I’ve been wanting to write about the reality of travelling in Europe for months now. The Covid-19 situation has created an avalanche of complications, confusion and anxiety. The European Union has prided itself for years on the principle of freedom of movement for all it’s citizens when travelling between member states. At this moment in time freedom of movement is no longer guaranteed. Borders between Austria and Germany are closed, the frontier between Italy and Austria is closed. France demands a plethora of paperwork and a negative covid test before being allowed entry. Leisure travel is not permitted. For an international family like ours the ramifications of Covid-19 have been profound. Our daughter lives in Germany, our son is in Holland, we were in Italy (now back in the UK), another son is in Oregon, USA and yet another in Devon, England. The daily, weekly or monthly movement around Europe that we took for granted no longer exists. We are deluged, submerged even, by conflicting reports from the media. Drama and endless facts and figures have become our daily obsession. We wait with bated breath for better times.
My specialist travel company which creates unique journeys in Europe for British and American clients is basically ‘on hold’. My customers are not free to travel. Everyone is waiting, waiting, waiting. I felt like I too was twiddling my thumbs and just waiting. Then I suddenly realised that, with my network of contacts across Europe, it might be useful for me to put together ‘A Letter from Europe’ aimed at informing my friends and colleagues in North America about the reality of travel in Europe in times of covid! So I’ll start with the British Isles, where Andrew and I are currently living and where the rules and regulations are fairly clearly defined. Then I’ll continue to discuss Germany, Austria, Italy and France using up-to-date reports from my friends and family members. These are just personal opinions from those on the ground in the different European countries. There is no political agenda just a desire to survive and return to our normal freedoms and liberties as soon as possible.
BRITISH ISLES – In England we have been confined to our homes and instructed to work from home since early January. However, schools finally reopened on 8th March and on 12th April shops will reopen. From 17th May travel abroad for holidays may be permitted (it is currently illegal to take a holiday overseas)! The government aims to release all restrictions by 26th June. For Americans wishing to visit the UK the situation is not yet clear. At this moment tourists are not permitted, only those with a valid and important reason to travel may enter the UK and only then with a negative Covid test and the ability to pay for and tolerate quarantine for 10 days in a hotel at Heathrow (if you do not have an address in the UK to go to). More on the US situation a bit later in this article.
AUSTRIA – So now it’s over to Rosie in Tyrol, Austria. Here’s what Rosie has to say,
1. CURRENT SITUATION – The situation in Austria is still quite stringent. While the lockdown has been relaxed slightly, there is a curfew from 8pm until 6am daily. Two households are allowed to socialise at one time. People are allowed to practice sport (including skiing, providing you have a negative test and wear a FP2 mask on the lifts). Shops are open, with restrictions on the number of clients per m2 of shop surface all must wear FP2 (medical grade) masks. No incoming visitors from neighbouring countries and no bars or restaurants or hotels (unless special cases) are open.
2. RELAXING THE RULES – There is no fixed date for any relaxation of the measures – the frontier to Germany remains closed unless you have a negative PCR test and can document that your trip out of the county is necessary and for business or emergency purposes only. Italy is closed to travel. People must have a negative PCR test to leave Tirol (due to the South African virus strain). People pay around 80€ for a PCR test and the antigen tests are free of charge.
3. FORECAST FOR SUMMER – The Austrian Government reviews its measures every 3 weeks – generally speaking it has taken quite a reserved approach which some consider too stringent. Personally, my feeling is caution is better than spiralling figures because even very moderate relaxation of the controls has led to a rise in numbers.
Thank you Rosie – that’s very interesting and clearly explained. Needless to say the ski season in Austria has been Austrian only (no foreigners) and only in your local area. It’s also required an exceptional level of fitness as very few ski lifts have been open! On the plus side the Alps have had the best snow in years so for hardy Tyrolers it’s been a bumper year, loads of snow and no people. For hotel and business owners it’s a different story, no revenue and lots of employees without work.
FRANCE – A Paris, la troisième vague de Covid-19 est là…….. today’s headline from Le Monde confirms that France is now battling increasing Covid cases and is dealing with fully occupied intensive care beds in Ile-de-France. Last night the French Prime Minister Jean Castex went on national television declaring a ‘third wave’ of infections in France especially in the Paris region. From this weekend all movement will be severely restricted, there will be a curfew at 7 pm. All non-essential shops, cafes, bars and restaurants will be closed. These restrictions will affect Ile-de-France (Paris) and Hauts de France (North of Paris) and the Alpes Maritimes (which includes the city of Nice and French Riviera). Restrictions will be in place for at least a month. Movement in and out of affected regions will be controlled with road blocks and police checks. These restrictions will probably be in place until the end of April.
My friend Christine in Beaulieu (just east of Nice) had this to say,
”Coucou Jeanette, oui nous allons bien tous les deux et vous? Et les enfants ? Est tu à Venise? Le marché est vraiment restreint il y a juste un marchand de légumes et fruits – C’est triste en ce moment..’‘
Basically, Covid is massively impacting on people all over Europe. The daily fruit and vegetable market which has been a fixture of the main square in Beaulieu for years has been reduced to one stand. From this weekend people living in Les Alpes Maritimes will not be able to leave their region.
Meanwhile in Germany……..
GERMANY – In Germany, we’ve got Lucy, my daughter, who lives in Marburg, a delightful city one hour north of Frankfurt. Lucy lives with her boyfriend Jacob (he’s from near Stuttgart). She’s doing a Master’s Degree in French and Italian Literature (in German) – clever girl. Jacob is a Mycologist (mushroom expert) and nature lover. One day soon we are going mushroom foraging with him in the forests near Marburg.
Marburg is a medieval city, complete with magical, turreted castle and cobbled streets in the old town. It is famous for its respected university, which is the oldest Protestant university in Germany. The Brothers Grimm of children’s fairy tales fame studied here in the first decade of the 19th century. The Grimm Brothers travelled all over Germany recording folklore and local stories that had been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm wrote these stories down and published them as an anthology which became an immediate best-seller.
Here’s what Lucy has to say about the Covid situation in Germany…………..
‘So in a nutshell we are free to move around, but no hotels are open, shops are open again but cafes are only doing take away service. Restrictions are starting to be eased now. There will be an update next week when the German states (16 in total) meet to discuss future steps. The general mood is fine, although it’s a bit like Groundhog Day……. I will be able to visit my friend in a neighbouring town this weekend…………..’
However, this morning Lucy called and said that she thinks further restrictions are on the way…..
Thank you Lucy – let’s keep our fingers crossed for a speedy vaccination programme! We can’t wait to see you again and to go foraging in the forest with Jacob.
ITALY – Poor old Italy. The first country to experience the ravages of Covid, exactly one year ago. Italy has a new Prime Minister in the form of Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank. Known as a pragmatist and by his nickname ‘Super Mario’ it is hoped he’ll have the determination to move Italy forward and out of the current crisis. Draghi has just announced that almost all of Italy is a red zone, in other words total lockdown, until at least 6th April. Even though I’m not in Italy at the moment I’m in daily contact with Italian friends and work colleagues. When I see a picture on social media of the empty streets of Venice and the silent canals, tears immediately spring to my eyes. Italy has endured a year of restrictions now. Hotels are closed, shops are shuttered. The famous cafes of St Mark’s Square are boarded up and tragic. This is worse than the Second World War my friend’s elderly father told me. During the war the square was full of German army officers, ordering wine and coffee and carefully avoiding being redeployed back to Germany.
One of the problems in Italy is that many businesses are small, family-run operations. They’ve managed to survive a year of disruption – but how much longer can they last? Several restaurants in Venice have already closed their doors for good, including ‘Antica Carbonera’ which was an institution in the city. After a year of uncertainty and almost no business the owners have finally called it a day. I’m nervous to ring the owner of the toy shop whose beautiful handmade puzzles and wooden toys are beautifully displayed in the shop window photo below.
THIS SUMMER – of course this is the big question on everybody’s lips. What is going to happen and when will travel be permitted again. ‘When can we travel again’ freely and easily? President Biden has said that he intends to open borders in mid-May. This will probably mean Mexican and Canadian borders to start with and then perhaps the opening up of European travel destinations. However the opening of borders will need to be a reciprocal arrangement with movement permitted in both directions. The vaccination programme in both Europe and the US has a long way to go. It’s hard to see transatlantic tourism recovering before the final quarter of 2021. Many observers in Europe think it will be April 2022.
In the mean time the practicalities of movement in Europe make any journey that is not essential very difficult indeed. I’m hoping to head out to Italy in mid-May to assist my friends in Le Marche and Senigallia to relaunch their tourism offering for Summer 2021 and beyond. Whilst my journey is for work purposes and I have actually been vaccinated – I am still uncertain about the trip. I’m a hardened traveller and have been for years, if I’m nervous and anxious about travel, then how will a regular tourist feel. I’m going to update this ‘Letter from Europe’ once a month as events unfold. Next time there’ll be a report from Holland by our son William who finally got back to his apartment and workplace in Delft just a few days ago, after several months of lockdown in the UK. For now we just have to try and stay positive and hope that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When the time comes we have to be ready to go back to living our lives, we can’t allow fear and uncertainty to overwhelm us. We also need to hang on for dear life to the liberal democracy we once enjoyed.
- I’d recommend Gedi Digital for fantastic up-to-date maps/graphs from Italy: www.lab.gedidigitial.it/visual-lab/
- News coverage from Italy – I’d suggest La Repubblica. https://www.repubblica.it/
- In France I’d go for www.france24.com
- I’ve written a a series of articles about travel in Europe over the last year – here are the links:
- Travelling across Europe by train in the time of Covid-19 (June 2020)
- Travelling in Europe – October 2020
FOOTNOTE: In the meantime we just have to keep the faith – surely logic and reason will prevail! I selected the colour for the last words as green – this is the colour of hope in Italy (speranza)………….Fingers crossed ‘con le dita incrociate’…….
Written: 19th March 2021