After four months of living under virtual house arrest in Acton, I desperately needed a break. I know the lockdown is tough on everyone, but it’s particularly difficult to endure if you think it’s a catastrophic mistake. Since the beginning of April I’ve been running a blog called LockdownSceptics.org, pumping out daily reminders of the harm the lockdown is doing, whether to schoolchildren, cancer patients or elderly care home residents. Not that it makes any impact on public opinion. It’s as if the entire world is suffering from ‘psychotic delirium’, to use the phrase of Bernard Henry-Levi, the French philosopher.
My wife and I booked a family getaway, but we hit a lockdown-related snag two weeks before departure. No, our chosen destination wasn’t removed from the travel corridor – we’d arranged to go to Italy not Spain or the Bahamas, thank God. Rather, we discovered our 15-year-old son’s passport was about to expire. Normally, you can pay extra to fast-track the application or, failing that, stand in a queue for a few hours at the Passport Office. But not at the moment.
I sat down with Ludo and told him he had a choice: we could either scrap the holiday, or he could stay with a friend and I’d buy him a new gaming desktop. It took him all of two seconds to make up his mind.
The check-in process at Heathrow took at least four times longer than usual and having to wear a face nappy for the entire journey was a pain in the bum. But as soon as we arrived at Marco Polo in Venice things started to look up. As the water taxi took us from the airport to the hotel, I was filled with a sense of freedom and relief – I’d finally escaped Gulag Britain.
It helped that we’d arranged to spend the first three nights at the Gritti Palace, described by Ernest Hemingway as “the best hotel in a city of great hotels”. Situated on the Grand Canal, it oozes old world charm, with high ceilings, picture windows and sumptuously upholstered furnishings. It also boasts a general manager in the form of Paulo Lorenzoni who can get you a table at any restaurant in the city.
Not that that’s difficult at the moment. The weekend we were in Venice was supposed to be the climax of Il Redentore, an annual festival held on the third weekend in July celebrating the end of the plague in 1576 that killed 50,000 people. In 1576, the city decided to build a small wooden church on Giudecca Island, now known as the Church of the Redeemer, situated opposite the Gritti. In a normal year, a temporary bridge would be built across the Grand Canal and thousands of people would cross to the Church and give thanks to God for ending the plague.
But of course it was cancelled. The local authorities took that decision just one week before the festival was due to begin, delivering yet another blow to all the local businesses that depend on tourism for their survival. Tourism is the city’s main source of income, with 23 million people visiting in a normal year, but that’s dwindled to almost nothing during the pandemic.
The irony is that this makes it the perfect time to visit Venice. Normally in July and August, the old city is like Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon, with the main thoroughfares becoming virtually impassable. But now, almost the only people there are Italians. I had a lovely time wandering around museums and churches with my family – all tickets sorted out by Paulo Lorenzoni – and eating at the city’s finest restaurants. You have to wear masks in shops and all the visitor attractions, as well as the communal areas of the hotels, but apart from that it was heavenly. The best bit was a trip round the main island in the Gritti’s motor yacht.
Next stop was the Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano, a picturesque Tyrolean village in the Dolomites. Caroline and I have stayed before and it ranks alongside the Gritti as one of the finest hotels in the world. Not only are you exceptionally well looked after – with the staff anticipating your every need – but it boasts a spa, two swimming pools, a games room, a cinema and a three-star Michelin restaurant. We didn’t quite have the run of the place, but, like Venice, there were very few tourists.
We spent four days hiking in the Dolomites, getting a cable car up to one of the peaks, then walking slowly down, stopping half way for lunch on a sun-drenched terrace. Being in the mountains was the perfect antidote to staring out of the window of my home/office in West London, which I’d been doing for what felt like an eternity. The Rosa Alpina’s slogan is ‘Life is a mountain not a beach’, and there is climbing memorabilia throughout the hotel. But, frankly, either would have been preferable to Acton.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better week-long break. The only thing that tainted it was the knowledge that all the services I was enjoying, from the luxury hotels to the fine dining, are in mortal danger, thanks to the global lockdowns. The entire Italian economy has been dependent on tourism for years and the ongoing travel restrictions around the world, as well as the public’s irrational fear of the virus, will mean a huge black hole in Italy’s finances this year. I fear for the future of this beautiful country.
How to do it
The Gritti Palace in Venice, a Luxury Collection Hotel, has rooms available from €670 per room per night. Rates include breakfast. See thegrittipalace.com.
Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa in San Cassiano, has rooms available from €590 per night based on two adults sharing a Deluxe Double. Rates include breakfast. See www.rosalpina.it. The summer season at the hotel will run until 7th September 2020.