A postcard from crowd-free Rome: face masks are ubiquitous, but the city's magic endures

Emma Featherstone
·7-min read
rome - Getty
rome - Getty

I was left with a brief window to get my shot. I pointed my camera straight down the centre, picking up the view across the city’s rooftops and of the trickle of pedestrians ambling through the piazza below.

The frenetic tapestry of visitors that, pre-Covid, frequently shrouded the stone steps, had yet to return. A couple of police officers hovered at the bottom, admonishing two small boys who had briefly perched on the staircase.

This exchange was a nod to normality in Rome; the authorities enforcing the ban on sitting on the Spanish Steps. The attraction’s relative emptiness on a Saturday morning was a happy side effect of months of dampened tourist trade.

I'd travelled to the city ahead of Italy’s possible addition to the UK’s travel red list. Those who head to Europe's favourite holiday spots at the moment are frequently enjoying a feeling of relative exclusivity. Rome was no exception. And, as proved when fresh rules for Britons visiting Italy emerged last week, it’s worth grasping the chance for a last-minute break.

Italy has continued to edge higher past the UK Government’s seven-day 20 cases per 100,000 people threshold (the UK has tended to consider imposing quarantine for arrivals for any country that tops this). In the days leading up to the weekly travel corridor update, it appeared that Italy's could be for the chop, despite the UK’s seven-day infection rate being over four times higher.

I took a last-minute flight out on the Wednesday before the announcement, booked on a return before the cut-off hour of 4am Saturday.

spanish steps - Getty
spanish steps - Getty

I awaited, with the heightened excitement that has come from travel post-lockdown, to take a seat in the Colosseum and clamber the 551 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. I’d noted that face masks had been made compulsory in all outdoor areas across the Lazio region, including Rome, a few days before (on Wednesday this rule was extended to the entire country). Nearly everyone was following this restriction.

At least this is straightforward, much like the stringent lockdown measures Italy endured during the worst of its Covid crisis. Indeed, Agnes Crawford, a Briton, tour guide and resident of Rome for over 20 years, who I met for a walk up to Palatine Hill, said that she’d found everyone to be compliant with restrictions. “You could only leave home to buy essentials and you had to keep a receipt for what you bought, so, if you were stopped, the police could see the date and time.” She added: “I walked over 20km when the lockdown ended.”

The blanket face covering rule has the effect of killing any real commitment to social distancing; as I moved through the Colosseum exhibition, for example, visitors bunched up to read information plaques. But, at least, Italy's rules are fewer and less complicated than the UK's

In Italy, the official advice is that restaurants and other venues may ask for your contact details, but the places I visited did not. Temperatures were taken at the Pantheon, St. Peter's Basilica and the Colosseum. But, once inside, I didn't encounter one-way systems, as I have at UK attractions. Although, aside from the (free) Pantheon, most indoor places require you to pre-book. 

At the Colosseum, despite the busyness of the exhibition, I was joined by a mere handful of visitors milling around the arena floor (I went in at 10.30am on a "full experience" ticket).

the colosseum
the colosseum

I took a seat on the wooden steps, gazed up into the sun-dappled stands, and imagined myself a spectator awaiting my favourite gladiator's entrance. Only a couple of selfie takers upset the ambience. If you go soon, linger in the arena a little longer; the quiet soon dissipates once you follow along behind the exhibition's guided tours (although, I noted, they were only being conducted in French, German and Italian).

Agnes, who, pre-Covid, could run two to three tours a day, has since swiveled to virtual guiding. She told me the rush of Britons heading to Rome when the UK opened a travel corridor with Italy had now lulled. With a resurgence of infection rates across Europe and a fast-dwindling list of quarantine-free countries, we British holidaymakers were less evident.

This is a shame. For one, Italy needs tourists. The industry accounts for 13 per cent of its GDP (about €230 billion/£208 billion annually). But also, it's such a privilege to visit at this time. The city, while far from devoid of people, was never overcrowded during my three-day trip. On a visit to the Vatican Museums, I walked passed through the barriers without a wait and strolled through the centuries’ worth of artefacts never rushed by an oncoming crowd. “On a morning visit in October, you’d usually barely be able to see the floors of the museums for people,” Agnes had told me. After two hours winding my way through the museums, I made it to the Sistine Chapel.

I joined the evenly-scattered group of visitors craning their necks towards Michelangelo’s masterpiece. A priest entered, reminding us to wear face masks before he invited us to join him in prayer.

In a further example of the city's comparative quiet: on the Thursday morning, I’d found a mere smattering of tourists admiring the Trevi Fountain and a couple of days later, I walked down the central path of St Peter’s Basilica unimpeded (having encountered no queue on my entry).

st peter's square
st peter's square

When Agnes dropped me off at Armando Al Pantheon after our stroll through the Forum, she told me how rare it was to be able to book a last-minute table for lunch at this family-run trattoria. Yet, before slicing into a large hunk of buffalo mozzarella (selected from a QR code-downloaded menu and ordered from a masked-up waiter), I counted 11 tables of 1-4 people – no spot stayed empty longer than five minutes before a besuited Italian sat down for an afternoon feast. Sipping on a cold glass of white wine, I was glad I’d travelled solo to one of the world’s most romantic cities: the crowd-free attractions were there to be savoured, without distraction.

It’s certainly not a holiday choice for more ardent mask-sceptics those who are medically-exempt from wearing may find themselves having to explain this fairly frequently). It did feel like an arbitrary rule when walking through half-empty squares, and had the effect of steaming up my sunglasses as temperatures climbed into the mid 20s. Yet, if I’m honest (mostly because I was alone, and therefore doing little talking), I stopped noticing mine after a while. It was a small sacrifice for experiencing the city’s magic without the crowds.

When, on Thursday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, announced that there'd be no further additions to the list I extended my trip for an extra night. The flight change fee was worth it, especially given the testing regulations that Italy imposed on arrivals from the UK on October 8. This brought confusion to many, given the risk that you might have to quarantine if testing positive on arrival (see our guide to testing and what happens if you test positive). 

However, Rome’s airports both have testing facilities in place. Arriving at Fiumicino airport on Friday, traveller Beth Booth told me she waited just an hour for her results to be processed.

If you can take the risk of quarantine (or can secure negative test results in the UK, within the required 72 hour hours before arrival), my advice is: grasp your window to experience the eternal city without the tourist hordes.