imagining things. A record-breaking number of visitors really are coming to the UK from European countries like Italy and Spain, according to Visit Britain.

Its data shows that more visitors than ever are coming to the UK from European countries like Italy and Spain in the past few years, and an ever-increasing percentage is visiting the north. A record 3.6 million people in total visited the north of England in 2017, up 6 per cent year on year, the English regions with the biggest growth being the North West and the West Midlands. The trend is expected to continue with another 4 per cent growth forecast in 2018.

The weak pound may be a factor. But figures show a steady increase in visitor numbers from Europe since 2012. 

Visit Britain says it’s been pouring resources into raising awareness of the UK’s regions and tourism outside London, as arts, heritage and tourism minister Michael Ellis says the sector is “key to driving economic growth across the UK”. But travel trend-spotters think people would’ve probably wanted to explore beyond London anyway.

A new report from travel company Intrepid Travel tells us: “For 2018 there’s a clear trend towards discovery, especially places that were relatively unknown. It’s ‘bragging rights’ that will count – there’s no kudos to be gained by telling everyone about mainstream travel.”

The report says that more and more travellers, especially those in the 20-40 age group are mainly interested in two things: escaping the crowded, clichéd tourist hotspots, and finding the most instagrammable destinations possible.

Northern UK cities fit the bill perfectly, according to Nathan Whittaker, a Manchester-based photographer known on Instagram as Manc_Wanderer. “I think Manchester is very much appealing to photograph because it has a real identity about it,” he tells me. “And the history of innovation here means there are countless points of interest that make for great photos.”

Along with the football and music scene, he says another possible draw for overseas visitors is its architectural contrasts. “An example that comes to mind is the very industrial Northern Quarter, filled with converted warehouses which would be like nothing in Southern Europe.

“The change in pace would perhaps too be a factor. Manchester is a relaxed place. Along with most northern UK cities it’s full of friendly people who are more than happy to take time out of their day to help you out.”

Thirty-four-year-old Roberto, a pilot from Sicily, says he found the British way of life refreshing, but London “too chaotic”.

“I found freedom in the UK. I saw that people express themselves better. For example they dress however they want in the street, while in Italy they feel the need to dress up just to go to the supermarket.

“But in future I would like to go to Liverpool. I imagine it’s a city with a lot of beautiful sights.”

Valeria Ricci, a 29-year-old fashion boutique manager from Siena, Tuscany, raves about her trips to Liverpool and Manchester.

“The street style there, the attitude people have, it’s just inimitable,” she tells me in animated Italian, making a fuss over my battered denim jacket from one of Manchester’s vintage shops. “I want to bring a piece of that style to Italy.”

But there are some snags. Valeria took a beginners’ English language course before her trip “so I could at least order coffee,” but getting by without fluent English, she says, wasn’t easy.

Roberto: London “too chaotic”

“Luckily everyone was really friendly,” she says. “In Liverpool, one woman just took my arm and walked with me to where I wanted to go, because I didn’t understand her accent.”

She says our lack of language education could become a problem if the UK wants to attract more tourism outside London. “The thing is, no one speaks Italian. Or French, because I tried that too. In London it’s easier because everything is already set up for visitors. I could find most of the information I needed in Italian.”

And Roberto points out that our sad reputation for culinary mediocrity could be another problem. “Italians think that British food is very bad,” he says. “It has a bad image. When I tried it, I was surprised because it’s OK. Italian people don’t know, and they say: ‘I’m not going on holiday there and eating fried potatoes every day.’”

There are also concerns that, after Brexit, it could become more difficult for European citizens to visit. “I’m not going to book any more trips to the UK now until we understand the situation better,” says Ricci.

Still, the weather is apparently not a big deal. Bianco raves about the atmospheric, windswept moors of Lancashire and the dramatic, fog-shrouded landscapes of the Lake District, despite the fact he’s only read about them.

Watching Vespas zip through the cobbled streets of Rome as I sip my coffee in the sun, the north of England still doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice of holiday destination. But seen through the eyes of an Italian, somehow even Macclesfield sounds romantic.

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