Here are the top 5 travel tips — from someone who travelled across 14 countries during a pandemic
2020 started off with a bang, and not in a good way. Shortly after my other half retired, I found myself saying sayonara to the organization I was part of. Unless banks decided to lend to the unemployed, there too went the idea of buying a home. To top it off, we decided to give notice on our London flat — which meant in addition to both being jobless, we were also soon to be homeless.
Amid a grueling lockdown, with now a lot of free time and nowhere to call home, we found a silver lining — we decided to go travelling. As soon as Boris gave the go-ahead in July, we jumped on the Euro tunnel for what was to be four weeks of holiday to Germany and France. Not exotic and untrodden path locations as was my preference — but being able to escape was the priority, the destination was very much secondary.
The first month went to plan. We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Austria. We were able to visit a couple of friends and my sister, spending the bulk of the time in Germany. We stumbled upon historical sites of Waterloo battle fields, Vogelsang and Mauthausen — aesthetically beautiful landscapes that now hide a very dark history. We took our first Covid test which was a requirement to enter Austria from Germany, although alas there was no border crossing for us to proudly show off our negative certificates.
Having crossed several countries with no hiccups, we felt a renewed sense of excitement and a growing dread of having to return to crowded London. We decided to extend our trip and venture further east to Slovakia, a country that I had not yet been to.
We spent a glorious week in Slovakia — a land of many spectacular and ancient castles. The highlight during our stay was hiking through the gorgeous low and high Tatras mountains on the border with Poland. We even decided to cross the border to Poland in order to visit Auschwitz as I am a firm believer in let’s not forget lest we repeat. This coincidently was during the peak of the Black Lives Matter atrocities and couldn’t help but trigger a feeling of humanity’s short memory. All this to say, everyone should visit Auschwitz and hopefully leave with a firm resolve to not stay silent when someone else’s world is on fire.
At this point, we were now five weeks into our four-week trip. What we should have been doing was heading west to France in order to get back home. But why did we need to return to England? In the absence of a sensible answer and with a renewed confidence in navigating Covid-Europe sans problème, we decided to push on. The new target destination was Croatia via Budapest. This triggered our first border challenge.
As we drove to the Hungarian border in Slovakia we were waved to stop by an official. I misjudged exactly when to stop. Let’s just say that was not a good start! I was breathalised — which seemed fair given I had almost run him over. We then realised that we had been enjoying the Slovakian express ways without the mandatory vignette, punishable by a €200 fine. Perhaps we exhausted the clearly frustrated official with our blatant ignorance, but we were let off by paying a mere €40. Great news for us, but there was the distinct feeling that our ‘luck’ might just be coming to an end.
After a wonderful weekend in Budapest the ‘end of a smooth run’ premonition came to be as we crossed the border from Hungary to Croatia. Still giddy from the previous successes we were unprepared to handover car registration or insurance documents. That resulted in our second fine and a very unhappy Hungarian border crossing official who perhaps rightly thought that we were British jokers. The Croatians, who although they were in a booth back-to-back with the Hungarians, waved us through, albeit with the roll of the eye and a frown at our lack of car paperwork. This border crossing event, although self-inflicted, gave us pause for thought on how far we wanted to venture and how much appetite we had for border crossings without the right car documentation.
Once we arrived in Croatia we needed to replan. One of us was now in full panic mode (hint: it wasn’t me). Covid cases were on the rise. Borders were beginning to close again. We did not have the right car paperwork. We had already been fined twice and told in no uncertain terms not to travel back via Hungary. Any further unnecessary border crossings were looking more foolish than wise. This was all true — unless we ditched the car and made navigating the borders someone else’s problem. Eureka! We then pivoted to travel even further afield.
We found a tour operator who was still open for business — Ibrahim. We stashed the car in Split and, armed with another negative Covid test result, were taken over the Croatian border to Bosnia. This was the second country on the trip that I had not yet been to. The city of Mostar, various gorgeous waterfalls and amazing hikes, Tito’s bunker and just the hospitality by people surprised to see tourists — made this all a highly memorable trip. We spent a week in Ibrahim’s care which was a welcome respite from self-navigation.
At this point we had been on the road for seven weeks. Covid rules changed again which meant we had to self-isolate in Croatia for two weeks before heading back west. Still nervous about driving to Italy without the necessary papers we used the time in Hvar, Croatia to get documents couriered to us.
The experience in Bosnia had been so phenomenal we started looking into other countries close by. After a bit of research, we abandoned our plans to head west and instead looked further east. North Macedonia and Albania were now on our mind, and Ibrahim very kindly agreed to help us navigate these countries with his knowledge.
Thus began a two week guided trip across Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo with a quick one night stopover in Montenegro. Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia and trekking for bears in Kosovo were the main highlights. My partner also now understands why I rate Albania — he fell in love with Apollonia and many other world-class and under-appreciated ancient history sites we visited.
What did it feel like to travel across the Balkans during Coronavirus? We had the countries to ourselves. Tourist sites were empty and, in some cases, had to be opened just for us. People were perplexed and delighted to see any tourists. Social distancing was taken more seriously than when we were in London. Masks were everywhere. We felt very welcomed and safe.
As we went deeper into Eastern Europe the Covid rules changed again. We now had to spend two weeks in Croatia in order to be allowed to enter Italy. This time we based ourselves in Dubrovnik and Pula — both of outstanding beauty and ancient history. Dubrovnik offered a walk through Game of Thrones backdrops and Pula an impressive Roman colosseum.
After our mandatory two weeks and armed with another negative Covid test result we made our way to Sienna, Italy. While there Covid rules changed again. Now we had to spend two weeks in Italy before France would allow us to enter and if we drove via France we would need to self-isolate in England. This was not the news I wanted to hear as I was hoping to get back to England in order to be open for job interviews.
What could we do with the ever-changing travel restrictions? We gave up trying to beat them, which at that point became even more complicated, with differing regional rules coming into effect in Italy, and decided to just enjoy our time. We spent time in Rome and then went even further south to Calabria stopping at 2,000-year-old Pompeii and Herculaneum — both sites we had to ourselves.
When we eventually left Italy, after over 3 weeks, we overnighted in San Marino on our way to Burgundy, France. San Marino is the least visited country in Europe. It is medieval in look and feel with breathtaking landscapes, especially along its famous three towers. A magnificent arms collection was also an unexpected treat.
Italy went into lockdown as we entered France. In Burgundy we drank copious amounts of the most elegant of wines, ate exquisite French cuisine and tried to understand the vineyard system. With news of another impending lockdown, we left France after four days and made it back to England just in time for the second English lockdown.
Our silver lining four-week lockdown escape turned into a four-month exploration of Europe, both tried and tested and less-travelled destinations. Time is what we had in spades, and ever-changing Coronavirus and border requirements was the uninvited hitchhiker which added an extra level of spice. Despite that we managed to visit 14 countries, countless cities and some seriously unforgettable historic sites.
For those of you itching for travel, my top tips are:
1. Prioritise popular sites — it’s a unique moment to enjoy attractions that are normally heaving.
2. Negotiate — there are some mutually beneficial bargains to be had, just ask.
3. Explore at a more relaxed pace — combine with working virtually if you can.
4. Expect the unexpected — don’t plan more than a week ahead at a time.
5. Be careful. Know and follow the rules — they might change at short notice but are important.