Newsletter 2 – and it’s mostly about travel

If you’d like to read this newsletter in full with all the pretty bits please go for the release version here. And do subscribe if you like and share — it will always be free. And the next one should be from Venice.

Yes, I know I said I’d have a standard format for these newsletters. But that was before I got into thinking what they’re really about. And that’s… random things that crop up. It makes no sense to be tied down to a format that stops you improvising.Right now I’m planning my second travel trip of the year. Back to Italy for work. I was last there in July to finish one project and had to quarantine for five days on the way in which was a pain you can read about on the blog.

Quarantine was lifted at the beginning of September for those of us coming from the UK. To be honest, given the way Covid has been allowed to let rip here over the last few months, I’ve been expecting it to return. But with any luck I will make it there first. However, travel is still a lot more complicated than it used to be so I thought I’d set down a few tricks I’ve picked up preparing for this trip.

Here, as far as I understand it, is how you need to prepare to go to Italy from the UK at the moment.As far as I can see we’re going to be performing Covid tests out and back for many journeys for a quite a while. You know the routine – get a test to prove you’re fit to fly 48 or 72 hours beforehand. But here’s the rub. What does 48 or 72 hours mean? Is that before you get on the plane? Or when you land?

Answer: it varies. So do check. When it comes to Italy it is, from the UK at the moment, 48 hours before you land. So if you rush in and get the test two days before the flight you might find you’re in trouble. What kind of test? An antigen, one of those quick ones, will do. You can buy them online, test yourself and send a picture of the result to the provider. You should then get a certificate declaring you fit to fly. Take it to the airport where they will inspect it at check-in and probably at immigration at the other end (they did in July for me). You will also need to fill in an EU Passenger Locator Form here.

If you’re double jabbed you will be expected to show proof of it. Your NHS app should have that stored on your phone. It will let you download a pdf of the certificate to print out. I really recommend doing this. That way you have an easy copy when you need it. That same certificate will count as a green pass in Italy. You’ll need it and photo ID to get into museums, restaurants, cafes, pretty much anywhere. From what I gather the whole Covid control and mask-wearing regime is much tougher in Italy than in the UK (it could hardly be less) and you will be expected to comply.If you can’t show proof of being double jabbed you will still have to have proof of a fit to fly certificate and be expected to quarantine for five days on arrival. I don’t recommend this.

Coming back, if you’re double jabbed, you can go to the airport without any previous test (which is better than last July). But you must have bought a Covid test to perform in the UK within two days of your arrival. This can be a cheapish antigen, around £25 to £30 like the departure test, carried out at home. But you have to be able to prove you’ve bought one by typing the reference number for it into the UK Passenger Locator Form you need to fill in on the way back. There’s no reason you can’t buy that kit before you leave and get your reference number then.

So… test before flying to Italy, proof of double jabbing and locator form on the way out; test booked prior to return, locator form and test on arrival when you get back. Budget for £50 a head or so.

I think that’s it.

The writing tip

Since I’m on the subject I ought to add a simple tip about using a foreign location. Some people write foreign scenes without ever going there, which is fine if that’s what you want – it worked for Jules Verne who’d barely set foot outside France before writing about travelling round the world in eighty days.

Others, like me, want to dive deep into real-life locations and get inspiration from there. Whichever way you set about it here’s one tip I’d try to stick to – if you want to use something factual do make sure it is factual, and not a common travel myth (there are many) or something scalped from an unreliable source on the web.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Years ago, I was involved in one of those round robin writing projects you tackle for fund-raising, in this case for an authors’ organisation. One writer pens a chapter which is then handed onto the next.

The writer before me had the story moving to Italy, for which I was grateful. But he also had the protagonist landing at something called Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome.

For anyone who knows Rome this is a real giveaway. Yes, the web will tell you the official name of the main Rome airport is Leonardo da Vinci. But no one calls it that. It’s Fiumicino. It says that on most of the road signs, and the airport code is FCO. If uncertain, fake it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

What’s in the kitchen

Venice is my destination, so I ought to give you one of my favourite local dishes there, one that’s especially welcome on a chilly winter day: Bigoli (or bigoi to use the Venetian) in salsa.

In essence it’s fat spaghetti – bigoli – with anchovies and onions. Which sounds disgusting but it’s not, honest. The onion and the anchovies are slowly cooked down till they’re a sweet and succulent sauce for the pasta, one which, if it’s cooked correctly, isn’t recognisable either as anchovy or onion. Luca Marchiori, whose recipe I link to below, recommends cooking the onions for as much as an hour. He knows more about Italian food than I ever will — his entire site is worth a look. But I never cook them quite that long. And ordinary spaghetti is fine if you can’t find bigoli itself.

Bigoli in salsa: Venetian pasta (recipe) – Luca’s Italy
Bigoli in salsa is the only really traditional Venetian pasta dish. Made with simple ingredients from the Venetian lagoon it’s packed with

There was a fast food chain called Bigoi started in Venice a few years back, and very good it was too with pasta made on the premises and great salsa as well as duck ragu. Unfortunately it closed during the pandemic – hope it comes back.

That’s all for now. If you enjoy the newsletter do please share around – the more the merrier if it’s to be worthwhile. And I will have another missive coming from Venice shortly.


Fancy the occasional newsletter?

In these odd times it’s hard to know how to communicate with readers. Book events and conventions are few and far between, and travel is still pretty much up, or rather down, in the air.

As an experiment I thought I’d try writing the occasional newsletter. It’s free, of course, and it has a distinct format. You can see the first and subscribe here.

Basically at uncertain intervals (you won’t be getting these that often) I’ll fill you in on book news, appearances, offer a simple writing tip and something about travel then close with a recipe out of the kitchen here.

Costs nothing and will always cost nothing. If you’d like to sign up please do so and share if you like since this is all hooked up into some kind of Twitter mechanism I don’t really understand.

It’s not the same as meeting people out there in the real world but I hope it closes the gap until that’s easier.


Italy abandons quarantine for jabbed UK travellers

I know lots of you have been following my experience of quarantine in Italy and asking subsequent questions on Twitter. Well now the situation has become a lot clearer… for the time being.

The Italian government has decided to stop demanding five days in quarantine for all visitors from the UK after August 30.

This seems a sensible move, perhaps sparked by the fact the Italian Covid apps can now recognise the NHS double jab barcode. I won’t be back in Italy for a little while so I’ve no way of trying this out in real life (and perhaps things will have changed again by the time I do try to get back).

But the key points to remember it seems to me are…

  1. You need to be double jabbed and capable of proving it through the NHS app.
  2. You still need to fill in the EU passenger locator form on the way out and get a proven negative rapid test before flying.
  3. You still need to meet the UK rules on your return, which currently mean one rapid test before you go for your return flight and, for the double jabbed, a PCR test two days or less on your return. The PCR test, as we now know, is an unnecessary expense and ought to be replaced by a cheaper, easier rapid test. Not that the UK government seems minded to listen to the many people pointing this out.
  4. Don’t rely on your phone or iPad. As I emphasised here more than once, print out all your essential documents. It’s easier to locate a printout than find a file on your phone a lot of the time. And, most importantly, print out a copy of your NHS jab proof certificate. There have been reports of phone codes not being accepted by some places in Italy while a printout has. And remember, too, that the code the Italy apps need to scan is the one that confirms your second jab. The one for the first isn’t enough.

I can’t, of course, guarantee all this works because I’m not there right now. But it’s my understanding of the situation. The decision to remove quarantine simplifies travel a fair but the process is still more complex than it ever was before Covid. Best understand what you face before you face it than try to cope as you go along.

Buon viaggio.


The Appian Way, a year on

The pandemic has done something very strange to my perception of time. Shorn of appointments, deadlines, targets, travel plans and all the waypoints that once shaped the framework of daily life, I feel I’ve been drifting through a foggy ocean, only occasionally seeing land. It only just occurred to me that it’s just over a year since I published my first travel book in thirty years, my exploration of that seminal ancient Roman road the Appian Way.

For ages I’d ached to explore the length of the road, all three hundred and fifty miles running south from Rome. At the end of summer 2019 I finally set off piloting my a little Abarth 595 into Rome to start the journey, finishing it in a chilly but sunny city the following January, just as a mysterious virus began to work its way around Italy.

But my connections with that trip are tenuous. In a way it feels like only yesterday that I was pointing the car south through Nemi, Formia, Benevento, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, and Taranto, headed for the via Appia’s end in Brindisi. I’ve made no real journeys since which is doubtless why this memorable one sticks in the mind so vividly.

Yet, in another way, this small personal odyssey seems to belong a different, lost world. One where we could move freely, hire a car, venture out into the unknown and see where it took us. I’d love to be able to do that now. If I was living in Italy, I probably could. But not easily from the UK. And I wonder if that ease of movement will ever return.

If or when it does, another trip down the via Appia has to be on the cards. It was an eye-opening insight into a different Italy, one with few tourists yet more sights than I ever expected. History and beauty everywhere, from the mystical lake of Nemi in the Alban Hills where Caligula once sailed his pleasure boats to the arena of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, where an angry gladiator named Spartacus began a revolt that shook the Roman empire to its core.

You can read more about the book here and follow my route by clicking on the Google Earth link in the image below.

In many ways it’s the story of how the freedom to travel has made us what we are: a curious, restless species, picking up bits and pieces of other cultures as we go. I can’t wait to rediscover that freedom on the road in Italy before long.

Here are a few photos to whet your appetite. You’ll find the e-book in all the usual places, including Kindle, Apple Books, Kobo and on Google Play. And there’s a print version on Amazon too.