“Are you on holiday?” read my Instagram inbox, as messages began flooding in about what many presumed to be a viral practical joke – either that or I’d been recruited as an emergency diplomat.
The warnings of the current crisis echoed around my brain. As I gazed across the Milanese skyline from the roof of the Cathedral, it was impossible not to question my own sanity.
It made sense in my head when I booked it.
Being a 2020 graduate with little else to do under lockdown but make toast and keep up with when I’d finally be able to let my quarantine hair down, I analysed the news incessantly, keeping track of every development and speculation.
Perhaps being the time in my life with the fewest commitments, I figured if anyone could make it on holiday and then get back safely to tell the tale, it was me.
And weirdly, I was right. I got the news that Italy was set to drop its borders to EU holidaymakers on June 3rd in a vision of paradise that felt a mile away from the bleak streets at home.
They were the first major European holiday destination to do so, and therefore I reasoned I’d have the most chance of getting there smoothly.
The flights weren’t cheap. The Ryanair sale (yes, you’ll probably be able to get to Alicante in the coming months for less than the price of a face mask) was its own lifetime away, but the no regrets attitude I’d refined during my stint at University kept my conscience clean.
Around £300 got me from London Stansted to Milan Malpensa and back in the June heat. Arguably the exclusivity of the trip was worth the extra expense.
What felt less worth it at the time was the sleepless nights, fraught with the anxiety that at any moment I could receive the dreaded cancellation email.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that there might not be anything to do in Italy itself.
Yes, the high street had reopened with social distancing measures, but what about the tourist attractions? After all, there would be no point opening them if no tourists could get there anyway.
Fortunately for me, I was covered on that front too. And, I could get there. A train to Stansted from Nottingham went largely as it normally would – while all passengers seemed to conform, the compulsory face mask policy went unchecked, as did my ticket.
The airport was where it started to get weird. Dare I say, apocalyptic and surreal.
Arriving four hours early out of caution, the only shop to quell my boredom was Boots, where I scanned my card through a glass screen for a packet of crisps and an almond latte.
Why I didn’t complete the meal deal with a sandwich irks me to this day.
The terminal was empty in every sense of the word.
My footsteps reverberated through the building’s steel structure.
Security even found the time to enforce the ‘one bag of liquids per person’ policy as I drank the last of my water reserves.
The time came for my flight and I couldn’t quite believe how, well, normal it felt.
Tickets were sold out and the plane was full, mostly of people presumably returning home.
As for boarding, it was exactly what we’re all used to. Passport, boarding pass… boom, I’m on. It was only then I started to believe it was happening.
Passengers covered up with face masks of varying resemblance to classic ‘Star Wars’ characters as I opted for the classic blue cloth variant.
No-one really bothered going to the toilet on the 90-minute journey and there was no food and drink cart, which flouted my aspirations to pay £6 for a can of Heineken.
Arriving in Milan
Malpensa airport had but one check in place – passport control asked if I’d been in the UK for less than 14 days.
If the answer was yes, you had to fill in a self-declaration form, available online in advance.
The Malpensa Express train took me to Milan Nord Cadorna station, and the seriousness with which the Italian population takes the face covering policy became apparent.
Everyone wears them everywhere. At this point, the nation as a whole was recording around 20 deaths a day.
Not having previously visited Milan, I can presume the near-deserted streets on that Monday night were not typical of the city.
Nonetheless, I made a B-line for the Duomo on my way to the hotel and stared at its beauty in silence.
The receptionist checked me into my hotel from behind a screen, face mask in tow.
This is a region that understands the trauma and ferocity of COVID-19 and is determined to learn from the experience.
Now, the fun begins. First up was a trip to the roof of Milan’s most coveted attraction, the Duomo.
It must be said that for all attractions, the face mask must be on.
Security staff prompted me to use hand sanitizer before checking my temperature with an infrared thermometer in a process reminiscent of the memory erasure in ‘Men in Black’.
Essentially alone on the roof, the experience was magnificent.
No noise, no waiting to get the perfect viewpoint from another group, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the city in the most natural way.
Most other attractions went the same.
The Pinacoteca di Brera (art gallery), Royal Palace of Milan and Sforza Castle all required temperature screening and hand sanitizer for entry.
All were similarly sparse. I even managed to be the only person (minus the lift attendant) atop the Branca Tower, the highest publicly accessible viewpoint in Milan.
Most surreal however was being one of a handful of people in the presence of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece ‘The Last Supper’.
Experiencing such a revered piece of art and history while lockdown hysteria continued back home felt dystopian.
On the two nights of my four-night stay when I wasn’t too exhausted from general tourist antics, I managed to get out for a meal and a drink or two.
Milan’s most vibrant area for drinking and dining is the Navigli (Canal) district, lined with Amsterdam-esque bars and eateries.
Where the airport felt the strangest, here felt the most normal, with the only reminder of the ongoing crisis being the odd face mask hanging from the neck of a passer-by.
The atmosphere was buzzing and gave me a glimmer of hope for the future back home.
On the classier end of the spectrum, I ate by the waters of Lake Garda on a trip to Sirmione.
The restaurant was strict on masks while ordering (do not be mistaken, they will call you out if you forget), but the vibe was relaxed and the pasta, delicious.
Day trip to Sirmione
Sirmione sits at the south end of Lake Garda and is a tourist hotspot, colloquially the Italians’ version of Cornwall.
In fact, if your hope is a holiday to the South West this year, Sirmione is a good example to go by.
Bars, restaurants and gelaterias are all open at the small prerequisite of wearing a face mask.
A few beers at a packed Jamaica Beach (I wonder what it’s like when there isn’t a pandemic on) and I stumbled back to a hotel I booked for £45 for the night.
The taxi ride back to Desenzano del Garda train station revealed a darker side however, as the driver gave me a guided tour of the permanent losses felt by the town. “This hotel employs 30 people,” he pointed out. “No more jobs.”
Returning to the UK
The journey home was just as smooth as the journey there, but this was the part that intrigued me the most.
Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary shunned the Government’s 14-day quarantine policy as unworkable, how would it function in practice?
While the atmosphere upon arrival was relatively tense, as many of the travellers were Italian nationals and unaware of the policy, the process was straightforward.
Security prompted me to fill in a form on my phone, which had a blank box to state where I would be staying for the next 14 days.
I could’ve written anything, from hotels to O’Leary’s suggestion of ‘Walt Disney Street’. But being a student with nothing to do but eat toast, I put down my own address.
I have yet to be visited by the powers that be and I’m now back home. It really was that easy.