22nd March 2020
Life in a Coronavirus Pandemic: Caught in the Italian Lockdown
It is February 2020 and my life as a tour guide and a travel writer is looking good. My diary is full until the end of April 2020. But these trips are never destined to take place due to the Coronavirus or COVID19.
2019 ended well for me with a Christmas trip to Vienna where I spent the time browsing Christmas markets and exploring beautiful buildings. I celebrated the New Year in grand style in the stylish city of Kiev in the Ukraine. January 2020 I whizzed down the ski runs of Folgaria in Italy.
During February 2020 I explored the two capitals Paris and London leading groups of blind and sighted travellers organised by TravelEyes. By then rumours were rife regarding the Coronavirus epidemic that had started in China in December 2019. I was uneasy about being in a capital city as the numbers of those infected with the virus were increasing every day. Life in London continued as normal. Travelling during the rush hour was the usual nightmare but it had to be done as we had appointments to keep and people to meet. Whenever possible I tried to stand by the door facing away from passengers packed in around me. Avoiding physical contact was impossible. All I could do was wear gloves and try not to breathe too often. It was a great trip but I have to admit to a huge feeling of relief once I was away from the metropolis and could look forward to my next trip, a return to Folgaria in Northern Italy at the beginning of March 2020.
Friday 06 March 2020
Today I am returning to Folgaria in Trentino, a region of Northern Italy. I am leading a skiing holiday organised by Solos Holidays. The news regarding the coronavirus is not good and Northern Italy is badly affected but the outbreak is concentrated in the region of Lombardy and part of the Veneto. News that the last two days of the Venice Carnival had been cancelled had been alarming. But the statistics for Trentino are comfortingly low and I am looking forward to the trip. It is one of my favourite ski resorts. As I make my way to Gatwick Airport where I am staying overnight. I am slightly unnerved by a stream of emails from Solos Holidays as, one after another, six clients withdraw from the holiday – in fear of the coronavirus. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is only advising against travel to eleven towns in Italy and Folgaria is not one. Cancelling at this stage means any compensation is unlikely. An insurance claim will only be possible for cancellations on medical grounds (with proof). As eight people are still confirmed on the trip it will go ahead. When I drop my case off at the British Airways check-in area it is much quieter than usual. Next stop, Boots, to buy some hand sanitizer as recommended. There is none. I am informed there will be delivery the next morning but all customers will be limited to two each. As I turn to leave I see my good friend and fellow travel writer, Lisa Gerard Sharp standing behind me. Lisa, who has just flown in from Nice, is also looking for hand sanitizers. I suggest a coffee and we are soon discussing the hand sanitizer crisis. Lisa has a recipe to make her own. Alcohol is the main ingredient and we amuse ourselves with the thought of rinsing our hands with vodka. We are both members of the British Guild of Travel Writers and our conversation turns to our AGM which is to be held in Malta at the end of March. When we part we expect to meet up again a fortnight hence.
Saturday 07 March 2020
First stop after going through security at the airport this morning is Boots to see if the promised delivery of hand sanitizers has arrived. It has, small bottles at 75p each are lined up by the tills and customers are limited to 2 bottles each. I get my two bottles and then head for the other Boots store in the South Terminal at Gatwick hoping to get another two. Four should be sufficient for the two weeks I will be away. I am almost too late but manage to get the last bottle in that store. I head for the boarding gate and my flight to Verona. I have been warned by the office that I may have some no-shows but everyone turns up and we set off in a cheerful frame of mind. We are all looking forward to a week’s skiing. Snow conditions are good and the weather is set fair for the next few days. When we board the plane it is surprisingly empty and we each bag an empty row and travel to Verona in comfort. On arrival in Verona, a line of health workers in red boiler suits greet us in the terminal building. A machine is pointed at the forehead of each passenger to check for a fever. We all pass. Our bus to transfer us from the airport to Folgaria arrives just after we do and we are soon n our way. The sun is shining and as we approach the resort and see snow at ground level spirits are rising. I am surprised when we check in at our hotel, Hotel Club Alpina, to be told that my group and an Italian family will be the only guests in the hotel for the coming week. Surprising though this news is I only see the bright side – the ski slopes will probably be very quiet. Next stop lunch in the town. Sitting around a large, square table in a local pizzeria we chat excitedly about the week ahead. The town is quiet but it is a sunny Saturday and everyone will be on the slopes or indulging in a siesta. It all seems very normal.
After lunch, we go to the Ski Pass Office to get our lift passes. We all buy passes for the next 6 days. We move on to Folgaria Ski Rent and Bike opposite our hotel. I warn the group that the owner, Ugo, does not operate regular opening hours – indeed nothing is regular about Ugo. I adore his randomness and great sense of humour. He is not there. I ask the hotel to call Ugo. They do so and inform me he is on his way. But when I ask where he is coming from they tell me they don’t know. As Ugo has three shops in the resort he could be a while. When he does appear he announces that most of the skis are at his other shop and goes off to collect them taking two members of my group with him and leaving me to look after his shop. By the time Ugo returns the rest of my group has joined me and it does not take long to sort out skis and boots for everyone. Ugo does not have any skis for me and I return later that evening to collect some. As we are chatting Ugo receives a news alert on his mobile phone. Six million Italians in Lombardy and fourteen other provinces are going to be put into quarantine from midnight that night. There are also plans to close some ski resorts but Folgaria is not on the list. I am hoping we will not be affected and look forward to catching the tourist train to the slopes tomorrow.
When I return to the hotel a lot of new guests are checking in and my group is complaining that they cannot use the hotel swimming pool as it is full of families. This is not the picture that was painted for us on arrival. This evening the hotel restaurant is full and we enjoy an excellent buffet meal of local specialties. After eating I go to my room and turn on the television to catch up on the news. An announcement is expected at midnight some areas of Italy are going into lockdown at midnight tonight. Trentino, the region where we are staying is not affected and there are very few confirmed cases of coronavirus here.
Sunday 08 March 2020
Today is International Women’s Day and I am presented with a sprig of mimosa when I go into the restaurant for breakfast. Everyone in the hotel is up early this morning. But they are not all going skiing as I had expected. They leave as soon as they finish breakfast. All very odd. I don’t have time to dwell on this mystery as I have two beginners in the group and I need to organise ski lessons for them. We make our way to the ski school office but there are no group lessons today so the only option is a private lesson. The other six people in the group go off to ski together. I arrange to see them later for lunch. Once the lesson has started I am free to ski on my own for a while. The slopes were very quiet at first but they are getting busier now. Narrow lanes fenced by orange netting have been set up in front of each chair lift. There are notices indicating that everyone should maintain at least a metre of space between themselves and the next person. This works until I have gone through the ski pass reader. Beyond that point, everyone is squashed together on a four-man chair. I step back to wait for the next chair. The lift man tells me to get on or go to the back of the queue. I am the back of the queue. I stay where I am and get the next chair to the top – on my own.
The whole group meets up for coffee at eleven at the bar by the nursery slopes. Most of the group joined me for lunch at my favourite restaurant on the mountain, Rifugio Stella d’Alpina. I see There is a hand-written notice on the door warning that the maximum capacity at any one time is 75 people. But no-one is counting. The sun is shining, the snow is good and everyone is happy. I had a slight problem getting there as the barrier in front of the chair lift failed to accept my ski pass. The lift operator cannot get to me thanks to a sea of orange netting. Aware that I am holding up everyone in the single line behind me I take my skis off and push them under the barrier and then climb over it. After re-attaching my skis I carry on as though nothing has happened and re-join the group at Stella d’Italia.
After lunch, we continued to ski until it was time to return to our hotel for afternoon tea. When I go for a walk later I notice the streets are deserted and several shops have closed. It is eerie and unsettling. I check my emails before joining the group for dinner and discover from some news updates that when the news broke yesterday afternoon that Lombardy and fourteen other provinces were to go into lockdown from midnight many of those affected had tried to get out of the area. Many headed for Puglia in the south which has barely been affected by the Coronavirus. They were not made welcome. It seemed likely that the sudden influx of guests in our hotel were also trying to escape enforced quarantine. At dinner that night there were only two tables in the hotel restaurant – ours and an Italian family of four. My sense of unease is growing.
Monday 09 March 2020
Only one table in the restaurant for breakfast this morning, ours. I set off early with the two members of my group who are hoping that ski school will be organising group lessons. Group lessons are not happening either today or any other day this week. Not just because there are not enough people but because the resort will be closing the next day. The Italian government has decided to close all ski resorts in Italy. Private lessons are the only option. Once these are underway I send a text to the other group to give them the news. There is no response. I decide I will try and find them to make sure they know what is going on. It is exhilarating flying down empty slopes on my own. I find the group and yes, they did get my text. Questions are fired at me – can we be transferred to another resort in Austria or Germany where we can ski? As we can’t ski here can we just go home? I can’t give them an answer but I have already informed Solos Holidays about the situation. Now I have to be patient and wait for them to let me know what options are available. Not wanting to be trapped into making promises that can’t be kept in such a fast-changing situation I withdraw. I can’t resist the temptation and whizz down a few more deserted runs before stopping at Stella d’Italia for a coffee. In the empty bar there an aroma of disinfectant swirls around me. I notice that the area around the bar has been marked out in an attempt to enforce social-distancing. A sinister reminder that the epidemic is catching up with us. Later, when I return there for lunch with the group the markings are proving to be unnecessary as there is no-one else there.
We congregate for lunch at Stella d'Italia. Our programme for the week had included an evening meal there one evening. I try to re-arrange it for the following evening only to be thwarted by a new restriction. All restaurants and bars can only open between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. Much as I would like to keep skiing until the lifts close I decide to return to the hotel to see if there is any news regarding the remainder of the holiday after the slopes close the next day. The office do contact me to say they can fly us home with British Airways on Wednesday afternoon. This is our only option other than staying in Folgaria until the end of the week. I can't confirm anything until I have spoken to the group. I send a text but do not get an answer. I call two of the mobile numbers I have been given but again, draw a blank. All I can do is wait. Some later I get three responses, one after the other. The first confirms everything on behalf of the group. The second asks what the options are. The third requests a meeting of the whole group. I am getting concerned as it is now late afternoon and I don't want to risk not be able to get on this flight. Fortunately, the group returns from the slopes a few minutes later. We have a quick meeting. I explain the lack of options and suggest we make a quick decision or lose the flight. Agreement reached, I call the office and confirm the flight for everyone. The office promise to call me back once the flight has been confirmed. The group spends the rest of the afternoon planning their last day skiing the next day and how to pass the morning on Wednesday, the day of our departure. Once again we are the only table in the hotel's large restaurant.
Tuesday 10 March 2020
I am up very early this morning and, due to the lack of a WiFi signal in my room, sitting in reception writing an email to update the office on the new development. Everyone is surprisingly cheerful during breakfast. That is until the receptionist appears wearing a face that definitely says bad news. It is bad, devastating in fact. The ski slopes have already been closed. Various suggestions are put forward including hiring a car to drive up to the top of the ski area so we can ski down to the bottom. I update the office on this new development. They have just confirmed our flight for tomorrow afternoon but now everyone is anxious to leave today. It is agreed this option will be pursued. A whole, empty day lies ahead of us until Alessandro, the hotel manager, offers to take us to Passo Coe where we can either go for a walk or have a go at snowshoe walking. As this idea is greeted with enthusiasm we are soon on our way. When we get to Passo Coe the rental shops are shut so no snowshoes available. Rather than walking along a road we scramble over the mounds of snow by the roadside and set off across country towards Base Tuono. I have heard about this Cold War museum, unique in Europe, but have never been there. It is closed during the winter but it gave us an objective for our walk and it was interesting to see the Nuclear War Heads outside the building. As we walk we can see the empty, freshly groomed slopes above us – and a lonely Polizia snowmobile patrolling them.
During our walk, the office calls. British Airways has cancelled all flights in and out of Italy. Other options are being considered and they will call back within the hour if there is any news. They don’t call back. Walk finished we have a coffee and then move to a restaurant across the road for lunch. The Polizia have finished patrolling the slopes and are now sitting outside this restaurant indulging in white wine and open ham and cheese sandwiches. Lunch over and still no news some of the group decide to walk back to our hotel. I feel I should get back quickly in case of news from the office. I chase up the lift that Alessandro organised for us. I and my colleague sit outside in the sun – the Polizia are enjoyed a third round of white wine and sandwiches. I can’t help speculating that they will be there until the 6 pm curfew. Our lift does not materialise and a local is press-ganged into driving us down the mountain. He is a gentle soul in an extraordinary outfit that gives him the appearance of one of Santa’s elves. We are soon back at the hotel having nearly knocked over our pedestrian colleagues on the way. A call comes through. We should be packed and ready to leave as soon as possible as we may be transferring to Geneva for a flight home tonight. The walkers are alerted and we disperse to our rooms to pack.
We re-convene for afternoon tea. Tensions are running high as time passes. Half the group are now determined to leave even if they have to make their own arrangements. The office calls. They can’t get the necessary paperwork together to get us across the border into Switzerland and are now checking early-morning flights. Borders with Italy are already closing. Four of the group are busy with their smart phones and are in discussion with Alessandro regarding the hire of a minibus to take them to Innsbruck. I try to re-assure them that the office will get us out but have to accept that they will do what they think is best for them. Within twenty minutes they have booked flights and a hotel in Innsbruck. Alessandro has found a minibus that will take them into Austria. He needs authorisation from the office to confirm the booking. I have already contacted the office regarding this new development aware that if they go ahead they will no longer be my responsibility. I call them again – no letter will be forthcoming rather the clients should sign something absolving them of responsibility. Caught between the two I assure Alessandro he will not be held responsible the final arrangements are made. A few minutes later the office calls back. They have found a Ryanair flight from Bologna to Stanstead at 6.20 the next morning. Everyone is still sitting in the bar so I tell them the news and suggest we all take this flat. Four of them decide they will still go ahead with their plan to leave now for Innsbruck. I help them fill in the forms that are required to get out of Italy. There is also the issue of ski hire. Ugo is not around so I do my own calculations and collect the money. An hour later they are on their way. And then there were five. Hoping not to make the headlines.
Wednesday 11 March 2020
The five of us meet for breakfast at half-past midnight. Marius, the maitre d’ has stayed up in order to offer us a full breakfast. We leave at one in the morning. I feel like a fugitive making a quick getaway. The roads are empty and the anticipated road blocks do not materialise. A bunch of forms lie, unused, between me and the driver. On the autostrada, our driver amuses himself by slaloming between a smattering of lorries, the only vehicles in transit. We arrive at Bologna airport with over an hour to wait before we can check our bags in. There are a few other passengers waiting around, most of them are wearing face masks. The departures board tells a sad story – one cancellation after another – seems this could well be the last flight out of Italy to the UK. I expect the flight will be full of Britons fleeing home. When we board, at the back of the plane, all I can see is row upon row of empty seats and a few passengers sitting at the front of the plane. We spread out. The plane takes off on time. I breathe a sigh of relief. I am going to make it back to the UK. But what will I find waiting for me at home on the day the World Health Organisation concedes we are now experiencing a pandemic.
More next week.
Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller
An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing 4 books she turned to online travel writing and photography. Today she is editor, features’ writer and reviewer for ExperiencedTraveller.com and regularly contributes guided city walks to GPSmyCity.com