Venice, Italy: Travel in the time of COVID-19

I never thought I’d go back to Venice,  a city now synonymous with the worst excesses of mass tourism. Venice, the improbable city floating magically on the shimmering waters of Venice Lagoon, is a truly dreamlike place. My 18-year old self had never seen, or imagined, anything quite like it. I instantly fell in love with this extraordinary place. The idea of returning, having my memories shattered by the degradations of modern tourism, didn’t seem worthwhile.

So news that tourist numbers were significantly down thanks to virus-related tour group cancellations, seemed like a golden opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Queen of the Adriatic. In retrospect, this now seems foolish. When I booked the flights though, things were normal. By the time it came to go to the airport parts of the region north of Venice were in lockdown, and we debated whether it was worth the risk.

Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
Gondolas, Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
Lagoon, Venice, Italy

We weren’t alone. A plane that had been almost fully booked with over two hundred people, left Berlin with fewer than thirty passengers. Venice’s Marco Polo Airport was practically deserted, and only one other passenger was on the vaporetto that whisked us from the airport across the lagoon to Venice. I’d hoped that it might feel like we’d stepped back in time, instead it felt like we’d stepped onto the set of a post-apocalypse movie.

On my first visit to Venice, I was traveling around Europe on an Interrail Pass during one of the two gap years I managed to squeeze into my education. I stopped in Venice en route to Zagreb, at that time a major city in the former Yugoslavia – it was that long ago. I have memories of dashing about on vaporetto water transport between islands, basking in the sunshine of St. Mark’s Square, watching glass being blown on Murano and looking out over the Adriatic from the beach along the Lido.

I’m sure there were tourists, but I don’t recall that being a prominent part of my visit. Certainly the horror stories of crowded squares, streets and canals, long queues for most sights, rip-off restaurants and scam artists, didn’t feature. Today, Venice regularly stars in media articles about what happens when tourism goes bad. Venice, it is said, has sold its soul to tourism, and residents have left the city in droves as a result of rising property prices and living costs.

If you want to know what Venice looks like without the tourist hoards – we were able to walk through St. Mark’s Square on a Friday afternoon with only a handful of people for company – now is the time to visit. Restaurants that are normally fully booked for months in advance, welcomed walk-in trade; normally packed vaporettos were empty as people avoided people. The downside for businesses that have become tourism-dependent, was clear.

St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy
Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
Venice, Italy
Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy

Shops were empty, horribly expensive water taxis floated by, searching for a fare, and dozens of disconsolate-looking gondoliers hung around offering discounts unthinkable in better days. Everyone we spoke to complained about the ‘overreaction’ of people to the coronavirus. In an attempt to restore public faith, the regional authorities closed all museums in the city for three days. This was inconvenient, especially as it was pouring with rain on two days of our visit.

Luckily, the Doge’s Palace reopened on our final day in the city, and we got to tour the city’s most famous sight without the usual crowds. It was quite incredible. How long this state of affairs will last is anyone’s guess, and a return to normal is a double-edged sword for Venetians and tourists alike. Still, I’m glad I was able to revisit a place I never thought I’d set foot in again.

* I read this morning that Venice is included in the Italian government’s lockdown of around 16 million people in the north of the country. No one is allowed to enter or leave for the foreseeable future.

20 thoughts on “Venice, Italy: Travel in the time of COVID-19

  1. Time for a clean out huh? Now my trip’s in jeapody.l Go well everybodyu

    1. So many cancellations, I think we’re about to rediscover how travel used to be done about 100 years ago.

  2. My own travels, anywhere, are on hold until both humanity is out of danger and, more practically, this bullshit Bear Market ends and our funds are restored. My plan to visit Canada in June and July may still pan out. Europe, next year, is also still possible. May your current travels be safe.

    1. This things seems to have no end in sight, and soon I expect there’ll be no travel at all to, and in, some regions of the world. Europe especially. Hope it doesn’t come to that though.

  3. You were lucky. I read yesterday that the whole of Italy is in lockdown! I need to re-read Camus’ La peste… Never in my lifetime have I heard of an entire country in quarantine… Last time I heard it was the fall of Constantinople… And the black plague… Who will fall now?
    Stay safe, Paul

    1. Thanks Brian, things are very bizarre these days. I hear Mexico is to close its border with the US to prevent the virus entering. While it’s no laughing matter, that at least made me smile. In Europe, I think we’ll see many more lockdowns before too long. Berlin has closed most public spaces, schools get closed tomorrow … who knows what comes next! Take care and stay healthy.

      1. You too.
        Just listened to Macron tonight. Though he always fails to convince me… I understand that all of Schengen is going into lockdown… Does that mean the UK is out? How’s your mother? She should be safe in the lake district, but I guess she needs to be careful at her age… (So do my wife and I according to MD daughter…) 😉
        Be good.

        1. Hi Brian. Everything is locked down in Germany and much of Europe west of here. The UK, well let’s just say they’re about to play catch up big time after they realised their initial strategy was likely to end up with a quarter of a million deaths. We have a genius for a Prime Minister. London is the epicentre at the moment, but the rest of the country (even the Lakes) will be in a similar situation in three weeks’ time.
          Isolate as much as possible and stay safe!

        2. Even the lakes? Hmmm. Yes, isolation is the best move. Though we will also play daycare to grandson and granddaughter since both their parents are tied at the hospital.
          ‘Be seeing you.

        3. I hope things in Mexico don’t go the same way as here, Brian. Kudos to the medical professionals in the family, these are going to be tough times and I wish them and you good health (literally). Take care.

        4. Well, the doctors in the family are going to be front line. Already facing stupid behaviour in the hospitals from positive doctors and staff going to work. Jesus!

  4. Italy and Wuhan. Why would you go there right now?

    1. At the time, there didn’t seem to be a problem – there still haven’t been any cases in Venice. Things did change when we were there though, it was quite alarming to see the evolution over the four days.

    2. Paul is quite an adventurer… 😉
      Now, seriously, one of our daughters has booked tickets to Paris in May with all her little family… We have our tickets for Paris in July… What is going to happen? Who knows?
      And I agree with Paul, the situation is shifting daily.
      Be safe all of you.

      1. I guess I lost my sense of adventure when I had kids. Not tempting at all. But one day, they will travel, who knows what the world will be like then.

        1. One reshuffles priorities with kids. Security comes first. But, you/they will travel. Again. 🙂
          (And let’s hope the world will be a bit better)

        2. Although it’s many months away, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this current crisis ends. It has really exposed how parts of Europe (and rest of world) are completely dependent on tourism. We may need to change our habits – quite a lot.

        3. May we learn form that sorry experience. My current take-out is the total lack of planning and cooperation on behalf of and between the “leaders of the free world”. (I was just wondering this morning whether we hadn’t seen the end to the Western civilisation…) Not a single coordinated action.
          And yes, we will have to change many habits.

        4. I always thought having children was THE adventure, a journey to another world!

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