The throngs of humanity — pre-Covid — had just about destroyed the exhilaration of visiting one of the world’s most spectacular cities. But the throngs are no longer here, and the city, with its palazzos seemingly floating on rippling waves of what looks like melted Murano glass, their majestic doors lapped by the ever-rising water, can again be admired in all its glory.
The gondoliers maneuvering their sleek black craft, expertly twisting that long single oar that mysteriously propels them in the direction of their choice; the monuments, the museums, the cafes, can be enjoyed as one would in a normal city, without the pushing and shoving of harried tourists, without long waits, without obstructed views.
One can take a deep breath and, looking at the mesmerizing views on a night ride along the Venetian Lagoon, marvel that this magical place actually exists in the real world, rather than in the imagination of a divinely inspired artist.
To travel or not to travel? That, in a time of pandemic uncertainty, is at least one of the questions competing for attention during our restless nights. It pits our instinct for security against the need to escape the confinement of a 21st century suddenly crippled by a medieval plague.
My trip to Venice is not my first Covid-era trip, but it’s my first purely elective international one.
If you’re considering major travel, be warned: Times have changed. There’s never been a moment like this. It’s a rare moment, but it comes filled with unfamiliar risks, big and small.
For Venice, the magic bubble had burst in recent years as massive crowds, tens of millions of people every year, started invading the city, turning it into a dystopia of excessive tourism. But now they’re gone.
Finally, Venice doesn’t feel like a Medieval/Renaissance version of Disneyland. Finally, to the joy of its otherwise conflicted residents, Venice feels like a real city again. Better yet, it’s a responsible, sane corona-era town.
No cars, no bikes, no people without masks. Seriously. For someone coming from the United States, it’s almost too good to be true. The vaporetto, the main form of public transportation, the boat that plies the majestic Grand Canal, the city’s main artery, fills with passengers who don’t just all wear face masks, they wear them unprompted, uncomplaining, over their nose and mouth. There are no scenes of absurd defiance by people trying to make some kind of personal or political point. With everyone masked, I find myself lowering my emotional guard.
Masks, however, are not the only concession to the pandemic when one travels. The rules are complicated and ever-changing, and then there’s the risk that, even if vaccinated, one might test positive for Covid.
Every country has different rules, and even those seem to constantly change. You have to check the rules, and then check again. To come to Italy, I had to show proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival, along with other forms, showing my address here, even my seat number on the plane. The requirements are different for other nationalities and for other destinations. To return to the US, travelers must have a negative Covid test taken within three days of departure.
So, while enjoying Italy (Venice is one of my stops) I have to figure out how, where and exactly when to get tested. A rapid test is better for timing purposes, more predictable. But antigen tests have a nasty habit of producing false positives. Then what? A false positive might send me into quarantine, requiring new lodging (and feeding?) arrangements. My travel insurance company told me they cover trip delays, except if they are related to Covid.
Worse, what if the positive result is not false? Getting sick while traveling can be a nightmare under the best of circumstances. That’s why I made sure my health insurance will cover me while I’m abroad. I also recalled, when choosing to visit Italy, that when the pandemic struck in Europe in early 2020, slamming northern Italy with a brutality with which it later conquered other countries, I learned that Italy, especially the North, has a particularly strong health care system. It seemed a good place to explore our strange new world.
For Venetians, it’s a mix of good and bad news. Tourism, the city’s overwhelmingly primary source of income and jobs, collapsed during the pandemic. By some counts, tourist arrivals were down more than 70% in 2020. The tourists are coming back, but in numbers that are still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.
On the vaporetto, along the winding narrow alleys, and on the centuries’ old bridges that connect the 118 islands that make up the city, I’ve heard mostly Italian spoken. That’s a shift from previous trips. Maybe Italians know this is the best time to visit this 1600-year-old endangered treasure.
Some restaurants open only on the weekends, and the waiters are happy to recount the tough times they’ve endured. But the barely 50,000 people who make Venice their home, who struggle to keep it as their own in the face of hordes numbering by some counts up to 30 million people a year that had descended pre-Covid, have found much to love about the new peacefulness. My waiter in a visit to the Cannaregio district earlier this week, Luigi, pointed to all the empty tables on his sidewalk, bemoaning his lost income. Then he offered a vaguely mischievous smile and, leaning down, he admitted sotto voce, “Venice is more beautiful now.” He said he’d rather not give his last name.
The city is trying to find ways to salvage some of the good from the pandemic, by restricting how many people will be allowed back. Already cruise ships have been banned, and there are plans to charge entry fees to day-trippers and even limit the number of visitors.
I hope the people of Venice will succeed in their efforts to preserve their town, to save it from its own irresistible magnetism.
There’s never been a better time to experience this enchanted place — if you’re willing to endure the complications of pandemic-era travel and face the risks that it entails.
To travel or not to travel? It’s a personal choice; one that requires weighing one’s willingness to endure some additional complications and regulations and face some new, potentially serious Covid-related risks. If you’re up for the challenge, it’s a big world, waiting for us to return.