Our Experience Travelling during the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy

For the latest status on our fight against the Coronavirus, check out my COVID-19 Diary.

Dear readers: I break out of my regularly scheduled programming to tell the story of our experience in Italy during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Daniel and I were completely taken by surprise when we heard about the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy and had to make a quick decision about what to do. We were in Florence, Italy at the time and ultimately decided to leave – but it was not an easy choice to make. Little did we know that we were about to embark on one of the longest and most stressful travel days of our trip so far.

For those of you that have been following my blog for a while, you know that Daniel and I have been travelling across Europe for the past 5 months. I’ve been blogging about our experiences as we go along but have fallen about a month behind. As it turns out, it’s rather challenging to travel in a new country while simultaneously planning where to go next and also documenting the places that you’ve been. So this post is out of order chronologically from the others that I recently posted. However, I figured you all would rather hear this particular story sooner rather than later.

 A boat ride in Venice on February 12, 2020 (Daniel's birthday) - before the beginning of the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy
A boat ride in Venice on February 12, 2020 (Daniel’s birthday)

Part 1: Arrival in Venice – February 10

Daniel and I arrived in Venice, Italy on February 10th. It had been an unexpectedly arduous flight from Copenhagen to Venice due to Storm Ciara that wreaked havoc across Northern Europe. Many flights were cancelled, including our connecting flight to Venice – which left us stranded in Dusseldorf for the night.

When we finally landed in Venice, 24 hours later than initially planned, we were exhausted and bleary-eyed. As we straggled off the plane into the gate, we were met with a surprise: health workers in full hazmat suits. They checked the temperatures of all airline passengers using a forehead scanner before allowing them into the country. Signs all over the airport warned about the dangers of the Coronavirus and advised frequent hand washing.

At that time, the Coronavirus outbreak was primarily centered in Asia. It seemed like a disproportionate reaction to me. No other countries we’d been to recently were taking similar precautions.

Only later was I to find out how wrong I was.

 These signs about Coronavirus were posted in the Venice Airport when we arrived on February 10
These signs about Coronavirus were posted in the Venice Airport when we arrived on February 10
 These signs about Coronavirus were posted in the Venice Airport when we arrived on February 10
These signs about Coronavirus were posted in the Venice Airport when we arrived on February 10

Part 2: Daniel Gets the Sick – February 13

With our trip to Venice cut short by a day, Daniel and I set out to see as much of the city as possible. Almost immediately, however, Daniel started feeling unwell. At first it was just a headache and a feeling of fatigue, but after a few days he came down with a fever. He was quite nauseous and even ended up vomiting one night during the height of the illness.

While Daniel was sick, our AirBnB host happened to come by regarding a trivial apartment issue. When he saw Daniel on the couch, buried under a pile of blankets, he joked that Daniel must have the Coronavirus. We all had a good laugh about that. The specter of a Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy was weeks away at that point.

After a couple days of bed rest, however, Daniel seemed to be feeling better so we didn’t think much of it. We stayed in Venice until the opening ceremonies of Carnival and then moved on to our next destination, like we always do.

In hindsight, we would have sought medical advice during Daniel’s illness if we would have known that the Coronavirus was spreading in Italy. I doubt it was Coronavirus because he didn’t have the classic symptoms – coughing and shortness of breath. But we don’t know for 100% sure.

Daniel's Carnival Mask. Photo by Daniel.
Daniel’s Carnival Mask. Photo by Daniel.
My Carnival mask. Photo by Daniel.
My Carnival mask. Photo by Daniel.

Part 3: Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy – February 24

On the morning of February 24, I awoke to an urgent message from my brother asking if our trip was impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I read the news.

That was when we learned about a major Coronavirus outbreak in Northern Italy with hundreds of confirmed cases and multiple deaths. Entire towns were quarantined and schools and major events were shut down. Things were so bad that the City of Venice even cancelled the rest of their Carnival celebrations.

The outbreak was primarily centered in the provinces of Lombardy (the region around Milan) and Veneto (near Venice). At the time, Daniel and I were just south of these regions in the Tuscan city of Florence. So we were thankfully *just* out of range of the major hotspot area. But we were still awfully close. And we had just been in the Veneto region only a week previously.

It was hard to tell what to make of the news. Was it mass hysteria? Should we be concerned? To make things more interesting, it was a travel day and our apartment rental was ending. We had booked a train later that morning to the small seaside village of Viareggio for their Carnival celebrations. Should we change our plans?

We had to decide quickly. So we went ahead with our trip as planned and vowed to pay close attention to the situation. We were on high alert now.

 Hanging out in Florence. This is when we found out about the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy.
Hanging out in Florence. This is when we found out about the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy.

Part 4: We Plan our Soft Exit from Italy – February 25

The next day, the news was even worse. The virus was spreading to other parts of Italy and the world was gripped with Coronavirus hysteria. Some countries put all incoming travelers from Italy in quarantine. There was even talk about closing the border into Austria.

Daniel and I were thoroughly spooked. We weren’t as worried by the disease itself as by everyone else’s reaction to it. We’re both middle-aged and reasonably healthy – if we were to catch the virus we’d probably be fine. (Although I do have an autoimmune disease which tends to make me more susceptible to catching these kinds of things). But what if the virus kept spreading across Italy? We didn’t want to get trapped or quarantined.

We had planned to spend the entire next month rambling slowly through Italy, exploring Rome and Naples and the Amalfi Coast. But it seemed like a bad time to be in Italy and our schedule was reasonably flexible. There are lots of other amazing places that we’re eager to see. So we decided to cut our Italy visit short.

Daniel was all for leaving the country as soon as possible, but I was unsure. Leaving the country within the next 24 hours would be incredibly expensive, especially taking into account our AirBnB reservation in Rome (which wasn’t fully refundable). I convinced Daniel that we should maintain our travel plans to Rome and then fly to Madrid a few days later when airline prices were cheaper. Daniel wasn’t very keen on the idea but apparently I was very convincing so he agreed to the plan. So we made reservations accordingly.

 The Carnival celebrations in Viareggio
The Carnival celebrations in Viareggio

Part 5: The Hard Exit – February 26, 8:00 am

I woke up the next morning in a panic. What was I thinking? The Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy was cause for immediate action! We should get out of Italy right now! Why did Daniel listen to me yesterday?

It wasn’t very rational. The news hadn’t changed much from the day before, except that the Coronavirus was spreading all over the world. It was becoming apparent that this will likely become a global pandemic that all countries will have to grapple with. I’m not sure if any other country will be any safer than Italy given a little time.

But these things are rarely rational. I woke up Daniel from a dead sleep and started blathering about train tickets and flight schedules and leaving the country. He had only slept for a few hours and wasn’t thrilled that I was coming to this decision today rather than yesterday. But he agreed with the idea and so we hatched a new plan. A new, very expensive, plan.

Daniel and I would take the train from Viareggio to Florence, and from there take another train to Rome. We had already purchased these tickets so that part was easy. From the Rome train station, we would travel to the airport and then fly to Madrid – arriving around 10:30 pm. I booked a budget hotel near the Madrid airport to make things easier for us when we landed.

It was a long travel day, but it seemed doable. We worried a little that it may be too ambitious – that the strain from too much travelling could weaken our immune systems and one of us would get sick. Any illness at this point could be disastrous. Neither of us wanted to show up in another country with a fever after having just been to Italy, Coronavirus or no. But we were eager to leave so we decided to go for it.

Part 6: The Travel Day from Hell – February 26, 11:00 am

The day started out easily enough. It was an easy walk to the Viareggio train station where we caught the local train to Florence. Daniel and I eyed everyone who coughed or sneezed with suspicion. I really wished we had hand sanitizer with us – I had tried to buy some at a pharmacy earlier but they were all out.

On the train, a message played over the intercom assuring passengers that the railway employees were taking all necessary precautions with regards to the Coronavirus. Whatever that means. It wasn’t very reassuring.

Things really started to go wrong when we arrived in Florence. Many people in the station were wearing face masks, even though they don’t actually prevent one from catching the virus. While we were eating lunch in the station, I suddenly realized that it was almost time for our train to leave. Daniel and I hustled over to the platform just in time for the doors to slam shut in our faces. We knocked and yelled and tried to open the doors, but it was no good. Argh!

We both felt like idiots. We’ve never actually missed a train before. Chalk it up to nerves and travel stress, I guess.

Lucky for us, the trains run frequently from Florence to Rome – so we only had to wait about 20 minutes for the next one. But it cost us 100 Euros to buy new tickets (they are a lot more expensive when you buy tickets the same day). And then, to make matters worse, the train was a half hour late getting into Rome.

Thankfully, we had padded extra time into our travel schedule so we were not running late… yet. But we had no more room for error at this point.

 I can't believe we missed our train. Dumb!
I can’t believe we missed our train. Dumb!

When we disembarked at the Rome station, we located the airport express shuttle train and found that it was about to leave. We didn’t even have time to buy tickets; we just hopped on it. Breaking rules of any kind tends to make me nervous and this was no exception. I was sweating bullets, convinced that we’d get caught and slapped with a huge fine. Or worse.

So I whipped out my phone and found a web site that sold the tickets online. And then I waited. And waited. Our train ride was half way over before our electronic tickets were finally issued. And just in the nick of time too, as the conductor came by 2 minutes later to check them. Whew! (I was really glad we had those tickets, by the way, as they are also required in order to exit the station at the airport).

Soon we arrived at the airport, breezed through the check-in and security lines, and even had time for a nice dinner before our plane began boarding. Convinced that our troubles were behind us, we gathered at the gate and waited for the plane to board. And waited. When the airline staff began handing out food vouchers, that seemed like a bad sign.

 Crowd of unhappy passengers near the gate - all trying to escape the Coronavirus Outbreak in Italy
Crowd of unhappy passengers near the gate

Sure enough, our flight was delayed. And not a short delay either – we were delayed for ALMOST SEVEN HOURS. This meant that instead of departing at 7:50 pm, we didn’t take off until 2:30 am… with an arrival time in Madrid at 4:45 am. By the time we finally boarded the plane, the passengers were all tense and exhausted. Everyone was already on edge due to the Coronavirus; making us stay up all night long due to a flight delay certainly didn’t help things.

 After waiting in uncomfortable chairs for 3 hours, we found these awesome lounge chairs in the Rome airport.
After waiting in uncomfortable chairs for 3 hours, we found these awesome lounge chairs in the Rome airport.

And now for the one bright spot of the day – due to some strange and unexpected twist of fate, Daniel and I somehow ended up in business class. I have no idea how this happened because we certainly didn’t pay for it, but I’m not complaining. This meant we had a reasonably nice dinner served to us with cloth napkins and real silverware at 3:00 am, as well as *fully reclining seats*. That was niiiiice.

Part 7: Arrival in Madrid – February 27, 4:45 am

I awoke from a lovely little nap in business class as we landed in Madrid. The time was 4:45 am and the airport was absolutely deserted. I had anticipated that we would be stopped or questioned after we arrived but it didn’t happen. Some of the other passengers were displaying obvious cold symptoms but no one seemed to care. I’m not sure if this is the typical procedure or if the airport wasn’t staffed to process airplanes landing in the wee hours of the morning.

It was 6:00 am by the time we arrived at our hotel, a budget-friendly establishment near the airport. Daniel and I had initially planned to stay there for only one night but extended our stay to two nights and proceeded to sleep the entire next day.

We have since moved over to an AirBnB apartment and are exploring the city of Madrid. I am so glad to be in Spain. It’s always been one of my favorite places to visit. And it’s such a relief to be away from the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy. As of today there are now 1128 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Italy with a total of 29 virus-linked deaths. There are 45 confirmed cases in Spain.

I do have mixed feelings about our exit from Italy however. Maybe we should have stuck it out – we would probably be the only tourists in Italy now and we’d have the place pretty much to ourselves. And perhaps it was irresponsible for us to leave the country, potentially bringing the Coronavirus with us. Although it’s now been over two weeks since Daniel and I left the Veneto region and we both feel fine. It’s hard to know.

So that’s the story. Thanks for reading.
-Unicorn

 I'm happy to be in Spain!
I’m happy to be in Spain!

Where are we now?

Location: Madrid, Spain
Dates: February 26, 2020
Vagabonding Journey Status: Day 147

For more details on our vagabonding journey, see my previous posts:

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5 thoughts

  1. Unicorn, this is Kathy from work (using my nom de blog in WordPress). So glad you posted and that Daniel came through it OK. Things are very, um, exciting here in Seattle and I’d be happy to tell you more privately if you want to email me at work. (I don’t seem to have your email address.) So far no cases at work though, to be clear.

    Other than pestilence, I have been so enjoying every bloggy moment of your journey. I know you’ll look back on this and be amazed and thrilled that you guys did this trip and have a hard time believing some of the spectacular things you’ve seen and done. So happy for you. Do all the things!

    1. Hi Kathy! So nice to hear from you. I did indeed get your email. Glad you’re enjoying the blog 😊
      -Katy

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