Have you ever wanted to go home after a holiday? Nah, us either, except for this past week when the Coronavirus Italy lock-down was announced without warning. We had legitimate fears we’d be stuck in Sicily for the month to come. Maybe longer, the way things are looking now! Things have been anxious and stressful, to say the least. And as I reflect on the events that unfolded, I’m sad to say things have only gotten worse.
Just a year ago, we were on one of the best trips of our lives. We enjoyed a train journey across the country, taking in Milan, Lake Como, Verona and Venice.
It was magical, and I hope to return again soon.
Coronavirus Italy lock-down
For now, Italy has been hit HARD by the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and the country is a no-go zone. Usually it’s teeming with tourists. On the morning of 10 March, we woke up in our Airbnb in Catania, Sicily, at 6am to discover that late the evening before, the government had announced extreme measures – all of Italy was on lock-down. A terrible way to start your day!
Coronavirus – an infectious disease that attacks lungs and airways as well as other vital organs if you’re suffering from underlining health conditions – had been sweeping through the north of Italy. When we chose to continue with our trip to the south of Italy – Sicily – that area was clear. Several major centres in the north had already been quarantined which had been the strategy for China where COVID-19 originated. But just a few days before when we stepped onto a plane, our destination was fine.
Certainly, there were signs of trouble on 8 March. Our flight was only about a quarter full. But we had nowhere else to be that week, and figured we would go catch up with some friends who were also headed to Catania – a few ‘TBEX survivors’ who still turned up for a travel media conference that has been (at time of publishing) postponed.
Panic response vs managing a crisis
If we’d only seen the messaging the evening before, we might have got out on a flight to the UK easily on Tuesday 10 March. It had been our back-up plan – if things escalated, we’d just get on a flight straight away. But from 6am until 6pm both Cooper and I were on our computers and on phones, trying to get out.
Things looked bright around 8am when we finally got a flight from Catania to neighbouring Malta. We figured Malta was a good choice, we know the place well. I transferred our Easyjet flight from Catania (set for Saturday 14 March) to take us from Malta to London the next day. We incurred some hefty fees but that was ok, it was time to leave.
Something told me to keep an eye on the Catania airport departures board. It felt like the response from our accommodation on the ground in Malta was fearful. Malta is close to Italy, and it’s a small island. If Coronavirus infiltrates, they’d find it hard to manage. I was liaising with the manager of the airport accommodation on WhatsApp when I spotted about 9.30am: our flight status had gone from grey (‘scheduled’) to red – cancelled.
Distress kicked in from that point. Everything was cancelled, more and more as the minutes went by. We love travel. But the feeling of being trapped is unnerving. Our family in Australia were getting worried too. They called and tried to help – which was appreciated, but added to our anxiety.
In my view, with so many people trying to urgently get back to their country of residence, governments and airlines in the area made bad decisions – panicked choices that amplified the problems and the region’s collective fears.
Bad practice by airlines in a time of heightened anxiety
After this, we spent the day trying to book flights on numerous airlines to many different destinations. The threats from the media and government warnings kept mounting: we would be locked in and all flights grounded within 48 hours. Although, many, many flights were simply cancelled that same day. Countries were closing their borders to anyone coming from Italy. It felt like we didn’t have a chance!
BUT, airfares continued to sell. Oh, and many airlines simply shut off their customer service call lines and social media messaging function too. No contact, many charges and much stress. We’d get to the payment section and the bill would tally on our credit card – our flight tickets wouldn’t process though. We encountered ‘errors’. Only to try again and discover the flight prices had been hiked up significantly. Very bad practice in a time of much stress. Some university students we met later on told us stories of how they simply had no more credit to keep booking under these circumstances, and they’re still in Italy.
It seems that if you continued to book, you eventually won a lottery seat on a flight out – but he/she who paid the highest price won a spot on the escape route. By 5pm I was in tears, Cooper was stressed (he’s NEVER stressed), and we didn’t know what to do.
Small gestures and good people
Through all of this though, our encounters with kindness were amplified. The manager of this small airport hotel in Malta was ever so kind, assuring me he’d not hesitate to issue a refund, despite booking.com stating the fee was non-refundable. He stuck to his word, and the money came back.
Similarly, our Catania Airbnb host made us feel safe and offered help to contact embassies and get food. He also told us that he’d help us with accommodation if we got stuck.
These gestures – from operators who will suffer financially as part of this global disaster – were really appreciated in stressful times.
We were also in contact with our house sit in England – one we were returning to after sitting for them in Bedfordshire last year. (They run a beautiful B&B here too, if you want to visit when things are back to normal!) 👇
Due to the unprecedented situation, we suggested they might want to look for last-minute sitters. Instead of doing this though, our host spent time looking for flights that might just get us out of Italy and back to the UK via a European destination.
We’d tried a few of these routes, but Andy at our house sit found one on Ryanair via a cool city in the Netherlands that we’d never heard of, Eindhoven.
As it turned out, Andy’s suggestion that we chose to book (despite the stress of mounting credit card fees and the necessity of an overnight connection stay) totally saved us. This flight was one of the last two flights out of Sicily on 12 March. Nothing is set to leave until mid-April, or beyond. When we landed in Eindhoven, everyone cheered!
Lock-down in Catania
We were really lucky to get out after a couple of days. Wow, were those days fraught with anxiety. To get groceries or necessities, we had to line up one at a time outside stores. Lock-down got crazy and scary. Masks and gloves were essential. The image above is from an area near us in Catania – deserted. The feature image at the top is from Catania’s famous and usually thriving fish markets. Again, now all closed indefinitely.
One shop after another gradually closed, store-owners aware they were shutting their doors indefinitely. How will they pay the bills? Can this country recover? Life’s already tough for many.
Sleep was hard because each hour the rules changed, not just in Italy but around Europe and the world. Borders closed, transport was restricted and people started hoarding food.
There was no guarantee our flight would depart. Every half hour on the 12th, we obsessively checked but it remained green: good to go at 5:15pm.
Travellers in Catania worried about whether they should try to leave and risk potentially spreading the virus at home or passing on to ‘at risk’ relatives. We would face a 14 day self quarantine if we got into the UK, but that was ok by us – we were headed to a regional area anyway. As residents in England, we chose to pursue a location where we can access healthcare (although perhaps a dubious notion now that hospitals are overwhelmed).
We worried for friends (like Jason and his mum 👇) who appeared to be entirely stuck in Catania. They were even asked to leave their Airbnb with nowhere to go!
I had transferred our original Easyjet tickets back to the Saturday flight out (at more expense), but it was cancelled too.
We felt sick, despite the sunny days in Catania which would otherwise be a joy. Our time was spent indoors except for going out to get a bit of food. The streets were dead. A few cafes were open, but not for many more days, I’d guess. The experience took me to the height of anxiety. We’re still waiting for refunds from airlines that I’m not sure will come – perhaps they’ll go into receivership before processing. I never imagined I’d want to leave Italy, ever! But during those days, we very much did want to get out, back to a ‘home’ base.
Since we left Italy, thousands of people have died due to COVID-19, and thousands more are ill, without access to oxygen or healthcare. The situation there is now worse than it is in China. The system in Italy is not coping. Other European nations are in a similar situation, and the UK harbours legitimate concerns about the future too.
Conversations have moved from ‘this is just a flu’, to, ‘you really should talk about final arrangements with your family should the worst happen’.
They say there’s reasons to find hope within this chaos. This is how things unfolded in Sicily and elsewhere 👇🙌
Now we are on lock-down in the UK (but so far virus free 🤞). We’re trying our best to deal with the anxiety associated with an uncertain future – here’s our personal tips on that.
I don’t know if things are ok though, or what’s around the corner.
So many dazzling attractions, but its food and wine stand out as favourites of ours, so wine tasting in Italy is always an experience we pursue. Wine, like food (and we’ve touched on food tours in Italy here) tells the story of the land, people and culture. Italy is an exciting country, producing all types of famous drops.
Discovering your perfect wine tasting in Italy experience
With so many options for wine tasting in Italy, where should you start? The country is a big producer of reds, whites and sparkling. You could choose your adventure based on region that you want to visit. Or choose the region based on the wines you want to taste.
Tuscany is obviously very famous, and to stay among the vineyards here is a real treat. We had the chance to visit Tuscany and its wineries a couple of years ago and highly recommend the experience. There’s so much to do though, we need to go back with a bigger and brighter plan!
This year we travelled through the Lombardy and Veneto producing regions. Take a look at the map linked above for more. In Verona we tried some delicious reds from around the region.
In Venice we went to a Prosecco tasting. Some were local blends and others came from Bologna.
We feel there are three simple ways you can discover wines on your trip to Italy.
Wineries are all over Italy, and a great way to get stuck into wine tasting here. Tuscany is a prime example, but you’ll need to know how you want to do it. We needed to drive a lot there, which isn’t ideal if you’re doing a lot of wine tasting in Italy. You can contact wineries in the regions you’re going to, to find out when they’re open and how to take part in tastings. Alternatively, you could search for bus tours (day trip or longer) that take in a number of options.
Destinations tourism websites often offer helpful advice as a first step. But do some research on blogs or YouTube to see if you can uncover smaller local offerings that will give you an even more unique experience.
Wine tasting in Italy at vineyards and wineries is a wonderful opportunity to get underneath the skin of the business. Many of these places are family run with centuries of history behind the land and brand. You learn about production and grape types, and will walk away with a true appreciation for wine production.
If you’re short on time but want a snapshot of the industry in a particular town, look out for short tours or tastings.
In Verona and Venice, Airbnb suggested inexpensive options that were wonderful for a few reasons:
We made new local friends and supported their businesses
They showed us around their back streets and to places we’d never have found on our own on a short break away
We tasted local wines and learnt about the place through the stories of our hosts.
Many local experiences are showing up like this now, if you ask around on TripAdvisor, search Viator, and read tourism websites, Facebook groups, or blogs.
On our travels through Italy I also spotted that many little boutique bars or wine stores offered their own tastings. Admittedly, our Prosecco tasting experience in Venice, while good value and served lovely food and drinks, wasn’t exactly personal. We wanted to learn more about the bubbles we were trying.
That said, plenty of options were on offer through Airbnb, and all over the place (as referenced above), or you could search a hashtag on Instagram for inspiration. Our Prosecco experience was still enjoyable, and it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours.
These simple tastings are great because they’re in the location where you area already, they’re usually good value for money, and you may even find a favourite boutique store or bar in the process.
Do you have questions, tips or advice on this subject? Let us know in the comments
There’s nothing quite like discovering a place through the eyes of a local. Everywhere in the world has its own culinary traditions and stories. Italy is of course, no exception.
Our week long trip in Italy this past April opened up a plethora of foodie delights we never knew existed. If we’d not found a guide to take us on a food tour (which usually included discovering local secret places too), we’d perhaps not have discovered:
– Aperitivo – the best Italian tradition you’ve never heard of! Start in Milan. For a set price you buy a drink like a cocktail and can indulge in a large buffet too! Read more
– Cichetti – like Spanish tapas, served at bacari, traditional bars, in Venice. Live like a local. Read more
– Italian coffee culture. Start your day drinking a macchiato standing at a bar in a coffee shop. Don’t sit down out the front, you’ll look like a tourist! Cappuccinos or lattes are for the morning only, never after lunch. An espresso is ok at any time of the day. Here’s a quick guide on your options
– Gelato – support local when in Italy. We discover in Italy how to keep the prices down and determine the difference between authentic and not-so… Read more
– Panzerotti (deep fried pizza dough) and the place you should queue up to taste it in Milan. Read more
Why do a walking tour? It’s easy, fun and you get to live like a local for a couple of hours. Not to mention, you can grill your walking and food tour host with any questions you like. Mostly you get an authentic experience that’s inexpensive, and you can find gems off the tourist trail. We took a walking food tour in Verona and Venice, both booked on Airbnb.
Learn to cook
One glance across experience promoters like Airbnb or Viator shows just how many cooking tours there are around the world now. Most mean you turn up to someone’s home, or a family restaurant’s kitchen, and spend a few hours learning (or honing) a skill. It might be pasta, desserts or a uniquely local cuisine you’re learning. Either way, what better opportunity do you have to learn about a new place?
The bonus of this type of experience is you’re usually supporting a local business. Win win!
One of our most popular blogs on Travel Live Learn is about pursuing creative travel experiences including this type of trip. Have a read here.
There’s plenty of this type of class or food tour on offer all over Italy. If you have any that you’d recommend, do please share details in the comments below.
Organised coach tours
If you’re fully committed to spending a few days discovering Italy through the eyes of food, there are coach tours available exclusively for this purpose. A simple search, ‘food tour Italy’ brings up a number of options. You might explore the regions we did, like Milan, Verona or Venice. Or, the famous Tuscan food and wine region. There are plenty of small towns that offer amazing insight into food and wine, and if you don’t have a car, a booking like this is the way to go to not miss anything important.
An organised tour takes the stress out of figuring out what to do and may include an itinerary of a few days. You don’t have to worry about driving or finding your way – just focus on what’s important. Your taste buds!
Other ways you can find a food tour in your country or region of choice, might be by searching for recommendations on Tripadvisor, YouTube or running a hashtag search on Instagram for #foodtour, for example.
We discovered the Brussels option on the destination’s tourism website, and our Italy experiences (including wine tastings, which you can read about here) popped up as recommendations alongside our Airbnb bookings.
Do you have tips or a personal example to share, or even questions? Let us know in the comments 😋
Varying images may be conjured in your mind when considering a romantic Romeo and Juliet setting. Perhaps your view is bright and Baz Luhrmann like? Or, splashes of a fabulous stage version you’ve seen somewhere around the world – a ballet?
While I do love all that is this most famous of stories (especially Leo and Claire circa 1996), I hope you’re with me in picturing Verona as the true setting of Romeo and Juliet.
Over the years Verona, Italy kept popping into our sphere. We finally scheduled a trip due to so many friends mentioning the place!
Verona is an easy city to walk around. It’s ideal for a long weekend away, or a longer trip of three or four days.
We incorporated Verona into our train trip itinerary, where we started in Milan and finished in Venice.
There’s plenty of things to do in Verona. It’s not an overwhelming amount of choice though, which we liked.
First of all, there’s Juliet’s balcony Verona, an important part of the Romeo and Juliet narrative here. It’s pretty touristy, but a sentimental must-do in Verona.
For a list of the best things to do in Verona, read on…
Romeo and Juliet setting
If you’re a fan of William Shakespeare as I am, you’ll be interested in this spot as the original Romeo and Juliet setting.
You may want to book additional time in the area to explore other Shakespearean links because did you know Shakespeare set a third of his plays in Italy?
His most famous works are set in Verona, plus nearby Padua, Venice and Rome. It’s not known whether Shakespeare had the chance to visit Italy in his life, but he certainly dreamt of it as a location.
Interesting resources on ‘Shakespeare’s Italy’ include:
‘Secretaries of Juliet’ reply to letters from all over the world from this very space and advise on matters of the heart in a wide variety of languages.
Another nice thing to do if you don’t hit a huge line of people, is pay the small entry fee to get into the house. It’s fun because you to can go up to Juliet’s balcony Verona and get a photo taken. Head inside the old house, explore, walk out onto the balcony and recite a line from the play.
Also remember to take marker (pen). You can add your love note to the millions already scrawled along the walls outside the house.
In need of a little luck? Legend has it that if you touch the right breast of Juliet’s statue underneath Juliet’s balcony in Verona, you’ll find your true love. Every little bit helps, right?!
Things to do in Verona Italy
Verona itself is a delight.
“A city built on hills arranged like banks of theatre seats.” (BBC Travel)
From its romantic Adige River that runs through the middle of town, linked by pretty bridges to the beautifully maintained ‘old town’. It’s straight out of a Shakespearean romance.
Juliet’s balcony Verona is just one of the things to see here. Another of Verona’s unavoidable wonders is the sublime old town market square, Piazza delle Erbe.
The medieval walls have been beautifully taken care of, and as a result showcase some of the city’s finest architecture and ancient frescoes. They set the scene for a market and dining spot that – while mostly geared towards tourists – has been a meeting spot for people for centuries. That’s pretty special, we think.
Within the square you’ll find the Venetian lion which has gazed upon visitors since 1405. It was put there to remind residents that Venice was in charge (at that point, anyway).
Look up and around – everywhere
Always look up in old cities. Here, you’ll eventually spot a famous whale’s rib that’s been hanging from an iron chain since at least the 1700s. Legend goes that the whale rib will not fall until a person who has never told a lie walks underneath it.
It’ll probably stay there for a while then. The rib has not fallen, despite Popes and kings testing it.
A little less whimsical is the fact that the rib was likely a souvenir brought home to Verona from the orient by spice traders.
The best things to do in Verona include walking around and exploring along the riverbank, cross bridges, browse in old churches and generally be curious.
We’d advise getting out of the main part of the old town for a better deal on food and coffee. Walk across one of the bridges and see what’s on the other side.
More great things to see in Verona:
Castel St Pietro, positioned on the hill above Verona. You can walk up for a look. It’s a mysterious fort that boasts cypress tree-lined avenue and offers a spectacular view across the city.
Piazza dei Signori, a quiet, beautiful old square boasting lovely medieval arches and architecture.
Toree dei Lamberti. Construction begun on this tower in 1171. You’ll spot it from the Piazza delle Erbe. In the Middle Ages, such towers would have helped to organise life, because the bell would ring to signal a fire, summon war councils and let people know it was time to finish work.
Shopping in the Centro Storico, full of fabulous fashion and gorgeous Italian things to splurge on.
Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore, ‘containing’ the crypt where Romeo and Juliet got married. It’s a typical example of Romanesque architecture with 12th Century bronze doors and a ‘wheel of fortune’ rose window.
Juliet’s tomb, housed in a 13th-century Franciscan convent. This is where Juliet died in the play. People pay tribute here to Juliet and Shakespeare. Even Charles Dickens visited.
Castelvecchio, is the most important military construction of the Scaliger dynasty that ruled Verona in the Middle Ages.
Unmissable is the Verona Arena, a 1st Century open-air Roman amphitheatre that’s still fully operational. Locals and visitors can enjoy opera and concerts in the unique space.
Not only is it one of the best preserved ancient structures in the world, it’s touted as being one of the ten most beautiful places in the world that you could see a live show! The stone structures here have seen everything from gladiator games and jousting competitions to Adele and Elton John in concert.
Verona things to see and do: travel tip
Finally, we’d suggest you book a local experience to get the best out of the place. In Venice and Verona we purchased a walking tour with food experience. Our Verona option was an evening wander with Wonderful Verona.
Across three hours our host, Jessica, introduced us to Verona’s popular and secret sights, while pouring healthy glasses of local wines in choice locations. We’re all pictured above. It was very hard to leave Verona, thanks to this lovely localised experience and our stylish ‘dream loft’ Airbnb.
Got questions or a tip to add? Let us know in the comments below
I had to dig around to find out how to get to Lake Como easily and cheaply, only to discover the Milan to Varenna train trip was my answer.
In the hope we can save someone else the hassle of figuring out how to see Lake Como and Bellagio in a day trip from Milan, details are here.
Why take the Milan to Varenna train route to Lake Como?
We’ve been lucky enough explore various parts of Italy previously. Rome is excellent, as are Florence, Siena and Tuscany. I didn’t know my way around this area though. I’d been inspired by a colleague at work who suggested getting around Italy by train. On planning a week away in April, Cooper and I chose an itinerary of Milan to Verona to Venice.
Lake Como is close to Milan, fashion and business capital of Italy. We knew we’d be flying into Milan, and didn’t want to miss the Lakes region.
At first I considered a guided day tour to Lake Como. It’s a viable yet expensive option. Most of these day trips are about ten to twelve hours long – that’s a big day.
We settled on taking the train from Milan to Varenna, a village on the shores of Lake Como, because:
It’s an easy trip from Milan Central station, just over an hour
It’s inexpensive at just over €6 each way
Taking the ferry to Bellagio from here is easy and inexpensive
Varenna is also a pretty little town on the lake.
How to book and board Milan to Varenna train return
Our tickets were booked through thetrainline.com. I have the Trainline app on my phone that stores the tickets for display at the station or on board.
You’ll book from Milano Centrale (Milano Central station) to Varenna-Esino station.
I booked our fares for specific leave and return times. But, we just missed our train on the Sunday morning and staff said it was fine to take the next one, scheduled an hour later.
Our experience with Milan and Varenna train stations has been that they’re not very well signed. Platforms and trains can be hard to identify. If you’re taking the Milan to Varenna train return trip, give yourself time to get it right.
As we encountered a rainy day, we decided to go back to Milan an hour early. The trains going back are not signed well either. Additionally, they weren’t running to time. Little did we know, the day to follow this, the train to Verona ended up departing ten minutes before our stated ticket time.
At Varenna, we got on the wrong train. In a panic we got off at the next stop, a deserted platform. Fortunately we could walk back to Varenna in about twenty minutes along the lakeside.
It’s not a big deal, but double check and give yourself time.
Why Lake Como?
Lake Como is the third largest lake in the lakes district of Italy. That is behind Garda, which you can spot on the train ride to Varona, and Maggiore. It’s 46km long and at its widest is about 4.5km.
Imagine, snow capped mountains and a mystical body of water, home to centuries-old history and celebrities from near and far. Ferries glide in and out of hills that look like islands rising out of the deep blue. Pink and yellow buildings are tucked together along the bottom edge of the mountains. They’re divided every now and then by an ancient church steeple. Other homes line sections further up these hills. Their views must be marvellous, one can only imagine.
It’s all so pretty, almost looks like they’ve been drawn on. A real life oil painting on a canvas that’s kilometres long.
Roads, rail and tunnels are carved into sheer rock cliffs. Sculpted gardens are set along the waterfront with their Roman statues and water fountains. Little birds dance along cafe tables hoping for crumbs. Dogs chase ducks as clouds float down from the sky. The air is fresh and the world at peace. It’s as lovely as I imagined, and you’ll want to visit here too, trust us.
Exploring Varenna on a day trip from Milan to Lake Como
Varenna is situated in the Lombardy region. It’s very pretty and conveniently is only a five minute walk from Varenna train station. The village is picture-postcard beautiful with sweet winding alleyways and waterfront dining.
It’s easy to wander up and down the hills and along the lake’s edge, although wear comfortable shoes because the stairways are long and steep.
The option to travel from Milan to Varenna on the train proved a happy escape from the bustle of Milan. Even though we had a rainy day, the place was beautiful – worthwhile.
Getting to Bellagio from Varenna
Many people say Bellagio is the gem of lake Como. It’s a pretty village jutting out into Lake Como and is included on most day trip itineraries to Lake Como from Milan. It’s popular for cobbled lanes and elegant buildings.
It was our intention to visit Bellagio on our day trip from Milan via Varenna. By the time we arrived though, it was pouring rain so we chose to explore Varenna instead. No regrets.
There’s plenty of questions and some confusion on Tripadvisor about how to get to Bellagio and when the ferries go.
Most information is difficult to understand as it’s in Italian and the official website is hard to navigate. Take it from me (I like to be organised), don’t worry at all about it.
The ferry costs about €5 each way, and runs every 30 or 40 minutes. It’s slightly less frequent in winter, but the ferry terminal is manned and there’s plenty to do in Varenna while you wait to board.
The ferry dock taking you on a short trip to Bellagio is on the waterfront about five minutes from Varenna train station. You can’t miss it. If the day is clear, you’ll be fortunate to see gorgeous views of the colourful buildings on the hills surrounding the lake.
Questions or comments…
I hope this answers any of your queries or concerns about how to do a self-guided day trip on the train from Milan to Lake Como.
Varenna is a lovely option for its views, ease and style. It’s really simple to get to and from Bellagio. We spoke to the ferry team to clarify this. The train (if you don’t miss it) is comfortable and quick. A paid tour costs a fortune and hours out of your day. Even if you don’t go to Bellagio, Varenna is a beautiful glimpse into the tranquillity that is Lake Como. Despite rain and a number of missed trains, this day out was close to perfect.
On this week long trip, we travelled across the country to Verona and Venice on the train. Click the links to find out more.
Got questions or a tip to add? Let us know in the comments below
Welcome to Travel Live learn, where we are passionate about living a life full of great adventures. We are Sarah + Cooper, and here we share our advice and stories about expat living in the UK; pet and house sitting around the world; wellness travel and creative living, no matter where on the planet you are. We have worked in media, communication and creative roles for 20 years, and have spent over 10 years living and working abroad. We hope you find value in our content. Please do connect by leaving a comment or find us on social media.