28 September 2020

Thinking of Italy? Where to go now

 At the time I'm writing this most British citizens are free to travel to Italy with no restrictions or travel warnings and many have recently travelled (like me), have booked travel or are considering it (readers in lockdown areas should check local guidance). Travel to Italy is also straightforward for residents of many other countries, although sadly some of my readers will be limited to planning for next year. During the pandemic different countries' rules and liberties have changed and will change again; travel between continents and some types of travel may be difficult or impossible. 

As always I can't take the responsibility of actively advising anyone to travel. There are a number of potential complications and risks to consider, and many people would rather wait until next year. It's very important to check your travel insurance, the rules of both the country you are leaving and your destination, the procedures of airports and airlines in between and to think through implications of rule changes, quarantine impositions, and health risks.

But right now Italy is probably the one of the best places you could travel to from the UK. After a terrible experience in the early stages of the pandemic and a tough lockdown, Italy has currently got much lower infection rates than many other European countries, has managed to keep its figures stable for several weeks now and is being praised as an example of successful infection controls. Of course this could change, but at present there is no automatic quarantine expected of travellers at either end of a UK-Italy journey, Italy is considerably safer than Britain - and if the UK rules are arduous, you could export your extended family for an Italian break where you will be allowed to be together, maybe even plan a family Christmas in the sunshine. There are also some very good travel bargains - my brother has flown to Venice today for £144 per person for three nights in a central hotel, flights included.



In the case of origin countries/areas with a very high infection rate (much higher than the UK), Italy has instituted testing on arrival rather than imposing quarantine - an encouraging move for incoming travellers. Currently passengers flying into Rome report getting fast and efficient Covid-19 tests, with the results in half an hour. Rome Fiumicino Airport has won a 5-star rating for its pandemic protocols. Note that there is testing on departure from Rome too, with positive results meaning a passenger can't travel.

Apart from the universal problem of partying youngsters breaking rules, Italy has seen a generally community-spirited response to legislated precautions. Masks are worn on public transport and indoors, with hardly any exceptions, and should also be worn in crowded outdoor areas after 6pm. When I was in Venice the worst offenders at non-mask-wearing were foreign tourists.

Italy's latest pandemic protection measures are explained helpfully here in English: 

> http://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioFaqNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=english&id=230

If you're not happy to comply with these, or to accept the possibility of quarantine in case of a positive test or symptoms, then don't travel to Italy. Italy is keen to welcome foreign visitors - tourism represented 13% of GDP last year, and Italians are hospitable by nature - and is doing its best to offer a welcoming experience - it would be heart-breaking if this endangers its population.

Some hotels and tourist businesses are still closed but the majority are open. In Venice restaurants were doing very good business when I was there. Most museums and tourist attractions are open, though you should check ahead for opening times, which may be reduced, and make any necessary online bookings. Airports are much quieter than normal.

I travel to Italy in autumn and winter not just to see friends, family and familiar places, but also to enjoy quieter cities, atmospheric scenery, a bigger chance of sunshine and warmth than the UK, and because frankly some destinations are too hot in summer months. Thick rich Italian hot chocolate is another big attraction. Here's a hot chocolate I enjoyed in wintry Turin:




This year, independently of the pandemic, there is another significant reason for UK citizens to visit Italy soon. After the New Year, due to Brexit, there are no guarantees as to the ease of travel or whether British citizens will be eligible for health care (a pretty big consideration given that many travel insurers are now excluding pandemic-related issues from their cover). Maybe everything will be fine, but if you only have a UK passport and want to travel with the rights and entitlements of EU citizens, you only have three months left.


Where to go

It's a changeable situation and unlike any normal autumn and winter. This year, as well as the climate, visitors will be prepared for potentially changing situations with regard to restrictions, tourist numbers and opening times/dates. Where to go will of course be affected by when you are planning to travel - a last dose of summer, or a winter city break?

This week the temperature in Sicily is forecast to reach 29 degrees centigrade, Rome is set for 24 degrees, and the north of Italy 21 or 22 degrees. Over the next few weeks there's still time for some late sunshine and warmth and maybe a few hours on the beach.  (I managed this in northerly-but-mild Liguria last October). While not quite as ideal as spring, autumn can be a good time for a walking holiday - a good chance of sunshine but not too hot for physical activity. Later in the year the north can get cold, though a wrapped-up city break in Venice or Turin with hot-chocolate breaks has its own appeal. 




Airlines have reduced the number of flights between Italy and the UK, but also reduced prices and there are some very good deals available, so budget-conscious travellers can opt to choose their destination based on prices. On British Airway's website there are tools helping customers to find the cheapest return flights.

In choosing a destination it's also worth considering the unique advantages of this particular year. Disaster has struck, but there are bright spots that can give comfort, however sad their underlying causes My experience of Venice last month was transformed by the absence of tour groups and cruise ships (cruising has restarted now, but in a very limited way). There are very few visitors in Italy from outside Europe, whereas in recent years cities have been filled with big Chinese tour parties even through winter months. Most travellers are now in couples or family groups, exploring widely and very engaged with their surroundings, making sightseeing a much easier and more pleasant experience all round, with no crowds to fight through. 



Sicily is popular with independent travellers at the moment, visiting Taormina in particular, which is often swamped by cruise ship visitors in normal years. This might be a good time to visit destinations which similarly are usually popular with tour parties, and cruise ships. Local day-trippers and travellers from mainland Europe are still flocking to the most accessible honeypots, especially on public holidays, but not everywhere is conveniently placed for this, and the impact is much less than the normal crowds. Venice, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Capri, Portofino and the Cinque Terre are among the places which are worth considering. (Note that I have only visited Venice during the pandemic and not the others, and I haven't checked local openings and availability). The narrow lanes and art museums of Florence might be another good possibility for making the most of a quieter season. The unique historic cave town of Matera has been getting busier with tourists every year, and is featured in the new James Bond film - so this could be a good time to visit while you can. So thinking of places which might normally be impacted by crowds is a good starting point, along with climate, attractions, and maybe the local coronavirus situation.

Taormina


The south of Italy wasn't much affected by the first wave of coronavirus, which was focussed mostly in Lombardy and neighbouring regions. Visiting the town of Bergamo, which suffered among the worst, might be a good way of showing solidarity and helping to rebuild tourism. The infection numbers for different Italian regions can be downloaded here - this might be helpful if considering safety but also the risk of a UK travel corridor closure - though at the moment, with much higher rates than Italy, it would be extremely hypocritical of the UK Foreign Office to quarantine arrivals. There is big variation in numbers of infections between Italian regions - the Valle d'Aosta region, for example, has only 66 positive cases as of September 27th, and several regions only have new daily infections (incremento casi totali) in single or double figures (zero for Aosta). The UK policy of separating 'islands with airports' from mainland regions could affect the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia - they could potentially be given either travel corridors or warnings separately to mainland Italy. Sardinia's resorts and nightclubs were Covid hotspots in the summer, and I'd suggest checking their figures before booking a trip there. 

My own personal preference for a trip in the next few weeks, after checking infection rates and local news, would be to aim for southern sunshine - Sicily, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, for example. I'd combine walking and exploring with time enjoying warmth and maybe time by the sea. Liguria also offers a good variety of options - last October I explored the city, took a boat trip, and went walking on the Portofino headland, eating picnics in olive groves about the sea, then spending a warm half-hour on a sunny beach. Venice and Rome are good destinations at any time. From mid-October onwards I'd be thinking more of city breaks, or exploring small towns - a tour of Tuscany, maybe.



For all the difficulties of planning travel now, there could be big rewards too. Keep monitoring the news for updated restrictions and travel warnings, have contingency plans and do your best to have valid insurance if it's available. Consider booking at short-notice to minimise the risk of shifts in rules and changing situations. 

For the latest 7-day coronavirus figures and the standing of Italy with regard to UK quarantine restrictions, follow https://twitter.com/PPaulCharles on Twitter.

Italy and the whole travel industry are in a very difficult situation and travellers are very important to all of us. If you can't or don't wish to travel now, Italy will still have wonders to offer and be a welcoming destination in the future too.


A request for help

If you are booking travel, please consider using my booking links to choose your accommodation - if you book accommodation anywhere in the world through these, you won't pay any extra, and Booking.com will pay Italy Heaven a small commission which will help to keep the website and blog online through the next few months. They have a Price Match guarantee.

Book accommodation with Booking.com

Buy my Venice Kindle guidebook (published in 2013; prices, a few restaurants, and some museum layouts will have changed but the walking tours, descriptions and vast majority of detail will still be accurate. It has excellent reviews!)

Read the Italy Heaven travel guide - where to go in Italy, detailed destination guides and travel tips


Some more photos from my trip to Genoa last October (with excursions to Nervi and Portofino)











2 September 2020

Unusual Times in Venice: the New Tourism

I visited Venice in the last week of August 2020, to discover how the city was emerging from the months of lockdown and pandemic, and what the situation was like for visitors.

Atmosphere and visitors

I usually enjoy Venice in early July, avoiding the crowds by visiting islands and the beach, but August is a time I avoid. When I lived part-time in Venice all year round, I would often spend August days indoors with air conditioning on, only venturing out for a stroll after 4pm when the day-trippers were heading home and the heat began to lessen. I'd walk a route around Dorsoduro where there are wider, emptier, pretty routes, passing a busking lute player who became one of my fixed points, in a city where the vast majority of people you pass will be gone by tomorrow. There was something reassuring about his daily presence, usually in the vicinity of the Guggenheim or the Salute church.

This summer everything has changed. The headlines about an "empty" Venice are out of date or exaggerated - but this is certainly not a typical summer. As I walked and surveyed the historic city, there were lots of tourists in evidence. If you didn't know Venice, you'd see this as a reasonably busy tourist destination. Most days the council's warnings for its car parks turn red to show that they are full with day trippers. The week before I visited there were complaints about packed waterbuses, as ACTV, the local transport company, operated an off-peak timetable while the tourist crowds grew.  But when I arrived on the 24th August, the services had been increased to provide more space on the boats, and the traditional peak of the domestic holiday season, the 15th August, had passed.



What I found was a Venice with tourists, but not the usual August tourists, nor the usual numbers. As I walked along the quiet(!) Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront, past the Bridge of Sighs and through St Mark's Square, the changes became more and more obvious. What many Venetians have wanted, for years, has been a different style (or 'class') of tourism. Travellers don't always like to hear it, but they do not all have the same value for local residents. Venice appreciates tourists who stay in the city for several nights, visitors who will adapt themselves to the city's rhythms and conventions: walking on the right, not blocking bridges. Those who will spread themselves across the city, visiting and appreciating churches and museums away from the main honeypots, behaving in a respectful manner, spending in the local shops and restaurants throughout the city. Tourists, on the other hand, who 'eat and run' - those who arrive for the day, crowd out the boats and routes to St Mark's, mill around in big crowds in the Piazza and on the Rialto, eat a picnic on a bridge, leave litter and maybe a padlock that will need removing, then leave again, are the least welcome; the ones who create crowds and a burden without offering anything in return, giving Venice the feel of a Disneyland.

Well, this summer, although there were still some day-trippers, I found a city which was closer to a manageable tourism model. There were no tour parties. No cruise ships. No guides with scarves tied to sticks leading confused and chaotic crowds through the narrow lanes. No bewildered cruise ship passengers set ashore still finding their bearings. No mobs milling around on Riva degli Schiavoni waiting to be carted off to their next destination. It was very noticeable that there were practically no tourists from outside Europe, and I could hear Italian spoken everywhere throughout the city, which is far from the norm in summer, when other languages dominate in the narrow lanes and vaporetti. All the tourists I saw would have been self-motivated independent travellers, people who had chosen to come to Venice as their destination, rather than as a stop on travel company's itinerary. They were in pairs, or family groups, exploring the city with genuine interest. Rather than being focussed around two or three sights, they were out and about, sometimes even carrying guidebooks (a rare sight in recent years).


It was only as I walked through a remarkably quiet St Mark's Square that it really struck me for the first time just how uninterested many of Venice's usual summer visitors are. They come because their tour group brings them here, and deposits them near St Mark's. I've criticised in the past the lack of interest in the visitors to the basilica, the vast majority of whom never raise their eyes to its golden mosaics. But I realised last week that it goes further than that. Those visitors have no investment in being here in Venice, and many of them have no background knowledge, curiosity or  even interest. They're often bewildered by an alien culture, a confusing environment, they might be exhausted after a long journey from Milan or Florence, they don't have the time, energy,  freedom or context to get off the beaten track, or develop an interest in the city around them. Some just want to buy 'souvenirs of Italy' or designer clothes, others are Instagrammers here in impractical clothing for the photo opportunities (I only saw a couple of those last week), others have come because they feel they ought to and because it's the obvious excursion from where they're staying on the mainland. They block the way because they're milling around dazed, grumpy, tired, waiting to be told where they're going next.

Last week, by contrast, all the visitors I saw were engaged with their surroundings. They'd had to make an effort to come here, and they wanted to make the most of their time. Actually choosing to be somewhere makes a big difference, it turns out. I stopped to sketch in Campo San Zanipolo near Venice's northern shore, and I'd say that there was almost the same number of tourists in that picturesque square as there had been in St Mark's Square. Outdoor restaurant tables were busy everywhere I went. I only spent a couple of weekdays wandering in the sunshine through the city's maze, but I felt that the atmosphere, though somewhat touristy, was extremely good. Maybe it was busier than the winters I used to experience in a quiet, 'local' Venice, but with a level of tourism that was manageable. Last week I barely saw any examples of the 'bad behaviour' which makes residents and Venice-lovers so irritated during the summer. I rarely found my way blocked, and I almost always got a seat when I caught a vaporetto. Simply for street viability alone, I found myself wishing Venice could successfully ban all tour groups in future, or all those over a certain size. It makes a huge difference to the San Marco district - and in recent years the groups' routes have been spreading to block lanes elsewhere in the city too. Venice's narrow lanes and bridges just can't cope with groups of 50-plus people crowding behind their guide.



Pandemic changes and practicalities

Italy has strict laws regarding the wearing of masks or face coverings. These must be close-fitting, of several layers, cover the mouth and nose securely, and be worn indoors and - currently - after 6pm in outdoor places likely to be busy. (Read the latest Italian government instructions and advice). In Venice, within a region that had a high rate of Covid-19 cases, these rules were taken very seriously.  A Venetian friend complained about young people out drinking and crowding together while not wearing masks, but in the daytime and on public transport, I found the rules were followed quite strictly. On the vaporetto network, 100% of passengers I saw had masks, unlike London where it's 70% at best, in my experience. There were occasional incompetents who wore a mask under the nose, or removed it to talk, but these were few in number, and I saw no-one removing their mask entirely, refusing to wear one, or swaggering maskless as happens in the UK.  Embarrassingly, the worst people I saw in Venice at conforming to the local rules were north European tourists, the British in particular. 

The masks worn around Venice are mostly the disposable paper medical kind, although some more individual fabric ones were in evidence, including popular models printed with the Venetian flag. Worn around the arm when not in use, masks were taken for granted as a modern accessory; it was refreshing to see this treated so matter-of-factly in comparison with the hostile debates in the UK and US. The paper kind are available cheaply in supermarkets - I bought some Coop branded ones at 20 for €5 -which probably helps the wide take-up.

Personally I found the dutiful following of the mask rule quite touching; the idea that this was a community who had been through a lot together, who would wear masks as part of a society-wide effort to protect each other and to get back to normal as soon as possible. Venice has a history of plagues and of coping with challenges and living with tricky logistics every day. I fear that the increased presence of foreigners flouting the rules might test the tolerance of Italians, who have always been very hospitable even when foreigners offend against local sensibilities. Causing fear and being seen to endanger public health might be viewed as a worse sin than the public drunkenness or inappropriate clothing that are the most common etiquette breaches by tourists.



The recommended social distancing in Italy is a minimum of 1 metre, and there were signs reminding of this in restaurants and shops. This wasn't so strictly followed as mask-wearing, and wasn't possible in the narrow lanes or canalsides of the city. Some chose to wear masks as protection in these situations, and I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a requirement should the local infection rates rise. There are hand sanitising gel pumps in shops, though they didn't seem to be used much. In the past I've generally found Italians to be very concerned with health, and less with hygiene, and maybe that continues to be the case.



Restaurants are open; generally respecting the 1m rule between tables, though with sociable diners moving around tables or stopping to chat at outdoor bars, the space can get more crowded than comfortable. I had drinks and a cheap pasta dish on the waterfront of the Giudecca, and an indoor meal at my favourite restaurant, La Zucca, where tables were left empty to ensure comfortable social distancing and I felt safe as I enjoyed three delicious courses, my first proper restaurant meal since February. Masks should be worn everywhere indoors, and this includes moving around in restaurants on arrival and departure or getting up for the loo, but not at your table when eating. The same applied at the beach club I visited: mask on to visit the toilets or the bar, but no need to wear them by your (socially distanced) parasol or going down to the sea. The beach club also had a temperature scanner at the entrance: touch your wrist to the reader and wait for a disembodied voice to pronounce you 'NORMAL'.




Museums have been reopening, though they often have reduced opening days and hours. If you're planning a visit, look this up before you head to a museum or gallery. For me, August is a time for strolling and for the sea and islands, so I didn't revisit any cultural sites. I noticed a short queue outside the Palazzo Ducale. Restaurants are busy, especially in the evening, and may have reduced capacity due to social distancing, so book ahead. There were still some hotels closed, I noticed as I walked around, but there are some decent rates to be found.

I'd recommend taking several masks so you can change them at least daily, or stock up in a supermarket. Check restaurant opening days and book ahead for evening meals. September can have hot summer temperatures, but also storms, so check the forecast if you plan to travel now. And take insect repellent; the lagoon in this time of year is a paradise for mosquitoes; I find using repellent spray or covering up after dark quite successful in minimising bites. Failing that, the local pharmacies are experienced in recommending expensive and powerful healing creams - my latest find is a 'prescription cream with antibiotic properties' according to the pharmacist.



The situation with tourist numbers and with Covid-19 precautions will be changing all the time. I know that many of my readers will be unable to visit Italy right now, and for those of us who can, there is a risk of quarantines or travel warnings being imposed, and flights cancelled. At this time of year the weather conditions and atmosphere are changeable too. So I can't take the responsibility of recommending visiting or not visiting. I can say that I was extremely glad I'd travelled. I loved strolling around the city in glorious weather with a freedom that I wouldn't normally expect in summer, enjoying the views and the uncrowded canalsides. I loved the heat (around 29 degrees C most days) and spending time on the beach at the Lido. I loved visiting a couple of my favourite restaurants and learning that they're coping and that the current levels of business are good. A glass of Prosecco by the Giudecca canal, a picturesque sunset seen from the Zattere, a breeze off the water, being able to get a seat on the number 2 vaporetto - all these were small and satisfying pleasures. A couple of rain showers, wearing a face covering, and filling in a couple of forms before flights were small prices to pay. I've already written about my experience on my outward flight and return flight and at airports. There's no way to travel that will eradicate all worries and risks right now. Each would-be traveller needs to consider their own tolerance for inconvenience and risk, and do their own research. I don't think anyone in Venice at the moment will regret being there, and they'll probably have memories that will last forever.

Last Thursday, having walked in a circle through much of Dorsoduro, San Polo and San Marco, without a single tourist traffic jam or incident of bad behaviour to tut at, I found myself automatically taking my old summer walking route towards the picturesque tip of the district, Punta della Dogana. As I approached the Salute church I heard the strings of a lute, and came upon a white-bloused lute player, the same one, I think, I've passing for a decade or more. A favourite fig tree had vanished from the city, more local shops have been replaced by tourist bars, the current situation is far from settled, the future of Venice is as uncertain as ever, but I found an illogical comfort in this musician's presence and a hope that maybe everything would be alright somehow, and not everything has to change. Later, as I sipped an aperitivo and watched a beautiful sunset from the Zattere waterfront, he walked past again like a kind of unwitting blessing on my stay.



My trip practicalities

I'm on a very tight budget, due to coronavirus, so used my frequent flyer Avios to pay for flights (socially distanced in BA's business class). I found a comfortable modern flat with a lift in an unusual location with an unusual view over the southern lagoon for just €384 for 5 nights - it was on the Giudecca, a long island across a wide canal from the central part of Venice, calmer and more 'local' in atmosphere; I'd often considered staying there in summer. The only drawback is spending more on vaporetto journeys;  I'd suggest a travelcard. I ate cheaply at La Palanca and at a modest price at La Zucca. My favoured beach stabilimento is Venezia Spiagge where a parasol, sunlounger and access to facilities cost €18 per day.

If you are booking travel, please consider using my booking links to choose your accommodation - if you book accommodation anywhere in the world through these, you won't pay any extra, and Booking.com will pay Italy Heaven a small commission which will help to keep the website and blog online. They have a Price Match guarantee.

> Book accommodation with Booking.com

> Buy my Venice Kindle guidebook (published in 2013; prices, a few restaurants, and some museum layouts will have changed but the walking tours, descriptions and vast majority of detail will still be accurate. It has excellent reviews!)

> Read the Italy Heaven guide to Venice