A 17-day road trip through central Europe and the Adriatic region highlighted pandemic-era disparities from country to country.
If not for the vending-machine face masks and ubiquitous pump bottles of sanitizer, you might think that even northern Italy had returned to normal. In desperate need of a sunny, salty escape, my partner and I had opted to drive through the E.U. rather than fly south. Using our Dutch residence permits in lieu of American passports, we took a less social vacation than we otherwise would have taken—no guided tours or shared facilities here—and drove freely from our adopted hometown of Maastricht to western Germany and down through Austria, Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia, then back through Italy and the Swiss Alps. Almost everywhere we went, one thing was consistent: people flouted COVID-19 regulations.
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To start, we hopped on a regional train from the Dutch region of Limburg to nearby Aachen, where we picked up a rental car. (Germany currently allows tourists except for people from countries on its extensive list of high-risk areas.) Almost as soon as we left the Netherlands, stricter measures against COVID-19 transmission became apparent: One’s mouth and nose had to be covered aboard public transport and in all stores, and police monitored compliance in crowded areas. Luckily, masks and sanitizer were available in train-station vending machines.
Skirting the Black Forest en route to the foothill town of Füssen, we saw autobahn rest stops that had been converted into drive-through testing facilities. Restaurants were widely open, but diners were asked to leave their contact information with restaurants for tracing purposes. When patrons were left to their own devices at self-registration kiosks—which happened at a McDonald’s we stopped at—many people simply sidestepped the station. Eventually, we realized that the pen didn’t even work.
INSIDER TIPAlthough we slipped through Europe nearly unchecked, the situation changed like quicksand behind us. Croatia, an E.U. state that is not part of the Schengen area, allowed U.S. tourists over the summer and has subsequently been penalized by some of its E.U. neighbors, like Slovenia, which added Croatia to its red list on August 21. In the days after we returned home, Germany also deemed parts of Croatia high-risk areas, while Italy tightened restrictions so that travelers from Croatia and other countries are now required to present a negative swab test. Amid ever-changing restrictions, the website Reopen.europa.eu is an invaluable resource to help travelers stay up to date.
Continuing south through the Tyrolean Alps, Austria’s ostensibly more lenient attitude contrasted with that of Germany. Visitors who live in or who have spent the previous 10 days in countries with stable COVID-19 situations could enter Austria unchecked. Once inside the country, the Austrian government encouraged people to maintain one meter of social distance and to cover coughs and sneezes, but masks were required only on public transit as of June. Elsewhere, people packed carelessly into public spaces.
With the exception of Lombardy, masks were required only inside public spaces in Italy. Outside, most Italians quickly secured their mask around the crook of their elbow. In Venice, some establishments took the extra step of performing digital temperature scans before admitting guests.
Apart from four southern regions—Apulia, Calabria, Sardinia, and Sicily—Italy allowed unrestricted entry from within the E.U. (except for Bulgaria and Romania) at the time we visited. By the time we returned home, however, Italy had announced that travelers from Croatia, Greece, Malta, and Spain would have to present a negative swab test performed within 72 hours prior to entry, or do the test within 48 hours after entering the national territory.
Slovenia maintains three color-coded lists of countries divided by their epidemiological status. Having only been in green-listed areas, we passed into Slovenia without incident and transited through quickly, with only one sightseeing stop, in Piran, a seaside town at the base of the arrowhead-shaped Istrian peninsula.
Armed with a bevy of officially required documents to enter Croatia—passports, printed booking confirmations for our planned lodging, a dashboard form stating our reason for entering, our firstborn child—we were shocked to find that no one questioned us at the border. In fact, no one was even manning the booth as we exited Slovenia.
Officially, Croatia recommends covering the nose and mouth, as well as doing regular hand hygiene and maintaining one and a half meters of social distance. Aside from restaurant servers, however, we saw few people visibly complying among the hordes who flocked to the Dalmatian Coast for summer vacation. On the Makarska Riviera, Brela’s Punta Rata beach was packed elbow-to-elbow for most of the day, as were some cafes in the area.
The attitude prevailed on the overnight car ferry we took back to Italy, despite staff requesting that passengers adhere to posted requirements about wearing masks in common areas. (“We’ll put them on inside,” insisted one couple, who were already inside.) In the cafe on the upper deck, the open-air setting made us feel a bit safer, but we were glad that we’d booked a cabin with a private bathroom for the trans-Adriatic journey.
Disembarking from the boat into the Italian port of Ancona, where we re-entered the Schengen area, we encountered our sole instance of border control. It was a far cry from May when we had been prevented from even entering Belgium on foot while hiking in our hometown near the Belgium-Netherlands border.
While urban centers such as Venice and Rome have been relatively uncrowded since the pandemic began, domestic tourism is booming in rural areas. The manager of a farm we stayed at near Gubbio, in Umbria, noted that his business had seen more visitors in 2020 compared to the previous year, most of them Italian nationals. Vintners, meanwhile, have converted excess wine into grape-alcohol-based sanitizer, which has become ubiquitous at business entrances throughout the country.
After driving north through Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, and Lombardy, we entered Switzerland without incident and headed to a campground outside Interlaken. Surprisingly, masks are not required indoors on a national level, except on public transit. It was a good thing, because many gondolas—the go-to mode of transit in steep areas of the Alps, like Jungfrau—were packed to the hilt.
After driving back through Germany, we ended our trip in the Netherlands. It became all the more clear how poorly the Netherlands has handled the crisis: The Dutch government doubled down on the stance that masks have not been proven to stop the spread of the virus, insisting that people are able to keep adequate space between themselves in all situations except public transit, for which masks are mandated. In reality, the public and staff of many establishments have exhibited little regard for social-distancing mandates, especially inside grocery stores and other interior areas. In response, countries including Estonia, Finland, and Lithuania have now placed restrictions on Dutch travelers.
The public attitude varied widely from country to country. Swiss bar-goers rubber-necked at our masks as we ordered steins of Rugenbräu Lager Hell to take outside, while people in neighboring Germany took care to open doors with their elbows. Almost everywhere we went, one thing was consistent: people flouted COVID-19 regulations.