Travel in Sicily in times of coronavirus – my socially distant summer holiday
When the main holiday season, here from the beginning of the school holiday in late June to some time in early September came, we were still at home, watching as our government suddenly offered free (!) COVID tests to all travellers. Many went abroad for their summer holidays. And we went to travel in Sicily in times of coronavirus – somewhat unplanned but I am glad we did!
In September, we were still unsure of what to do. We had planned to visit Japan, but that was not going to happen. I have to book any longer holidays a year in advance, then my clinics get booked up accordingly. Cancelling holidays is highly discouraged, and German case numbers were relatively low over the summer. And hey, after a very busy spring, I needed a holiday. So here I was, with a nice three-week holiday period, and no trip?
We finally booked flights to Catania in Sicily. Italy had taken a hard hit from the COVID pandemic early this year, with the result that tourism had not really picked up again. Italy is a beautiful friendly country with some of the most impressive sights in the world, good food, and, like most of the European Union, relatively easy to enter. Low COVID-19 infection rates also reassured us. Would it be okay to travel in Sicily in times of coronavirus?
Entry requirements for Italy
I am aware this is a constantly changing situation. At the time we visited Italy, we had to complete multiple pages of an arrival document. We were also encouraged to download and use the regional COVID app Sicilia SiCura. Whether it was mandatory, I never really found out. Some of our accommodations included the use of the app in their terms of business, but no one ever checked the actual usage of the app on our phones.
Anyway, the app is easy to install, and after overcoming the initial fear some organised crime organisations might make use of our address data and break into our house, I registered, checked in, and… nothing happened.
I barely interacted with the app, it was just there. You do not have to have bluetooth on constantly or share your location, so it is fairly inobtrusive. From what I know, it is for visitors to Sicily, and it wants t o help monitor your health/give advice. Unlike the German COVID app, it is not a tracking app, and in a way, I personally prefer it.
Arrival in Italy
We arrived in and departed from Catania Airport. Catania is the second major city of Sicily after Palermo. Only one of the terminals was in use and busy but not crowded.
Our arrival was within the Schengen corridor. While some countries routinely check passports, like France, Italy almost never does. So the only holdup was walking past a thermoscanner. Anyone suspicious got picked out and had their temperature taken.
After the temperature gate, we were encouraged to leave the airport as quickly as possible and were not allowed to re-enter. I had helped someone on the plane and they asked me to accompany them to the airport medic. They were extremely nice, but before you knew it, you had a temperature gun on your forehead there, too, and they were very sensitized to raised temperature and unwell passengers… Anyway, following the release from the medics, we went outside and bought bus tickets from the outdoor booths. They might normally be indoors, but might have been relocated due to COVID-10 precautions.
Catania Airport is a real ground transport hub for all of Sicily. So aside from the ticket booths, there are two cafes maybe 100m away where you can wait. They are not great, though. Just the state of their restrooms made me walk out again very quickly.
Public Health Rules
The Sicilian Regional Government publishes regular COVID-19 information and rules, but they are in Italian only. Thankfully, the Sicilian Tourist Board has them in English, and they are regularly updated. The required distance between people is one metre, and apart from that, they are pretty much common sense rules you will find in most countries.
In addition to this, visitors to the region must use the SiciliaSiCura App, as above.
Using public transport
Anyway, onwards in Sicily..
We went on about ten intercity coach trip, a train ride and a few boat trips. Buses and trains were running to a normal schedule. It goes without saying that the wearing of face masks was obligatory and enforced on all forms of public transport.
Train carriages have designated entry and exit points. The older train carriage we travelled on had windows we could open – great for ventilation.
All bus companies enforce the mask rule but did not leave seats empty on purpose. Since everyone stuck to the mask rule, it did not really trouble me.
The hydrofoil to the Aeolian islands was also full to capacity, although they made a big deal of checking everyone’s temperature in the port of Milazzo, but not so on the return journey from the islands. However, the Aeolian Islands were COVID-free when we visited, and only had a handful of cases the entire year which were fairly quickly contained.
I had little information as to how long a hotel room stood empty and how much they aired. Since most cases of COVID transmit by close contact/aerosols, it did not bother me much. Especially since I open the window as soon as I arrive somewhere anyway.
We stayed in hotels, B&Bs and private apartments. All were in the lower, to mid-price range. They were all extremely clean. Hence we had no issues about possible SARS-CoV2 “contamination”. When shared facilities were present, such as kitchens, they had been closed. The only interactions we had with other travellers in any of our accommodations was in the reception area and on our roof terrace on Salina.
In the same hotel, they eagerly made sure that guests dont mix too much. Breakfast was served on the roof terrace, tables were widely spaced, and the buffet was for choosing only, but no self service! They had also divided guests in three breakfast shifts to avoid too much mixing, although this was not strictly enforced and tourism on the Aeolian Islands is, though big business there, none of the mass tourist kind. In Salina you cannot even build anything new so imagine what this does for any megaresort ideas.
Restaurants, Cafes and Shops
In short: all were open! I was really glad to sea that as this is certainly not the case back home.
At the same time I admit that we mostly stayed in touristic areas – the Aeolian Islands, Modica and Siracusa. However, the port town of Milazzo, Siracusa and Modica certainly have a life on their own aside form tourism. We were glad to see life seemed to go on as normal – with face masks.
I can honestly say we did not feel restricted in the slightest. Of course, here you have to wear a face mask too, at all times you are not sitting at your table – or drinking at the bar. Bystanders will quickly point out any lapses, and shout “mascarina!!”
We did not do too much this time. Didn’t visit any major museums or attractions. But then, a lot of these are outdoors in Sicily, or the time you spent in them, like some churches, is relatively short.
We went on a boat trip where, theoretically, we should have worn a mask when in the cabin, but as we spent most time on deck, and the boat was at less than half capacity, there were no distancing issues whatsoever. When looking for boat trips in the Aeolian Islands, we had plenty of choice. We were assured the boat would go, even with a low number of guests.
Modica was not overrun with tourists, either. This sizeable town has a large hilly upper old town, where the few tourists traipsing up and down the stairs are met with smiles. The lower town has a main street with a concentration of tourist-friendly attractions. It was only moderately busy, but some hotels were actually fully booked. I do not have the comparison to pre-COVID times, but in my impression, whoever wants to see UNESCO World Heritage Sicilian Baroque, has eight towns to choose from, and it never gets too busy.
The busiest place we visited was Ortigia in Siracusa. This might be because we were there during the weekend and a lot of our walks coincided with the evening passeggiata. And yes, it did get very crowded in places, for example the show sandwich-assembly at Caseificio Borderi, where, it must be said, not everyone kept their distance. And to my shame I admit that the lure of the monster sandwich was bigger than my fear of the virus, at least for the twenty minutes I queued there.
Other than that we walked a lot, went into a few churches, sat on cafe terraces. Mostly outdoor activities helped by the consistently balmy September weather.
So, is Sicily safe?
Ha, where is safe? If you normally live in the countryside with zero cases, it will be less safe.
If, like me, you have contact with the virus on a daily basis and otherwise live near a major city, it is super safe.
As tourists, we did a lot of things we didn’t this summer back home, like using public transport a lot, going to a lot of cafes, stayed in different accommodations, met strangers, ate in restaurants… all this movement and subsequent contacts will, of course increase our risk of infection.
However people in Sicily do their best to keep that risk low. The public and private services help. They have devised one-way systems in airports, public transport and public places. Hand sanitizer is available everywhere. I barely had to use my personal hand sanitizer -which gets good use here in Germany in the rare cases that I am out and about.
If for the OTHER safety, you know the one you consider first if COVID-19 weren’t around… I found the places we visited very safe.
We drank the tap water. We ate from a variety of street stalls, cafes and restaurants without any problems.
Drivers stopped when you wanted to cross the road! From our coach, the traffic looked pretty civilized.
We happily walked around on our own in the evenings, without even thinking we could get mugged. There is probably a risk of pickpockets on public transport in large cities. But we had absolutely no issues on our intercity bus trips.
And as for Sicily’s infamity for organised crime, this almost never affects tourists. If you want to support businesses that definitely do not pay “protection money” look out for the “Addio Pizzo Signs” usually foudn in establishments in larger cities.
To travel or not to travel?
Only you can decide after taking into account your own health and your personal circumstances whether to travel now. This is by no means trying to encourage you to travel now. But I am not going to lie and say “stay at home in these times” when obviously I travel, and neither do I want to give you false impressions here by saying “this post is for inspiration for later only” which would be somewhat hypocritical. What I didn’t mention before was that I actually had three weeks annual leave that I had to use. I only spent the first week in Italy, and spent the following two weeks at home. I did think about another short trip, but in the end, reason prevailed and I spent my first holiday in years at home – and liked it!