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Witness to a winter of European discontent

Given the money I've been throwing around the past fortnight, it's hard to see how Spain and Italy can still be in financial crisis.

What I've spent in cafes, shops, restaurants and bars could surely have kickstarted the most sluggish economy. As I flitted between Barcelona's markets and the boutiques and ceramic workshops of Spoleto, in Umbria, an observer might have thought I was laying down stores ahead of rationing. What that observer would also have noticed, however, as did I, is that even in some of the wealthiest parts of Europe, all is not well.

On the surface, you'd never guess anything was wrong. Despite living under threat of financial collapse, the glamour and charm of Rome and Florence are as beguiling as ever and, to a rookie visitor, the initial impression of Barcelona is how well-off it is compared to most British, and indeed European, cities. Yet on the second day in Spain, I watched protesters outside one of Gaudi's cock-eyed buildings blaring horns and chanting in fury against the government's austerity measures. They were ring-fenced by expressionless police who eventually lost patience and moved them on. Similar protests were being waged by various groups in Rome and Florence while I was there, eruptions of rage and despair that passers-by barely noticed, so common are they.

Public servants staged a day's walk-out in Italy that left rail passengers panicky as they wrestled with ticket machines, while on television bulletins Genoa was seething with strikers, although my Italian was too poor to understand precisely what their grievances were. Beyond this story, news programmes offered an incessant diet of financial misery, as did newspapers.

A traveller's impressions, of course, are anecdotal at best. Unless one deliberately heads off the tourist trail, or stumbles inadvertently into a quarter where outsiders are rare, you are inevitably presented with the country's shop window, its most glittering attractions, its determinedly friendly, untroubled, selling smiles.

Even so, the cracks were evident. In Spoleto, where the quality of the shops would put many in Glasgow's Princes Square to shame, there were several abandoned businesses and empty premises, along with half-completed building projects left to gather weeds. Also noticeable was the rising tide of street vendors, touting cheap brollies, toys and flowers at almost every corner and train station across the land.

At Spoleto's gates, an old man in corduroys pinned a sign beside his begging plate: "I am Italian," it began, suggesting the country has been hardening its heart against the influx of incomers who ask for charity. Such prejudice sounds ugly, but for a country that's the first destination for many immigrants and has the largest population of Roma outside Romania, perhaps it's not surprising that self-protectionism – or worse – is creeping in.

But beggars are the least of Italy's problems, merely a distressing symptom of how tough times have become. One shopkeeper in Florence was full of contempt for the way his country is run. The state, he told me, is far too big. Too many people have protected jobs for life, their pensions and holidays paid for by the all-too-small and struggling private sector. "When my business does badly, I have to lay off a worker," he said, covering his shop assistant's ears lest he alarm her. "But when the state does badly, nobody goes." He estimates that more than half of his custom this past year has come from Russians, with Italians curbing their spending, even on clothes. Things must be bad.

But purse-tightening has spread far further than Europe. The hotels were half-empty, so too restaurants, and the streets of Florence, normally choked with tourists even at this late season, were so thinly peopled it was eerie. The sharpest evidence of the change in fortunes for those in southern Europe, however, came on the way home. Edinburgh was thronging with weekend shoppers, the pavements so tightly packed I thought a fire alarm had gone off and everyone had spilled outside. In light of the past two weeks, there was something unsettling about the contrast. It is starting to feel as if we are merrily fiddling while Rome, and many others, burn.

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Finance

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