I didn’t believe we were actually going to Venice until we pulled onto the Ponte della Libertà and saw the church spires and towers coming into view ahead of us. After months of travel uncertainty and a lot of time at home, it felt completely surreal to be in a different country and heading to such an iconic city.
As we live in Munich, northern Italy is a regular holiday destination. The temptation to hit the road, cross the Alps and stop for an espresso at the first service station beyond the Italian border is never far away. And yet Venice isn’t normally on our radar, especially during the hot and overcrowded season. However, with mass tourism still on hold as borders reopened, this seemed like a unique time to visit again – and we weren’t wrong.
There were moments when it felt like we were on a film set or in the pages of a guide book. It was how I imagine Venetian summers might have been in the past. We strolled along the spacious sea front, wandered through empty alleys and rode the vaporetto down a quiet Grand Canal. Gondolas still moved silently along the waterways, but only a handful. The main routes through the city, such as those with signposts to the Rialto Bridge or Piazzale Roma were slightly busier, as were some of the streets lined with bars and restaurants; but judging by the languages we overheard and the registration plates in the multi-storey where we left our car, most people were either local or Italian tourists.
Queues did form outside some of the famous spots, such as St Mark’s Campanile and the Doge’s Palace, but they weren’t too long. At the front of each line were members of staff waiting to check visitors’ tickets as well as their temperatures. Of course, any coronavirus-related regulations and procedures are far more noticeable once you go indoors. Experiencing variations in the rules for the first time made me realise how 'normal' the more familiar ones at home have become and how travelling during this time means accepting and adapting to the local approach – whether stricter or more relaxed.
Our hotel had a number of hygiene measures in place, including compulsory mask-wearing when not in your room and a one-way system. Perhaps the strangest scenario we encountered was the breakfast buffet: it involved standing back and pointing at what you wanted so a waiter could plate up your food. It was all a bit awkward and, as a polite Brit, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for seconds. For the rest of the trip we opted for some of the city’s excellent patisseries instead.
It wasn’t just the quiet streets, the masks and the omnipresent hand sanitiser that made things feel unusual though. The trip was also different from an emotional point of view. The level of anticipation and excitement before setting off reminded me of the first time I went backpacking quite a few years ago (pre-smartphones and social media). Rather than having a clear idea of what to expect, this was a journey into the unknown. A real adventure, as well as a much-needed change of scene. Even calling a restaurant and using my rusty Italian was a thrill. From the sunshine beating down on the water to a pianist filling the central square with music late at night, I felt more aware of everything and wanted to take it all in.