Travelling in the time of coronavirus can be a daunting prospect. There's the concern about the flight or train journey getting there - something travellers Nadine and Matt reported on for us (spoiler: the conclusion is that it's totally fine) - and then what is it going to be like when you actually arrive? Will the joy and character of the place be dulled down? Will the city streets seem eerie without hordes of tourists? What if the quarantine rules change while I'm over there? Our Content Manager Susie Thorne took off to Italy to experience travelling in the 'new normal' and see what Venice without the crowds is really like.
A Quest for Authenticity
A big concern for me, outside of logistics, was whether we'd actually have any fun once we got to Italy. I was excited to see Venice without crowds - especially after the Overtourism article in our 2020 Vision brochure - but didn't want to be wandering empty streets with no atmosphere or life, past closed restaurants, shops and bars as I had in London during the first worrying weeks of lockdown. I first visited Venice eight years ago and had fallen in love with it then (despite the crowds) and wanted to throw myself back into its charms. Sipping aperitivo with cicchetti (Venetian tapas-like small bites) while looking out over the water; getting lost down cobbled alleyways that lead nowhere; hearing the soft song of the gondoliers before you even see them cruising slowly towards you; being enchanted by the unexpected views that await you at every wrong turn. Before we left, it seemed like maybe we'd be asking too much of Venice; we were after an allusive sweet spot between a tourist trap and a ghost town - an 'authentic Venice'. It turns out we had nothing to be afraid of. The city served up atmosphere, culture, history and postcard-perfect scenery at every turn and I fell more in love with it than ever before.
The Flying Experience
Nadine and Matt really covered what it's like to fly at the moment in their blogs, and generally my experience at the airport and on the plane was similarly pain-free. The week before flying to Italy, I checked regularly whether a) the quarantine rules had changed, and b) we needed to fill in any paperwork. We knew we'd have to fill in a form before we got on the plane with basic info - where we live, where we'd be staying, flight number, contact details etc - and also that we'd need to fill in details online within 48 hours before flying back to the UK. This was all very straightforward and easy. We flew from Heathrow and everyone there was very respectful of social distancing, even in queues where we generally like to bunch up. Not all of the shops were open, but you could get all of the basics you needed, and there were even a few eateries open for brunching which meant we didn't miss out on that magical airport beer that defies usual socially acceptable times and really starts your holiday.
Piazza San Marco
The beating heart of Venice for any tourists is Piazza San Marco - or St. Mark's Square if your Italian accent isn't up to scratch. Flanked on three sides by extremely high-end bars, cafes and shops and topped with the grand St. Mark's Basilica, this small but hugely-Instagrammable patch usually sees a massive daily footfall. At the moment, it's wonderfully calm and relatively empty. Families are still taking selfies in front of the ornate façade of the basilica, and cafes - including Café Florian, apparently the longest running café in the world - are still serving up very expensive coffee and cake with some lovely live music to complete the scene, but there's no pushing and shoving, and no waiting in a queue to take that perfect picture for the album.
The magnificent Doge's Palace is also a museum, and there's normally a winding queue along the waterfront to contend with. When we visited, there was no queue - as in zero people - the majority of the time, and the longest we did see it was maybe 15 people long, rather than dozens and dozens. The same was true for lots of the other galleries and museums, many of which required you to buy a timed ticket ahead of time. A huge upside to Venice without crowds.
The romantic image of a gondola in Venice is a lone boat slowly making its way around the winding canals, passing under pretty ponti (bridges) while the gondolier serenades the pair of lovers on board. This is exactly what we saw again and again during our trip and it felt like a taste of authentic Venice. There's a flat rate for gondola rides (80 Euros for 40 minutes) so don't expect to haggle them down to peanuts just because it's quiet, but you can look forward to a more leisurely ride with no time wasted waiting for 98,243 other boats to move in the gondola traffic.
Food and Drink
Italy is the best place in the world for food (bold, sorry France) and Venice is no exception. Eateries are competing for custom from both the locals and visitors, so there are often deals on set menus. Be warned though, some of these places might look like lovely restaurants, but they don't actually have a full kitchen! Instead, many meals are pre-made and frozen, then nuked for your supper. A shock to Italians across the world, maybe, but when the city is buzzing and everybody is looking for a bite to eat, they can get away with it. We can book you tables at our favourite places for pasta, pizza, gelato, cicchetti and more, or our helpful in-country Concierge can give you the inside scoop on where to go for a last minute gourmet treat. And for pre- or -post dinner drinks? Prosecco is the region's tipple, so the decent stuff is available everywhere and for as little as €2.50, but there are also fabulous locally-made wines too, which are well worth a sample. Alternatively, you can upgrade to the classic Venetian aperitifs - an Aperol Spritz or Bellini (both reportedly invented in the city) - or grab a shot of grappa or limoncello for a digestif to finish the day.
Last Minute Travel Changes?
Fortunately, we didn't have to quarantine upon our return to the UK (and even if we'd had to, I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home). This isn't the case for a lot of people, making this risk a bigger one to weigh up. I only had to worry about getting groceries or house supplies (solved with delivery and helpful neighbours) and my partner and I going crazy being stuck inside, but I turned on FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office - formerly Foreign & Commonwealth Office) travel alert emails for Italy just in case, and checked the news each day.
In conclusion, navigating the 'new normal' to see Venice without the crowds right now is more than worth it. It'll be the best possible experience of this enchanting city that you could ever have; as soon as we got back, we were planning our next Italian trip before the rest of the world catches on. If you're able to get away, Italy is a treasure trove right now and we couldn't recommend it more.