26 November 2020

Aromas of Rome: scent and memory, from perfume shop to stadium

Earlier in this year of lockdowns I opened a new bar of Nesti Dante soap named 'Roma'. With an image of the Colosseum on the wrapping, it was designed to evoke the Eternal City, its scents oleander, zibbibo grapevines and fig. It started me thinking about the scents that say 'Rome' to me, the smells I remember from living in the city and the perfumes that can transport me back to Rome when I'm far away.

One particular aroma came back into my mind a while ago. In a secretive, elegant French perfume shop in London I tried some scents from the Roman perfume brand Profumum Roma. Several of the scents had gorgeous sweet gourmand notes that took me back suddenly and vividly to a particular spot in Rome: the pavement outside a little bakery on one of my favourite corners of Rome, on Via della Scrofa opposite a stumpy tower with stories from the past. I've no idea why that spot stuck in my head or why I was so familiar with it - perhaps it was a meeting place? I can't remember if I've even eaten their pastries.

Back in present-day London I took my perfume samples home from Piccadilly wrapped in a black velvet bag and whenever I took them out I would inhale that heady sweetness of the lightest, sugariest pastries on a Sunday morning, mingling with the richer chocolatey decadence of heavier, cocoa-stuffed biscuity treats. When I looked up the address of Profumum Roma, it seemed very fitting that a shop was just up the road from the bakery. Coincidence, or not?

When I was in Rome in January I paid a visit - to the perfumier, not the bakery. I sampled a small number of their perfumes (always best to stick to five or fewer), sniffing the coffee beans provided to clear my nose in between scents. Then I headed off to a romantic statue-filled tea room near the Spanish steps to drink a hot chocolate and make my choice between the scents, lifting the perfumed card samples to my nose one by one to pick a favourite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the two I subsequently selected had glorious chocolatey notes and now reminds me not just of Rome in general, but of that particular day in Rome, the tea room, the sculptures, the perfume chat, and the hot chocolate I drank with its little accompanying sugary pasticcini. And also of my favourite Roman chocolate shops, one in Trastevere and one in Rione Monti, and the overwhelmingly rich aroma as you step inside.

Another perfume which transported me from London to Rome was Maison Margiela Replica By the Fireplace. In the dispiriting surroundings of the Westfield Centre, this triggered instant vivid memories of the braziers on the street corners of Rome where old men from the countryside (now replaced by younger immigrants) would roast and sell chestnuts, the smell filling the crisp bright air of winter Rome. In my memory, this is one of the most characteristic smells of the city in winter and when I wear the perfume I only need to sniff my wrist to be back on the Appia Nuova or strolling through the shopping streets of the Tridente.

One of the strangest smells to me when I first arrived in Rome was the smell of lightning; not a phenomenon I'd ever noticed back home. The autumn storms in Rome were like nothing I'd experienced in England: great flashes and cracks of lightning directly overhead, rain beating down in torrents, in sheets, and deafening thunder like giants rolling boulders over our heads. This would be accompanied by a sharp smell: metallic, like phosphorous, ozone, the scent of lightning itself filling our office, like living in an ancient myth.

The smell of coffee and cigarettes was of course ubiquitous, though no more characteristic of Rome than other Italian cities. A cloud of cigarette smoke puffed out by bank staff as they worked, when I went into a Parioli branch to exchange my meagre wage slip for cash. The coffee and pastry aroma filling the air outside Rome's favourite cafe, Sant'Eustachio.

I remember the smells of football matches, of the Stadio Olimpico: the pipe smoke in my face from the older man whose season ticket placed him in the row in front of me at every match; more annoying than cigarettes as it lasted so much longer. The unmistakeable odour of lacrimogeni, tear gas. As soon as you got a whiff of it, you knew there was trouble somewhere nearby to avoid. On one occasion, at a match with children and families present, we were teargassed inside the stadium, yellowish-grey clouds seeping in the entrances and over the terrace, as we held scarves pressed over our faces, trying to protect our eyes, the Curva yelling angrily at the police.

On a contrastingly floral note, walls of scented jasmine aren't so common in the heart of Rome but flourish in the residential streets near my cousin's home, and the heady white perfume reminds me of the time she showed her young daughters - and me - how to pick a tiny bloom and drink the nectar from it.

And the scent of roses: in late spring, making a Roman pilgrimage to the Aventine along with half the city, a tour of the Roseto meant bending to test the perfumes of all the beautiful roses cultivated there, across the Circo Massimo from the vast ruins of the Palatine hill.

The smells I remember aren't all beautiful or nostalgic. As well as the cigarettes and the teargas, I remember very strongly the stench of unwashed human. I had never really been acquainted with this odour before; the tube trains of London never smelled half as bad. That ripe, gritty, meaty stink of a man who hasn't washed all week became an unwelcome daily ordeal on my commute on the underground Metro.

There were other unsavoury smells, too: of the big municipal bins where we tipped our rubbish sacks. The grubby street corners where elderly ladies left plastic plates of stinky food for cats. The smell of cigarettes everywhere.  Of joss sticks and cannabis on the streets of Trastevere, where young drop-outs from wealthy countries would sit begging from the poorer Romans. 

But of course there was also the food: pizzas reeking of delicious truffle, or porcini mushrooms, steaming plates of pasta with cacio e pepe, artichoke, fiori di zucca, tomato sauce, the fresh-bread smell of bakeries, the doorway of a cheese shop, a glass of red wine in winter, the bouquet of wine from the Castelli Romani, the fresh mint smell of the Mojito cocktail popular with my cousin's friends, the sharp fresh citrus of a refreshing spremuta di arancia in the summer. I remember one orange juice in particular, on a very hot day, in the garden of Villa Giulia, the Etruscan Museum, that tasted like the most perfect and welcome refreshment in the world.

When I was a child I had no sense of smell that I was aware of. A forward-thinking GP prescribed nasal drops and a temporary dairy-free diet and suddenly I had a whole new sense. There are times when I've thought it might be convenient to be free of olfactory stimuli. But looking back and realising how big a part smell can play in our memories and in our appreciation of the world around us, I'm inclined to accept the unpleasant odours in return for the benefits. At a time like this, when most of us are exiled from our favourite places and experiences, scent can prove to be a comforting or inspiring window to past experiences and other worlds.

What Roman scents have I forgotten? The beer my local friends drank as they drove recklessly through the night (I tried to avoid lifts). Churches filled with incense and guilt. The heavy clouds of overpowering chypre as older Roman women walked past (spray it on your feet, your wrists, your elbows, you hair, in order to waft it through the air as much as possible, women were taught). The throat-tickling scent of vin brulĂ© at the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. 

As well as forgotten aromas, there are others I must have been so used to they hardly registered. And perfumes which I can't bring to mind though I must have inhaled them often. The smell of exhaust fumes and car tyres. Of melting tarmac in the summer heat. Of a crowded pizzeria in winter.

Are there smells I've missed that represent Rome to you, or remind you of times in the city? Or aromas that evoke other places in Italy? I think of the South, or Venice, or Florence, and a whole new set of scents comes to life...

The Nesti Dante soap which started this trip down memory lane was this one: Dolce Vivere Roma. Although pleasant, it didn't compare with my favourite the glorious and more highly scented: Il Frutteto Fig and Almond (Amazon UK affiliate links to support the Italy Heaven website). My chosen scents from Profumum Roma were Battito d'Ali - light, high-pitched, creamy, sugary, orange-flower sweetness 'inspired by the beating of an angel's wings', and Sorriso, a darker scent, its sweetness overlaid with dark chocolate and a little bitter orange. In the UK you can buy the perfumes from Jovoy Paris.

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.


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

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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

1 September 2020

Flying in a Time of Covid Part 2: The Return Leg and Venice Marco Polo Airport.

 After a fairly successful flight from London Heathrow to Venice Marco Polo last week, I had fewer concerns about the return leg.

> My outward Heathrow-Venice flight report in detail

The reality, though was a little less comfortable than the outward journey. My Alilaguna ferry journey was fine, and the skipper made sure it didn't get too crowded. The only bad point was the inadequate mask-wearing of British tourists, which became a theme of this trip and particularly my return journey to the UK.  If you follow me on Twitter you'll already have seen my complaints about this arrogance. Whatever you think about mask-wearing, if you are visiting a country which has suffered terribly from coronavirus and which has strict laws regarding mask-wearing, observed by all local people, then it is unacceptable behaviour to consider yourself above local law, etiquette and health concerns.

In advance of the  journey I'd checked in online, and I'd completed my UK Passenger Locator form - although there was no quarantine required of travellers from Italy, all passengers must fill in this form in the 48 hours prior to their arrival in the UK, stating their intended place of residence/accommodation for the next 14 days, and contact details.

Venice Marco Polo Airport was probably the quietest I've ever seen it. The moving walkway is still closed, so it's an outdoor trek between the ferry jetties and the terminal building. Unobtrusive temperature checks took place at the entrance. There were few travellers, and few check-in desks open. Unfortunately the queues for my British Airways flight were long, with only two desks open, and an unusually long and slow-moving priority queue. This was the first place I encountered the Most Entitled Family Ever, who went on to be a defining feature of my journey. Entitled Dad just couldn't believe that so many people had the right to wait in front of him in the queue.

Once at the front of the queue the check-in was efficient and friendly; I was warned that the business lounge, the Marco Polo Lounge, was currently closed. This would have been a disappointment if I hadn't already known about the closure: it's a good lounge and has showers which are extremely useful on a hot summer journey; BA's Club Europe passengers and Gold and Silver Executive Club members usually have access. I was also handed an Italian one-page form to fill in with a health/travel declaration; similar to the one I'd completed at Heathrow - this was to be handed in at the gate upon departure. 

Although I was told the priority lane through security was open, it was closed when I got there - the standard queues weren't excessively long, though. Airside, the entire second floor of the terminal was closed, including the lounges, restaurant and shops on that level. Downstairs the main duty-free shops and bars were open and some of the high-end stores, but other shops were still closed. Some of the toilets were closed too, but I didn't encounter queues at the ones I visited. The absence of a business lounge means no free food and drink, no views and no free drinking water for those who normally expect those things; with all passengers left to purchase their own extortionately-priced bottles at the bar, or go thirsty.

The passport checks before non-Schengen flights were done by automatic gates and again there was no queue. Inside the departure area - two UK flights and a Romanian flight departing from this section of the terminal - at least half the seats were taped off to ensure social distancing. This meant seats were in short supply, and it didn't totally work in its aim, as when one family member sat behind me, the rest of her family clustered around very close to me and Entitled Dad (yes, him), mask worn under nose and then discarded, was speaking pretty much over my head. Within this area, where most passengers were British, you would find it hard to believe we were in the middle of a pandemic. Nearly half the masks were off, or under noses or chins, despite repeated announcements. Lots of food and drink was being consumed in the public seating areas, which made an excuse for the jettisoning of face coverings in some cases.

There is one bar with food and drink after the passport gates, and one set of toilets.  I was glad of the useful charging point for mobile phones - I remembered that having completed my UK Passenger Locator Form yesterday, I would need to display the QR code confirmation on arrival at Heathrow, and had been worried about battery life.

Boarding was by airbridge, and followed the new pandemic policy of boarding by row number, the back of the plane first; of course this caused some confusion and disputes. And after a row over baggage size, the airport police were called, so there was some drama taking place. As on the outward journey, a staggering number of passengers had failed to fill in the Italian form we were given, or denied even having the form, which caused some delays, mostly for the passengers concerned.

As before, on boarding we were given our 'Personal Protection Pack' of an antibacterial wipe and a sachet of sanitising gel. I wiped my armrests and tray with cleaning wipes and noticed the passenger in front of me doing the same. Then we had a delay caused by Entitled Dad and his family, who had a plan for how the crew could rearrange the Club Europe cabin to seat them together. Having refused to give up my choice pre-booked seat I had to put up with Entitled Dad making loud rude comments in the aisle, and a lengthy stand-off where he refused to accept alternative solutions.  Once he had rearranged other passengers to his satisfaction, he took a seat in my row, mask under his nose, and I settled in for a hostile flight. As soon as food and drink appeared, Entitled Dad's mask came off, never to reappear.  I had splashed out with my Avios on Club Europe in order to guarantee an empty middle seat and avoid the aisle (a bigger infection hazard as well as uncomfortable), and I was glad I'd done this - despite the low prevalence of the virus, I would have been uncomfortable with similarly maskless strangers in seats directly adjacent to me.

 As on the outbound journey, food was a box of decent sandwiches, salad and dessert, with a good range of drinks in Club Europe.

The crew were less friendly and warm than the excellent team on my outward flight. When Entitled Maskless Dad wandered around the cabin and stood in the aisle and galley chatting to the crew, they did not ask him to replace his mask as per their announced policy, nor when he was seated, although he was sitting near strangers. And when they made a bored recitation of the requirement for a Passenger Locator Form, they wrongly informed us that we had to self-isolate for 14 days.

The flight itself and the landing went smoothly, with views of Kew Gardens on the descent. Heathrow's arrivals hall was quiet and there was barely a queue for the electronic passport gates. Signs around this area instructed passengers to have their Passenger Locator Form confirmation code ready to scan; I had my phone in my hand but there was no checkpoint and I found myself in the baggage reclaim hall, phone still in hand, unsure if this was policy or error (perhaps the passport check would have flagged anyone whose passport number was not connected to a completed form?).

Although the baggage reclaim area was very quiet - with one exit inconveniently closed - our baggage was extremely slow to arrive. Once retrieved, the route down to the Piccadilly line was straightforward and the lifts were quiet. Then came the interminable underground journey during which 50% of passengers weren't wearing face coverings, including a neighbour who took his mask off to sneeze. I won't declare I was glad to be have swapped Italy for the UK.

I'll write about my experience of post-Covid Venice next, but in the meantime I hope this is informative and partially reassuring for prospective travellers. As I found on my outward journey, you can't control your surroundings or your neighbours while travelling, and running some risks is inevitable. But other concerns can be addressed and exposure minimised - for example,  Club Europe prices can be competitive at the moment, and they guarantee more space around each passenger. British Airways have quite sensible policies, though I wish the crew on my plane had enforced the mask-wearing rule - especially now I'm home and reading about a flight from Zante causing an entire plane-load of passengers to self-isolate. Flying is more stressful in some ways, but less in others. Airports are  much quieter and although I had one or two longish queues and waits, the overall experience was fairly efficient. I'd recommend familiarising yourself with the latest rules and requirements of the countries at either end of your journey, the airports you'll travel through, and the airline you're flying with, so you're prepared and have downloaded and filled in any necessary forms.

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A last view of Venice, seen from the Alilaguna airport ferry

25 August 2020

Flying in a Time of Covid - British Airways London Heathrow to Venice

 After being grounded for six months, it felt wonderful to get back in the air yesterday, and back to Italy. Things aren't quite the same now, and the situation is obviously far from settled, but in what is either the start of a return to 'normality' and the opening up of travel, or a window of opportunity before the shutters close again, I booked British Airways flights three days ago and travelled from London to Venice yesterday.

British Airways still has very few flights between London and Venice - two a day on the dates I checked - and their operations have been switched from Gatwick to Heathrow. There are a few good-value tickets to be had, especially for the off-peak period from 7th September, but demand is high in the short term and some of the popular flights are full or nearly so, with very high prices. BA don't leave seats empty for social distancing, and I was uncomfortable at the thought of sitting at close quarters with strangers, so I opted for business class: Club Europe, with the guarantee of an empty middle seat. I booked Reward Flights with a lot of my saved Avios frequent flyer points, plus £1 cash. This can be a good way to secure short-notice flights with big-ticket prices. I was glad I'd made this choice: my flight was full but in Club Europe I had plenty of space and far fewer travellers in my immediate vicinity. 

In addition to the fact I was flying from Heathrow rather than my preferred Gatwick, a couple more reminders of the changed times popped up when I checked in online. An unusual message popped up informing me that my passport or visa must be checked at the airport. It turned out that this is because  a couple of requirements imposed by the Italian government, described below, mean you can't just download a boarding pass and head through departures. And I had a momentary panic when the BA app informed me in red text that my flight was re-routed - again it turned out this was a routine message due to the fact the flight was originally scheduled to originate from Gatwick.

Travel at the moment is only really advisable if you can consider the risks and situations it might expose you to, and feel confident that you can deal with them. For those of us who've obeyed lockdown regulations, avoided crowds, people, restaurants, public transport, touching things, unwashed surfaces and so on, it is a big adjustment to find yourself expected to sit several inches from a stranger, and be at the mercy of the other people's hygiene standards. Aeroplane toilets, hotel bedspreads that aren't washed between guests, the decorative cushions that migrate daily from pillow to floor, door handles... exposure to potential germs is inescapable when you travel and every potential traveller will have  a different limit to what they accept. Italy currently has a relatively low rate of Covid-19 infections, though it is rising, reportedly due to Italian holiday-makers returning from hot-spots elsewhere in Europe. I'd advise anyone considering travel to read up on the latest reports and statistics, research travel restrictions and work out what risks they can minimise, and what they can live with.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advices against travel to a number of European countries, including France and Spain, and imposes a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving in the UK from those countries. The travel warning invalidates most travel insurance, and may result in cancellation or reduction of holidays and flights. Other destinations may be added to the FCO list at any time, based on their 7-day infection rate and other factors. Italy is still in a 'travel corridor' and a permitted destination at the time of writing; this is an important factor to keep an eye on, and it may be best not to book too far ahead this autumn - or at least to make sure you have comprehensive insurance and the option to cancel without penalty.

Face coverings are obligatory in many situations in both the UK and Italy, including on public transport. The Underground journey to Heathrow is incredibly long and slow, and offered a chance to experience in advance some of the attitudes I'd encounter throughout the day: the family maskless for selfies, mum pulling her mask off to mop her fevered sweating face, the woman who removed her mask for selfies (a common theme)  and to sponge on a full face of make up (she told another passenger she'd 'stop breathing' if she wore her mask, but as soon as she got off the train she popped it back on in case she passed a guard), so many of those people whose selfishness and/or stupidity are so frustrating for the law-abiding or anxious.

A couple of the lifts up from the Piccadilly line to Departures at Heathrow were very crowded, but I found an empty one. Terminal 5 was fairly busy, but manageable, with information signs and sanitising gel dispensers dotted around the building. Club Europe and BA Executive Club members with status can use check in desks in Zones H and J, depending on their status. In H there were no queues for check in. I had my temperature checked as I entered the check-in area, and was informed of the need to fill in a pre-landing 'self-declaration form' before arriving in Italy. Because of these two requirements passengers must go to the check-in desks at the airport (though this will be a mutating situation). Copies of the form were handed out by staff, but I'd already downloaded and completed the document in advance. Staff were extremely welcoming and friendly, as though passengers were much-missed friends of  the family. At the automated passport gates, I had to briefly remove my mask for the cameras.

The first clusters of passengers  I encountered were at the baggage screening, where social distancing became unachievable. There were delays due to disorganised travellers, and the fact that everyone now has to remove their shoes. You can't avoid handling the grey trays, and a few more sanitising gel pumps around the area would have been useful. There were very few seats available after the baggage check, which caused problems for all the passengers needing to replace their shoes, especially those with limited mobility.

BA lounges at Gatwick are now open. In the South Lounge I found plenty of space. As I haven't been into pubs or restaurants for months, it was disconcerting to see people indoors without masks - of course these have to be removed to eat, and in the UK they are not required in indoor eating establishments.

The buffet food is sadly departed, and to order food guests have to scan a QR code displayed at their table, or visit the website with a browser. This leads to a basic menu of food and drink, which you add to your basket and order. The drinks and food appear very quickly, brought by friendly staff in protective masks. There isn't a big choice and although the system is simple it's not suited to people with dietary requirements or the fussy - although there are 'vegetarian' options there is no description of the contents of dishes, no details of the 'soup of the day' or the contents of sandwiches. I had to turn away one dish as it was brought in error (chicken instead of chickpea) and decline the correct alternative when it contained an allergen, only discovered when the staff member went away to ask someone else. The vegetarian sandwiches were all egg, which may please someone but certainly not me. I enjoyed a simple salad and a slice of cake, however, along with a glass of champagne.

Back in the busier public areas of Terminal 5, where most of the high-end shops are now open, I found the gate area crowded. There weren't enough seats or space for really comfortable social distancing, and I found a woman sitting down next to me with her mask pulled down; she leaned forward to ask me about the gate situation and eye-rolled at my suggestion she replace her mask before approaching strangers. She subsequently engaged with a member of staff by stepping up close to him and putting her hand on his shoulder, so I was left to wonder at the varying senses of personal space felt by different people. Several passengers in transit through Heathrow and changing planes were called forward at this point for their temperature checks, and there were further announcements about the need to complete a 'self-declaration form' per passenger.

There is no priority boarding at the moment; the flight was boarded in groups of rows, starting with the back of the plane. I was in the last group to board, being greeted again by very friendly staff - another quick removal of my mask for the passport check - and there were more reminders to fill in our Italian forms.

Despite being offered these and informed of them at three points along the airport journey, many passengers hadn't completed the forms when the cabin crew came by, early on in the flight, to collect them. The passengers behind me had somehow remained in total ignorance of the requirement and failed to receive forms. They, and others like them, were handed a form that was apparently different, and which they were told to hand in at Venice airport on arrival.

On boarding we were all given a little plastic pouch, a 'personal protection pack' containing a sanitising wipe and a sachet of sanitising gel. Having brought my own wipes I gave my seat area a clean. BA say that planes are thoroughly cleaned between each flight, but the crumbs I found on my seat put that claim in some doubt. I was lucky and was the only person in my row, so I had plenty of space and no particular grounds for concern or discomfort during the flight. Mask wearing in the 8-row Club Europe cabin was dutiful, until food and drink were served - this, and the generous drinks offering meant that mask-wearing was patchy from that point on, though most passengers did seem to replace their masks once they'd stopped eating and drinking.

The cabin crew, like the ground staff, seemed happy to be working and genuinely warm and friendly. In addition to the usual safety warnings we were reminded to take off our face coverings before using an oxygen mask in an emergency, and told the new on-board protocol: don't walk around, stay in your seat until the toilet lights are green before making your way there, wear your mask, don't form queues.

The food offering was a box containing a light lunch; I asked for a vegetarian option and was quite pleased with the tomato, aubergine and mozzarella sandwiches, and chocolate mousse dessert. The box also included mineral water and a small salad pot. Wine, champagne, spirits, soft drinks were all offered, and the crew were remarkably keen to offload little wine bottles onto passengers, suggesting we take extras with us. As I was in the Club Europe cabin, I don't know what the food and drink offering was in Euro Traveller.

It was a good day for flying, with excellent views over the Heathrow area and later over Lake Geneva, the Alps, Lake Garda, Padua and then the Venetian lagoon; a slightly different route to the familiar one, crossing the Alps further west. A comfortable flight, and the first in which I've had the opportunity of charging my phone during the journey.

We landed at Venice Marco Polo Airport fifteen minutes early, and left the plane a few rows at a time, called by the cabin crew, starting at the front of the plane. This was a very good development (not just because I was in the first group off) and one I'd like to see retained afterwards. Once inside the airport the routine was just the same as pre-Covid; no extra formalities to complete, just a walk through the electronic passport gates, a trip to the toilets (reasonably clean but not spotless), and a wait for luggage: our flight's baggage came very quickly but mine was of course among the last cases out. As we're now hyper-aware of contact and infection risks, I found myself noticing that a couple of ten-year-olds standing by the luggage belt running their hands over every single piece of baggage as it passed, and remembering the limits to what we can control in our surroundings.

In the main arrivals area landside there was a rather ghostly feel. The usual transport ticket desks were closed, with just a couple of booths open directly opposite the gate from baggage reclaim. Having bought my ticket for the Alilaguna boat service,  I had to trek along the outside of the building to the ferry dock. There is a recently-installed moving walkway on an upper level of the airport, but this has been closed since May and passengers now need to follow an improvised and not-very-adequate route around the exterior of the buildings, over rough surfaces that fight with suitcase wheels, and along a pavement too narrow to comfortably pass passsengers heading in the other direction. 

Finally I got to the ferries. These are running normally, though the timetable may be reduced in comparison to normal summers. The Alilaguna Blu line is hourly, and was quite full (the Arancio route is generallly faster for most Venetian locations). After witnessing a French couple queue-jumping past  25 waiting passengers, I ended up with them seated opposite me. Monsieur le Covid had textbook virus symptoms and a resistance to mask-wearing. His stained-yellow mask was worn under the nose or occasionally pulled right off, even as he engaged in bouts of coughing and forehead-mopping. He wiped his nose on his hand, and stood up grasping several of the hand rails with the dirty hand. He blew his nose while standing over another passenger, and then chucked the tissue into the lagoon waters. He closed a window to reduce air flow. I googled the infection rate in France - much higher than Italy or the UK; in the UK he'd have to go into quarantine (though he'd still be allowed on public transport to get there) and I couldn't but think that would be the best place for him.

The lengthy cough-punctuated boat journey across the lagoon neared its end with the classic views of San Marco and Punta della Dogana from the Basin of St Mark. The air was warm, the sky moody and Venice as beautiful as ever. Only time will tell how safe this trip has been but right now I feel delighted to be back in one of my favourite and most familiar places in the world. The key elements of the journey were smooth and manageable; the main problems I encountered were connected to my current reduced mobility and to the irritating behaviour of fellow-travellers. It wasn't particularly comfortable wearing a mask for such a long time, with only brief breaks to eat and drink, and my thick fabric mask was rather hot in Venice, but this is the new normal and it's a compromise plenty of us were prepared to make in order to get back in the air.

Key advice:
- Check the background of infection rates nationally and be prepared for changes in the rules
- Think hard about what control you can relinquish comfortably, and if you want to travel enough to take the chance
- Be forewarned by reading the small print of your travel insurance
- Read up on the latest requirements from your origin country and Italy, check for any forms to complete
- Read the online advice and updates from your airline, the airports you'll use, and any other public transport or service you'll need along the way
- Wear a face-covering and pack a spare for the journey as well as others for the duration of your stay.  (or buy locally: 5 euros for a pack of 10 in the Coop in Venice). Take your own sanitising hand gel or hand wipes, and, if you are cautious, a pack of cleaning wipes to clean your seat area, tray table, arm rests, belt fastenings, and your luggage handles after it's been touched by strangers. And maybe key spots in your acccommodation too.
- Food supply along the way may be more patchy (though mine was fine); take emergency rations for the journey just in case.

Nothing to do with Covid, but if you're travelling to Venice at this time of year, don't forget insect repellent in your hand luggage; the airport is right on the lagoon.