What news from the Rialto?

Nine days in the lagoon, work honestly, though you won’t see the results until 2023 🤞. Publishing is a long game. Reminder — you can subscribe to this newsletter trip for free here. Anyway here’s an issue about travel and travel alone.

So how is Venice?

The honest answer… pretty much as you’d expect in November. Quiet except at weekends and around the usual hotspots such as the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco. All the locals told me there were fewer tourists than usual and I’m sure that’s right. But it’s far from a ghost town. The steady transformation of essential local shops into places selling tourist tat and yet more bars continues. The huge cruise liners have gone but any idea that the pandemic is going to result in a huge reset for the nature of international tourism there seems to me naive. The people who think the place is Disneyland with gondolas are still around, and occasionally that colours their behaviour.

The big event when I was there was the Festa della Salute, an annual weekend ceremony very popular with the locals. A temporary bridge appears across the Grand Canal to the Salute church, and crowds gather to light candles. This year was quieter than usual I gather, with restrictions to try to keep down the crowds. It was pretty busy all the same around Salute, and sombre too since this is an event to mark the end of plague in the 17th century, an odd resonance with today.

Getting there and back

The last time I visited in July I had to quarantine for five days, which wasn’t fun at all. At least that rule has vanished — for now anyway. On this occasion I flew British Airways from Heathrow and it was, in part, fantastic. I was urged to upload my three outgoing documents in pdf — proof of vaccination, a pre-flight lateral flow test and a filled-in EU passenger locator form — to BA in advance. Without that, it appears you can’t check in online in advance.

It seems a touch bureaucratic, but I discovered the reason when I got to the airport. First there was American-style kerbside check-in just outside the entrance. The friendly chap there checked my status and passport, took my case, and guided me towards security. I was through in minutes. In Venice all I had to do was slap my passport on the egate, go to the officer at the counter, get my passport stamped (that always hurts) and I was through. Fast and easy and no BA’s crew didn’t say a word to the couple in the row in front of me who thought mask-wearing was for squares.

Just like last time coming home was the hardest part. The UK passenger locator form now demands a code for the lateral flow test you’ve pre-bought to use when you’re back. More awkwardly when it comes to proving you’re double jabbed it won’t accept an upload of the pdf provided by the NHS app. All it wants to see is your latest QR code. The online form offered to scan the code but that didn’t work for me. So I wound up screenshotting it and uploading the jpeg. A lot of hassle and a struggle for anyone who hasn’t got a handle on screenshots. This was on a laptop. It may work with the scanner on a phone or iPad — I don’t know. But however you do it you will need some device and a web connection before you leave for the airport.

Getting back was fine apart from the fact BA parked the plane at Heathrow on a remote stand and, after all those lectures on distancing, slung us onto a crammed bus to the terminal. This is happening a lot with them at Terminal 5 apparently. Oh, and the Heathrow egate machines still hate me. I was only allowed through on the third try by pressing down the passport very hard. Still, it could be worse.

Travel tip

If you’re in Italy — and quite a few places in Europe — you will have to show proof of double vaccination. The famed Green Pass as Italy calls it. You’ll be asked for it and ID at all museums and public buildings before entry. In theory, you should be asked to present it as you enter cafes and restaurants too though this only happened to me on a few occasions. When I queried this with one barista he said, ‘I’m not paid to be a policeman for the government.’

That said, mask wearing is standard everywhere, on vaporetti, in shops, in cafes until you get your food and drink. The lax approach to it seen in the UK will soon get you into trouble in Italy.

But back to that magic pass. If you have the UK NHS vaccination pass you’re ready to go. Italy has its own app for checking the QR code of vax passes and recognises the latest one provided by the NHS app. You can show it on your phone or carry a printout. But the easiest way I found was simply to stuff a copy into my phone case so I could show the code whenever needed like this.

Code printout – blurred for publication

This worked every time and saved me having to faff around with the phone.

What’s in the kitchen

I wouldn’t normally mention something you doubtless can’t cook at home. But since I was there for Salute I have to tell you about a dish you’ll only find at that time of year, and in Venice too… castradina.

Castradina at the Trattoria Ponte del Megio

As I said earlier, Salute marks the end of a plague in the 17th century. During this period one of the few foods people could get was smoked mutton from Dalmatia. This was made into a very rustic and hearty soup with cabbage… castradina.

Today it’s a traditional dish around this time of year. You can find the recipe here but to make it you’d need to find one of the chunks of smoked, spiced mutton the Venetian butchers sell in November. Much easier if you’re there to find a restaurant that’s making it for the weekend. By Saturday they were everywhere. This bowl was just €12. One of the locals who spotted me eating it was surprised a foreigner had even heard of it and wondered what I thought.

Lovely, I said, naturally. And it was too on a cold day, though very much the kind of cucina povera fare you’d expect from mutton and cabbage. If you’re around when it’s there you have to try it. Don’t think it needs to be a regular though.


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.


Confirmed – Italy Covid app won’t read NHS pass

Kudos to Leonardo Impett for spotting what the media at large seem to have missed. Durham computer professor Leonardo took to perusing the development status of the app on Github (no, me neither) and uncovered the reason why everyone’s NHS app has been rejected by the current VerificaC19 when people try to go inside restaurants, cafes and other places.

The current version simply doesn’t know it’s supposed to recognise it. You can read the technical details here. Not that I understand a word.

It’s a shame the NHS app wasn’t made compatible with VerificaC19 in time for the introduction of the new green pass rules in Italy on August 6. That would have saved lots of difficult conversations with cafe owners who wanted to let you in but felt they couldn’t. It’s a shame, too, that communication about this issue has been so poor.

But anyway — now you know. When VerificaC19 is updated the NHS pass should be read. No clue when that might be or how you can get the NHS pass accepted in Italy before it happens.