- When it became possible to travel from the UK to Italy following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to visit Instagram-famous destination Cinque Terre.
- There were far fewer tourists there than usual, and it was a rare chance to see the popular beauty spot in its original form.
- The Italian social distancing measures were far more stringent than in the UK, and I felt very safe.
- At times, however, the quiet streets felt eerie with safety measures visible everywhere.
- As picturesque as Cinque Terre is, it’s not a place that I would want to visit when it’s thronged with tourists from all around the world.
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If you picture an Italian seaside holiday, you’re probably visualising Cinque Terre. A series of five towns of pastel-coloured houses clinging onto stunning craggy cliffs over clear turquoise sea, it’s an iconic vacation destination.
Cinque Terre is thronged every summer with sun-seekers looking for beach relaxation, hikers excited about the area’s famous walking trails, and Instagrammers looking for the perfect bikini shot. This makes it crushingly busy, and often difficult place to experience the authentic spirit of the area.
Located around three hours south of Milan by train, Cinque Terre itself experienced relatively few cases of the coronavirus compared to the rest of the country. However, as it’s a spot that relies on tourism to survive, the after-effects of Italy’s high caseload and subsequent lockdown have been severely felt.
Cinque Terre has always been a place I’ve wanted to visit, so when it became possible to travel from the UK to Italy again, I decided it was a good time to go (armed with the knowledge that it would be far quieter than a usual summer season, and the fact that Italy had controlled the virus well and was taking social distancing seriously).
Here’s what it was like.
Getting the train from Milan, I was immediately struck by the social distancing measures Italy was enforcing.
Absolutely everyone was wearing a mask and respecting the two-metre rule.
Before entering the train platform, everyone’s temperature was taken.
Stickers throughout the station on the floor instructed you where to stand and how to distance.
On the train, signs showed travellers where to sit — and masks remained essential.
The conductor confirmed that everyone was wearing a mask when he checked the tickets.
The host of the apartment I was staying in didn’t come inside to give me a tour, as it had been sanitised.
It felt like everyone was aware of how to stay safe, and were assiduously following the rules to keep each other protected – much more so than in England.
Exploring the town itself, it was clear that while there were tourists there, it was very quiet.
I had booked my apartment just days before arriving, and had plenty of choice in where to stay.
This felt odd in a town which sees more than seven million cruise ship visitors every summer, according to a tourist information board I saw while walking around.
It was peaceful, though eerily quiet at times.
The charming streets were uncrowded and mostly populated by locals. While there were quite a few Italian and French visitors strolling around, most shocking was the lack of American voices.
Famous Italian destinations such as Cinque Terre, Venice, and the Amalfi Coast are usually heaving with American tourists in mid July.
While it was admittedly nice not hearing loud Americans puzzling over how to pay with euros rather than dollars, it made me worry about Cinque Terre’s tourist industry.
I knew that the effects of a quiet summer would be felt by residents and business owners who rely on making enough money from tourism to see them through the winter.
There were no queues for restaurant tables, gelato, or for the beach.
In fact, there were a lot of empty chairs and tables everywhere, and not just for social distancing reasons.
Every shop, tiny cafe, and gelato spot I saw was taking the appropriate precautions to serve customers safely.
To go inside any public space, a mask was required – and every single person was wearing one. It was the fashion to wear your mask on your wrist when you weren’t wearing it, so you visibly had one ready to go.
Separate entrances and exits to shops, perspex screens between restaurant tables, and floor markings showed that all businesses were making a huge effort to be safe for visitors.
Walking down the street in England, you get the sense that the public are merely tolerating the safety restrictions and doing as little as they can get away with. In Cinque Terre, everyone seemed fully invested.
I stayed in Monterosso, the only town out of the five that make up Cinque Terre that has a sandy beach.
Like most beaches in Italy, it’s a mix of private beach clubs and areas that are free to use.
To access the public beaches, you had to book a timeslot on an official website.
On the public beaches themselves, safely social distanced areas were marked with safety tape or wooden poles, showing where to sit. A warden checked your name and booking before letting you enter and ensured everyone was following the rules.
On the private beach clubs (where you can rent a sunbed and an umbrella for €15 per person), at least one sunbed was left empty between each group.
This meant that space was more limited than usual. Italian beaches are usually packed with people as the clubs squeeze in as many paying customers as possible, but the distancing requirements meant you had to book a sunbed a day or even several days in advance.
Before entering the private beach clubs, your temperature was taken to ensure you weren’t ill.
When you paid, you filled out a form with the name and contact details of everyone in your party, along with your home address.
This meant that if anyone fell ill, you would be easily contactable.
And again, masks were required in public areas.
One thing that struck me was how much hand sanitizer was available everywhere.
Every few paces, there was a container of sanitizer.
There were also official government posters up every few metres explaining what the coronavirus is, how to protect yourself from it, and explaining the measures in place.
The atmosphere was one of awareness and consideration.
Cinque Terre is also famous for its hiking trails, and I was interested to see how they would have been impacted by COVID.
I was expecting summer 2020 might be different on the trails than a typical summer season.
The hikes usually get so busy that you have to buy tickets in advance, but when I started climbing the many steep steps to the start of the trail, there wasn’t another person to be seen.
The walking routes are narrow and slippery and often are without a safety rail, so I was pleased to have the incredible view all to myself.
With routes between the five towns traversing steep mountains and cliffs with incredible views over the ocean, it’s not an activity to miss.
I was able to take in the scenery without hordes of tourists around me.
As picturesque as Cinque Terre is, it’s not a place that I would want to visit when it’s thronged with tourists from all around the world.
I feel lucky to have got the chance to see this beautiful and famous area of Italy at a time when it’s peaceful, though – especially knowing I was supporting the economy of a stunning place that desperately needs it.
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