Travel, as we know it, has dramatically changed and I am by no means the first person to say it. As part of my job dabbling in the world of luxury travel journalism, I’ve spent the last nine months of my life planning the trip of what many would describe as “one of a lifetime”. Indeed, it is. Turin to Venice for one night aboard the Orient Express before two kips in Paris and 24 hours in Versailles. As incredible as it all sounds, my trip did come with a rather tedious challenge: a five-night quarantine.
I am from the UK, and I have no problem telling you that we aren’t liked very much thanks to our common foe Covid who seems to sprout a new variant every week or two here. In place of what should be a relatively breezy experience through airport security, life pre-flight has become an eternity filling out incessant forms: one that proves a negative antigen test, one that tells the Union you’re in residence and one that tells Italy where you are during each point of your journey. I am no traveller; I am a mere barcode scanned each time I cross a new border.
Forms and petty politics aside, my 27th adventure to Italy sends me packing to Turin, a city I have never visited before. I land and am greeted by yet another form. Like everyone else, I fill it out frantically before being ushered to a man who speaks to me in Italian – I nod and assume everything is in check before I get to the border agents. He looks, nods, he smiles…it’s done and I’m in. Struggling with my now 32kg aluminium suitcase, I jump into a cab and give the man the address to my new home, a chic little flat tucked away in the dead centre of the city.
We arrive, I pay and proceed to the new formalities of contactless Airbnb check-in. Thankfully, Salvatore, my host, instructions were very straightforward. Half expecting to get a call from a stern member of the carabinieri, my instincts, as well as my common sense, says I should run out and buy food before I’m destined for five days of Deliveroo. Yes, I was in Italy, in quarantine and by this point, had no idea what the rules were. “Was I allowed to leave my flat and buy food?” I thought to myself. It was an answer I would get once I received the dreaded call.
Regardless of whatever fate my stomach would meet, I left in search of sustenance. On first glance, there’s a whiff of Paris in Turin’s perfectly prim boulevards and echoes of Vienna’s pomp hedonism in its bustling cafes, but make no mistake, this beautifully elegant UNESCO-listed city surrounded by the crisp might of the Alps is utterly self-possessed. Turin is the city of the Aperitivo, the city of Fiat and the former kingdom of the most stylish man in the history of Italy, the car magnate Gianni Agnelli. Walking for what felt like an eternity, Turin is very much the opposite of bling; its charm lies in the patina, not the polish. There’s grit, and it’s sexy.
In fact, elegance is so unforced here you hardly notice it. The tourists are all in Florence and Rome, the fashion set in Milan, and the locals have seen it all before, so for the most part, it’s yours to explore stress-free all hours. Most (including Italians) flock here to scout out the city’s top-notch museums: Museo Egizio for Egyptian treasures, Castello di Rivoli for its sizeable number of Arte Povera works and Reggia di Venaria Reale Save, one of the world’s largest royal residences – I won’t lie, I strolled by all of them before I made it to the Carrefour Express. Having no idea what I put in my bulging basket and 100 or so euros later, I made my way home and cooked a box of pasta – to this day, I still don’t know what it was, but it tasted good.
A little more relaxed now that I had food in the fridgeI decided it was time to check out my new quarantine pad. The host Salvatore runs a chic retreat with period ceilings, a large bed, a bathroom complete with rain shower and a massage-therapy space and a neat kitchenette – quite an impressive line-up for your average Airbnb. Come the early evening, the air rang with the song of thousands of swallows, a sound I now find synonymous with Turin when I summon my memories. Darkness hit and consciousness faded.
The next day, I rose early and watched the city come alive from my balcony window. A few hours passed in which breakfast was made and I managed to get a few articles written before the phone rang. This was the call I was waiting for. I answered and a man asked me if I was Mr Abrahams? I playfully answered “si”. The questions he asked, as expected, were relatively routine: where have you come from? How old are you? Have you been vaccinated? Where are you staying? What is the address? Confirm it? and so on. I was then informed that I must complete a health questionnaire daily and that if I suddenly became ill, I should contact emergency services. “Any questions?” the man asked. “Can I go out and buy food? “I replied. “No”, he said. “Use Deliveroo.” The call then swiftly ended.
Prison I imagined must be quite like this, just less privileged. For the remainder of my quarantine, I continued to listen to the sound of swallows and watch Italy do what it does best (eat, drink and be social) from my balcony on the fourth floor. I yearned to be outside; to be with people; to explore the city; to be human but alas, it was just me draped in out of season Lululemon, a baseball cap that had seen better days and a background track of Family Guy reruns (in Italian).
Saturday hit and Freedom Day loomed, but there was no call to tell me what the next steps would be. Now slightly mad with cabin fever, I tried to call the regional Covid hotline, but I could not get through. Desperate, my host came over and let me use his mobile phone. We both came to realise that it isn’t possible to contact the Covid hotline using a British number, a fact Salvatore and I found rather hilarious. Once through, I asked the lady to make sure my exit test was on Monday morning as I had a very important meeting. “I will make a note”, she said.
Did she? No. Sunday came, the day before my quarantine was up, and an email stated that I should go to some random clinic 15km outside the city to be swabbed. This news was, by Luke standards, met with a meltdown. Four frantic emails later, I finally got a response which then led to a telephone call. We agreed I could take a private test the next day at my own expense and then email the results over.
Monday came and I dashed for the Via Roma and went to the first pharmacy I saw. I begged the duo to test me as I had a meeting and a train to catch at 12. They agreed, I paid, and I proceeded outside to “the Covid tent.” Eventually, my turn came, and I got tested, perhaps the most painful one I have had to date. I left and thought screw it, I will explore as much of the city as I possibly can before I had to pack my bags. I strolled through regal arcades, grand boulevards, magisterial squares and went to about four espresso places before I got the email. “Negativo.” The word I had been waiting for. I sent the email to “the Covid Police”, as I had affectionately dubbed them. Thirty minutes later while I explored the cute little piazzas that veered off the Via Roma, I got a response: “Mr Abrahams your quarantine has now officially come to an end”. I was free.