Italy began lifting its lockdown restrictions in mid-May, and in early June the ban on traveling between Italian regions was removed. That didn’t mean you could immediately go anywhere – flights to Sicily, where we had originally planned to go, won’t resume until the end of the month. But the uneven end of the lockdown provided a golden opportunity to visit popular sites at a time when not not many foreign tourists would be around.
So as soon as we could, we were on the road again.
When we arrived in Venice, on a Wednesday evening, the city was so empty as to be almost desolate. We have been to Venice in low season before, trading off the shorter days and sometimes bad weather of late winter to avoid the huge high season crowds. But this was different. Smaller hotels were open, but many of the larger ones were not. Many shops and restaurants were open, but a surprising number remained closed. The Basilica of San Marco was closed to tourist visits, although you could still attend mass or visit the loggia upstairs. And the Piazza San Marco, normally teeming with tourists, shoppers and vendors, was practically empty. The Cafe Florian, the iconic coffee bar in the middle of the Piazza, was closed when we arrived. Even the pigeons seemed to have temporarily deserted the place.
Fortunately, things improved over the course of our 4-day visit. By Friday, the Cafe Florian had reopened (although their coffee was still too expensive to actually consider buying). By Saturday, a few souvenir vendors had returned to the Piazza, but they were the licensed kiosks, not the guys selling “irregular” merchandise spread out on the street. Even a few pigeons had ventured back. And more shops and restaurants opened their doors.
The number of tourists increased each day, too, and by Saturday there was a line to get in to the Doge’s Palace (although it didn’t look very long). Most of the tourists were Italian, including many families, taking the opportunity, like we were, to rediscover their own cities as they were in a quieter era.
Venice, like most parts of Italy, does not require people to wear masks outdoors, and the social distancing requirement is only 1 meter (about 3 feet). You are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces – hotel lobbies, churches, museums, stores. They are required in bars and restaurants, but you can take them off as soon as you are seated and, given the fine weather, we took most of our meals outside. You are also required to wear them on public transportation, although on the 40-minute trip to Burano, those of us sitting outside took our masks off.
Aside from that tiny act of civil disobedience on the boat, compliance with the masking rules was quite high. We saw one guy take his mask off inside a church, admiring a Tintoretto, when the custodian, a young woman, came over and politely asked him to put it back on. “Later,” he said. When she asked a second time, still politely, the guy looked around at the other visitors giving him the stinkeye, and realized he was at risk of making a “brutta figura,” which literally means “cutting a bad figure,” but actually means “embarrassing yourself by acting like a jerk.” And no Italian wants to do that. He put the mask back on.
I do wonder, though, how Venice and other big cities are going to enforce the social distancing requirements on public transportation, which means leaving every other seat vacant, when there are more visitors.
We visited the Accademia, Venice’s largest art museum where we were able to spend time with the works of Bellini, Veronese and Carpaccio in uncrowded rooms. We also visited the Peggy Guggenheim museum. We don’t always like museums devoted to modern art, but Guggenheim selected her pieces according to her personal taste, and makes a convincing case for her selections. Even Jackson Pollock’s strange abstractions look more organized when paired with Peggy’s wrought-iron windows. And Peggy’s placement of modern abstract pieces next to contemporary African art is also very interesting – she knows exactly where the inspiration for the European works is coming from, and she wants you to know it too.
We took a guided tour of the Casa Bartoli, a 16th C structure which, much renovated, was a private residence until the owners died a few years ago. The house was elegant, but comfortable, and had killer views of the Grand Canal and the church of Santa Maria della Salute across the way. (The church, whose name means Our Lady of Good Health, was built by the city in gratitude for surviving the second coming of the Black Death in the 17th C – a story that had unexpected resonance in these pandemic times.)
We even took a gondola ride, for the first time in many years. Without the big cruise ships in the lagoon, you could venture out into the canal in a gondola without fear of being swamped.
Mostly, though, we enjoyed just walking the streets of Venice, being able to travel side by side instead of single file for once. Most of the restaurants we have enjoyed in the past were open, and doing good business, but they had time to talk to us. So did our gondolier, the folks running our hotel, and shopkeepers. They all wanted tourists back – just maybe not so many of them.
The Cinque Terre are five spectacularly sited villages along the Ligurian coast. Although there are some roads, the towns are connected mainly by hiking trails and a rail line. We had never been to this part of Italy before, since we had heard that it was often crowded during high season and the hiking season is short (it’s not really a place you can visit during the winter).
The villages are as beautiful as advertised. From our base in Monterosso, we enjoyed hiking to Vernazza and then Corniglia, and we visited a fourth town (Manarola) by train. We even got in a little beach time. All in all, though, I’m not sure we would have enjoyed it so much had it been more crowded.
We have been to Lucca before, some years ago, but again, it seemed like a good time to revisit this popular city. Lucca has a very old cathedral (started in the 11th C) and very fine city walls, which you can walk around. But the highlight of this trip was our visit to Villa Reale di Marlia, a few miles outside the city.
Villa Reale was the country residence of Elisa Baciocchi, the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was named Princess of Lucca after her brother conquered much of northern Italy. Elisa restored the 17th C manor house, and completely redesigned the gardens in the style of English country houses (including very large lawns, unusual in Italy). After Napoleon was deposed, the house was sold to a succession of new owners, who maintained the magnificent gardens but allowed the manor house to fall into disrepair. The house has recently been restored by an anonymous Swiss couple who fell in love with the place and clearly spared no expense to restore the house to its original Napoleonic splendor. It is spectacular, and we highly recommend a visit here to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of Lucca.
Travel in the post Covid era
How has travel changed in the post Covid era?
The first and most obvious difference is that we took our car instead of the train. Neither of us minds wearing a mask during a visit to a church or museum, or on a short trip on a bus or train. But wearing one continuously for 5 or 6 hours seems a bit much. I can’t even imagine a transAtlantic flight under those conditions.
Going to a restaurant where all the waiters are masked is a little weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly.
One less obvious casualty of the pandemic is the hotel buffet breakfast. The hotel we stayed at in Venice used to offer breakfast, but their breakfast room was so tiny they could not comply with the new social distancing requirements. So they no longer offer breakfast, and have adjusted their room rates accordingly. Given that the hotel was situated within 5 minutes walk of at least half a dozen cafes, including an excellent pastry shop literally outside the door, this was no hardship.
The other two hotels we stayed at continued to offer a buffet style breakfast. You could see everything on offer, but you had to ask a hotel staff member to get it for you and put it on your plate. In some ways, that’s a good thing – you will probably be too embarrassed to ask for that second piece of pastry you didn’t need anyway. But some might be less willing to try an unfamiliar local specialty – deviled eggs in Turkey, or spinach with pine nuts in Spain, which would be too bad.
The Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice is currently operating an an advance reservation basis – you go to the website and select a date and an entry time. I think this is a great idea for small museums, which can sometimes be unpleasantly crowded at peak times. The Villa Borghese in Rome has been doing this for several years now. It requires a bit of advance planning, but it makes your visit to these smaller museums much more enjoyable. I hope it’s a permanent change.