|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.
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.
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.