Some Unexpected Benefits Await ''Pioneering" Tourists in Italy

August 14, 2020
When Americans start coming again as tourists to Italy, they will find hoteliers, museum directors and restaurant owners have devised some thoughtful measures to ease visitors back into new routines after stay-at-home situations kept many foreigners out of the country for months.

The first country outside of Asia to be hit in the pandemic, Italy has been very cautious about re-opening itself up to tourists, doing it in stages and only after public establishments have complied with rules to ensure that vacationing in the country is convenient, safe and pleasurable.

As of this writing, visitors cannot enter Italy for tourism reasons if they come straight from the United States, based on public health assessments of how much the pandemic is under control. But hotels, trattorias and shops, especially in historic centers of cities popular with tourist are eager to welcome back Americans, who make up one of the largest segments of their clientele.

With weather generally mild enough to permit outdoor dining well into fall, many cafe and restaurant owners have expanded sidewalk table capacity so diners can stay the prescribed distance apart and enjoy fresh air. Italy tends to the bureaucratic side, and it can take years to get local government permission to add more outdoor dining tables. But knowing many patrons prefer outdoors to indoors as Italy emerges from the pandemic, many places, including Rome, have decided to let eateries quickly expand outside seating.

So, chances are, you'll find many more restaurants and cafes offering outdoor seating than before, a boon to those in any times who like to catch glimpses of local life passing by as they dine as well as snag an evening breeze.

Hotels, too, have re-arranged routines to better fit a post-pandemic world. For those used to U.S. hotels, where breakfast often consists of muffin and a bagel and coffee from a pitcher on a hotplate, ''prima colazione," or the ''first meal" in Italy can be a delightful surprise. Freshly baked cakes and pastries, fragrant fresh bread loaves, local cheeses, fruit and jams from nearby orchards are often arrayed on long tables for buffet-style service, and coffee or tea is made the way you like it, brought to your table by a server. These days, to avoid a congestion of diners in front of the buffet, servers take your requests at your table.

Those serving or preparing food in cafes and restaurants must wear masks at all times. And Italy's health ministry has issued detailed plans, with square footage requirements determining how many tables can be safely arranged indoors or out, and how far apart chairs must be placed.

Even beach establishments or pools at hotels have whipped out their tape measures to ensure beach chairs and umbrellas were safely placed at the required distance.

Dispensers of gels abound everywhere -- in supermarkets, dress or souvenir shops, hotel lobbies, poolside -- everywhere open to the public.

Museums, too, have adapted their layouts and logistics to make visiting a safe, uncrowded, enjoyable experience. Eager for the art-thirsty public to stay connected to their collections during lockdown, many of Italy's museums quickly revamped websites to give virtual tours -- often by the renowned art historians or archaeologists who direct the institutions. By checking out these websites, visitors can have a detailed look at the museum's collections and decide if it's a place they'd like to tour. Milan's Brera and Florence's Uffizi Galleries have mounted exceptionally well-done "virtual tours."

Following the lead of the Uffizi Galleries, one of the world's leading museums which have offered reservations for years, all museums and archaeological parks in Italy, including Pompeii, must now require reservations. Fixed entry times limit the prospect of bunching up at ticket booths. And many museums have put indicating marks on flooring to help visitors follow itineraries to keep the flow of tourists moving.

Even places of natural beauty have devised ways to limit crowding. In Sardinia this summer, visitors could download an app to see how crowded or uncrowded some of the island's most spectacular beach coves are, before setting out by boat or car to reach them. Once the designated safe capacity under anti-pandemic rules is reached, the tourist is notified that the cove or beach is filled and is given suggestions for nearby alternatives.

Italy's museums and sites of ancient ruins started opening their gates to the public in late spring, when dropping contagion rates reassured health authorities it was safe to have visitors. Some of these "pioneering" visitors were rewarded with access that was nearly impossible in the past -- like being one of only a handful of visitors at one time in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Museums to gaze at Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling. In pre-pandemic times, the Chapel could be so crowded, tourists were elbow-to-elbow. Others delighted earlier this year in being the sole visitors in such iconic -- and usually packed places -- like Trevi Fountain or descending the Spanish Steps while hearing only one's own footsteps.

For the near future, protective face masks seem to be part of daily life in Italy, like cell phones, an item to tuck into jacket pocket or purse. To ensure everyone in Italy can have a handy supply, the government has mandated that pharmacies, smoke shops and even supermarkets sell basic surgical masks at a fixed, affordable price of 50-euro cents (about 59 U.S. cents) apiece. In a country where designer fashion is a major industry, masks not surprisingly have become a fashion item. Washable ones are available for a few dollars in all kinds of prints and colors. One enterprising shop near the swank Via Condotti shopping street quickly started offering silk models, selling for about 70 euros ($80) dollars.