When crowds cheered at the opening game of the delayed UEFA Euro 2020 in Rome Italians had good reason to celebrate. Aside from beating Turkey 3-0, the country had scored a far greater victory, demonstrating she was ready to welcome back the world.
The first country in Europe to suffer the blows of coronavirus, 18 months ago, Italy was on her knees.
Today, though, the situation has changed dramatically. Domestic movement is permitted, and international borders are slowly opening, with several quarantine-free, long-haul travel corridors set up with the US, Canada, Japan and UAE.
Although Italy carries an amber status for UK travellers and restrictions for non-essential travel continue to apply in Ireland, it’s a reassuring sign that one of our favourite holiday destinations is on the right path.
When I arrive in Rome, the streets are quieter than usual. Waiters eagerly stand on the doorsteps of their restaurants, scanning for tourists who never pass by, and staff in designer stores rearrange garments, filling time until they can lock up for the day.
Even by early summer, Rome would typically be busy, with every trattoria table taken and not a slab of pavement left bare. A few years ago, authorities banned eating near fountains and set fines for anyone caught dressing up as a gladiator, in a bid to curb over-tourism.
But now, there is no-one – not even a lost centurion. It’s as if I’ve come in low season on a fortuitously sunny day.
Slowly, though, things are changing.
“We are starting to hear some foreign voices,” says Francesco Salvo, brand strategy manager for Sina hotels, the longest continuously run family-hotel chain in the country, who own the Bernini Bristol in Rome. “And our bookings have been good – mainly French, Swiss, German and domestic travellers.”
Presiding over Piazza Barberini, the elegant 147-year-old property sits in a prime position. Water sprouts from the conch shell of a muscular merman at Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone, and the Spanish Steps are only a few minutes’ walk away. Inside, the baroque sentiment is echoed through classic works of art filling the terracotta-red marble-floored corridors.
From the hotel’s rooftop bar, The Flair, I can see the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica, where flocks of starling wheel at dawn and dusk.
Only recently, people were permitted to dine indoors, but outdoor spaces are still in high demand from locals taking advantage of an opportunity to explore their country in peace and quiet.
Francesco, who lives in Trastevere, a bohemian quarter famous for its narrow alleys and lively tavernas, says he could see people connecting more as a community. Overpriced tourist bars have also been forced to up their game, improving the quality of food and service.
“With all due respect,” says Francesco, as we sip Aperol spritzes in Flair, “English and Americans might put up with these things, but Italians certainly won’t.”
Overall, he believes coronavirus has provided the travel industry with an opportunity to re-evaluate and see things differently; hoteliers have a chance to treat guests better and offer more value for money.
Celebrating an emergence from the pandemic, Sina are launching a Diamond Grand Tour encompassing several properties within their portfolio. They are also planning to renovate the Bernini Bristol, extending the property by connecting it to a building next door.
“Even in stormy weather, we have a compass that will see us through to better times,” insists Francesco, an upbeat, open-minded traveller who lived in London for several years.
But he admits it will take a long time for scars to heal. In a country renowned for being tactile, social distancing has no doubt had a psychological impact. The absence of any handshakes or kisses is notable when friends and associates greet one another. While northern Europeans are probably relieved at the excuse to remain aloof, in Italy, it goes against every warm, convivial fibre of their being.
“Being scared of a friendly hand; that tore us apart,” admits Francesco, who believes “a mistrust was born”.
“It will take some time,” he sighs. “Coming out of Covid will be like emerging from a World War.”
For now, any visitors to the Eternal City can enjoy the privilege of having after-hours access to the world’s biggest outdoor museum.
During my brief stay, I run up and down the Spanish Steps without crashing into a single selfie stick. At the Trevi Fountain, my only wish as I toss a solitary coin into the water is to never forget the sight of Oceanus and his sea-horse chariot in this quiet light.
But without people, Rome feels devastatingly lonely. It was a city built for travellers. All roads, after all, lead this way.
How to plan your trip
Rooms at the Bernini Bristol start from €300 per night with breakfast. Visit sinahotels.com.