When the world was more closed, the country that came up first in many of my acquaintances’ travel fantasies was Italy. I can’t deny that this extraordinarily beautiful and culinarily rich country was also at the top of my list. The idea of seeing one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet without the crowds was most enticing. When Italy reopened to American travelers, it wasn’t long before I booked plane tickets.
But as the trip drew nearer, the new recommendation from the European Union to place additional restrictions on U.S. travelers became concerning. The rules seemed to keep changing, and I wondered how the rather fluid situation might translate at the airport, on arrival at immigration and on the ground in hotels, restaurants and shops.
It turned out that I needn’t have been concerned. Getting into Europe proved surprisingly easy, as was travel within Italy. Most restaurants, shops and sites were open to visitors. The handful of times people asked for proof of vaccination (or a recent negative COVID test), our American cards were accepted without question. In most respects, visiting Italy felt relatively normal, and normal in Italy is very good indeed.
As many times as I have driven through the Italian countryside over the years, the splendor of the scenery still manages to inspire a sense of wonder. Patio dining on an unspoiled piazza remains, for me, one of life’s supreme pleasures. We did not waste the opportunity to enjoy hotel spas, which operated with only a few restrictions. And we fully embraced the cliché of Aperol spritzes at sunset, when the cares of the world evaporated in the golden light.
Best of all, we were able to enjoy Italy without battling the hordes. I can’t recall seeing a large tour bus. At only one restaurant did we encounter a group larger than five or six people traveling together. Hotels were not empty, but this was a good thing. It can be a bit depressing to dine alone on a sprawling terrace or have a nightcap in a silent bar. The other guests were a mix of Italophile couples and families from America, France and Germany, along with Italian tourists enjoying their own country.
Traveling to Italy these days requires a little more paperwork than in the past — the Travel Office can explain the additional formalities one should complete in advance — but the minor bureaucratic inconvenience is far outweighed by the quality of the experience on the ground. In fact, I’m tempted to turn right around and go back on vacation this autumn. I love Italy in October and November, when fires begin to crackle in hotel lounges and rich game-based dishes start appearing on menus (I can’t resist homemade pasta with wild boar ragu). The crowds will still be much reduced and COVID restrictions, if they remain as they are now, will be minimally intrusive.
And, as I’ll describe in my upcoming articles about our trip (in the December issue), the standard of hotels in the countryside has only increased. The top properties are not inexpensive, of course, but considering their historical pedigree, the magnificence of the landscapes surrounding them, the high level of service and the impressive quality of their restaurants and spas, the resorts we tested earn every euro of their rates.