Jun 10, 2022

Testing requirement lifted for international flights, but at what cost to travelers' health and safety?

 

Pre-departure testing no longer required

Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from abroad no longer have to produce a negative Covid test taken the day before travel. The move eliminates one of the hassles of flying internationally, but at what cost to the safety of customers and crew?

From the feedback I received on a recent blog post arguing in favor of keeping the requirement, many believe pre-departure testing is not worth the trouble or expense, even as highly-transmissible Omicron variants spread, and passengers no longer have to wear masks.

For those readers, the Biden Administration had good news over the weekend. As of Sunday, June 12, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its testing requirement which applied to all travelers entering the U.S. by air - vaccinated and unvaccinated. Airlines and others in the travel industry pushed the administration to drop the requirement, arguing it was hurting demand for international trips. 

Over the weekend, they praised the government's decision, citing mainly economic benefits, but not addressing how the move might affect the health and safety of passengers and crew. 

The administration put in place the testing requirement last year, as it moved away from restrictions that banned nonessential travel from several dozen countries. The initial mandate allowed those who were fully vaccinated to show proof of a negative test within three days of travel, while unvaccinated people had to present a test taken within one day of travel.

In November, as the Omicron variant swept the world, the administration toughened the requirement and required all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to test within a day of travel to the US.

The CDC, which says it still recommends testing before any flight, said it will reassess the decision in 90 days.  “If there is a need to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement — including due to a new, concerning variant — CDC will not hesitate to act,”  and official said.

Let's hope so, because in the meantime, anyone with Covid or with symptoms of Covid can now board an international flight to the U.S., no questions asked. There is no requirement that anyone wear a mask. Airlines argue that their filtration systems offer good protection, but that's not reassuring when someone sitting next to you for hours is coughing, or the plane sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate to open up (which happened to a friend recently in Newark and Seattle).  

Here's the situation one traveler found himself in when he recently boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Wyoming to see friends. 

"I sat rigid in my seat, and was aware of everything happening around me," he reported. "Simply put, I call it the C & S flight — Coughing and Sneezing. Everywhere. Every 4.3 minutes. Yes, I timed it."

Some argue that because the CDC never required pre-departure testing for domestic flights, it didn't make sense to require testing before boarding international flights. I'd counter that one bad decision doesn't justify another at a time the government is bracing for the pandemic’s "next wave" by asking for billions of dollars in Covid relief.

One prediction: Watch for airlines to equate the elimination of testing and masking requirements as a sign of downgraded risk. That could give them an opening to reinstate fees and penalties for cancelling or changing flights. The ability to change a flight, or cancel  and receive a credit has no doubt kept many sick people off planes. With Covid risks downplayed, how long will those policies stay in place? 


Jun 2, 2022

Airlines ignore passenger safety by lobbying to end pre-departure Covid testing for international travel

 

Testing "negativo" before a flight from Italy to the U.S.

At a time when highly-transmissible Covid variants are spreading even among the vaccinated and boosted, would you feel better about returning to the U.S. from overseas knowing that everyone aboard the aircraft had tested negative the day before, or having no idea who might or might not be infected with Covid. 

If airlines get their way, the U.S. could soon drop its requirement that all airline passengers - vaccinated or unvaccinated - produce a pre-departure negative antigen (rapid) Covid test the day before returning from an international destination. 

The U.S. Travel Association and Airlines for America, trade groups that represent the travel industry and U.S. airlines, are pressing the Biden Administration to end the protection, arguing that the "travel industry remains disproportionately harmed" by the requirement. Lifting the protective measure would "lead to more foreigners visiting the U.S." they argue, and besides, as one spokesman reasoned, Covid "is here already."

None of these arguments address the health and safety of passengers, the ones buying over-priced tickets, spending extra hours arriving early at airports due to "staffing" shortages, or even the costs involved in flight crews calling in sick after being exposed to untested passengers. 

Granted antigen tests are not full-proof. It's possible to test negative on a rapid test, and then test positive a few days later. But what a negative result does show in most cases is that you aren't yet immediately contagious, and therefore not endangering fellow passengers sitting near you in an enclosed space for long periods of time.

As far as putting U.S. tourism at a disadvantage compared to other countries that have lifted their testing requirements, I'd say gun violence and mass shootings at schools, grocery stores and hospitals will have more to do with whether or not foreigners decide to travel to the U.S.

Much is made about the "inconvenience" and expense of testing. So just how difficult is it to get a test while traveling? You can do it at most airports right before your flight if you want, or to be safe, make an appointment at a local pharmacy in town the day before.

That's what my husband and I did on a recent trip to Italy. The whole process took about 15 minutes, and cost around $20. We waited outside on the sidewalk until the pharmacist declared us "negativo," and handed us our paperwork in English and Italian. He also sent the results in an e-mail so we could download them into our Air France "Ready to Fly" App, and get our boarding passes on our phones instead of having to check in at a crowded airport desk.

It's true that if you test positive, you won't be able to fly until you test negative. Another possibility is to wait five days and get a doctor to sign off that you're no longer contagious. In any case, it means having a back-up plan - a hotel room in which to isolate and an airline ticket that allows changes.

It's the price we should all continue to pay for the privilege of traveling during a pandemic which is not yet over. Without the requirement, people would no doubt get on planes with symptoms, telling themselves that it's just a cold or allergies.

Instead of making up excuses to sell more tickets by eliminating testing, Airlines should be lobbying to keep the requirements in place to protect their passengers and flight crews. They should also be dong more to encourage everyone to wear masks, per CDC recommendations, instead of celebrating the lifting of mandatory masking.

They could start by asking flight attendants to model Covid-safe travel by following CDC recommendations that "everyone properly wear a well-fitting mask over the nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation such as airplanes, trains, etc,. and transportation hubs such as airports, stations."

No flight attendants wore masks on a recent Delta flight between Seattle and Cincinnati. "It's nice to see your smiles again," said a sign posted near the gate announcing that masks were now optional. 

I'd much preferred a sign that said "Masks are no longer mandatory. But for your protection and the protection of fellow passengers and flight crews, please consider wearing a mask while not drinking or eating."


May 6, 2022

Torino: An Italian city offering culture and cuisine without the crowds

 

Via Roma traverses three squares with arcades paved in marble

Long lines and high prices will greet visitors to Italy this summer and fall as tourists return in pre-pandemic numbers. Rome, Florence and Venice go to the list of top destinations for good reasons. But for those who can spare the time, second-tier cities offer opportunities to soak up Italian culture and cuisine without the crowds.

Turin or Torino in the Northern Italian Piedmont region, is a good example. A city of about one million In the foothills of the Alps, it was our last stop on a two-week trip just after Easter to test the overseas travel waters post-Covid. 

An elegant arcade houses the Cafe Baratti & Milano

Like Genoa, where we spent the previous four days, Torino gets little attention in guidebooks. Known today as the birthplace of the Fiat car, the Olivetti typewriter, vermouth and chocolate sold in bar form, the city holds a special place in Italian history as first capital after the country united as a nation in 1861. The honor eventually went to Florence and then Rome as Torino flourished as a financial center filled with opulent palazzi, huge squares and arcaded shopping areas built by wealthy nobility.

Old-fashioned trams, a good bus system and pedestrianized walkways made it easy to get around. And while the emphasis during Covid was to avoid contact with people as much as possible, the Torinese seem to making up for lost time by creating all sorts of ways for visitors to connect. 

Sleeping with a local

We made a last-minute switch from an Airbnb to a regular bed and breakfast when I spotted the reviews for B&B D'Orso Poeta (The teddy bear poet), a two-room B&B in an elegant former palazzo a few blocks from the Porta Nuova train station. Nicoletta Stefano reopened in September in the third-floor apartment where she welcomes visitors from around the world. 

B&B D'Orso Poeta

Some might find it easier to stay in a hotel than keep track of five different keys to open four doors, but once inside, almost anyone would appreciate Nicoletta's attention to detail. Antique furnishings, framed artwork, Oriental-style rugs, a Nespresso coffee maker and well-stocked fridge made us feel like honored guests.

The price was $125 per night, about what we'd been paying for similar accommodations throughout the trip. One interesting change Nicoletta made due to Covid was to pivot from serving breakfast to a self-serve system. She filled the fridge with yogurt, milk, juice and fruit for guests to help themselves, and left croissants or bread in a bag on the table the night before. This way guests could either keep to themselves, or if they wanted, chat with her in Italian when she came over from her apartment next door to clean up. One morning we found a note on the counter saying she left a bottle of Prosecco for us to enjoy on our balcony. I like the Airbnb system, but I like B&Bs more because of the opportunity to connect with locals like Nicoletta. 

Dinner with Carlotta

I've been a fan of Eatwith.com for several years. Eatwith operates like the Airbnb of dining. Amateur cooks post their profiles on the website along with a proposed menu. Covid put most of these dinners on hold for more than a year, but now hosts are gradually returning.

Carlotta Muti, a professional tour guide and self-taught cook, offered a dinner in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in Torino's historical center. We packed a few extra Covid tests in our carry-ons so that the three of us (her boyfriend had other plans) could test ourselves beforehand.

Carlotta with hazelnut cake topped with zabaglione

With the tests showing negative, we relaxed and sipped Prosecco along with an antipasti of local cheeses, meats, honey and a wine-infused jam. Carlotta disappeared into the kitchen, and came out with a dense, spinach flan which she served with a local red wine. Pasta with ground hazelnuts followed. Dessert was a hazelnut cake soaked with zabaglione, an Italian custard made with egg yokes and sugar. Carlotta is a fluent English speaker, so the conversation flowed easily. We especially enjoyed hearing about the annual American Thanksgiving dinner she hosts for friends, complete with pumpkin pie (Is it considered a sweet or savory dish, she wondered) and a Martha Stewart cheesecake.

Walking tours

Walking tours offered by Freetour.com, a worldwide network of enthusiastic local guides, provide an easy way to get the lay of the land in a new city. The tours generally run two-three hours. At the end, you tip the guide whatever you want - usually around 10 euro per person.  

We signed up for an introductory Saturday walk around the city with Free Tour Turin, and then the next day, found a stroll titled "Historic Cafes and Chocolatiers"  offered by a local Airbnb host.

More than 100 people showed up for the Free Tour walk offered in Italian, Spanish and English. There were only eight English speakers in the crowd, so as the others gathered in two huge groups, we had what was essentially a private three-hour tour with our excellent English-speaking guide, Olivier Frasca.

Our group in the Galleria Federico with the Cinema Lux in the center

Leaving the tourist office meeting point at the Porta Nuova train station, we strolled along the Via Roma, a 16th century gateway into the old city that traverses three major squares and hosts two churches near a building that was the former German Gestapo headquarters during the World War II.

From here we got our first glimpse of Torino's more than 11 miles of arcaded streets, many housing high-fashion boutiques and historic cafes. I liked the way Oliver interspersed stops at historical landmarks (the former Parliament building, Royal Palace, Egyptian Museum, the Cathedral housing the Shroud of Turin) with the best places to sample gelato and sip Bicerin, Torino's signature coffee drink made by layering hot chocolate, coffee and cream in a glass.

Pepino has been making gelato since 1884.

Paolo Rapa, an Airbnb host, designed a three-hour chocolate and coffee tour which he offers for $22 per person on Airbnb's Turin site under a category called "Experiences."  I e-mailed Rapa to see if he was available on a Sunday. He answered back, and we arranged to meet the next day at 10 a.m.

Caffe Torino, opened in 1903, with the city's emblem, a bull, above the bar. 

Our first stop was the Caffe Torinio in the Piazza San Carlo. It's considered good luck to rub your foot over a brass plaque of a bull (Torino means little bull in Italian) on the pavement outside. Inside, you can have a coffee at the non-touristic price of around $1.50.

Torino is known for its chocolates combined with local hazelnuts, a tradition started with the first production of chocolate bars in the mid 1800s when artisans, facing a shortage of cocoa, began stretching the supply by mixing it with the local hazelnuts. The taste is familiar in the popular chocolate spread, Nutella, produced nearby in Ferraro.

Before then, chocolate was enjoyed as a liquid after it was first introduced by the Duke of Savoy in 1559. That custom continues with Bicerin, the drink of coffee, hot chocolate and milk, originally served separately, then mixed by the customer. 

 

Cafe Al Bicerin

The Cafe Al Bicerin, the bar that invented the drink, sits across from the Church of the Virgin of the Consolation. Parishioners would come in and order Bicerin for sustenance during fasting periods.

Enjoying Bicerin with Paolo and a Spanish friend

Today, baristas layer the chocolate, coffee and cream together in one glass, with strict instructions not to mix or stir.

For all of those calling for more aperitivo pictures, here are two from one of the best places we found on the trip. Dozens of bars on the Piazza Vittorio Veneto serve a spread of small plates and appetizers along with the price of a drink ($10-$12) starting around 5 p.m. The aperitivo hour is popular all over Italy today, but it actually originated in Milan and Turin in the 1920s when workers would end their day with a pre-dinner drink. The two cities still compete to offer the best. 


Aperitivo hour with an Aperol Spritz

That's a wrap on our first trip back to Italy after Covid. Ciao for now!


Apr 30, 2022

Up the down staircases in Genoa


The cliffside walking path at Nervi near Genoa

Genoa is Italy’s sixth-largest city with stunning views of the Liguarian sea, a pedestrianized Medieval old town, great restaurants, museums and cafes, but it gets little attention in guidebooks. Most visit on a day trip from the Cinque Terre, on a cruise ship stop, or from one of the beach resorts less than an hour’s train ride away.

The Ligurian coastline at Nervi

This is a good thing, if like us, you like mid-sized cities more than small towns. Fewer tourists mean less crowding, lower prices and more relaxed locals. And you can always day-trip in reverse. We reached the  coastal town of Nervi, above, known for its 2.2-mile cliff side walking path, in just 20 minutes by train. That left us plenty of time to get back to the city for the apertivo hour when the bars compete with each other for the best free spreads to go with the price of an Aperol sprtiz. 


Apertivo hour at Storico on Genoa’s Piazza de Ferrari

The Storico, across from the opera house, includes at least 15 items on its 12 euro afternoon special, including oysters, cheeses, meats, fish balls, risotto, a seafood cocktail, fruit and a mini-dessert. Its terrace faces the Piazza de Ferrari, the unofficial dividing line between 19th Genoa, with its arcaded shopping streets and monumental buildings, and the pedestrianized Medieval town of little shops tucked into narrow alleys called “creuze.”

The Piazza de Ferrari, the main financial center of Italy in the 19th century

An arcaded shopping street along Via XX Settembre


View of Genoa from the highest funicular stop

Genoa was the main financial center of Italy in the 19th century. Bankers, merchants and princes adorned the city with palaces, churches and impressive art. Crammed into a thin sliver of land between the sea and mountains, Genoa was built up rather than out. Buildings are layered on top of each other, so that it’s not unusual today to see someone walking out of their house via the roof of another person’s apartment. Public transportation includes elevators and funiculars as well as buses and an underground metro.


 The 125-year-old Zecca-Righi funicular 

We rode the Zecca-Righi funicular to a neighborhood about 1000 feet up. Walking back down was easy via a network of staircases and foot paths leading to streets with names such as Vico del Cioccolatte (Milk Chocolate alley) taken from commercial activities that once took place there. Our fitbits show us logging 14,000-17,000 steps per day most days!

Milk Chocolate street in the Carmine neighborhood

We explored more on a walking tour with Spyros, a Greek guide who partners with Genoa’s hostels to lead pay-whatever-you-want strolls for anyone who signs up the day before.


Spyros in a former 16th century palazzo, now a  police station.

Eight of us followed Spyros around for four hours, climbing staircases, riding the elevators and poking around the crueze where there might be a shop selling focaccia bread on one corner, and prostitutes sitting in doorways on the next. He pointed out buildings where windows on the third or fourth floors were painted in the trompe l’oeil style to look as if they had real shutters and window frames. This was supposedly to avoid a tax levied on the number of windows facing the street. Artists incorporated the style on the facades of many buildings in Liguria, including palaces and government buildings, as owners figured out they could save money by using paint instead of building materials to create an illusion that tricks the eye into thinking the bricks, marble columns or shutters are real.


The creuze of Genoa 

With Spyros, we walked to the top of San Lorenzo, Genoa’s cathedral, built in 1098. It houses the ashes of St. John the Baptist and the shell of an unexploded  bomb mistakenly shot into the church by the British during World War II. 

San Lorenzo cathedral, reconstructed in the Gothic style with white and black stripes.

When we booked our hotel, the Best Western Metropoli, we didn’t realize we were around the corner from the most elegant street in Genoa, Via Garibaldi, a pedestrianized UNESCO site lined with Palazzi del Rolli, palaces built by wealthy families in the 16th and 17th centuries. Most of the buildings are owned today by banks and other private businesses, but one, the Palazzo Lomellino, is still a private home, occupied by three generations of one family.  To pay for upkeep, they offer tours through rooms decorated with frescoes, commissioned by the original owners, depicting stories from mythology and religious events important to their families. “Rolli” means “list,” indicating that these homes were on a list of private accommodations deemed worthy of housing visiting nobility and government officials. 

Frescoes in a palazzo along the Via Garibaldi, now occupied by Deutsche Bank.



Three generations of one family live in the Palazzo Lomellino which incorporates  faux window treatments made to look real 

The port of Genoa 

Back down at sea level, Genoa’s port incorporates a massive working waterfront, a portion of which has been renovated to include restaurants, museums and food shops. The city’s most exported food product is pesto, a green sauce made with basil, Parmesan, Pecorino, pine nuts and olive oil. It’s as important to Genoa as pizza is to Naples. Every restaurant serves it atop a short-rolled pasta called Trofie. We like pesto, but we make it all the time at home. More fun for us was a trip to the port for Genoa’s version of fish and chips - fried anchovies with tails left intact and chick pea fries served in a paper cone. 

Fish and chips on the Genoa waterfront 


Apr 24, 2022

On the road again: Masks, green passes and aperitifs in Lucca, Italy


Aperol spritz, Italy’s favorite aperitivo

Two flights, one tram ride, one train ride, 17 hours of wearing masks, and Tom and I arrived in Lucca, Italy for the start of our first overseas trip since the Covid lockdowns began in March, 2020. We ignored jet leg, walked five miles our first afternoon, and celebrated with an Aperol spritz. It’s likely to be our first of many. Stopping around 5 p.m. to enjoy a spritz (Aperol bitters, Prosecco and sparkling water) with a buffet of free snacks, is a national pastime.

The week just after Easter and before the start of the late spring and summer music festivals turns out to be an ideal time to visit this Tuscan city, about an hour’s train ride from Florence. It’s best known for its ancient fortified walls rebuilt in the 15th-16th centuries, and later turned into 2.6 miles of paved walking and biking paths circling the historic center.

The walls of Lucca

Crowds and and traffic are sparse this time of year, and Covid protections are in force, at least until May 1, including requiring masks in indoor public places and proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and ride long-distance trains. 

Media reports made much of  passengers cheering news that U.S. airlines would no longer require masks. We heard the announcement mid-flight on our way from Seattle to Amsterdam on Delta Airlines. No one cheered (maybe because it was the middle of the night), and most everyone kept their masks on. With cases again rising in the U.S., it feels like a particularly bad idea for people not to mask up. Apparently Air France agrees. We’re flying Delta’s french partner on our way back, and we’re happy masks are still required.

Masking up on the train

I know many still feel unsure about traveling abroad, but it almost feels safer to be in Italy right now than in the U.S. Italians seem to respect the rules around protecting themselves and others, perhaps because they know what it’s like to be hit hard by strict lockdowns, hospitalizations and deaths. They use a digital “green pass” to prove vaccinations and boosters. Everyone here accepts American CDC cards, but it would be nice if we too had a standardized electronic pass.

One convenient change, perhaps brought on by Covid, is there seems to be no need to use cash for even the smallest purchases. We’ve been using Apple Pay everywhere, and although we came with 100 euros leftover from a previous trip, we’ve yet to spend hardly any cash.

Italy has been hit with inflation and soaring fuel costs due to the war in Ukraine, but, perhaps because the dollar is strong against the euro ($1.08), costs are reasonable, and even a bargain compared to prices at home. The bill for our first meal at a local trattoria was $40 for a shared antipasti, two pastas, wine, water and dessert. Local bakeries sell slices of Torta di Erbe,  a Lucca speciality made with spinach or Swiss chard, raisins and pine nuts, for $2 a slice. A cappuccino at our favorite bookstore cafe is $1.50.

Our Airbnb with a very secure door

Airbnbs are ideal for Covid-safe travel. Above, Tom unlocks the door to our suite in Lucca’s old town. Our host, Paola, and her family live upstairs. Guests get three rooms downstairs - a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom - with a private entrance. In the distance is a famous landmark, the Guinigi Tower, built by a wealthy family in the 1300s. Powerful families built towers as a symbol of their wealth. The garden on top was designed to get around a height restriction, and assure the owners that their tower would be the tallest. 

Walking the walls

Lucca is like three cities in one. There’s a section originally built by the Romans. Another dates to Medieval times and another to the Renaissance. Wealthy silk merchants financed beautiful piazzas, palaces and parks. Toilet paper has since replaced  silk as the leading export, but tourism revenues ensure everything stays manicured and well-kept.  The composer Giacomo Puccini was born here, and for those who can’t time their visit to a full-length opera, singers perform arias and duets nightly as part of the Puccini en la sua Lucca program. We joined about 50 others in a small chapel for an hour-long concert of selections from Puccini and Verdi compositions. Our seats were so close to the stage that we could make eye contact with the performers, and see the pianist’s musical score.


An intimate opera performance 

Where a Roman amphitheater once stood is the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, a public square with a ring of buildings built in the same elliptical shape, and reached through four gateways. Cafes

Piazza dell’Anfiteatro

occupy prime real estate for people-watching and listening to summer jazz concerts. Flower-sellers filled the piazza this weekend with flowers and plants to celebrate the feast day of Saint Zita, patron saint of Lucca. Saint Zita, a servant and housekeeper, distributed bread to the poor. When the family for whom she worked caught her smuggling bread from the kitchen, they pulled open her apron, only to find flowers falling to the ground, or so the story goes. To celebrate her feast day, Lucca families bake bread and bring flowers to the Church of San Frediano where her body, believed to be naturally mummified, is displayed.

Flowers at the Church of San Frediano 

Saint Zita with hands and face uncovered for viewing

Heavy rains, thunder storms and strong winds are breaking a four-month drought in Northern Italy just as we get ready to continue our trip along the Ligurian coast to Genoa. Our plan is to  stop for two nights in Chiavari, a seaside town north of the Cinque Terre. If there is a place to hunker down during a rainstorm, this may be it. Most of the shops and restaurants are tucked into narrow streets protected by a network of porticos built by the Genovese in the Middle Ages. We’ll hope for a break in the weather to explore the arcades, parks and seaside, but if all else fails, there’s always this:

Apr 12, 2022

Kickstarting foreign travel: Be flexible; expect change and more change


Genoa, where funiculars and elevators are as common as buses

In thinking about kickstarting overseas travel after a two-year pause, I had to remind myself that whatever the Covid situation was at the time I started planning, things were likely to change by the time we were ready to depart. 

My husband and I are experienced travelers who have been to Italy many times. Yet even as booster shots became available and Covid was subsiding in the U.S., I planned cautiously, whittling a three-week plan down to two, and streamlining the itinerary to avoid congested airports, long train rides and crowded cities..

My No. 1 rule was flexibility. No non-refundable anything. Thus, no need for expensive travel insurance. Airline tickets could be cancelled anytime (for a credit, not cash). I picked accommodations that required no advance payment or non-refundable deposits. These included an Airbnb and a hotel that allowed cancellation up to the day before with no penalty, and an Airbnb and B&B that asked for just a week's notice.  

Luck has so far been on our side. We're getting ready to depart soon, but as I expected, things have changed.

I assumed Italy would keep in place its strict masking and proof-of-vaccination requirements for doing most anything. Those protections were one reason we choose to travel there. It was disappointing to learn that officials decided to relax some mandates, but unlike most other European countries, Italy continues to enforce indoor masking in public places and vaccination proof needed to eat inside restaurants.

The Omicron variant BA.2 had not taken hold in Europe when I began planning. Then one day, it began to surge, causing cases to climb in the UK and elsewhere. It caused us briefly to reconsider our plans. But with no pressure to make an early decision to cancel, we decided to wait and see if the situation changed. It did. Cases fell 11 percent over a recent 14-day period. The New York Times reports that they are averaging around 100 per 100,000 - about the same as in King County, Seattle -in most of the cities we plan to visit.

Still in place is a U.S. requirement that all people entering the country from overseas present proof of a negative Covid test taken a day before departure. That too could change soon, and as of May 3, the CDC might bend to pressure from the airlines, and drop a requirement that passengers wear masks on planes and in airports. I'm hoping not, but if so, it could mean that a flight to Europe before that time will be more Covid-safe than a flight back. 


As for our itinerary, we'll be flying directly into Florence on Delta via Amsterdam. Airports in second-tier cities are always less crowded, and airfares are often no more expensive than flying into the major cities.

From the airport, we'll take a tram to the train station, and a train directly to Lucca, a smaller Tuscan town near Pisa. Our $100-per-night Airbnb in a historical house within the Old Town is within an hour's train ride of La Spezia, a port city on the Ligurian coast where we will visit a friend who lives there. As much as we would have loved to visit dear friends in Southern Italy,  we decided it best to minimize long train rides, and stick to destinations that were close by. Besides Lucca, we plan several days in Chiavari, a coastal town near Genoa; Genoa itself; and Turin in the north region of Piedmont.

With the exception of Lucca, none of these towns attract many foreign tourists. What they lack in major sites, they make up for by offering the experience of just "being" in Italy. 

Turin's bicerin

In Turin, we look forward to sampling bicerin, a traditional espresso, cream and hot chocolate drink served at the city's elegant cafes, and having a Piedmontese dinner in the home of a chef and tour guide named Carlotta arranged through eatwith.com. We'll likely visit the Egyptian museum in Turin; take a side trip to the town of Asti, noted for its sparkling wine; and join a walking tour with a local woman who arms visitors maps, and sends them on a scavenger hunt to uncover hidden curiosities.

Genoa is best known as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, for its pesto and its busy port. A three-hour daily walking tour offered by one of the local hostels promises to uncover more. Crammed into a crescent of land between the sea and mountains, Genoa expanded up rather than out, with churches, streets and neighborhoods built on others' rooftops. Footpaths, called creuze connect the sea to surrounding hills. Public elevators and funiculars are as common a buses. 

Torta Zena

Following the advice of Fred Plotkin, opera expert and author of Italy for the Gourmet Traveler, we'll scout out the pastry shop where Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi bought his sweets, and look for torta zena, a traditional sponge cake filled with rum-flavored zabaglione.

As many times as we have been in Italy, all of these cities will be new to us. It's not Uzbekistan, Egypt or Myanmar, all places we traveled to before Covid, but it's a start.  


Apr 5, 2022

Vancouver rising: Riverfront wine tasting, walks, dining along the shores of the Columbia

 

Waterfront Vancouver's Grant Street Pier

Sawmills, shipyards, breweries and a paper mill once lined the north bank of the Columbia River in what some call the "Other Vancouver," the Washington town across the water from Portland that thrived with industry in the late 1800s.

Fast-forward to a post-pandemic 2022. People walk their dogs and kids play in a waterfront park flanked by restaurants, wine tasting rooms, a gourmet coffee "gastro" cafe, and coming later this year, two hotels; an El Gaucho and Thirteen Coins restaurant; a brewery; and a tap room.

"It intrigued me from the beginning," recalls developer Barry Cain who spearheaded Waterfront Vancouver,  a mixed-use project with office buildings and residences, for the Gramor CG Development company.  When Boise Cascade decided to close its paper mill in 2006, leaving dormant 35-acres of prime waterfront property just south of downtown Vancouver, Cain saw the opportunity "to take a situation like that, and do something that could change the face of the city."  

Tying everything together is a city-owned 7-acre park  connecting to the 5-mile Columbia River Renaissance jogging and biking trail. Open-air patios front on the half-mile Waterfront Park paved path with granite benches, play areas and water features, separated to the east and west by the Grant Street Pier, a walkway and overlook suspended 90 feet over the river.

"Vancouver has always lived in the shadow of Portland," says  Seidy Selivanow, owner of Kafiex Roasters' Gastro Cafe which opened on the waterfront last April.  "Now it's taking on an identify of its own."

Fodor's Travel took note, naming the Vancouver waterfront to its 2021 list of the nation's 15 best riverwalks.

Seidy Selivanow of Kafiex Roasters brews coffee Siphon-style in a glass pot heated by a halogen light

Pastries baked in-house fill a glass case in the airy Kafiex cafe with outdoor tables overlooking the river, and a cheery interior set off with a mural evoking the landscape of a Mexican coffee farm. 

Avocado toast on the menu at the Kafiex gastro cafe

Beans are sourced from Vancouver-based Cafe Femenino which buys from female coffee growers around the world.  On the menu are coffee-infused cocktails, and from the "slow bar," coffee brewed Siphon-style in glass pots heated by glowing red halogen lights.

Around the corner is Pop-Local, the waterfront's newest tenant. When the Covid pandemic forced the temporary closure of entrepreneur Jessica Chan's popular Night Market Vancouver,  she brought the concept indoors, transitioning to a brick-and-mortar "farmers market" style outlet for her vendors.

Teas with a warrior theme on sale at Pop-Local 

Eight-five Washington and Oregon "makers" supply crafts and foods produced no more than an hour's drive from Vancouver. 

For sale are items such as small-batch apple, maple and bourbon soy wax candles by Naty's   Candles; warrior-themed teas by Veteran-owned Valhalla Tea; and Mission Citizen coffee sold by local high school students to fund citizenship classes for immigrants. 

A taste of the Northwest 

With work progressing on the two hotels and other buildings, visitors will find themselves sidestepping around construction and "Opening soon" signs. 

Scattered throughout the development are nine tasting rooms owned by Washington and Oregon wineries.

"We went over to Walla Walla, and said to ourselves, 'We really should be thinking about having these guys come over here,' " Cain recalled. "Shortly after, we were contacted by Maryhill, and it kind of went on from there."

The winery, located just west of the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Wa., opened the waterfront's first, largest and most elaborate tasting room, a 5,000-square-foot space with indoor and patio seating overlooking the river. 

The antique bar at Maryhill's Vancouver tasting room 

The steep tasting fee ($25, waived with a $30 bottle purchase) and pricey menu of small plates is a splurge, but the location on the river's edge attracts crowds even on cloudy weekdays. Coming  later this year on the second floor of same building is a Willamette Valley Vineyards tasting room. 


A vintage highway sign hangs at Airfield Estates' tasting room 

Popular with flight attendants staying at nearby hotels is the smaller Airfield Estates,  operated by the fourth-generation Miller family in Washington's Yakima Valley whose ranch was used as a training school for World War II pilots. Old photos of the flight crews decorate the restroom walls. Hanging above a table in the tasting room is a vintage highway sign advertising the farm's  sugar beats, corn and peppermint.

Suburban Seattle's Brian Carter Cellars puts together a tempting snack and wine pairing menu served at little tables in a cheery tasting room decorated in blues and yellows. Top choices are the pear and blue cheese flatbread matched with Carter's Byzance red; polenta fries washed down with an Italian-style Tuttorosso; and chai bread pudding paired with the Opulento port-style dessert wine.  

Dinner with a view

The Grant Street Pier, designed by artist Larry Kirkland to evoke the billow of a passing sailboat, is the focal point for several flagship restaurants with sweeping river views. 

Tables fill up after sunset when the pier's lights are switched on. Afternoon happy hours are less busy, and easier on the wallet.

The bar at Dosalas Latin Kitchen

My favorite was the second-floor bar at Dosalas Latin Kitchen  where my husband and I snacked on red wine and Cuban sandwiches at a window table while listening to fog horns and watching the barge traffic.

Those with a sweet tooth might want to head to another type of bar, this one serving milkshakes. Using investment funds won on the ABC show, Shark Tank, Chelsea and Logan Green opened the Yard Milkshake Bar here last August.

The house specialty is a $19.67 confection packed in a pint jar (you get to keep the jar) piled high with toppings such as gold sprinkles, peanut butter drizzle and crushed Oreos.

Milkshakes and more at The Yard Milkshake Bar

I had a hard time believing anyone would pay $20 for a milkshake, but general manager Erek  Watson took orders for six in 20 minutes during the afternoon we dropped by. 



Erek Watson with his creations at The Yard Milkshake Bar 

"In the warm weather, the line stretches out to the sidewalk," he said while crafting an "Old School Banana Split," a pound and a half of strawberry and banana pudding ice cream and other goodies topped off with a whole banana. 

 All the more reason to end a visit with a walk along the Columbia River Renaissance Trail. The connection between Waterfront Park and the trail is broken temporarily by construction. Reaching it requires a short sidewalk detour past the weathered sign for an old Red Lion Inn.

Views are of the I-5 and I-205 bridges to Oregon and Mount Hood, with lots of scenic stops along the way as well as a connection to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.