This week Peru’s most famed attraction Machu Picchu reopened for a single tourist; a Japanese man who had been stranded amid the pandemic for seven months. What an honour, and hardly the sort of experience most of us will ever get to enjoy.
But these are unique times. And for those of us with the flexibility to travel at the moment (and the willingness to wade through all the red tape), there are escapades to be had which would never usually be possible; as I had the good fortune to discover in Venice.
I’ve always regarded city breaks to be something of an oxymoron. As someone who doesn’t particularly like living in a metropolis to begin with, the last place I’d seek to find a ‘break’ from the noise and crowds (remember them?) is in another one. Nothing about them appeals to me.
The only city I’ve ever had longing, romantic notions about is Venice; for its unfeasible arrangement of narrow streets, vast monuments and ancient bridges. But I’ve seen the unairbrushed photos of canals choked with gondolas and bloated cruise ships dwarfing the skyline, and I’ve heard the statistics; that tourists outnumber locals by 20 to one during high season. So I resolved never to have the film set version of Venice ruined by witnessing its modern reality first hand. And then came the pandemic.
For all it has cost us, this virus has at least afforded every city on Earth a break in its truest form. Mid-lockdown, photos emerged from Venice of its teal lagoon waters clear for the first time in decades, reclaimed by swans in the absence of boat traffic. It was a once in a lifetime chance to see it this way, so the very day travel restrictions were lifted, I was on a plane to the Floating City. And what a break it was.
Stationed at the Aman in all its empty splendour, its first British guest since hotels closed in March, I weaved from dawn to dusk through pristine alleys, under grand arches, over bridges large and small.
The warm sun threw glitter across the still water. The only other voices I heard were Italian. Waiters, usually rushed off their feet at this time of year, had time to chat, albeit muffled from behind masks. Pigeons, not tourists, outnumbered locals on St Mark’s Square. The gondola I took grazed one wall on a tight turn, but there were no other boats to bump into.
A post shared by Annabel Fenwick Elliott (@annabelmaud) on Jul 13, 2020 at 10:00am PDT
It was a similar scene in Santorini, the Greek island usually rammed to the gills with cruise ship day-trippers. I visited twice over the summer. Oia, the Instagram-famous labyrinth of white domes clutched at the forehead of Santorini’s steep cliffs, was empty of the usual dawdlers and pouty influencers that usually fill its narrow cobbled streets.
Why would anyone go to these places in our dystopian post-pandemic world, my colleague Hugh Morris has posited. For precisely this reason, is my retort, unless you happen to take pleasure in the essence crowds once brought to an urban scene.
Few things have benefitted from the coronavirus, but as far as I’m concerned, the city break is one of them.