I had had a trip to Italy booked for several months. The plan was to travel from London St Pancras to Torino Porta Susa by train via Paris; spend a couple of nights in Turin and then head down to Florence and Rome, to spend three or four days in each. I was particularly looking forward to revisiting Florence, which I hadn’t seen since a teenager. I set off on 23 February 2020. The very same day, I heard the first reports of coronavirus affecting villages in northern Italy.
News reporting of the epidemic––it wasn’t a pandemic at the time––spread as swiftly as the virus itself. It was impossible to turn on Italian TV without hearing the word ‘coronavirus’ mentioned, or without tuning in to some earnest debate speculating about how serious would be its consequences; people wearing face masks were more conspicuous than on previous trips; but Italy was still open for business; restaurants and bars were busy; tourist attractions open as usual.
From Turin, I visited Sant’Ambrogio in the hills, and then travelled south to Florence. Reports suggested that the virus was mainly affecting a small cluster of towns in Lombardy and the Veneto. I felt as though I had put distance between myself and the potential threat.
In Florence, I visited Basilica San Miniato al Monte; I climbed the 414 steps to Giotto’s Bell Tower, and the 463 to Brunelleschi’s Duomo. The sun shined constantly on my trip; it felt as though coronavirus was still a world away. Continuing on to Rome, I walked a section of the Via Appia Antica; visited Cinecittà and Parco degli Acquedotti; and spent a day admiring the architecture in the EUR district. Was it just me, or were there fewer other visitors? I put it down to the fact that I had deliberately chosen to visit attractions slightly off the normal beaten track.
The newspaper headlines continued to scream panic, and the TV was no less vociferous in its 24/7 rolling coverage of the unfolding tragedy but, within the bubble world of my early-spring holiday, it seemed as though nothing untoward could be allowed to penetrate.
From Rome, my next stop was Zurich. It involved a brief change of trains at Milan––at the time, the epicentre of the virus outbreak. There had been rumours that trains might be cancelled, certainly delayed but, once again, fortune smiled on me. I made my connection; caught the Cisalpino to travel across Switzerland. The day was 2 March 2020. Italy went into complete lockdown the following week.
Looking back, only three months ago, it seems like a time of innocence. An unimaginable number of people have died as a result of the pandemic in the intervening period; the whole concept of leisure travel now seems distant and remote. My last trip before lockdown will be forever linked to the events that followed it, and yet I preserve it in aspic as a perfect moment of peace before the storm.
© E C Glendenny
E C Glendenny is currently on Staycation