Posted inTravel

Travelling in the Time of Covid: My Tour of Italy this January

Image credit: Abigail Stevens

Imagine this: you are standing in the Stanze of Raphael in the Vatican City. The room is packed wall-to-wall with people. Tour guides are leading groups in every direction. You are trying to hear what your guide is saying above the noise, trying not to get lost in the crowd. This describes the chaotic – yet moving – experience that I had this January; despite the mayhem of Covid, no picture could ever do justice to the colours in the Sistine Chapel.

Before the pandemic, anyone would jump at the opportunity to travel to Rome. Nowadays, just the thought of being in an enclosed space with a multitude of people makes everyone nervous. However, when I toured the Vatican, everyone present had to show proof of vaccination at the front door and wear a mask for the duration of their visit. It was actually a relatively safe experience, and there was something oddly liberating about being in a crowded room and yet knowing that my chances of getting Covid were still low.

My mother and I had been looking forward to a two-week excursion to Italy for over a year now. Then, in the month before our planned departure, a new wave of Covid hit as a result of the Omicron variant. We debated postponing our trip, but ultimately decided to forge ahead since the Italian government was still allowing people to enter the country and most major tourist sites remained open. The safety measures in place also reassured us; in addition to presenting a negative test before boarding our flight, proof of vaccination and FFP2 masks would be required at most indoor venues, reducing the risk of catching Covid.

We kicked off our trip by seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum (despite both being primarily outdoor, open-air experiences, we still had to show our vaccination status at the entrances to each attraction); the former of which I was almost surprised to see that it existed in real life, not just in photographs. While both the Colosseum and the Forum’s structures have been torn apart by centuries of elements, excavation, and vandalism—nearly half of the Colosseum’s original walls are gone, and all that remains of the Temple of Vesta is three columns and a section of the wall—they still stand tall and proud as a reminder of what was once the most powerful civilization in the world. Despite the time that has passed, the Colosseum still welcomes visitors to travel back in time and marvel at the ingenuity of the people who designed such a venue. It is still possible to experience the gravitas of standing at Vesta’s temple, where the eternal flame was kept.

While the games at the Colosseum may have been the highlight two thousand years ago, today tourists flock to Rome for the food alone. After visiting ancient Rome, we began to immerse ourselves in exquisite Italian cuisine. We stopped at a small restaurant near the Forum called Taverna Romana (which also required patrons to be vaccinated) where I was served the best carbonara of my life. Over the next couple of days, we spent most of our time outdoors admiring the iconic architecture, occasionally stopping by small shops, or frequenting mostly empty restaurants. An establishment near Piazza Navona serves more flavours of risotto than I knew could exist, including one dish with duck breast, orange, and toasted pine nuts and another with pears and taleggio cheese. We also went on a hunt for the perfect cannoli, finding it at a gelateria and bakery in Trastevere where the cookies were crisp, not damped by the sweet filling. My eyes struggled to take in everything at an outdoor market at Campo de’ Fiori, where tables were overflowing with freshly made pasta, dozens of spices, and unique clothes and accessories. Our final day in Rome was spent at the Vatican Museum before we took the train to Sorrento.

The following days were dedicated to exploring the Amalfi Coast; while almost everything on the island of Capri was closed at this time of year, we were still able to enjoy some spectacular views, as well as visit the original Carthusia perfume shop. This tiny establishment looks like something out of a fairy tale, housed in a tiny building with stone walls and shrouded with ivy and flowers, located just across from the monastery from which the formulas for the perfumes originate. Before our hike on the Path of the Gods trail, we stopped at a tiny, frankly forgettable deli, where I had a prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich with flavours that melted in my mouth. At the end of the hike, we passed by a stand and had perfect lemon granitas, or lemon slushies. How they get the perfect combination of citrus and sweet will forever be a mystery to me. Other highlights included a napoleon pizza quattro formaggi and cacio e pepe pasta. Yet the best thing I ate on the Amalfi Coast was undoubtedly a sfogliatella – a croissant-like pastry filled with ricotta cheese sweetened with orange zest that Naples is known for.

When we arrived at Heathrow Airport and I got my negative Covid test back, I felt very accomplished. Overall, the more touristy places, mainly in Rome, were more diligent about Covid; far fewer restaurants in Naples and Sorrento checked for vaccination in comparison to almost every sit-down restaurant in Rome. Most of the trip was relatively Covid-safe because of the amount of time we spent outdoors: going on hikes or just wandering through the streets. Even though the Italian government mandated FFP2 masks indoors, many people were wearing standard surgical masks. The biggest oversight, in my opinion, was that we never had to prove our vaccination status to ride public transportation.

Here is my advice to students who want to travel: Covid is not going anywhere anytime soon, and you can’t let it delay things forever. While researching cities that I could visit over the spring holidays, I learned that the Netherlands has just lifted the mandatory quarantine for arrivals, while Greece is allowing vaccinated individuals to enter the country without a negative Covid test. If you are planning a trip, consider a tourism hotspot such as Rome or Paris, which are likely to have more Covid measures in place, such as checking if people are vaccinated at restaurants and cultural venues. As a bonus, flights from London to other major European cities are relatively cheap, especially during the off-season, and you can always find a good deal on lodging by visiting hostelworld.com. Just remember to be safe! Stock up on FFP2 masks and hand sanitiser, and test yourself a couple of times before and after your trip. You’ve been sitting at home for two years now; it’s time to get out there and have an adventure!

To see some of the restaurants I visited in Rome, Naples, and along the Amalfi Coast, visit my Bimble profile: https://bimble.com/lists/4883960408571904.