Shortly before the second lockdown and its removal from the travel corridors list, Emily Eastman went to Italy with Riviera Travel, who have launched their new private and small group tours as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic
Standing outside Heathrow Terminal 5, I take a big gulp of fresh air, fasten my face mask, and head inside. The prospect of wearing a face covering for more than a short period is, admittedly, the part of this trip I’ve been least looking forward to, but my excitement at an Italian tour with Riviera Travel outweighs any mask unpleasantness. The escorted tour specialist has worked hard to operate in line with Covid-19 restrictions across borders, and the pandemic is also the genesis of its new private and small group (max 25 people) tours.
We’re embarking on a condensed version of Riviera’s Lake Garda, Venice & Verona tour – one of the most popular in its collection. The trip usually takes eight days and includes travel, accommodation, half board and an expert tour manager. Ours is Nicola, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Italy and regales us with stories on every journey. It’s about an hour’s drive from Verona airport to Riva by minibus. Masks are required on board, and clients should be advised to select a good seat, as they’ll keep it for the duration of the trip. As we hop on, everyone takes a palmful of the hand sanitiser that’s kept by the door.
The resort town of Riva and our hotel, the four-star Kristal Palace, are perched on Lake Garda’s edge. Considerable efforts have gone into making the hotel Covid-safe. Masks must be worn when walking around inside, hand sanitiser is provided in high-footfall areas and there are digital temperature scanners in the lobby. The rooms are modern and spacious and there’s a good restaurant on-site serving a menu of pan-European fare which changes daily. But the hotel’s trump card is up top, where a wraparound roof and heated pool afford views of the glittering lake, lofty peaks and the Dolomites in the distance.
With the view sufficiently soaked in, we head out to the first tour inclusion – a visit to the family-run vineyard Vineria De Tarczal where we sample a generous number of wines. The best is Marzemino, whose grape exclusively grows here. Ruggero, the family’s patriarch, tells us of the vineyard’s troubled history, from newly claimed borders cutting through the land to trade issues during the Second World War, and why he’s dedicated to its production: “It’s our grape, our land, our little walls in the countryside that our ancestors built.” I come home with a bottle in my suitcase and what feels like a small piece of the family’s history.
The ‘guided’ element of Riviera’s offering makes for easy, pleasurable travel. Our day exploring Lake Garda’s shoreside towns is seamless, from Garda itself, where coffee shops and independent stores cling to the shoreline, to Sirmione on the lake’s southern edge, unmistakable for Rocca Scaligera, its towering medieval castle. The rocky Jamaica Beach is a great spot to enjoy an enormous ice cream from one of the town’s many gelaterias.
We head by ferry (masks required, and the crew check our temperatures in the socially distanced queue) to Salò, renowned as Mussolini’s last Republic following his capture by Italian partisans and where terracotta yellow and pastel 15th century buildings hug the lake’s edge.
Nicola shares the history of each place as we wander. It’s a welcome distraction from current global events – and a reminder that better days will come. Out on the lake, windsurfers catch the breeze, boats make shoreside deliveries and paddleboarders drift onwards.
In Verona, we join a walking tour led by Katya, who shares the city’s history, family rivalries and archaeological treasures. Masks are required on guided tours, but they’re far less noticeable outdoors. We’re each given a vox box and earphones, enabling us to listen without crowding together as Katya tells us how to determine which buildings are from which era: stripes from the 12th and 13th centuries, white and yellow brick from the 13th and 14th centuries, as are Gothic monuments. Frescos are from the Renaissance, while the military buildings hark back to Verona’s history of fortifications. Those hoping for some Shakespearean history may be disappointed – although Verona is the setting for Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s balcony was built in the 1930s as a monument to the fictional play.
Venice is, for me, the highlight of this tour. The city’s appeal is perhaps one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets, but the sell right now is an opportunity to experience it without the crowds. The queue for St Mark’s Basilica is fewer than 10 deep; likewise for the Campanile, which offers panoramic views of the city. In normal times, Venice has 50,000 visitors a day. Of the city’s 425 gondoliers, I see one working.
We learn from Nicola that the word ‘quarantine’ originated in Venice, from quaranta, meaning 40 – the number of days that merchants were required to isolate on the lagoon islands in order to prevent diseases entering the city. It’s an apt piece of history on which to finish the tour.
For clients who want to travel following the current lockdown, but are nervous of going solo in the current climate, tours such as this one are an obvious answer. As Tom Morgan, Riviera’s head of agency sales UK & Ireland, puts it: “As you’ve seen, having a tour manager is absolutely invaluable. They can give you all the advice you need on the local destination, what the local rules are, advise you where to go, and everyone feels safe.”
It’s true. Italy has a general air of acceptance that this is the temporary norm. Compliance on mask-wearing and social distancing is high, and I feel safer here than in London.
And for anyone who might be put off by having to wear a mask? “When you’re doing the tours, they’re so engaging and interesting that, as you’ve seen, you generally forget that you’re wearing one at all. It’s perhaps not ideal, but it doesn’t affect the overall experience of all these wonderful places. And as soon as you’re off exploring solo or sitting down for food or a drink, you can take it off, so there are breaks.”
It’s a small price to pay for the sheer joy of being able to travel again – to chat to new people, see different places, indulge in new food and wine, all with the stress of travel taken off your shoulders. Clients itching to get away are likely to agree.
Riviera mostly caters to retirees, although Nicola tells me she once hosted a honeymooning couple on a group tour – as well as guests well into their 80s and 90s. One customer whose river cruise was cancelled joined a group tour and loved it, signalling an opportunity to sell to customers who can’t get away on their normal holiday.
Shortly after Emily’s return from Italy, the country was removed from the travel corridors list, another blow to the travel industry. Flavio Zappacosta, Italian Tourist Board manager for UK & Ireland said: “It is, of course, very disappointing to learn of the announcement that Italy has been removed from the UK’s safe travel list. Our cities, coasts, countryside and major attractions are world class and we have implemented robust protocols to keep our visitors safe so this is a very disappointing development for tourism in Italy and will surely delay our recovery.
“Tourism is one of our most important industries and key to the nation’s recovery from the terrible impact of Covid-19. We would like to see testing at UK airports implemented as soon as possible as this could help alleviate the quarantine issue and establish consumer confidence once more in visiting such a popular destination as Italy.”