Waiting for the Barbarians: Traveling In Rome During the Coronavirus Crisis

the Colosseum -- crowded my first day and almost deserted days later
the Colosseum — crowded my first day and almost deserted days later

It started out innocently enough. Just over 2 weeks ago, I headed off for a blissy geographical cure in Rome. I have an unquenchable taste for ancient history and Roman ruins. Plus, I wanted to escape the impenetrable gray gloom of winter and the never-ending tasteless food, culture vacuums, and puerile political debates.

When I left, there was barely a whisper of the coronavirus. It was an otherworldly thing, mostly in the epicenter of Wuhan, Iran, and a few towns in northern Italy that had just reported signs of the virus.

The initial reports in Italy were a tad alarming. But the virus still seemed far from Rome, where there was no trace of it. In fact, the State Department had rated Italy only a Level 2 threat — for terrorism, not for the coronavirus.

Some friends and family warned me not to go to Rome. They blitzed me with a host of worst case scenarios about a possible pandemic. What if I contracted the virus? What if I was quarantined? What if I needed medical advice? What if … what if … what if …

who can resist the grand Pantheon?
who can resist the grand Pantheon?

I ignored the nervous nellies, expecting no more than a run on hand sanitizer. I’m a little ashamed to admit that now, given the pandemic that’s upon us. But I was driven by my need to travel; it’s essential to my well being.

At the time of my flight, everything was A-okay. I channeled my inner gladiator and left for a week of fun.

I was happy to see there were almost no signs of alarm when I arrived in Rome. There were plenty of European and American tourists. The Colosseum and the Vatican were fairly packed for February. In fact, I had expected fewer tourists just because of the season.

The only thing different from my previous visits was that some tourists were wearing face masks. Not most, only a handful.

One American student at the Vatican whispered that colleges were considering sending students home for liability reasons. That made me wonder whether they knew something that I didn’t.

St. Peters Square in Vatican City, looking mighty deserted
St. Peters Square in Vatican City, looking mighty deserted

In just a few days, the mood altered dramatically. The news from the north was grim, the virus was spreading like a military enemy, moving across Lombardy and Veneto and into Tuscany and Umbria. The State Department raised the security alert to level 3. The barbarians were coming.

The next day I took a day trip to Tivoli to visit Hadrian’s Villa and Ville D’Este. It was a lovely day, the sun shone and our tour guide regaled us with enough facts to satisfy any avid ruin luster.

But Tivoli was fairly uncrowded, a circumstance I normally enjoy, being tourist phobic. An English tourist in our group scoffed, saying people were panicking when the coronavirus was “nothing but a sore throat.”

At that point, she might be forgiven for thinking so. The media hadn’t yet focused on the virus’s astonishing rates of transmission. Our “President” was comparing the coronavirus to the flu.

the Maritime Theater at Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, my only day trip from Rome
the Maritime Theater at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, my only day trip from Rome

in Tivoli, smiling on the day before the security alert for Italy was raised to 4
in Tivoli, smiling on the day before the security alert for Italy was raised to level 4

The next morning I woke up to another blow. Things were changing fast. The US had raised the security alert for traveling to Italy to 4 — restricting all non-essential travel. In just 2 or 3 days, Italy had moved from level 2 to 4. While I was there, in Rome.

At that point, my nerves flared. The coronavirus had infiltrated my geographical cure. I wan’t unduly worried about catching the virus. But about my ability to get home. I had only been in Rome 4 days. Rome now felt like a ticking time bomb. How long until the fall of Rome?

My family advised changing my plane flight, on British Airways. Alas, I had booked a cheap fare on Momondo with CheapskateAir. And didn’t have flight insurance.

ruins of the House of Augustus
ruins of the House of Augustus

When I called British Airways, they said they couldn’t change my flight since I didn’t book with them. When I tried to call Cheapskate, I was told the number was invalid and got no reply to my email. I’d read that tourists were being charged extortionist rate for flight changes. It felt sinister. (No bail out for the airline industry please!)

Airports and airlines are my kryptonite. I’ve had no end of troubles with them. So I shrugged my shoulders, as phlegmatically as I could muster, and resigned myself to waiting for my flight on March 4 What could happen in 3 days?

not a battle scene for a photo op at the Trevi Fountain, unlike my last time in Rome
not a battle scene for a photo op at the Trevi Fountain, unlike my last time in Rome

A lot, it turns out. Tourists began fleeing Rome. On a walk through the historic center, the crowds had thinned and dispersed, there were no mobs throwing coins over their shoulders at the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish steps were nearly empty.

I ate lunch as the sole customer in a cozy restaurant near the Trevi Fountain. The gnocchi was melt-in-your-mouth delectable, but I couldn’t really savor it. I walked back to my Air Bnb through Piazza Navona, one of the world’s beautiful squares, and it was almost vacant.

The next day I cancelled a planned trip to Orvieto, for which I’d already purchased train tickets. Heading to a germy train station seemed ill advised at that juncture.

I did venture to the Vatican again. On day 2 of my visit, I had gone on a guided tour. But it had (unacceptedly) skipped some of the main areas I wanted to see — the Pinacoteca, the Raphael Rooms, and the Borgia Apartments.

Raphael's beautiful Schoo of Athens in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums
Raphael’s beautiful Schoo of Athens in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums

This time, in contrast to just a few days ago, it was vastly less crowded. No tourists lingered in St. Peter’s Square. It was deadly quiet. But unease, not serenity, prevailed.

At last the day arrived to travel home. The airport was mobbed with Americans and other tourists fleeing Rome. My flight was full. As had been foretold just days ago, it was filled with students sent home from universities.

Oddly, I wasn’t grilled by passport control about exactly where I’d been in Italy. I wasn’t even asked if I had traveled to any hot spot danger zones. But all travelers underwent thermal screening to see if they were running fevers.

When I arrived home, it seemed that the world had changed and the outlook was bleak. The virus, like storming barbarians, had spread and conquered other parts of the Italy and the world. The first case of coronavirus at the Vatican was reported. Now Rome is in full lockdown.

Varenna, in the Italian Lake District where I'm supposed to be in late May
Varenna, in the Italian Lake District where I’m supposed to be in late May

We’ve just had the first 2 reported cases of coronavirus in my county. (This is a change since I began drafting this article yesterday.) Now, everything is shut down — schools, day care centers, pools, theaters. Toilet paper is a scarce commodity. People are practicing social distancing with fervor.

As for me, I’m feeling fine. But the grandiose promise of my trip seems to have transmogrified into the sordid reality of life in a pandemic. Who knows when it will fizzle out.

In the meantime, my next scheduled trip is to … uh … Italy in late May. Yes, I booked a bike tour in Umbria and a stint in the Italian Lake District and Switzerland. This time, I have flight insurance, though I’ve cancelled the Air Bnbs I’d reserved.

For now, we live in a world of non stop “C” bomb dropping. Wash your hands, a lot. The barbarians are here, and we may not even know who they’ve attacked, the virus is so insidious. I shudder to think that, despite Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, the barbarians nonetheless chipped away at Rome and helped fell the empire.

So this is not a time for whimsy and small mindedness. We need to stay inside for everyone’s collective well being. But one can’t live on panic inducing headlines alone. Travel dreams are immune to virus. I’m still planning my next trip, at least on paper.

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