This spring we (Vaughan and I) had intended to retrace the footsteps of Passepartout at least as far as Greece. We had the leave booked and made our way to St Pancras station to join the Eurostar for Paris. So far, so good.
The subsequent plan had us overnight in Paris before enjoying lunch at Le Train Bleu, somewhere I’ve always wanted to experience. From there a train from Gare de Lyon through the Alps to arrive in Milan. Two nights in Milan before following Passpartout further south by train to Bari, a port at the top of the heel of Italy. From there a boat crossing (now a ferry) to Greece and five nights in Athens. Our last leg would have been a further boat to Crete before flying back to the UK
This was a trip we had both been looking forward to for some time and although we know our route diverged from that of Jules Verne’s plot in southern Italy, it did give a focus to how we planned to explore the early stages of our trip. That was the plan.
Of course, we were not blind to the growing concerns around Coronavirus19, however, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office had not upgraded their travel advisory for Milan prior to our departure date. Without that happening, our insurance would not cover cancellation so we had considerable sunk cost to consider.
Add to that the increasing reports of cases in London, Swindon, Paris, Germany, even Pembrokeshire in the far west of Wales. With reports from so many places, we felt we were no more likely to be safe in London than in Milan or Paris. So, with sensible precautions, very good travel insurance and a good supply of hand wash and sanitisers, it was off to follow Passpartout.
All started well with a pain-free trip on the Eurostar, an evening in one of our favourite haunts in Paris St. Germaine and a visit to a nearby bistro for snails, duck and le beefsteak for Vaughan. We even managed to fit in a walk to Notre Dame which though suffering was surprisingly dapper given the devastating fire just 12 months earlier.
The next day an early(ish) start and le train bleu which was everything I hoped it might be. All in all an unforgettable day and on top of that a clean, quick, comfortable and scenic train journey through the foothills of the Alps and into Italy. We did start to notice the gradual decline of passengers until we reached the French/Italian border when we found we had the carriage to ourselves. By the time we reached Turin, there were just six of us on the train and that included the driver.
What we could not know was that as we were speeding towards Milan, the doors on the city and the wider region were being prepared for lockdown. By the time we arrived at Milan station (10.15pm), the draft restrictions had been signed and we were welcomed by the hotel receptionist who told us movement into and out of the region had just been forbidden. Some welcome to Milan and suddenly our hotel receptionist became our warden.
Rather than spend what was left of the evening doing nothing we immediately opened up Charlie tunnel and after checking with insurers and gaining as much information on the restrictions as we could, we formulated our plans to get home. Of course, we considered whether this was the right action, however, both our insurers and those following the story all agreed to get home and self-isolate. A quick search found two remaining tickets available for the next day’s flight to London which were purchased on the spot.
The next day, we did venture into the city to eat (nothing available at the hotel). To say it was quieter than usual would be something of an understatement. The duomo, usually surrounded by crowds similar to Trafalgar Square or Time Square was virtually deserted. There was a strangely dystopic atmosphere. A kind of expectation of things getting worse before they got better. While it was safe and people seemed to be getting on with their lives, it felt rather like being in the proverbial tinderbox which could easily ignite. When you see how dependant the area is on tourism, bars, restaurants and family businesses, it’s easy to see how crippling the situation is likely to be for the city and the wider local and national economy.
As of today, the number of cases in Italy has reached 9,172 with 463 deaths. This equates to around a 5% fatality rate which is significantly higher than elsewhere (so far as we know). Why that may be the case is unclear, but given the lockdown we faced was likely to last until April 3rd and we had a hotel for two nights the BA flight seemed the most sensible option. We were unable to continue our journey south out of the region without breaching the new regulations and who knows how the situation in Italy, Greece or Crete will have developed in the coming 10-14 days.
It was unclear whether our flight was going to leave and we only really began to believe it once we were airside and could see the plane had arrived. The plane was a small short-haul aircraft but wasn’t full. The BA stewardess told us ticket sales had been ‘difficult’ and this was the last flight by the carrier out of Milan.
What surprised us most was the arrival in London. Having travelled from a known hot spot in northern Italy we anticipated checks as we disembarked potentially even quarantine. However, we simply collected our cases, cleared passport control and walked out of the airport. While I’m relieved to have been able to leave Italy, I’m surprised at the lack of even basic advice, information or checks. We had researched the health advice and the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days whether showing symptoms or not. Thankfully (to date) we aren’t. However, how many others on the plane can say the same I don’t know.
Today, Vaughan dutifully called 111 and sought advice which was a fairly fruitless process. A heavily scripted series of questions that could identify exceptional issues but wasn’t able to address them. While no health service could cope with a pandemic (if this were to become one), but simply channel shifting those willing to comply with policy guidance from call centre to the website when neither have relevant content is hardly the levels of care to which we should aspire.
Today has gone pretty smoothly and relatively quickly, mainly because we had a bunch of admin, travel insurance, work notifications, food deliveries and the like to fill the available time.
I have a couple of projects to keep me occupied, not least being the search for a new job. In addition, a reading list, viewing list and even the return to blogging should keep me occupied (though Vaughan is more likely to suffer cabin fever). The most important arrangement, the return of Taz my border collie has been managed without breaking our self-imposed purdah. That’s day one in the Corona house done. – One down 13 to go.