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Tourist Returns Stolen Cobblestone to Rome With Apology Note

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 1/20/2017 Lilit Marcus

Image via CNTraveler.com © Getty Image via CNTraveler.com Some people collect sand from every beach they visit, or buy jewelry that reminds them of a memorable getaway. But some travelers go way too far in their pursuit of the perfect souvenir—even to the point of committing a crime. One tourist feeling guilty about a recent trip to Rome is in that camp: after swiping a cobblestone right out of the ground from a road near Piazza del Popolo, he (or she, as the note was anonymous) mailed it back to Rome with a note apologizing for bad behavior.

"Please find enclosed a cobble from one of your cobbled roads," the visitor wrote in an English-language note accompanying the purloined piece. "I stole this from Rome last year whilst on holiday as a souvenir." The letter-writer mailed the package to a restaurant in Rome near where he or she had taken the cobblestone, asking the owners to please put the stone back in its proper place, with specific notes about where exactly they had removed it from. "I am really sorry for doing this," the note ended. Those square "sampietrini" stones have a storied history: made from black basalt, they are a hallmark feature of central Rome and are very delicate, so large trucks and buses are forbidden from driving over them. It's not clear why the guilt-stricken traveler chose that restaurant, but the owners guessed he or she had saved their card after eating there and didn't know where else to send the note.

While it is common for sampietrini to be stolen, especially if they come loose from the road because of construction, not everyone is as honest as the tourist who returned it post-vacation. And it might not always be guilt motivating the return of items, either: Some travelers, for example, believe that there is a curse that affects people who steal things from the ancient site of Pompeii. In stories that sound like they could have come out of a Scooby Doo episode, tourists have sent items, like pieces of tile, swiped from Pompeii back to the country after claiming they got sick or experienced bad luck post-thievery. Massimo Osanna, custodian of the excavated first-century ruins, told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that Pompeii staff regularly get packages from around the world containing items taken illegally from the area, often with apology letters about awful things that happened to the thieves afterward. "They write that the stolen pieces have brought them nothing but trouble; they say they can trace back all their family troubles to their theft at Pompeii," said Osanna.

If caught, there are steep penalties for tourists who steal or damage artifacts in Italy. In 2013, an American visiting the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence was found liable for breaking a finger off of a priceless 600-year-old statue and had to pay damages; the following year, two travelers also from the U.S. were caught at Rome's Fiumicino airport trying to leave the country with a pilfered Pompeii relic in their luggage, and were charged with "appropriation of state heritage." What's Italian for "Don't take things that don't belong to you"? View our complete list of the best places to visit in the U.S.

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