Dispatch from the Road

Travels in Corona Europe: My Adventures in Italy

by Geoffrey Weill
Venice, Venice, much quieter than usual. All photos by Geoffrey Weill.

Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill recently spent ten days traveling around Europe. We enjoyed his daily email dispatches so much, we asked if we could publish them. What did a discerning, professional traveler find? A mixed reaction to Covid. In the first installment, he traveled from Newark  to Portugal and Switzerland. In this installment, he goes all over Italy. Geoffrey's forthcoming All Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession will be published in January 2021.

4: Ciao, Italia

Robotic but always affable Nigel guides me back onto the autobahn, and I drive through the 17-kilometer St. Gotthard tunnel. When I emerge, the clouds of Zürich have dispersed, the sun is shining, the sky is blue. I spy with my little eye the peaks, the lakes, the sheep, the cows, the lonely goatherds, and, all of a sudden, Ausfahrt transforms to uscita — and there are palm trees. I pass Campione and the gorgeousness of Lake Lugano, and the highway sign announces "Italia 7 km." Do I sense the traffic building up? Do I sense tension? Am I going to be "inspected?" Fever-checked?" Required to document my last fourteen days? The traffic does slow as we wind through the border post. Officials are literally taking a white Renault apart, presumably in search of drugs or AK-47s. But the bemasked handsome young man and the bemasked nubile young woman, whose duty is presumably to check if I look either diseased or criminal, are far too deeply enmeshed in possibly lustful conversation to bother gazing at the drivers.

I am in Italy. Signs point to Como, Milan, Menaggio (which I last visited when I was six), and Cernobbio. I select the latter from the roundabout. Bemasked Cernobbians stroll the village's tiny streets, and I feel protected again. And there are signs pointing to the hotel at which I have dreamed for decades of staying. The gates swing open. A dashing masked minion checks my temperature (electronic to the wrist — new to me, but, well, molto bene), and I slide through manicured grounds to the entrance of Villa d'Este.

Villa d'Este on Lake Como. As lovely as ever.
The view of Lake Como from the garden at Villa d'Este.

How does one approach a hotel that's been on one's bucket list for a century? With trepidation? Expectation? A hope there will be no disappointment?

I happily discover there is none of the latter. Elegance to the nines. Courtly manners. A very large room with a balcony and view of the lake shining in the sun. I've timed arrival to be in time for lunch on the veranda. Of course it's beyond delicious and of course the waiters — indeed the entire staff — sport black cotton masks with the hotel logo subtly stitched in a corner. The relief at feeling safeguarded is massive. I laze briefly at the pool, which is afloat in the lake and generates just the slightest hint of sea sickness. I explore the grounds. I climb up to the gardens and fountains that connote Tivoli (not Copenhagen, the other one) and Sans Souci — and it's all so breathtakingly beautiful that my eyes water. (I choose to overlook that in the room a plastic trash bag is folded over the otherwise perfectly agreeable waste basket. But it would be petty to mention it, let alone write about it.)

Because I've owned the Villa d'Este cookbook for about a hundred years, it would be ridiculous not to have risotto covered with about ten kilos of shaved truffles. It would be equally ridiculous not to sit in the silken lounge after dinner and listen to a gentleman playing Europop through about thirteen synthesizers. There's an almost full moon — it has two days left to fill out at the beginning of Sukkot, which I shall observe with similar fervor to my prosciutto sandwich on Yom Kippur. I repair to my haven of silk and brocade and the crispest linen sheets that only Italian luxury hotels seem to know about.

It's cloudy at breakfast, cloudy as I pack, cloudy as I call the porter to take my luggage downstairs, and cloudy as I drive. But the next stop is Venice, and cloudy, rainy, snowing, hailing, sleeting, sunning or flooding, Venice is La Serenissima. And I will be il serenissimo.

Piazza San Marco, Venice.
Around Venice.

5: "We Open in Venice…"

I am back on the autostrada after a leisurely breakfast at Lake Como. Inexplicably, the GPS's aristocratic Nigel has been replaced by Angela, who sounds like she works at Mark & Spencer and is perfectly affable. As I steer my massive SUV towards the Veneto, highway signs bring back memories of memories, memories of wine, memories of literature. But it is the first sign that brings back horror: Bergamo. Because to me, Bergamo is no longer Kate Simon's city of broad avenues, fin-de-siècle apartment buildings, and lunches of fresh trout. Bergamo is now endless full-color pages in the New York Times Magazine showing frantic, exhausted doctors and nurses; of ventilators, of chaos, of agony, of mourning. Bergamo, even before New York, was Covid-Central in the holocaust of March 2020.

But on I drive. I am cheered by the sign to Soave. I see the sign to Sirmione and recall a long-ago post-prandial hotel nap rudely interrupted by a tourist boat suddenly blaring Volare. I see signs to Bologna and Modena, and I salivate. I think of Pavarotti, and then come the parade of signs that evoke Shakespeare or Cole Porter (take your pick). Cremona, Mantua, Verona, Padua, Venice. I snake through ugly Mestre and pass a giant Costa Cruises megaship at the port. It sits there, possibly with its Covid-positive crew still aboard, bound for nowhere for a very long time.

Now I am on the causeway. The domes, the crooked steeples, the blissfulness is there in front of me, a bit foggy, a bit cloudy, more than a bit gorgeous. It's been years since I have driven to Venice, and I had no idea that a reservation for parking is now advisable. I finally find a berth on the tenth floor of the Parking Communale. I schlepp my luggage down the elevator, across the Piazzale Roma towards the water taxis. The thug lounging next to the taxi owner barks "sixty euros" and I say fine and am grumpily accepted on board. I hadn't expected grumpiness — I had expected joy at finally finding a dumb tourist not in the mood for clambering with luggage aboard a socially undistanced vaporetto.

But Relais & Châteaux's Hotel Londra Palace (not a client, by the way, and neither are Villa d'Este and Baur au Lac), is fabulously Covid-19 protected. The staff is in masks; there are flagons of gel everywhere. The reception counter is guarded by stanchions and ropes to avoid guest/staff proximity. I am given a document to sign attesting to my Covid-19 negativity, the key is handed to me in a glass jar so it has not been touched by hand. The manager explains I can have my room with "full privacy" (i.e. make my own bed) if I wish. I tell him I so totally don't wish.

My room is newly renovated with a gorgeous bathroom. Its décor is classic Venice: brocade walls, swooping silk drapes, a front-row-orchestra view of the lagoon and Giudecca. I sigh with relief. Venice still exists. And is, of course, still eye-searingly gorgeous.

It's dusk and I stroll the riva. There is a tiny fraction of the usual number of tourists. I intend to eat outdoors, and there are dozens of restaurants on the riva and in the back streets with dozens of beautifully napped and set tables — of which perhaps five percent at the most are occupied. Some restaurants have no diners at all. Proprietors stand holding menus, but are just a little too proud to beg. The restaurant I choose has a smattering of German guests and several Italians. I had missed lunch and scarf down carpaccio of swordfish and spaghetti alle vongole. I stroll some more. As is so pleasurable in Venice, I get lost, and find myself back on the riva, and turn right towards San Marco, Napoleon's "drawing room of Europe." I had expected it to be uncrowded. But not this empty. Florian is shuttered. Only one café is open, with eight out of fifty tables occupied. The waiters are as smart as ever in their cream jackets, black bow ties, and cream masks. The Bangladeshi purveyors of toys that shoot into the air are here, as are a smattering of tourists. I don't know whether to revel in being able to see this beloved place for the first time ever in its raw bare beauty…or simply to sob. I drink gin instead.

I stroll back along the deserted riva and am soon asleep. I awaken to dozens of phone alerts that the President of the United States and the First Lady have the coronavirus.

It's morning. It's Venice. I want my latte macchiato.

A very wet Piazza San Marco.
Preparing Venice for acqua alta.

6: Acqua Acqua Everywhere

I've only seen them before on the news: the platforms erected to enable Venetians to keep their feet dry as they navigate the streets and piazzas during acqua alta, the high tide that floods Venice and often the ground floors of its hotels and palazzi. Gentlemen of the municipality, dressed in electric yellow jumpsuits and face masks, are building pathways along the riva and through the iconic piazza that leads to St. Mark's Square. It's like a giant children's construction kit that pieces the platforms together in L-shapes leading from vaporetto stops to pathways to doorways. The concierge asks when I am leaving tomorrow, explaining that high tide is at noon, intimating I better skedaddle well before.

At dinner, I walk across the platforms. The riva is still dry, but St. Mark's Square is not. A third of the square is a giant puddle where Venetians and the few tourists are taking photographs of themselves in the reflection. Some locals are wearing gaily colored rubber boots, obviously kept to be sported on just such occasions.

I make my way along the western gallery of San Marco and am delighted (and relieved) to see that Florian is open tonight, complete with pianist in a floor-length gown, harpist and violinist gallantly entertaining the patrons at the ten or twelve of the forty outdoor piazza tables that are occupied and whose pavement is dry. On I stroll, through the outlet from the square. I cross the blue, black, and white mosaic floor sign that has been guiding transatlantic travelers for more than a half century to the American Express office where once they gathered to collect their mail and cash their travelers' checks. I'm now in the street that is home to the stores for which nobody actually needs to bother to come to Venice: Chanel, Ferragamo, Gucci, Vuitton, Frette, and turn left to pass Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli. In the window of the latter, a faceless mannequin sports a man's suit whose arms, body, and pants are made up of slightly different grey striped wools, complete with flower power shirt and tie. It is unquestionably hideous.

At the end of the alley, just before the Grand Canal, is the temple of gastronomy and buzz that has been serving its exorbitant Bellinis and risottos to the global glitterati since 1931: Harry's Bar. Of course, there are now "Cipriani’s” in London and New York and Las Vegas, but this is where it all began. I have a reservation, and the customarily disagreeable maître-d motions me towards the upstairs dining-room, a Siberia I have never ever entered (and today is not going to be my first). I decide to wait for a table on the ground floor.

"You will wait at the bar," he commands, pointing at the crowd who will be seated before I am graced with a table. I surrender my jacket and look around me and suddenly realize what I am seeing. The room is no different than before the plague. Scantily Prada-clad women and men in silken shirts and cashmere jackets are crammed together in a cloud of staggering social non-distancing. A dozen maskless ones perch atop and around the barstools. I ask myself if they're utterly insane or I am. I turn to the maître-d and demand the return of my jacket. He shrugs with that oh-so-Cipriani-I-couldn't-give-a-fuck-if-you-go-or-stay shrug, and out the door I indignantly march. I cross the alley and enter the serene terrace of the Monaco and Grand Canal Hotel, where tables are meters apart and calm is everywhere. I order a Bellini and risotto. As I consider the insanity I just escaped, it occurs to me that Venice is, after all, the city where, in the 14th century, quarantine was invented.

On I walk back to my hotel, the water in San Marco has grown from a third to a half of the giant square. A small metal bridge leads from the platforms into my hotel lobby.

I waken at 7:30 and see clouds of thick clerical gray outside. The porter wheels my luggage to the water taxi. There's an ominous end-of-days quality in the air as the lagoon water slushes onto the riva and the wind rustles my mask. Vaporetti are plowing through white-capped waves and water-taxis are bobbing up and down like ping pong balls. I stagger aboard and my luggage is handed across the drink to the "captain." We reverse out of the dock and bounce our way up the Grand Canal, through backwaters to Piazzale Roma. I wheel my way through wind and rain, back up to the tenth floor of the Parking Communale and very soon am back on the causeway to the mainland.

Venice didn't flood. The lagoon's hydraulic dams were operated for the first time ever, and they worked!

The author, hard at work at Hotel Vannucci.
Hotel Vannucci: the menu and a beautiful table.
The theater in Città della Pieve.

7: The Autostrada del Sole

Once you're on the highway, you forget there's an epidemic out there. Until you get to the rest stop and signs remind you to wear your mask. Past the sliding doors are great pumps of hand sanitizer and crowds of Italians standing politely on socially distanced decals waiting to pay for a panino and an espresso. Rest stops on the autostrada are also major food stores. Cellophane bags of multi-colored pasta in the shape of Roman monuments. Giant bags of Amaretto cookies. Crates of local wine. Humongous boxes of magic markers seem designed to give parents a hernia, but it's surely worth the risk to get the bambini off their phones.

The A1 Autostrada del Sole runs from Milan to Naples and is the oldest highway in Europe. Built in the 1950s, it's narrow and full of sharp curves that a 21st-century expressway would have flattened out. I'm bound for Città della Pieve, just inside the Umbrian side of the Umbria-Tuscany frontier. Once I leave the autostrada, I'm driving through wavy hills of conifers and vineyards. Everything is red-brick Etruscan, rather than the stucco of Tuscany. Città della Pieve, population 7,000, is the red-brick medieval hilltop town that gave birth in 1446 to Pietro Vannucci, who went on to be a major artist, changed his name to Pietro Perugini, and counted amongst his pupils a certain Raphael. Hotel Vannucci was opened in 1903 in a mansion created by one Vittoria Spinola, daughter of Italy's King Vittorio Emanuele II. In 2018, it was bought by Roberto Wirth (a client), fourth-generation owner of the legendary Hassler Hotel in Rome, and transformed into an antique-filled gem — just in time to be closed and then opened during the plague of 2020.

Ninety minutes from both Rome and Florence, Citta' della Pieve won the 2013 Pio Alferano Prize as the most perfect city in Italy. Its narrow streets are lined with 600-year-old red-brick houses, twelve churches (with frescos by Perugini), and the Teatro Communale, built in 1834 and restored in 1990, a jewel box of a theater with rings of gilt and cream boxes and acres of red velvet. Every year (except this year), a theater festival brings thousands to the tiny town.

I'm recommended to the truly lovely Trattoria Bruno Coppetta for lunch. I enter, squirt hand gel, and am led to a table that stands a foot apart from the next table, which stands a foot apart from the next table. The trattoria is packed with boisterous, gesticulating patrons. And as lovely as it all seems, I haven't spent thirty weeks keeping myself safe to eat scrunched between crowds who may or may not be shedding droplets of coronavirus. Reality comes crashing back and I leave, both bereaving and confusing the proprietor.

As I stroll in successful search of vitello tonnato served outdoors, I wonder how many plagues, how many quarantines, these medieval houses have witnessed. This is certainly not the first. And, inevitably, it is certainly not the last.

#iorestoacasa — "I stay home" — was the rallying cry throughout Italy during its first lockdown. "Andrà tutto bene" means "everything will be fine."
Service with a safe smile at Hotel Hassler.

8: Where All Roads Lead

Along the autostrada from Umbria to Rome, yet another sign brings waves of nostalgia. Esso. As a kid, one of the first TV commercials in England contained the jaunty jingle, "The Esso signs means happy motoring!" Sadly, the glamor was taken away long ago in the U.S. by Esso's corporate graduation to the bland "Exxon."

As Angela and Nigel (they take turns) GSP me to the center of the Eternal City, I pass through the inevitable neighborhoods of car dealers and tire repair establishments, which quickly becomes avenues of apartments and stores, getting ritzier as central Rome nears. Absolutely everyone — young, old, toddler, teenager, crone — is wearing a mask. It's very reassuring.

I weave down the touristless Via Veneto, through the touristless Piazza Barberini, up the touristless Via Sistina, and draw up at the Hassler. (Also a client.) A fleet of unusual trucks is parked across the street: Tom Cruise is in town — staying at the Hassler — filming Mission Impossible 7. (Via Sistina will be closed this weekend to film a terrifying car chase.)

The Hassler doormen are wearing chic black masks with the Hassler logo and a tiny Italian flag. The Hassler looks shining and grand as always. In the era of Covid, the concierge desk is now the front desk — with the staff behind glass. Next to them is a Star Trek-looking Hologram machine at which I'm invited to stare, whereupon it registers my temperature as 36.3 (37 Celsius is our 98.6). In I am welcomed, into a newly renovated room, all pastel gray, with a closet large enough for cocktails for eight, and a super bathroom.

An unusually empty Piazza Spagna.

At 8 p.m. I descend the Spanish Steps towards dinner at Ristorante Nino (feeding Romans since 1934). The steps are virtually empty. Perhaps three climbers, two descenders, plus the ubiquitous gentlemen attempting to sell roses and high-flying souvenirs. The flocks of tourists, taking selfies, chatting, smoking, admiring the fountain — are gone. Empty Rome remains gorgeous, though sad. Most Romans are at home. The tourist Rome we all know and love is, quite simply, bare.

Via Condotti is empty. I am the only diner eating outside at Nino's; dozens of Romans dining within. Eventually a German couple sit ten or twelve feet from me, eat, talk loudly, and smoke furiously. I ask myself whether, if I can smell their cigarettes, I can inhale their droplets. I pour more wine from the carafe and decide that, as I am outdoors and their backs are to me, it's presumably okay. Dinner achieved, I return to my room, turn on CNN and I watch a certain person standing on the balcony of the house he currently inhabits, whipping off his mask and scrunching it disdainfully into his pocket. He struts. His chin juts. His stare is all defiance and neighborhood-bully bravado. I imagine one Benito Mussolini doing something appallingly similar just down the street from my hotel not terribly long ago.

I am the only breakfaster in Salone Eva. I make my way across Rome and away from the tourist center in a taxi (major plexiglass divider between the back and front seats). Rome seems happily busy this morning. For the first time in a dozen visits, the piazza (once the ancient hippodrome) is virtually vacant. The exquisite fountains of Bernini can be admired and photographed without the hordes. It's wretched, but I also feel a kind of guilty privileged pleasure. Back at the Hassler, Roberto Wirth, its sage owner, shows me on his iPhone a video of great swirls of swallows flying around his property in Tuscany. So here, just as throughout the planet, the Covid slowdown has, despite its awfulness, had a dramatically positive effect on our environment.

A door shuts. Another door opens.

When I was twelve years old, this already travel-obsessed child thought the spanking new Leonardo Da Vinci air terminal at Rome's Fiumicino Airport was the most spectacular building in the world. Soaring ceilings, acres of glass, marble floors the size of football fields. In later years, Fiumicino became cramped, crowded, frenetic, and exhausting. In 2020, it is, for those few of us who actually adore airports, back to being pretty fabulous. Indeed, just last month, Skytrax magazine voted Fiumicino the world's #1 airport for Covid-19 prevention.

Of its three massive terminals, only one is in operation right now. Only passengers may enter. Temperatures are checked by an invisible robot. Even reduced to one working terminal, it's still pretty barren. The Lufthansa check-in clerk apologizes mournfully that the lounge is not in operation. There are more hand-sanitizer gel dispensers per square foot at Fiumicino that anyplace else I've been on this trip. Security and duty-free are all as normal; all the shops are open. Apart from the ubiquitous masks, there's no feeling of crisis.

At the boarding gate, we stand obediently on our socially distanced floor decals. Another Star Trek hologram displays my temperature at 36.4. I am good to go. As I emerge from the jetway, the smiling flight attendant hands me a large, vacuum-packed Disinfektionstuch (disinfection wipe). I try hard to dispel the instant memory in my hard-drive of my Great Uncle Hugo being handed a bar of soap as he entered the "shower" at Auschwitz on September 6, 1942

Once on board, a strange announcement explains that the Italian authorities forbid the placing of garments in overhead bins. They must be hung on hooks or stowed beneath the seat. I am one of five flying in Business, and both the flight attendant and I readily ignore the directive. I snuggle into my seat for the 80-minute flight to Munich. I hoik my N95 mask, my periwinkle nitrile gloves, and my prescription ski-goggles out of the dark depths of my backpack, and, once again, looking like a creature from Planet X26, I sit back. And I relax.

Next up: Germany

Read the Full Corona Europe Travel Diary: Portugal and SwitzerlandItalyGermanyHome

Pre-order Geoffrey's book, All Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession, which will be published in January 2021.