Catania Duomo

Traveling during the Coronavirus: our Italy travel story

There is no advice in this post, please always look to your government’s health organization, the World Health Organization or your Center for Disease Control. For travel advice, please check with your State Department, Foreign Affairs Office or whichever office gives travel advice for your country.

If you are reading this during the pandemic, remember that things change very quickly!

My YouTube video about this is at the bottom of the page.

Catania Duomo

Why am I writing this?

People are curious. They have questions…questions about what it was like in Italy after it went “red” and was on a country-wide quarantine. They want to know how others are handling self-quarantine. And some of my community wanted to know why we went to Italy in the first place. I’m going to answer all of that and more.

Why did we go to Sicily, Italy when the Coronavirus was spreading?

Our trip had been planned for months. We were going to attend the TBEX conference (a travel blogger conference) and it happened to fall over our 10-year wedding anniversary and thought Sicily was a great place to spend it.

TBEX cancelled the conference but there were still activities available if we still decided to go. I’m a bit stubborn and wanted to go. We couldn’t get refunds for flights or our accommodation, so why not? And Sicily wasn’t hit hard since it only had a couple of cases and those people had already been quarantined. We had a direct flight and thought the risk was incredibly minimal.

My personal concerns

Technically, I’m in a high-risk group when it comes to this virus, but I had full confidence in the Italian healthcare system and the Dutch healthcare system. Beyond the conference we were also going to be working with a small business for almost a week and informed them about my condition so that if anything did happen, they would be aware that we’d need a little help.

Remember, things are changing fast. Within 2 weeks, I went from being very nonchalant about it all, to seriously concerned. It’s never as simple as it seems. While I have full confidence in these healthcare systems, they have been and can become overwhelmed. That’s a bit scary.

Before our trip even started things went wrong

Prior to leaving Amsterdam, we prepped. Did a full house-clean, filled the freezer with food and got some shelf-stable foods. This was in case we had to self-quarantine and if the doctor had to come by (they do house calls if necessary, here) .

KLM changed our return flight back without letting us know. Our original flight for around 2pm on March 21 was changed to 7am on the same day. We were working with a company and would have been about an hour from the airport. I was pretty upset because they didn’t tell us and it was super early. I tweet KLM a lot, and this was no different. I made my case and they ended up giving us the direct flight at 4pm. The original flight had a layover in Rome which we were happy to avoid.

With that sorted, we were happy. Just figured things would be less crowded and we would get to experience some great tours. Maybe I was too excited…no, I definitely was. I was doing little dances in the metro as we were leaving. Half way down the metro line, I realize I left my camera bag at home. I know…I don’t know how that happened either. I went back home to get it. I knew I wouldn’t miss the plane, but still. How frustrating!

Oh, and did I mention our host messaged us before we left asking where we were coming from? I understand why, but it took me back. I didn’t like being asked that. Would they cancel people if they were coming from certain places? Which places would it be?

KLM anniversary gift

KLM flight to Catania, Sicily

Once we got to the airport, everything seemed much better. Our KLM check-in woman was extra nice. Security was super easy (nobody in line) and the guys were joking with us. It was a good time. We grabbed a juice and headed to the gate where our friend was also waiting for the same flight.

We got a little surprise on the flight! I’m not sure why they asked but the one flight attendant was super sweet and asked if we were celebrating anything. We were! I told her it was our 10th anniversary trip. They surprised us with some Cava, an extra snack, and a lovely note. KLM isn’t perfect, but it is, by far, my favorite airline.

At the Catania airport, we had to go through a temperature check before we could grab our bags. Otherwise, all was pretty normal. We grabbed the airport bus and went to our accommodation.

Catania ruins

The non-conference

For about a week prior, figuring out which activities were available to us was very stressful. We had a WhatsApp group which had everything from official announcements, to people’s problems, to groups trying to book tours. There was so much going on. In the end, I think we filled out 4 different forms in as many days (to figure out which tours could still run).

The organizers were trying so hard to let the people who came have some sort of nice Sicilian experience. We appreciated it all, it was just a lot to juggle some days. Every day brought a new challenge for the organizers and I think they handled it the best they possibly could. People would say they were attending and then back out right before a flight. Tours were being canceled left and right. Guides were quitting.

Sean and Jessica in Orange Orchard in Sicily

We were able to visit one place, presumably because there were only a couple of us. It was Sunday, at this point it was highly discouraged to be in groups. But it was so nice to spend time at Tenuta del Gelso a wine tasting and visit an orange grove. It was such a lovely place! Can’t wait to go back!

All of us were feeling good…until someone checked the WhatsApp group. The foodie experience the next day (something Sean and I, and our friend were so looking forward to) was canceled. Ok…but we still had a city tour in a couple of days and a Mt. Etna tour the day after.

Boheme in Catania

That night we discovered the best cocktail bar. Measures were now in place to be 1 meter from each other, so some restaurants were closing, bars were closing, too. But, Boheme was open and it was one of the best cocktail bars ever.

The next day, Monday, we decided to walk around to explore, get some photos for some content. I really didn’t want to leave a trip with no content to speak of. We had a good time, tried some good food, and were generally happy to see the city.

That evening, we wanted to explore other cocktail bars. We got to two before the Prime Minister came on the television and imposed new rules. He made Italy a “red” zone. Basically, it was a quarantine. There’s a long list as to what that means, but basically, it meant that all bars were to close, restaurants should close at 6pm, no groups, etc. No more tours.

Things were getting tough. We knew it was time to go home. But I lost it. I lost it in a fancy rooftop bar where us and our friend were the only people. I could not stop crying. This dream trip that I worked so hard to plan, was over. Our anniversary was ruined. Thinking of all the small businesses in tourism that were hurting made me cry harder.

I’m fully aware that my “problems” are nothing compared to some, but I can be upset about something I worked so hard for, being gone. And partnerships I set up could not happen…at least not now.

We started looking for flights. The next KLM direct flight was on Thursday, it was Monday. We did not want to fly through mainland Italy, mainly for our own health and safety. I texted everyone we were supposed to work with. We were all so upset at the situation. We all just wanted to cry. I’m sure most did. I did.

There are many facets to this: Immediate health, health of family, being in your home country, spreading a virus to anyone, industries being hit, businesses closing, social distancing, self-quarantine, stock markets crashing, etc. There are many reasons to cry.

Jessica with Arancini

On Tuesday, I decided that I needed to stop being upset and get my content. So, we went to film a food tour. I haven’t seen the footage yet, but I hope we got a good video! Places were open during the day, and we practiced all the things we were supposed to. Servers wore gloves and people still seemed to be in high spirits.

But, we were hearing of lines at the grocery store and since restaurants had to close at 6pm, we needed food for dinner. So, we waited outside, in line to enter the store.

I got enough food for snacks, two dinners, and breakfasts. I felt better about the situation after that. We would be fine and still have a good time if we just had to eat dinner in the apartment.

Again, on Wednesday, everything changed. Pretty much everything closed. Some cafes were open for breakfast and lunch, but not many. I met a fellow blogger and took a walk around a park. Then we sat on a bench to talk and a while later we were approached by two police officers on horseback. We were told to go home. Stunned, I just stared at them. The other reiterated, “Go back to your hotel”. They were making the rounds around the park and sending people home. We complied.

Every hour brought something new. It was so stressful. I was just hoping that our flight was leaving the next day. Luckily, they weren’t shutting down public transportation and we had local contacts if we got stuck.

Mt. Etna

Leaving Catania, Sicily and going home

We woke up on Thursday, ate breakfast, cleaned up and packed to get out the door by 10:45am. We were ready to just get out. At the same time, we were devastated to leave. But there was nothing for us. With everything closed, there was no point in staying.

Our flight was at 4pm and we got to the airport around 11:30am, so we had plenty of time to kill and not many places to do it. So, we did something we never do…we went to McDonalds, ate and hung out for almost 2 hours. There was nowhere else to go and we were hungry. Usually my stomach gets upset after eating there, but mercifully, it didn’t. Yay for little wins.

When the KLM desk finally opened, we checked our bags, filled out our health declarations to explain who we were and why we were flying. We had to fill out two forms each and they weren’t super intuitive to fill out. We were both a little freaked because Sean flies with his Italian passport, but luckily in Europe, you register/deregister, so it’s clear he didn’t live in Italy. Basically, we were afraid they wouldn’t let him fly because Italians needed a good reason to leave.

For me, wow. I still can’t believe this. I noticed, in that moment, that my Dutch Residence Permit was expired. I thought it expired at the end of the month. Nope. It expired on the 3rd of March and we were flying on the 12th. It’s all in the Schengen Area, so it should not be an issue, but with all the extra checks, I was freaked. To be clear, I have a new one issued, but there was no available appointment to pick it up before I left. I did have an email explaining that it was issued, though. Still, nerve-wracking.

That extra step to have these officers check your form was so stressful. Like I said, it was a bit confusing and we had to make alterations right there on their tiny little desk. But, at least the security line went fine.

KLM plane

I’ve never been so happy to get on a plane. The flight was uneventful and we landed in Amsterdam almost 3 hours later. There were no health checks or anything.

After picking up our bags, we popped into the grocery store in the airport (it’s nicely stocked!) and grabbed some essentials to complement the items I knew we had at home.

Our self-quarantine plans

I mentioned we stocked up a bit before we left, but we also scheduled a grocery delivery. There are new measures in place regarding deliveries, but we can also still order pizzas and other food as well.

With our new set of groceries and plenty of recipes to make, we’re good for a while and have another delivery set for next week.

Sean has to work from home for 2 weeks, and obviously, I work from home, so we feel set and secure at this time.

Since I am high-risk, I’m monitoring my health closely. The doctor is only a phone call away and at least I’m home. All of that makes me feel a lot better.

Basically, it’s been a chill couple of days trying to wind down from all the drama. Then it’s back to work. Honestly, I don’t leave the house much (it’s not a good thing, just saying), so not much will change for me. Of course, now that we shouldn’t leave the house, I really really want to!

The Netherlands banned Italy flights

At 6pm on Friday, The Netherlands banned all flights from Italy. We arrived around 7:30pm on Thursday. It’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours after we landed, they shut it down. If we took the Saturday flight, we wouldn’t have been able to get home.

All in all we feel so lucky. We were refunded the nights we didn’t stay in Catania, we went from having layovers in Rome to having a direct flight when we needed it. We got home when we needed to, and we feel fine.

Yes, I’m bummed. But we are both really hoping we’ll be able to attend the conference whenever its rescheduled and go back to Sicily as soon as possible.

Support industries that are hurting, if you are able

Right now, there are so many people hurting. I think about my past jobs and how I would have gotten a paycheck no matter what. Most people aren’t that lucky. Small business owners, restaurants, and freelancers are hurting a lot.

If you are still going out in a responsible way (like here, we can still ride around on bikes!) maybe see if your favorite restaurant is doing take-away. Maybe they do delivery.

For small online business, do online shopping or get a gift card. For bloggers, read their blogs! The ad revenue REALLY helps, and you may or may not be surprised to know that many of my friends (and myself) have a drastic drop in readers. If you’re binging on Netflix, maybe take some time and give your favorite YouTubers a watch. Our YouTube isn’t monetized at this point, but it’s still sad to see the numbers so low. Check out our food tour playlist, our Netherlands playlist, or our Italian playlist for inspiration!

Remember, this is not the end of the travel industry! Get inspired. Click above and browse through our destinations. Or check out some of my friends: Roaming Required lives in London and loves history and weekend trips with helpful itineraries. The Sweet Wanderlust is a ball of positivity, color, and all things sweet. For Norway inspiration, head to the snarky and fun Heart My Backpack blog. Carly is all about Austria on her blog Austrian Adaptation, but has tons of content from all over.

If you are planning your next trip, you can help us out massively if you use our affiliate links on our BOOK YOUR TRAVEL page. You don’t pay extra, you’ll be using the services we use, and we get a commission.

What’s next?

If we all work together, we can make this thing disappear, I hope. All of our travel plans are on hold right now. We were supposed to have another trip to Italy coming up. That will likely be moved, but we are in a wait-and-see place right now.

I think it’s a good time for me to start working on a new project that I’m excited about. I have plenty of content I could write about, but I’m trying to use this time to the max. There are fewer distractions with no events, no meeting up with people, no appointments. It’s a great time to focus!

To stay up-to-date with us, our Twitter and Instagram stories are the best way to know what we’re up to.

Thanks for reading. I hope this gave you insight into our experience. We can’t wait to travel again!

Wishing you joy and future travels!