TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his first trip through Milan during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just in case we in the business are scared that European travel will take years to come back, I suggest you mosey on down to Gate 108 at Newark Liberty’s Terminal C and board United’s “COVID-Free” flight 809 to Malpensa, which is exactly what I did on June 9.
Aboard this United Dreamliner, there was not an empty seat in Business, Economy and possibly in cargo. And who were the passengers? Without doing an actual survey, I would estimate that 10 percent of those Business were actually on a business trip, and maybe 3 percent in the back.
So who was flying? Americans. Why? From their dress and their hand luggage, Sherlock Holmes Weill deduced they were going on vacation. Certainly, the lady next to me, who lives on a farm on the Illinois-Iowa border, was whizzing to Milan for four days “just because I’ve been trapped at home for 15 months,” she told me.
To take any overseas flight, whether billed as “COVD-Free” or not, you still need to have a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of departure. For some, that is not always easy to arrange. But where I live, in the pretty village of Haworth, N.J., the every-trusty Jessica, for $20, comes to your home, swabs your nostrils, and has the test results emailed to your within six hours. It’s well worth the investment.
At Newark, an unusually kindly United staff member checks my results, issues my boarding my pass, changes my seat assignment because for the third time in a week the aircraft type has been changed, and I’m through Clear security in five minutes.
Choosing to sleep on the plane instead of dining under the laborious sip-chew-mask-sip-chew-mask regimen, I have dinner at an airport restaurant counter, whose catering is, incredibly, in the hands of the legendary Brasserie Flo in Paris. I order a steak-frites and gin and tonic on the handy tablet (20 percent discount for United Mileage Plus members) and a truly delicious meal is delivered.
The only drawback is that I must carve my steak with a plastic knife (though I can eat it with a stainless steel fork). When is the TSA going to work out that a metal dinner knife is really no more a “weapon” than this fork that I could plunge into a flight attendant’s jugular, or eye, were I so inclined (which I’m not)? Anyway, the steak is delicious, and tender enough for my plastic knife to work its magic.
Aboard the United Dreamliner, the captain tells us we cannot push back because of lightning, and it as an hour later that she informs us we’re ready. I’ve already watched most of the 1999 movie “Trick” (billed by United as “just added,” which I took to mean “new”). But the movie’s vision of a New York with two intact World Trade Center towers is eye-moistening. By the time we’re in the air and leveled off, the movie is over, I push the flat-bed button—and I awaken over Paris.
All 300 of us, as well as the 300 each on COVID-Free flights on Delta and America, arrive almost simultaneously in the morning in Milan, where we must take a rapid COVID test on landing. Thanks to a recommendation by Jack Ezon, Embark Beyond’s wizard of travel plutocracy, I have pre-arranged VIP “Royal” arrival service.
Mauro holds an iPad flashing my name as I emerge from the jetway, and it is he who elegantly whisks me past the line of 900 patiently waiting, jet-lagged Americans into the testing center, where the frontal lobes of my brain are tickled. I am pronounced “negativo,” and I am in the Mercedes sent by the Principe Di Savoia within 20 minutes of landing. I think some of those other 900 Americans may still be waiting.
I last stayed at the Dorchester Collection’s Principe di Savoia in 2006, and 15 years later, its elegance is even more elegant. The driver, the doorman and Daniella the receptionist are all masked. I am escorted to my delicious junior suite—all wood paneling and moiré silk walls— where I shower luxuriously with Acqua di Parma amenities and descend to lunch in the garden.
Milan feels pretty normal, far more back-to-normal than Manhattan, with businessmen in ties and suits (despite the humidity and 91-degree temperature), and shoppers toting Prada and Ferragamo bags. The city’s ancient streetcars wind through the piazzas. Everyone is masked, and it is only in the early evening, when I stroll the 20 minutes to the Duomo, that I realize the toll of the pandemic.
I first visited this cathedral when I was six years old, its exterior grimy with centuries of soot. My mother, wearing a short-sleeved dress, was solemnly instructed to wear an arm-covering shawl (presumably to stop priests swooning with lust). But on the cathedral’s rooftop, fleets of women were sunbathing in teeny-weeny bikinis.
In 2021, the façade of the Duomo has been cleaned long ago, and right now it is awash in golden-pink twilight. But the piazza below is empty. Well not exactly empty: there is a four-year old on a scooter. Absent are the flag-following tour groups, the swarms of selfie-shooters, the amblers, the guidebook clutchers and the hawkers of souvenirs. It is alarming and wonderful all at the same time. Seeing the iconic sights of Europe without the throngs and crowds and clamor and gasoline-smoke exhausting tour buses is one of the premiums of traveling in the time of Corona. It won’t last, of course. It is a peculiarly selfish privilege to be able to do this right now.
I pass a dozen tempting white-table-clothed outdoor restaurants as my iPhone directs me past the shuttered Scala opera house and along the Via Montenapoleone to Bice, one of Milan’s most chic bistros since 1939. I’ve never eaten here and I want it off my bucket-list.
Even though the hotel concierge insists that I book a table, and then later insists on reconfirming that my precious table is indeed reserved, he seems to have forgotten it’s 2021, not 2019. Bice is maybe 30 percent full, mostly with Patrician Milanese, and one glamorous Euro-gorgeous young couple, who only reveal themselves to be Americans when they loudly struggle through the Italian-only menu.
Bice’s plate of prosciutto and mozzarella du bufala is sublime, as is the delicate pasta with raw shrimp. Sated and jetlagged, I stroll back through utterly deserted streets at 9:30 p.m. to the Principe di Savoia. Of course, with the EU’s recommendation to its members to open up travel to Americans, these scenes probably won’t last long. For me, however, there have been a few benefits to traveling in Europe in the age of corona!