‘Ghost town’: What it’s like to be on holiday in northern Italy amid coronavirus shut down

‘When I arrived there was just me and a solitary pigeon,’ reports Julia Buckley

Julia Buckley
Thursday 27 February 2020 12:54
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Walking onto the main square of Fabriano yesterday was like stepping onto a film set.

First there’s the buildings – brick, elegant, Renaissance-style, from the sombre cathedral to the portico of the art gallery opposite it – but looking oddly new, since they were restored after a major earthquake in 1997.

But mainly it’s the silence. When I arrived yesterday afternoon there was just me and a solitary pigeon. Fifteen minutes later, a man wandered through, stopping to read the signs on every door. “Closed to the public” – the museum. “All services suspended till 4 March” – the cathedral. “Closed from 26 February to 4 March” – the library. “With much suffering, we won’t be celebrating Mass today” – another church.

This should have been an important day for the community – Ash Wednesday, when Catholics go to church to have soot daubed on their faces. Instead, by the looks of things, they had mostly gone to ground. The shops were so empty that I assumed the saleswoman in one was a mannequin; when I stopped for a drink, for human company as much as anything else, there was just one other person in the café.

It’s a difficult time for Italy, which as of 29 February has reported 820 infections and 21 deaths from Covid-19. It’s also tricky being a tourist. The northern regions at the epicentre of the outbreak have closed public buildings, including churches and museums. Which means, of course, putting aside the chances of getting ill, your sightseeing options are limited. Public transport is still running – which means at least that tourists to Venice, few of whom ever enter a museum, will be having a relatively normal trip.

Yesterday, the Marche region – south of Emilia Romagna – registered its first coronavirus diagnosis, in the seaside town of Pesaro. Immediately, the local authorities closed down all schools, universities, churches, museums and galleries (a decision that was today suspended). It was done so suddenly and so efficiently that I set out from Naples thinking everything would be fine – that I was heading about 130km (80 miles) below the “border” line that’s been drawn by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), above which anyone noticing even mild cold-like symptoms should self-isolate, and 90 minutes inland from that case in Pesaro. By the time I parked in Fabriano five hours later, it had become a ghost town.

“It’s because of the virus,” said the lady in the Bar Centrale – where, on my second café stop, I finally found other human beings – when I asked if Fabriano was always so quiet. Students had congregated here for hot chocolate. Other than that, the biggest crowd of people I saw was in the pharmacy.

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Fabriano is a Unesco-recognised “city of creativity” with a plethora of galleries, museums and Renaissance churches, but there wasn’t much to see yesterday. The Museo della Carta, where artisans make paper in the same way that they have since the 14th century, was closed. So was the Pinacoteca (art gallery), which contains everything from 13th-century altar pieces to works by Dali and Chagall. Even the tourist office was shut.

The Italians’ swift reaction to contain the virus has been laudable. For the past few weeks, anyone arriving at an Italian airport has had their temperature checked. On Monday, flying into Naples, we were met by masked staff brandishing thermometers. They checked every passenger before allowing us through to passport control, and handed us an A4 checklist of symptoms to watch out for and what to do if we experienced any. It’s a huge contrast with flying into London.

But with many museums, galleries and churches shut down across the north of Italy, and bars in Milan curfewed at 6pm, a huge part of the reason to visit has dried up. And with the streets quieter than usual – nobody on their evening passeggiata, no elderly men chatting in the piazza, no kids on the loose – this part of Italy feels a little less Italian.

Yet airlines are being woefully recalcitrant about allowing passengers to change plans – British Airways refused several times to change my flight home from Bologna (in the danger zone) to Naples, so I bought a new single ticket. This morning, they announced they were allowing passengers to northern Italian airports to postpone their trips – but only until 31 March. Personally, with the way things are going, I’d rather be here now than a few weeks down the line.

Even so, people are preferring to lose out financially than to come here. On the news last night, they said a swathe of cancellations means bookings are down 90 per cent across Italy for March. A friend of mine who’s a guide in Bologna has lost every single booking for next month, and will not be earning a single euro. There are vast implications for the economy. “First it was Brexit, now this,” I was told at my B&B last night, as the owners wait for the 2020 cancellations to roll in. The Assoturismo (Italian tourism federation) today called it an “unprecedented crisis”.

Of course, it’s currently only really northern and central Italy that’s affected, despite the odd individual case in Sicily and Lazio. I came to the Marche from (currently) coronavirus-free Naples, where life is carrying on as normal and the museums are all open. Although even there, the famously fatalistic Neapolitans are taking precautions. Antibacterial gel was sold out wherever I asked, and every bar or restaurant has a big tub of the stuff at the entrance.

Streets and tourist hot spots in northern Italy are eerily devoid of the usual crowds (AFP via Getty)

So should you cancel? I may not be taking my return flight home from Bologna (I’m going to Brazil next week, and don’t want to risk any red tape), but I’m not swearing off Italy. It’s reassuring being here, in a way, seeing how seriously they’re taking the situation. I’m closer to the outbreak here than I am in London, but I feel safer in towns like Fabriano than I have on the Tube in the past couple of weeks, where people have coughed and spluttered without so much as putting their hand up. And their response seems to be faster than London, where a GP told me on Monday it took five days for her patient showing symptoms of coronavirus to be tested.

“I’m not scared,” said a woman in Fabriano who sold me some socks last night. “It’s all about practising good hygiene.”

I hope for Italy’s sake that she’s right, and that the next month will be a blip for what, coronavirus or no coronavirus, is still one of the most captivating places on the planet.

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