An Italian Journey Fated by Coronavirus

When reality is overtaken by events, risk can be a hard thing to measure: A beloved country in a very strange time

Like many in Austria, we love Italy, and travel there nearly every year on one excuse or another.  So this year, with a “round birthday” coming up in early March, we blocked out a week, booked a night train from Vienna and headed south. 

We had chosen Perugia, the capital of Umbria, in the middle of the country, a place neither of us had ever been.  This is an ancient and fascinating city, dating from the time of the Etruscans, whose “centro storico” (historical center) is built of creamy white marble at the top of a dome-like hill with a wide view of the approaching enemies of the day. However, the strategic location also meant a history of occupation, feuds and intrigue. Until the 11th century, when as a free city state, it enjoyed the protection of popes who took refuge behind its stout walls in troubled times.  

So we thought, this is perfect. Far from the troubled northern region of Lombardy, a small city in a small province with no coast line.  A refuge.  

The coronavirus was, of course, already on our minds: the quarantined city of Codogno, and the widespread cancellation of meetings, conferences and travel in and out of Milan. There had been some 3,900 cases in the northern Italian province of Lombardy but most were mild, fewer than 100 had died; the death rate seemed about 2%. This number was later adjusted, and the curve turned sharply upward, particularly for people over 65. But we didn’t know that yet.  We weren’t overly concerned – a few people die every year from the flu, and many more on the highway…  There are always arguments.

My son called, hoping to talk us out of it.  But we were already on the train. We would be careful, I promised.

We arrived in Perugia on a brilliantly sunny morning. From the station we walked over to the seriously cute “MiniMetro,” a cross between a gondola and a cog railway, that took us across the city and part way up the mountain to Pincetto, where we took an angled elevator – giving us our first spectacular view of the valley below – up some100 meters to the edge of the old city. We then wheeled our way across one square and then another and down a narrow lane – 10 minutes at most – to the ivy-covered Albergo Fortuna, dropped our bags and headed back into town.

It was mid morning and the streets were a bustle of activity, crisply-dressed men and women on their way somewhere or chatting by a coffee bar. There were short lines at the Tabac and clusters in the paper shop. Restaurants were setting up outside. To look at it, nothing much had changed. 

It was a subject of conversation, though. “Yes, usually there are more people, even in March,” said our waitress under the brick and stone arches of Il Cantinone that evening, looking wistfully at the three or four busy tables. She had been to Vienna on an Erasmus student exchange and hoped to come back. “There are no jobs here.”  

At a bottega del vino for a grappa, a lively late night crowd filled tables and side counters, while we leafed through dictionaries piecing together the needed phrases.  “People are a bit worried, – un po preoccupato,” admitted one man. “But we see nothing here.” And we moved on to the barrique.

Over the next few days, we walked a lot, stopped in here for a coffee, there for a wine, sat in the sun writing postcards and translating the local papers – and kept our distance, washing our hands at every turn, trying not to obsess. Each day, there were fewer people, as piazza and trattoria emptied out. By Sunday, we were the only guests in the hotel; on Monday, we dined alone, unnerving even in our celebratory mood.

During the night, I was restless, and lay in bed reading all the papers on my phone of a possible nationwide lock down: We had to get home as fast as possible. By 7:00 we were packing, by 9:50 we were headed north.The mood had shifted so quickly. When we changed trains in Venice Mestre, we never left the platform, much less exchanged the tickets.

The ÖBB RailJet conductor never mentioned it. There were so few passengers, we commented; we had expected more. “Yes,” he agreed, as “this was the last train out of Italy. They were going to close the border at midnight.” We stared at each other.

We rode home in an odd mood of euphoria, sharpened with the anxiety we were trying to ignore. At the Hauptbahnhof in Vienna, the taxi driver reported that some of his colleagues were taking a leave of absence – afraid of exposure from the passengers. We told him we had come from Italy, but not from the north.  He took us anyway.

Since then, we have been at home, going out only to shop – well almost… We seem to be fine, thank goodness. Almost a week later, it’s hard to explain.  It was probably madness to go, but it didn’t seem like much of a risk at the time, and we were very careful, mostly going for walks, sitting in outdoor cafés. In restaurants, without talking about it, people chose well-spaced tables…  And of course, it’s all here now anyway. Hard to know.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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