Strolling down crumbling cobblestones, sipping on Aperol Spritzes, and admiring ancient fresco paintings have long been staples of a classic Roman holiday. Every year, millions of tourists pack their bags to visit Italy. In fact, in 2019, nearly 100 million people visited from across the globe, making Italy the third most popular travel destination in Europe and the fifth most popular in the world. Italy’s popularity as a vacation spot represents 41% of Italy’s export of services and 8% of all total exports. Covid-19 has had devastating effects on the economy, everyday living, and travel, so what was Italy—a tourism superpower — like during a global pandemic?
I spent 7 months there this year and here’s what I can tell you about it.
Packing Your Bags
Flying anywhere right now is nightmarish, but if you do have a reason to be traveling right now, here are some of the ins and outs. Every country has different entry requirements and currently, Canadians are unable to fly to Italy. To fly home, though, I needed tests galore! My nostrils were on fire for a solid week. Generally, you need a PCR test 1-3 days before your flight, but I accidentally took mine too early, so I needed to get a second one done the day before my flight. When I landed, I had to take another one at the airport, and finally one more during my quarantine.
Aboard your flight and in the airport, all travelers must wear a medical-grade or N-95 face mask. After my flight, I definitely had my fair share of mask acne. Flying into Italy in October, my flight was virtually empty. I stretched out along 3 conjoined seats and slipped into a restless, ear-popping slumber, surrounded only by a handful of strangers and some flight attendants.
On my way back to Canada in May, the flight was slightly more popular. Still nowhere near the full capacity, pre-covid planes during which you can practically taste your seatmate’s perfume. Once you arrive, you’ll need to fill out a self-declaration form and complete an isolation period. If at the end of your quarantine you are feeling healthy and have not been in contact with anyone who has recently tested positive, you are good to go!
Seeing The Sights
During my 7 months in Italy, I visited Bologna, Siena, and Rome. All three cities were a shell of themselves, but it was kind of incredible. Italy is covered in cultural, religious, and artistically significant sites. The Colosseum, The Duomo di Siena, and the Two Towers of Bologna to name a few. Usually, these places are stuffed to the brim with tourists and their fanny packs, but during Covid-19, I witnessed these sites at their emptiest.
Ancient ruins and vibrant places of worship were left abandoned by the general public as tourism dropped. During my trip to the Vatican, I gawked at the cathedral, entirely empty except me and one other family visiting from Nigeria. Instead of having to convince yourself of all the marvelous history that has occurred right under your feet while hundreds of people swarm and flash their cameras, there was nothing. There was no sound. There were no feet scuffing the floor. There was no group of school kids giggling on their field trip. It was the first time I think I had visited a cultural landmark and felt nothing but the stillness. And it was beautiful. My imagination was able to run free, and I felt closer to the past. As I said goodbye to the gold crowning, I couldn’t help but feel like I had experienced a piece of history first hand and as it was intended to be experienced. In the wake of all the horrible effects of Covid-19, the authenticity of these empty wonders was one of the few highlights.
Italy is divided into 4 zones during the pandemic: Red (stay-at-home order), Orange (no restaurants or dining, but shops and public spaces are open), Yellow (everything is open, but you must wear masks and follow the nation-wide 10 pm curfew), and White (no Covid restrictions). I was lucky enough to experience enough Yellow zone to have eaten my body weight in pasta, but surprisingly, Italy’s food scene was almost as vibrant in the more restrictive zones.
Italy really cares about food. Especially in Emilia-Romagna (the region where Bologna is located) where they are known for Mortadella ham, Parmigiana Reggiano, tortellini, piadinas, and much more. I was skeptical about receiving an authentic foodie experience during such a volatile and dangerous time, but I found Italian locals to be incredibly resourceful and perseverant.
During Orange and Red zones, restaurants offered cook-at-home meals, food delivery was at an all-time high, and bars and restaurants started serving dozens of specials that were easiest to eat as take-away meals (Aperol and Focaccia anyone?). And even then, food brought people together. Friends would meet in parks and bite into pizzas the size of their heads. Neighbors would take their espressos to-go and catch up on their walk home. Food is a vital part of Italian culture and even in the darkest times, it still continued to be an integral piece of the fabric of Italy.
Once restaurants opened for outdoor dining, though, Italy felt alive again. Many public safety rules were in place such as wearing masks when not at the table and staying one meter apart from all other guests, but restaurant culture was where Italy (especially Rome) thrived. North America is riddled with chains and large restaurants. While you can find a few McDonald’s in Italy, chain restaurants do not hold a candle to the popularity of smaller, specialty bars and restaurants.
Italy’s love of small business has sustained not only restaurants but boutiques and artisanal shops as well. Canada has experienced a serious decline in small businesses and a lot of that can be attributed to the convenience and popularity of superstores and chains during the pandemic. In contrast, even during Covid, small, delicious restaurants were much more popular than any McDonald’s or illy Coffee shop would ever be. Having restaurants open gave Italians a sense of hope. With good food as a pillar in their communities, restoration of its celebration and ability to fully indulge gave everyone a sense of comfort. Still, as the clock strikes 10, everyone scurries away from their meals and begins their trek home. No matter how delicious a plate of Carbonara is, it can only help you forget the world is in a pandemic for so long.
Final Thoughts on My Experience In Rome
I relocated to Italy not knowing what to expect. Before moving, I had never been there, and I chose it because I wanted some adventure. I think witnessing and experiencing a country during a pandemic can tell you a lot about it. How do communities support one another during times of crisis? What are people’s priorities and how have they been affected by unexpected turmoil? In what ways are people able to recuperate and heal together?
I can tell you that from an outside perspective, I felt closer to Italy and more immersed in their culture than I think I even might have been if I had gone under better circumstances. People around the world are at their most vulnerable. I received an authentic sense of anxiety, but also a sense of triumph and togetherness that I think says a lot about Italy. I walked down ancient paths and through enchanted pillars across the country. I experienced history on my own. All alone. Standing isolated on the ground marched on by millions of people before me. I think we all feel a bit trapped in March 2020 and in that way; I got to see a country at a moment frozen in time.
I will never forget the authenticity and rawness of my trip. As bizarre as it was, the unique circumstance under which I visited is in and of itself a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have no doubt that “true Italy” is more vibrant and lively. More energetic and filled with interesting people from around the world. But what I saw was just as important. What I saw was who Italy is when no one is watching.
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