Visiting Italy during the Covid Pandemic by Daniel Schwarz
Daniel and Marcia inside the Colosseum. (Marcia Jacobson)
What a joy to be making our first international journey to a country that we love to visit and that I have, if I count correctly, visited thirteen prior times.
Notwithstanding the CDC warning to avoid Italy because of the high number of Covid cases, we decided to go over spring break and visit three of our favorite cities: Rome, Florence, and Naples. For one thing we had our vaccine shots plus a booster although we left the very day the second booster was announced; we had it when we returned. While we were in Italy, rules for masking were in place for museums, hotels, trains, and taxis.
Travelling at 80 is a tad more difficult for my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I than when we were younger, but the trip was as exhilarating as ever. Because we are in reasonably good health, we did not face insurmountable challenges. But we noticed we tire more easily, take longer to get over jet lag, move at a slower pace, value hotel time between sightseeing and dinner, and put greater stress on comfort and even moderate luxury.
Because we could not board a plane back to the US without a negative covid test within twenty-four hours of the flight, we did worry about the test and the chance that we had asymptomatic covid. This would have meant having to stay in quarantine for several days and my teaching my Cornell classes via zoom.
Due to the difficulty of finding suitable connections and due to the excessive fares flying from Ithaca, we flew from Kennedy rather than the Ithaca airport. The number of domestic flights from small airports has been cut dramatically, while domestic fares have risen. Because we had credit from cancelled flights with American Airlines during the pandemic, we needed to fly with that airline. We paid $470 each to fly to and from Italy. Because of the CDC recommendation that USA citizens avoid Italy, our transatlantic flights were at most half full. Our departing flight went to Madrid and then we took a rather full flight on Iberia to Rome. Unlike our recent experience with domestic flights, these international flights were on time.
When we arrived at the Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, where we have stayed with pleasure several times, I was reminded of Death in Venice because the person who checked me in assured me without my asking that the news of rising Covid cases in Italy was untrue and simply the result of bad publicity. We had a splendid room overlooking Borghese Gardens. Under the able management of General Manager Achille Di Carlo, we had excellent service.
Despite occasional rain, which was an issue on all but the last of our days in Rome, we had a fulfilling first full day which had resonances of past trips. After several hours in the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Borghese Gardens, we walked to the beautiful oval-shaped Piazza del Popolo and then down the main street Via del Corso.
We also included a segue to Piazza Navona where we saw the great Bernini Fountain of the Four Rivers. As we returned to Via Corso, we stopped at the Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi located in the Campo Marzio area to see the three Caravaggios that depict St. Matthew’s life. We walked back to our hotel via the historic 18th century Spanish Steps, stopping to see the iconic Trevi Fountain.
A highlight of our Rome stay was the Borghese Galleria with its outstanding Renaissance collection, including three wonderful Caravaggios. On our last full day, with the sun finally appearing, we visited some of the Roman ruins, including the Forums and the Colosseum.
We had the good fortune to discover that on the first Sunday of the month, access to the entire area is free. Other major sights we saw included the Pantheon, the Etruscan Museum, and the Palazzo Barberini with its splendid collection of Renaissance paintings, although perhaps its most famous painting, Raphael’s La Fornarina, was on loan.
Italian trains are excellent, especially the high-speed Trenitalia, and were our means of transportation to Florence after five nights in Rome and after three nights in Florence to Naples from which we took a train back to Rome airport. For every trip, due to low demand, we had our own second class four seat booth to ourselves.
Overlooking the Arno and Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, which divides the city in two, the Hermitage Hotel in Florence was once a charming, service-oriented, independent hotel where we stayed several times. Alas, it was not that we had outgrown cute and quaint, but that either because of lost revenues during Covid or carelessness the hotel has fallen on hard times and has degenerated from a three star to an unsatisfactory hotel. We spent three nights in an uncomfortable bed with hard pillows in a room with no telephone, mosquitoes, electric sockets that didn’t work, and broken bathtub faucets. Other returning guests shortened their stay and left.
Florence is a walking city, and we walked a good deal each day. On our arrival day, our focus was on the incomparable Duomo and its environs.
We always spend time with the 17-foot gilded Ghiberti bronze doors on the east facade of the Baptistry, although these have been replaced by copies. Michelangelo called these doors “The Gates of Paradise,” and the originals are in the new and fabulous Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. On the next day. we visited in the Uffizi, home of perhaps the world's greatest late medieval and Renaissance painting collection. For five hours, we immersed ourselves in Giotto, Raphael, Leonardo, Caravaggio, and many others. Our final full day we explored the outstanding. art collection of the Pitti Palace, including stunning Del Sartos and Raphaels as well as one Caravaggio. But with no wall labels at all, the Pitti Palace collection is somewhat frustrating to all but the most knowledgeable tourists.
Etruscan terracotta sarcophagus at Etruscan Museum. (Marcia Jacobson)
Because I had slowly and carefully read Dante’s Divine Comedy recently, I focused on Dante during our trip, especially in his native city Florence. The Pitti Palace is hosting a wonderful exhibit entitled “From Hell to the Empyrean: Dante's World between Science and Poetry.” This exhibit evokes the world in which Dante lived and responded to as he sought to bring science, history, and theology together under the umbrella of literature.
Throughout our trip, we saw various works of late medieval art, including works by), Duccio (1255-60 to 1318-19), Cimabue (1240-1302) and Giotto (1267-133 7that reminded me both of the devotional world in which Dante undertook his journey and how within his allegory, his realism, very much like the realism of these painters, became increasingly centered on human life on earth. These painters are responsible for the transition from flat Byzantine iconographic art to a more three dimensional almost sculptural art with subtle distinctions between light and shading. These innovations in painting resonate in Dante’s visual imagination, especially his brilliantly detailed characterizations and settings in Inferno and Purgatorio.
Our final afternoon included the Boboli Gardens, which are next to the Pitti Palace, and the almost obligatory visit to Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia Gallery.
After our disappointing hotel in Florence, we enjoyed the Renaissance Naples Mediterraneo, a Marriott property, with its terrific views of the city from its 11th floor where they served a fine breakfast. Notwithstanding beautiful sea views befitting a port city, Naples is not a tourist city, and I love that, recalling on each visit Goethe’s words: “Vedi Napoli e poi muori “(“See Naples and Die”). Throughout its environs, Naples has grit, dirt, and working-class neighborhoods evoking Elena Ferrante’s great Neapolitan trilogy.
While we delighted in the Renaissance paintings, including those of Raphael and Caravaggio, in the Capodimonte Art Museum and in the treasures of the world-class Archeological Museum, the essence of Naples is walking in different neighborhoods, where we could see how working-class people live and stop there for a pizza lunch for a few Euros.
Compared to Rome and Florence, food in Naples is inexpensive and taxis are expensive unless savvy locals intervene. Rates for taxis need to be negotiated. Our Naples hotel doorman told our drivers what the price should be, but on our own we were often taken advantage of in terms of being overcharged a few to several Euros in both Naples and Florence.
Daniel in front of the Baptistry doors in Florence. (Marcia Jacobson)
Dining Tips for Italy
For a good dinner without wine, plan on 55 to 70 Euros, with Rome and Florence on the high end and Naples the low end. (The Euro exchange rate was in the $1.10-1.13 range while we were there March 30 to April 10). For that price range, we split a pasta, a meat or fish entree with a vegetable side or two, and desert. Restaurants in that price range may provide a bouche or a sweet wine and biscotti along with the dessert that your order. The above charge will include a cover charge of three or even four Euros per person.
If you don’t want to pay for bottled water (three Euros), some places will — perhaps slightly grudgingly — give you tap water on ice. On occasion water will be included in the cover. Rather than a mixed salad, which does not much interest Italians and is often not on the menu but can be ordered on request at a reasonable charge, it is better to choose a side of tastefully prepared vegetables such as artichokes, asparagus, or spinach. Small tips in the form of cash on the table are appreciated but many restaurants include a service charge, and the cover charge also includes a service component.
Italians do not eat big breakfasts, but Marcia and I do enjoy a full breakfast followed by a light lunch, and an ample leisurely dinner as our evening activity. Because we are designated Marriott Bonvoy Lifetime Platinum — a reward for our decades of patronizing their hotels — excellent breakfasts are included in our Marriott hotel stays. Especially in these Covid times you often can negotiate with an Italian hotel, particularly small independent ones, for at least a continental breakfast for no charge or a minimal charge.
We never had better meals in Rome night after night than on this trip. Our first night we had a dinner at out hotel because we were exhausted from out trip, and it was raining. We had tagliatelle with duck ragu, potato ravioli — a delicious regional dish —and lemon tart enclosed on bottom and top by a cookie.
We had a splendid dinner at Girarrosto Florentino: asparagus and cheese pasta followed by sea bass cooked in a salt crust and served beautifully at our table along with spinach and artichoke side dishes; we capped off the meal with wild berries.
We dined twice at Girarrosto Toscana, the first night cheese ravioli, tender Florentine steak, artichoke Italia style (steamed with spices), lemon custard tart, concluding with both complementary dessert wine and biscotti. The following night we returned because it was raining and close to the hotel. After pasta with wild boar in an olive oil sauce, we had osso buco with a side of asparagus before finishing with a plum tart and the same complementary sweet wine and biscotti.
We have our favorite restaurants in Florence. We usually eat once at Osteria Giovanni. We were a little disappointed because the owner who knew us and sent over treats was not there, and some of our dishes were not as good as in the past. While the pear ravioli, a regional dish, was excellent as was the spinach side, the truffle ravioli was a tad glutinous, and the panna cotta must have been sitting for days and was awful.
We have eaten at Trattoria 4 Leonion every visit to Florence, andthis time it was splendid. The pear ravioli, here with asparagus, was delicious, and steak Florentine would have been wonderful had we not asked for medium rare; the lesson we learned is that steak Florentine must be rare. We passed on dessert because we had gelato in the later afternoon and a good-sized pizza for a late lunch.
Seafood is king in Naples. At Trattoria del Golfowe began with traditional Pasta Genovese that featured chuck beef cooked along with onion ragufollowed by sea bass cooked in salt but not quite the same way as in Rome; we finished with delicious chocolate cake.At Osteria il Garumwe began with a local shrimp dish with cheese and then shared a delicious fish soup that is traditionally made before Easter and includes all available local fish and seafood; we concluded with lemon cake.
Part of the pleasures of travel is meeting people we wouldn’t otherwise meet. Among the most memorable: 1) a Lebanese couple in a Rome restaurant with whom we became friends and shared tastings of each other’s dinners; 2) former Lubavitch Jews who grew up in Crown Heights whom we met in front of the Florence synagogue; 3) European psychiatrists at a schizophrenia conference in Florence, a few whom we met at the Boboli gardens and others whom we met at our hotel; 4) US students studying in Florence and other US tourists; 5) the orthopedist for the US women’s soccer team whom we met in the Rome airport with his family.
Because of the people with whom we interacted, the sites we visited, the atmosphere of the three cities, and the fine meals, our first foreign trip in more than two years was quite wonderful.
Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. His recent books include How to Succeed in College and Beyond and Endtimes?Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009. He has been writing travel articles for more than 20 years and has visited more than 100 countries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.