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I used to travel a great deal – often across the Atlantic. That tapered off some years back as scholars in my generation or older passed from the scene and I received fewer invitations. Domestic travel came to a halt in February 2020 — when I realized that what was happening in China would happen here and canceled plans that would have involved me in taking 16 separate flights that spring.
Things are now, in a modest way, warming up again. I was in Baton Rouge, LA, in September, in Portland, ME, in early October – and, in late October, with my wife, I took a trip on my own dime, which took me from Detroit to Amsterdam and on to Sicily. It was in a variety of ways instructive.
To begin with, I learned what I had gone to learn. I toured the battlefields in Sicily pertinent to Athens’s Sicilian Expedition. And I even learned more. As I knew and should have attended to, the jet stream shifts south early in October, and weather in the Mediterranean undergoes a revolution at about that time of year. The weather of the Atlantic invades that sea, and there are thunderstorms – often violent storms – and the temperature drops. That, too, turned out to be instructive because, as I knew, there were two battles that took place during the military campaign in question in which violent thunderstorms shook the confidence of the participants. I learned a lot from being on the ground.
More to the point, however, the trip was instructive in another way. I learned what it meant to undertake international travel in the age of the coronavirus.
To begin with, it can be dirt cheap. No one really wants to travel, and you can cash in. We paid ca. $650 a person for the round trip. Taxes and airport fees took $500 of that. The airline got $150 a head.
But there is a downside. First, my wife and I needed to have coronavirus shots if we were to travel abroad. That was, fortunately, no problem. We had had our first two Pfizer shots in January and our booster in late September. Second, we needed to take coronavirus tests within 72 hours of our arrival in Sicily. If either of us was positive, the trip was off. Third, while in an airport or on planes, we had to wear surgical masks. On such a trip, that meant that we would be masked 14 hours or more.
This last requirement is crazy. To begin with, masking provides a modicum protection for others. But we did not have the virus. We had just been tested, and this was true for everyone on the plane. Masking provides only minimal protection for the masked — and wearing the mask for a long period is a misery. My bet is that it is bad for the masked as well. Re-breathing the air you have already breathed cannot be salutary. But one must comply — or get kicked off the plane.
There is another problem. The airlines are in trouble. Flight cancellations, on dubious pretexts, are common, and forget about customer service: no one answers the phone. Our plans for travel were upended once by such cancellations, and our actual trip was upended by another. That we got home more or less on schedule was a miracle.
And there is this. You cannot come back to the US unless you have had yet another coronavirus test and passed it with flying colors. The alternative is ten days of quarantine. Pause and contemplate that before you make your plans.
We knew all of this, and we went anyway. (My motto is, “You are only old once!”) And when you get there – if your destination is Syracusa in Sicily – there is much that will go well.
First and foremost, there are virtually no tourists. The island of Ortygia – the place where the Greeks from Corinth first established themselves, the place to which the Christians of the region retired during the time of Arab raids – will be your playground. And wonderful it is.
Then, there is the food. Don’t go unless you like fish. But if you do like fish, by all means go. The Sicilians know what to do with it. We had not a single mediocre meal, and we found a place on Ortygia — La Tavernetta Uno da Simone — that was not expensive but was wonderful. My mouth still waters at the thought.
What about housing? We found a place through bookings.com for $65 a night. It was centrally located, quiet, and lovely. When we had to move elsewhere, we found another nearby for $45 a night, and it was terrific.
What is not to like? Well, it was late October, as I have said, and it rained … every day. On our way down by taxi from the Catania airport, there was a deluge. North of us, it produced flash floods and killed two people in the city of Catania.
We got caught in a deluge as we were hiking up the coast and back from Syracusa with an eye to sorting out the terrain. We went out again in a deluge to see what the sea was apt to do to Ortygia and to discern whether, in a giant storm, the water in the city’s Great Harbor (which is immense) was calm. All of this information is now tucked away in the chapters I drafted before traveling to Sicily and rewrote while there and after coming back.
We twice rented a car – and visited Palazzo Acreide (ancient Akrai) in the territory of Syracusa and Noto in the mountains beyond – which was built after an earthquake in 1693 destroyed Noto Antico and the residents rebuilt on another site. Everything in the town – the churches, the houses, the opera house, you name it – was baroque. The town, built up a mountainside, is a real gem, and Palazzo Acreide is fine as well.
So should you go? Well, the travel is an ordeal – the masquerade, the poor connections, and Airbus with seats even closer together than was the case in the old 747s. There are risks: think quarantine.
But let’s face it, the old song of the Animals – “We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place” – is more alluring than ever.
So, yes, you should go. I recommend using Orbitz or some other online source to track down cheap flights, using Book.com to secure cheap but clean and quiet digs, and saving your money for food. Go out of season (but perhaps not in late October). Go somewhere where the food is good (we have Turkey in mind for April) – and relax. As for the quarantine, that is in the lap of the gods. You have to be prepared to roll with the punches.
But you’ve gotta get out of that place.Published in