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Travel

Travelling in the Covid era – food and quarantine in Venice

The pandemic’s changed lots of things, and a good few may never be quite the same again. What it’s done to alter the face of Venice when it comes to mass tourism we’ll have to wait and see and hope for the best. But this is a clever, enterprising city, one that’s used to adapting to difficult circumstances. Living in the midst of water that might one day, out of the blue, swamp your home, it has to be. So the story I’m going to tell you , which is of interest to anyone needing food deliveries here, not just the few of us in quarantine, is, in many ways, unsurprising.

When the pandemic and subsequent lockdown hit, the city’s hospitality sector was devastated. I got here briefly a year ago in the gap between lockdown one and two. A couple of my favourite cafes had closed, seemingly for good. The rest had opened up, struggling with fewer customers and stricter rules.

I’ll try and tell you what that’s like now when I’m allowed out of captivity here. This time, knowing I had to quarantine for five days, I’d turned up with a sorry supply of dried fast food hoping to live off that and a supermarket shop by the helpful woman owning my rental. But I needn’t have worried because three young local chaps decided to set up a home delivery operation in a city with no roads, no cars, no bike or any of the other means used by giants like Deliveroo. You can read their story in Italian here on Corriere della Serra. In short they set up a website and an app that connects restaurants and food shops around the city with an enthusiastic group of ‘Cocai Runners’ who’ll deliver what you want at short notice to your door.

It is in Italian only at the moment, though. But fear not. Stick with me and I’ll show you how to master the Cocai app in English and set yourself up for deliveries from some of the city’s finest restaurants and some cheap and cheerful fast food spots too whenever you want them.

First up, the links. There is a website CocaiExpress website which will tell you very little at all. It’s basically a corporate hub. There’s also a Facebook page which is a bit more useful but only a bit. The heart of the whole thing lies in the phone apps, on the Apple store here and on Google Play here. Everything happens there.

The first thing you need to do is the trickiest and that’s setting up your account and giving it the address you’re staying. This is the screen and you need to get it right.

Sestiere will be one of the seven districts of Venice such as Castello or Dorsoduro. The number will be for your building. ‘Calle’ means your street or Campo. In the note — and this is important — find out the name on the bell for your place and put this in here as ‘Nome….’ Do all that correctly and your delivery person should find you without a problem and ring the right bell.

Now to the clever part. Once Cocai knows where you live, it can work out the closest restaurants that might interest you. Closer means fresher I guess but also a cheaper delivery fee.

Home screen — food, drinks, shopping, sweets and gelati all available

Once you’re registered you can go to the home screen and see what’s on offer. It’s not just food, there’s some shopping too.

Cocai knows opening times and estimated delivery times so you can plan ahead while browsing menus.

Let’s say I fancy a pizza. Al Profeta is very close to me so it comes top of the list.

There’s an estimate of delivery times, minimum order, some user ratings and the cost of delivery. Al Profeta do lots things beyond pizza but for something different I’d look at another favourite in Dorsoduro, Impronta.

That duck dish is fantastic. As you can see, the minimum order has gone up to €20 while the delivery charge has stayed the same.

Now how about something really fancy from Bistrot de Venise?

Lovely stuff but definitely one for a special night in for two with that minimum order of €40 and, since it’s a fair bit further away, a higher delivery fee. Not for a solitary quarantinee and frankly the Bistrot is such a famous place to eat I’d rather be there for the experience. But it’s great to have the chance to order in a bit of champagne and caviar and giant prawns if you fancy them.

If you’re in Venice for quarantine, leisure or work, Cocai Express seems to me a fantastic innovation. It’s a credit to all those involved, the developers, the restaurants taking part, and all those young runners weaving their way to the hungry across Venice. If you have questions please direct them at their Facebook page.

Oh, and you can pay by cash or card. I’ve only ever paid in cash so I don’t know how the card works. Again, I’m sure someone on the Facebook page can help. (Update — I’ve now ordered by card through the app and it’s dead easy.)

Cocai seems to me a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s kept Venice going for a millennium and a half, through thick and thin. Now to think about what I’m going to order for tonight’s supper…

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Travel

Travelling in the Covid era – outbound to Venice

I did it! After worrying about the whole thing for days, I plucked up the courage, went to Gatwick and embarked upon the great journey — all one hour and fifty minutes of it — to Venice.

A trip I used to think of as commuting almost. Today… well let’s find out.

Getting to the airport

My car turned up on time for the trip up the M20 we’ve made so many times before. It wasn’t long before we encountered firm evidence we’re now in new territory. A few miles along the road blocks start to appear and lane closures. Yes, the famous Operation Brock is back, slowing down everyone and making you wonder why.

The reason this time? Johnson’s Freedom Day. Which was, it seems, bound to lead to loads of traffic from the Continent turning up in Merry Old England. Yes, I know, we’re 100,000 short of lorry drivers at the moment thanks, in no small part, to Brexit, and if you were a holidaymaker coming in from France you’d currently have to quarantine.

So what? You want logic? Anyway the traffic was so light even Brock didn’t stop me getting to Gatwick North for the first time in years.

Gulp… heart in mouth… it’s time to…

Check in

The last time I did this was for the BA Club class queue at Heathrow Terminal 5 a year ago and a proper nightmare it was. Slow, confused and irritating, especially when, with just about every stand empty, we were made to get on a bus to the plane.

Gatwick and easyJet were a joy in comparison. Well no, of course it wasn’t. Getting there was never a joy and never will be. Being there is what it’s all about.

This was the first Saturday after the break-up of the schools and on an ordinary year the place would have been heaving. It wasn’t quiet. It wasn’t busy. I got in the queue for the bag drop, waited my turn, showed my ticket and my antigen certificate to the chap dealing with us all… and waited for the questions. There were none. He glanced at the antigen certificate, gave me a little bit of paper that said ‘good to fly’ or something and then it was on to security. Which was quick since it was so quiet.

EasyJet, if you have a Flexi ticket like I had, offer you Fast Track through the system by the way. Which is odd since when I went up to the Fast Track section I was told it wasn’t operating and was just for staff. Oh well. All the same, fifteen minutes after getting in line for check-in I was airside. I’ve taken longer in a business class premium queue.

In the airport

I hadn’t been in Gatwick North for ages. It’s a bit rundown in parts to be honest. There’s Jamie Oliver’s restaurant , still showing departure details, with everything closed. I remember paying a fortune for a dreadful breakfast there a while back so I think it’s primarily a loss for the many decent workers at Gatwick who’ve been furloughed or worse over the last 18 months. On that subject I should say that all the airport and airline people I met along the way were polite, efficient and doing their best, sometimes in difficult circumstances. I made sure to thank a couple especially. They’ve been through hell too. They deserve our support, not the abuse they get at times.

Oliver’s dive isn’t the only shuttered restaurant either. The few that were open had long queues of people waiting for whatever meal you eat at 1045 in the morning. If you’re planning on dining there I’d see if you can book.

Gatwick says everyone must wear masks. Most people did. A few very visibly didn’t and I didn’t see any staff tackling them over it. I was offended more by the rudeness than any great sense of danger though I still made sure to steer clear of the worst offenders. In theory everyone who’s got this far has a negative Covid test of some form unless they’re too young. That must minimise the risks a lot compared with getting on the Tube. Nothing is completely safe, of course. But then the only way to stay completely safe is to lock yourself in your home and hope you don’t fall down the stairs.

Overall I’d say the atmosphere was muted — lots of older travellers, families, no hen or stag parties that I could see. People weren’t very vocal either. Perhaps like me they were still wondering if we’d make it to the other end. Or just exhausted.

Boarding

Same as usual. That’s to say we were all moved into an airless corridor, waited there for 15 minutes and then Speedy Boarders were ushered through onto the plane. One word of warning. Masks with filters were out of bounds for some reason. Anyone wearing one was asked to remove it and given a plain mask to wear for the flight. Also it seems Italian rules mean that clothing can only be stored in overhead lockers in bags, not loose. So the woman next to me wore her long black coat all the way through the flight.

Which was just one hour and fifty minutes thank goodness. We took off ten minutes late and landed one minute early. Usually I bag a BA Club right hand window seat to get that wonderful view of Venice as we come in (most times). No chance this time, middle front row seat with a view of nothing. I had one of these masks. It was light, comfortable and supposedly very effective.

All the same I was looking forward to taking it off.

Arrival

At Marco Polo we docked at a stand, a rarity when travelling in normal times with BA which almost always seems to involve a bus. I was in row one, among the first off, striding towards passport control heart in mouth. Did I have all the right paperwork? Would I finally get into Italy for the first time in a year? What kind of interrogation lay ahead now Brexit had stripped me of my EU citizenship?

UK citizens are guided to an e-passport gate. Through that in a flash then up to the immigration officer at the desk. He smiles as he takes my passport and asks the reason for the visit and how long I’ll be in Italy. That done, he asks if I know I have to quarantine.

‘Oh yes,’ I say, ready to brandish my folder of paperwork, certificates, locator form, blood group, family history, that review I got in the Washington Post years ago comparing me with Dan Brown and my highlighting of the section that never gets quotes saying ‘nothing like Dan Brown too’, you name it.

He stamps my passport and that’s it. I’m airside so quickly there’s a fifteen-minute wait for the suitcase.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been through Marco Polo airport and I have to tell you this must be one of the quickest, easiest transits ever. The biggest delay? Waiting for my expensive private boat from Consorzio Motoscafi which wasn’t there when I turn up for the jetty.

Still, twenty minutes later we’re turning from the Cannaregio into the Grand Canal and I’m nearly in my new home.

I’d been anxious about this trip ever since booking it. Stupid of me. There may be a lot more paperwork to deal with in advance. But on the day this was a piece of cake.

Know what hurt most? Getting that stamp in my passport. Bloody Brexit.

Next up in a little while… a few thoughts on quarantine when I’ve gathered them together.

If you want to keep up with the future posts in this thread I suggest following me on Twitter . They’ll be flagged up there.

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Travel

Travelling in the Covid era – preparations

Just over eighteen months ago I set off for Italy with my passport, a boarding pass on my phone, breezed through Gatwick, then, a couple of hours later, through the e-gate in Venice Marco Polo and was on my way into the city.

This weekend I will be making the same journey and it couldn’t be more different. It’s not just the latest cocktail of Covid, the Delta Variant (which I shall henceforth refer to in the UK by its proper title, the Johnson Variant). There’s the equal disaster of Brexit too.

What does this mean in practice? Hands up… I don’t yet know in great detail. I’ve yet to make that journey. But I am now through much of the preparation which is more complex than I imagined, and still hazy in some quarters. Lots of things are being asked of travellers at the moment, by organisations that offer very imprecise information on how to meet the demands they’re making.

So I thought I’d set down here the steps I’ve gone through in the hope of penetrating the maze of new rules so that I can make that two-hour flight to Venice I once took for granted.

Today I’ll cover the pre-flight preparations. After that I will update you with what happened at the airport, and try as best I can to tell you what quarantine in Italy is like and finally the steps required to get back into the UK. Please bear in mind this is my experience and my understanding of the rules as they pertain to travelling from the UK to Italy today. It’s entirely possible I’ve got a few details wrong. I guess I’ll find out. It’s entirely possible all this will change again shortly. The only certain thing we know at the moment is pretty much everything is uncertain.

That said, I have to go. This is essential work, a new book I’m contracted to write that will grind to a halt if I can’t do local research and talk to people over there. I can’t risk being locked out of Italy altogether if conditions worsen over the summer thanks, in no small measure, to the incompetence of our government. I’m also quite interested to see what five days of being locked up with my book do for the work.

Flights

Travellers from the UK to Italy currently have to quarantine for five days on arrival. So flights and traffic are fairly sparse at the moment. I was originally due to go out later this summer. My pressing research needs and the prospect that the Johnson Variant may persuade other European countries to follow Bulgaria’s lead and ban us altogether made me bring everything forward.

Not easy. BA wanted more than £400 to change just the outgoing section of my trip — I didn’t even look at the cost of the return journey, and I hate Heathrow anyway. So I will put the BA booking on ice and use EasyJet. They were operating just two flights a week from Gatwick but I got a flexible ticket with the ‘perks’ of Speedy Boarding (I wonder if it will be speedy this time) for just over £200 return. How that goes I’ll let you know.

Lesson: Don’t hang around finding flights. They’re not easy to come by. If by some miracle Italy does open up more then more flights will come online. And more demand for them. Be quick, be flexible.

Accommodation

My usual apartment was booked up. There were plenty of alternatives available on Airbnb, however (since I’m working and this is a lengthy trip a hotel isn’t an option). But here’s the thing — you need to quarantine in the property for five days. I asked all the letting operators if a) they were OK with this and b) whether it was practical in terms of deliveries.

The answers were quite mixed. One came back and in a state of semi-outrage said, ‘We can’t possibly allow someone with Covid on the premises!’ Several did the quite Italian thing of saying, ‘It’ll be fine.’ Most assumed I knew nothing of Venice, of course, and understood full well some of this wasn’t exactly accurate. The truth is I couldn’t find delivery services from any of the main Venice supermarkets. One apartment operator stood out over all the others, and the place looked good too. She’s kindly offered to do a supermarket shop for me and fill the fridge when I turn up. I’m also taking a few dried posh pot noodle style delights and have promised myself a slap up frittura mista at my favourite restaurant on the Lido on Freedom Day. Without some kind of delivery service I think you could be a bit stuck.

Lesson: If you have to quarantine make sure it’s practical and check out if any local restaurants will deliver.

Update: This post has generated a lot of interest and feedback. Many thanks to Anna (@mothninja) / Twitter for tipping me off there is a delivery service in Venice for lots of different kinds of food and drink. It’s CocaiExpress. You need to download the app for iPhone or Android and register to see what’s available and it’s all in Italian. Have signed up and will give it a try!

Tests

Ah. The big one. This is a complex subject and one I will be returning to as my journey continues. In a nutshell the tests I will require at the moment are…

Pre-flight. You need an antigen test — not the more expensive and time-consuming PCR — certifying you as fit to fly carried out no more than 48 hours before departure. I’d assumed these were relatively easy to find locally. I was wrong. If you’re outside a big city test centres are hard to come by.

The only place I could find locally was Boots. Again, you need to deal with this well in advance. You have to fill in a lengthy form to establish an account and upload a photo of your passport. After agreeing to pay £59.99 you’re taken to a calendar with available appointment dates. Only there did I discover there was just one appointment left locally to fit in with my trip. Boots don’t take your money until you’ve had your appointment but all the same this seems an odd way of doing things.

Anyway, I turned up for the appointment, met a lovely young woman who stuck a swab up my nose very gently. In and out in ten minutes and twenty minutes later on the way home I got an email saying I could log into their website for the result. It was negative. Would have been nice if the email said that and sent me the certificate.

You can get cheaper testing kits that you do at home. Check the offers here. I’ve bought a couple from Cerulean for £29 each and will let you know how they go when I need to use one. This should be less than 48 hours before my return flight to the UK. So if you want a home test to take with you on the trip you need to buy it before you leave. They are available at airports in Italy and, to some extent, in cities, though how practical that is from here I don’t know. Will check it out when I get there, since at the end of my Italian quarantine I will need one. Cerulean have no idea whether theirs will suffice for that by the way. When I asked I was told, ‘I’m sorry we can’t comment on the testing requirements for another country. You may need to contact your airline or a tour operator.’ Which is pretty typical of the response you get from a number of those taking your money at the moment. These tests are, by the way, rather more expensive than their equivalent in the EU. Can’t imagine why… 🤔

There’s one other test to think about at this stage. I’m double jabbed so I don’t need to quarantine on my return to the UK. But I do need to take a PCR test on day two of my return — and I need to have that booked before I fly back in order to be allowed into the UK. I’ll go into the details of that later when I order one online from Italy. My friendly Boots assistant — I think I’ll use Boots again — said booking one week ahead should be fine. Apparently PCR tests are easier to find because they take the store a lot less time to process than the antigen one (I assume they simply send the PCR sample to the lab).

Lesson: Book early to get the right test at the right date and order your self-test antigen kit before you go if that’s what you want to use.

Forms

You need to fill in an EU Digital Passenger Locator Form. Without it I doubt you’ll even get on the plane. This is a lengthy form much like a Visa waiver for the US. But you can’t fill it in until you have accommodation with a proper postal address. Nor is it saved part way through. I will have to fill in something similar to get back into the UK — with that vital reference number for the booked PCR test. But I’ll come to that later.

Lesson: Gather all your information before you even try to fill in the EU form.

How do you keep all this stuff?

So I have boarding passes for both directions, my antigen test certificate and the EU locator form. I also have proof on my NHS app that I’m double jabbed which isn’t needed for this journey at the moment but handy to have around.

All of this can be stored on a phone or an iPad, and in recent years e-tickets have been the way I’ve usually travelled.

Not any more. People are going to want to go through this material, at check-in, on arrival in Italy, perhaps along the way. I don’t want to be fiddling with a phone to try to find it.

So it’s back to ink and paper. Everything — passes, certificates, forms, and my water taxi booking (I can’t use public transport to get to the city) — is in a plastic folder, printed out the way it used to be. Twelve pages in all.

None of this is hard. But it is time-consuming, it demands you understand what is being asked of you, and it isn’t good for last-minute travel. I have to go to Italy for work. Whether I’d put up with all this hassle and extra expense for a holiday… I doubt it.

But come Sunday I will, I hope, being telling you how the journey went.

It’s the first Saturday after the schools have broken up. Gatwick will be busier than at any time this year, or so the newspapers claim.

Interesting times ahead…

If you want to keep up with the future posts in this thread I suggest following me on Twitter by the way. They’ll be flagged up there.

Categories
Writing

Richard Armitage reading The Garden of Angels on sale in the US

For a limited time you can download the audio of The Garden of Angels, so memorably narrated by Richard Armitage, for just $3.99 on Chirp. This is a US-only deal and won’t be around long. To get it go here.