Italy without the crowds

On June 19, I flew to Rome on British Airways flight 548 — the first time the carrier had run a Rome service since March 9, when Italy closed its borders to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

That same summer day, the Rocco Forte Collection reopened its flagship Roman property, the Hotel de Russie. Sir Rocco flew in for the occasion; there was a small celebration in the hotel’s Stravinskij Bar garden, long a favoured rendezvous point for the Eternal City’s great, good and socially gymnastic.

The tables were fewer than normal — social distancing guidelines required that almost half of them be removed — but all were occupied. And while everyone wore a mask as they entered, left or moved around the space, those came off as soon as they were seated. By 9pm, it felt like a fairly convincing facsimile of this garden on any given Roman summer evening. Granted, the volume was turned down a bit, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The terrace of the Stravinskij Bar at Rome’s Hotel de Russie, which reopened in JuneThe terrace of the Stravinskij Bar at Rome’s Hotel de Russie, which reopened in June

It’s a scenario I’ve found replicated across much of Italy these past six weeks, as tourism arrivals have remained at levels far lower than normal (in some places as low as one-tenth of the usual influx), despite travel “bridges” established within the Schengen zone, Britain’s scrapping on July 10 of post-travel quarantine requirements, and Italy’s own effective containment of the virus.

I won’t lie; for me — an aspiring resident, decamped here for the whole summer — the situation has been pretty delightful. At 2pm on a mid-July Friday, the Piazza Navona was close to empty, the burbling of Giacomo della Porta’s famous fountain of Neptune clearly audible from across the square.

At the Pantheon, the maze of ropes intended to cordon the thousands who normally flood the site on a July weekend swung idly in the breeze. Inside, no more than a dozen visitors — most, judging from the murmured exchanges, Italians — stood marvelling at the sun spilling through the oculus overhead. I could have reserved a same-day visit to the Vatican Museums online, had I wanted to, and would have arrived to no queues, no fray.

Later that afternoon, I rang Roscioli, one of Rome’s perennially great restaurants (and most notoriously difficult tables in town to get). Normally, for a weekend in July, I’d have had to book weeks in advance; but could they perhaps take me this evening, say around 7.45pm? Actually, yes, they could.

I’m aware that mine is a one-dimensional perspective on what is, despite Italy now being effectively open for business to mainland Europe and the UK, still a troublesome moment here. This is the world’s fifth most-visited country; tourism accounts for 13 per cent of its GDP — about €230bn annually. The summer 2020 data presents a crisis scene: inbound flight bookings to Florence (one of the hardest-hit metropolitan areas) between July 13 and August 23 are down by more than 90 per cent compared with last summer, according to figures from Enit, the National Tourism Agency.

The absence of Americans, East and South-East Asians and, until recently, Brits — the last group alone accounted for about 5.1m visitors in 2019 — is palpable. While it’s great for those of us who have come (see: empty squares, queue-free museums, hill towns and seaside ports largely returned to their inhabitants), there are many in the hospitality and culture sectors whose financial solvency has been thrown into long-term question.

“In Rome we’ve seen locals coming out in fairly large numbers to use the bar and restaurant. That side of the business has been strong,” says Rocco Forte.

The rooms business is another story: the mid-July point saw Rocco Forte Collection hotels in Italy — which include two resorts, Verdura in Sicily and Masseria Torre Maizza in Puglia (a second Rome property, Hotel de la Ville, remains closed) — averaging 20 per cent occupancy, at a time when they are normally at capacity. For later in August, especially in Puglia, that number is on the rise, but “the reality is that in general we’re not expecting the hotel room side to be busy,” Forte admits.

It’s a story repeated across the country, and the challenge is greatest for those who have adapted their businesses to be more America- and Asia-facing. “The US is a huge market for us — a little more than 50 per cent,” says Antonio Sersale, owner of Le Sirenuse in Positano, one of the Amalfi coast’s most celebrated destination hotels, which reopened on July 1. “But we thought we needed to send this signal to our guests. They might not be able to get here, but it’s important to keep ourselves forefront in their minds: we’re here, now, waiting to welcome you back.”

Vito Cinque, the owner of Il San Pietro di Positano, just down the coast, is faring somewhat better as a result of having cultivated a more European client base, based on longtime repeat guests, word of mouth and membership of Relais & Châteaux. In July he averaged 53 per cent; for August, bookings are currently up to 65 per cent. “It’s down to a long-term strategy we haven’t changed over the years, despite the opportunity to do so,” he says.

What’s interesting, adds Sersale — and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed by hoteliers and restaurateurs from Venice to the Val d’Orcia — is the curious tension between the dire economic situation and the contentment, and goodwill, that seem to be prevailing.

“Yes, everyone’s suffering financially. Ultimately we can’t sustain these kinds of numbers. But the fact is it’s actually really lovely here right now. The pace is slower and more relaxed. The staff are so happy to be back, the guests who have come so happy to be here.” Some of them — French, a few Italians and British — are choosing to extend their stays by a few nights, because, for once, they can; the flexibility of flights and unprecedented room availability make it possible. “And everyone is being really nice. That’s everywhere, not just Positano but Naples, Rome, beyond. There’s no tourist fatigue.”

While continued travel bans prevent long-haul tourists, I admit to being mystified by the continued absence of visitors from the UK, and a bit annoyed by the occasionally spiky responses from English friends to my Instagram posts — variations on “Ugh, stop it!” and “I can’t believe you’re actually THERE.” They seem to miss the point that it is entirely possible to take a flight and get here later the same day.

But there are hopes for an improvement in the second half of the high season. British Airways has resumed service to 12 cities in Italy, a number that will climb to 16 later this week. EasyJet flies nonstop to Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice from Gatwick. Seemingly every week, more businesses are resuming as (close to) usual.

Emily FitzRoy, whose company Bellini organises trips and events across the country, spoke to me from the tiny Amalfi village of Nerano, where she is holidaying with her family at Lo Scoglio, a destination restaurant with a gilded international clientele and — its less-known asset — a small number of €120-a-night rooms. For three months, her business came to a virtual standstill but the prospect of an August uptick, she says, is heartening. The Raphael exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (originally scheduled to end in June but extended to August 30) is so booked up in the second half of the month that she’s now organising private, before-hours visits.

Le Sirenuse in Positano reopened on July 1: ‘We’re here, now, waiting to welcome you back, ‘says owner Antonio Sersale Le Sirenuse in Positano reopened on July 1: ‘We’re here, now, waiting to welcome you back,’ says owner Antonio Sersale . . .  © Roberto Salomone
. . . Meanwhile on the beach at Amalfi, sun umbrellas are socially distanced . . . Meanwhile on the beach at Amalfi, sun umbrellas are socially distanced © Getty Images

We discuss the out-of-time peace across Tuscany’s villages, and the calm of the Amalfi coast (in both places her clients are slightly favouring villa rentals over hotels). We commiserate on behalf of Florence, where both of us were struck by the emptiness — inevitable, we speculate, when a historic centre relies so wholly on a mass market. “I was standing on the Ponte Vecchio at midday, when it should have been absolutely chocka, and I was the only person there,” she says. “For about a half a minute, it was exhilarating — and then it was actually really sad.”

But Florentines are resilient, pivoting admirably in response to Covid: witness the ReGeneration Festival, 2020’s rapidly reimagined iteration of the New Generation Festival, which will take place August 26-29. Founded in 2017 by Maximilian Fane, Roger Granville and Francis Parham, the festival is, under normal circumstances, a four-night programme of live music and theatre, celebrating young talent from across the world in the gardens of the Palazzo Corsini al Prato.

This year, the three thirtysomething Englishmen have partnered with the Uffizi Galleries and the City of Florence to move things to the Boboli Gardens, whose reaches can accommodate the social distancing that will allow the show to go on. And every performance, from Rossini’s La Cenerentola to Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, performed by the Italian Youth Orchestra, will be free.

Of all Italy’s celebrated destinations, though, Venice is the most genuinely extraordinary to experience right now. More than perhaps any other place in Europe, it has suffered at the hands of the tourism that feeds it; some 25m people a year visit this city of only about 55,000 permanent residents. Three weeks ago, a walk through St Mark’s Square felt like entering a Canaletto — a smattering of mostly Venetians, countable on two hands, bells pealing, the Giudecca canal close to empty. Only the traghetti, a few fishing boats and the odd water taxi plied its jade-hued expanse. But the Accademia is open, the Doge’s Palace as well.

“I can’t recall the last time I saw Venice so aristocratic in her beauty,” says Cesare Benelli, the owner, with his Texas-born wife Diane Rankin, of Al Covo, one of the city’s most beloved restaurants. Benelli is the current president of Ristoranti della Buona Accoglienza, a 16-strong group of restaurateurs who celebrate and preserve the micro-local food and wine traditions of the lagoon. I had lunch in the cool of their dining room — the lone client there, though two couples were seated outside on the patio. Sweet raw prawns, a light frittura di pesce and a delicious natural prosecco that Benelli’s 28-year-old son Lorenzo poured for me.

A lone gondolier in front of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. . .  A lone gondolier in front of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice . . .  © Reuters
 . . . and a customer breakfasting in a deserted Piazza San Marco: ‘Of all Italy’s celebrated destinations, Venice is the most extraordinary to experience right now’  . . . and a customer breakfasting in a deserted Piazza San Marco: ‘Of all Italy’s celebrated destinations, Venice is the most extraordinary to experience right now’ © NurPhoto/Getty Images

I’d walked all the way from the Aman Venice in San Polo, which reopened at the end of June; effectively, a walk across the city, past the Salizada San Samuele, through San Marco and along the Riva degli Schiavoni. I heard Venetian and Friulian accents, German and French. I encountered perhaps a tenth of the people I normally would on this walk — a walk I’ve taken many times, and one in truth I’d have slightly braced myself for, any other summer. On this windblown, sun-saturated day, with the brine of a preternaturally clean lagoon in the air, it was, truly, magical.

“The truth of this city is that it doesn’t have a future if we continue on the same path,” Benelli told me when we spoke by phone recently. “These huge fluctuations of people; they can’t last. This moment has been a wonderful sort of sosta”— a break — “during which we’ve had the chance to rethink the way forward. For us, the fear is only that we return to how things have been.”

That’s another, and much longer, story entirely. For now, at the risk of sounding like a proselytiser (which, really, I am): go, if your circumstances allow it. Italy 2020 is not to be missed — and very likely won’t be repeated.

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