A question posted on a Facebook food group I’m in asked if people felt comfortable about the idea of staying in hotels at the moment. The overwhelming response was no, group members didn’t. I understand that. Just over a month ago we broke out of our ‘safe’ COVID-free bubble for the first time since March to travel to the north of Portugal. We were apprehensive about what we’d find in a post-lockdown world; what dangers we’d be exposed to. We felt institutionalised – the prison walls which kept us locked in built from endless layers of fear-fuelling media reports. Once we broke free, we found reality outside the bubble wasn’t quite as terrifying as the dystopian world we’d imagined.
Since then we’ve stayed in four hotels, one traditional cottage, a country house, a Provençal villa, and dined in a dozen restaurants. The experiences tore down those prison walls, but it has also been interesting to observe how different places have responded to the challenges of dealing with COVID-19. These contrasts were highlighted as we drove through three countries, from Portugal’s Atlantic coast to Provence, not only switching from stuttering along in one language to another, but trying to figure out what COVID-19 restrictions applied where.
We leave our house near Portugal’s west coast at just after 7 a.m. When we cross the border into Spain it’s still breakfast time (if we don’t add on the hour time difference). Subsequently we don’t stop anywhere on Portuguese soil; however, our trip to the north of Portugal just over a week ago gave us plenty of examples of how Portugal is responding to travel post-COVID. Many establishments displayed ‘Clean & Safe’ stickers issued by Turismo de Portugal, which did their job in that they helped allay our fears somewhat. In hotels, breakfast buffets were completely revamped. In one, individual trays were brought to our table. In another, waiting staff filled our plates from a roped-off buffet. Eating in restaurants felt remarkably normal, especially after being seated when masks could be removed. If anything, dining experiences were enhanced as there was more space between tables than usual.
There’s no requirement to wear masks in Portugal’s streets, but in Arcos de Valdevez many of the older residents did so anyway. Generally life meandered on as normal, albeit at a two-meter distance. The only time social distancing wasn’t respected was by a sour-faced woman in a supermarket queue who jostled the folk in front of her, impatient to get her goods on the conveyor belt, and by a large group of teenagers in a riverside bar who, bolstered by the immortality of youth, mobbed a table, adding chairs and more tables till they encroached on everyone immediately around them.
A ‘break and bocadillo‘ stop at motorway services just across the border illustrates the inconsistencies which can surround the adherence to COVID regulations. Spain’s regulations have been among the most severe in Europe, and the wearing of face masks in public spaces is compulsory. Aside from the fact the place serves the worst bocadillos we’ve eaten, inside is COVID chaos. People entering wear face masks, but some of those who have already eaten wander around ‘sin‘ masks. Next to where the pre-ordered food is left on the counter for a waitress (with face mask) to collect are two wizened old men drinking cafe con leche. As they’re drinking, neither wear face masks. There is hand gel available everywhere, but when I visit the toilets I see some men not bothering washing their hands after using the facilities. I’ve had a bugbear about personal hygiene since long before COVID raised its head, believing inconsideration and poor hygiene habits of dirty buggers to be the cause of many a disease spread around resort areas. Inedible bocadillos aside, it’s not a place I want to spend a lot of time in.
Eight hours later, and having crossed Spain’s endless, hot dusty plains we arrive in green and scenic Catalonia, at the Hotel Gran Claustre in Altafulla near Tarragona. As we check in the receptionist points a gun at our heads. It’s a relief to find that our temperatures are normal, even though it’s 35C outside.
There’s a summer holiday ambience to the streets of the old town, if we ignore the fact everyone is wearing masks. Being used to restrictions in Portugal which are more relaxed, we occasionally forget to put ours on when we stroll along the cobbled streets, but there are no Invasion of the Bodysnatchers type scenes of people pointing at us and screaming accusingly in ear-piercing, alien voices.
The hotel smells slightly of disinfectant perfumed by essential oils, whilst the hotel’s restaurant has a novel way of ensuring there’s no menu-touching going on; the menu is accessed via a QR code on the table. It’s a neat idea except for one thing. Not everyone has a smartphone. Not only that, my phone declares the hotel’s wifi to be dodgy and refuses to open the menu. By the time the waitress returns to ask if we’re ready to order, I still haven’t a clue what’s on offer.
Most of the journey across Portugal and Spain was relaxing and traffic-free. The South of France is a very different prospect. It’s busy. Our villa is in the village of Éguilles, which isn’t busy; it’s one of the areas not badly affected by COVID the owner, Laurent, tells us… as way of reassurance as he isn’t wearing a mask when he shows around the property. This part of France’s COVID restrictions seem to fall somewhere between Portugal’s and Spain’s. Face masks are compulsory in enclosed busy places, but also outdoors in busy locations like Paris, Nice, Lyon etc. When we walk into the village to buy croissants each morning, we only put on masks when we enter the boulangerie. Wine tasting in the village’s winery is probably not much different from normal. We wear masks to enter, but thereafter remove them as we’re introduced to a generous selection of the area’s rosé and red wines.
Mask-wearing aside, life in the village seems comfortingly normal. It’s only when we venture further afield that we realise the fear ingrained from months of scare stories in the press hasn’t totally dissipated. There might be a lack of British visitors in Provence, but French holidaymakers are there in their droves. Last time we visited the underground art installation of Carrières de Lumières we simply parked the car and wandered in. That was late September when summer holidays in the south of Europe were over. This time there are lines of cars parked along the road for miles. The place is mobbed. We’ve pre-booked and breeze past the queue waiting to get in (after passing another temperature test). Whereas the number of people entering Carrières de Lumières is regulated, the number of people on the streets of the picturesque town of Les Baux-de-Provence overlooking the quarry isn’t. We spend ten minutes on its too-crowded streets, where some people wear masks and some don’t, before deciding to escape. COVID has influenced our hasty exit for sure, but we’d have done the same pre-virus as it’s an overcrowded tourist trap.
The large town of Aix-en-Provence is better… in parts. Some streets and squares are uncomfortably crowded, but those not on the main drag aren’t. Away from the mobs there are lovely Provençal streets and alleys, lined by elegant honey-coloured buildings. These are home to the sort of tiny, atmospheric restaurants you hope to find in the back lanes of a French town. We pick one with an enticing menu de midi – i.e. it has moules frites – and spend an enjoyable couple hours tossing empty shells into pans, sipping a summery rosé, and marvelling at the fashion sense of the chic young French women who pass by. It is exactly what we would have done if we’d visited the town a year ago.
COVID has obviously changed how we travel, but in the last month our experiences have taught me that in many ways, it hasn’t.