After having been home for almost three months, with one short work trip to South Korea and one private visit of Baarle Nassau in between, I am thrilled to be packing my bag again. It is 15 June 2020, the day that European countries are opening up again. Together with my travel partner, we have decided to start our travels in Bulgaria. The differences are obvious: masks are mandatory in the airport building, and inside the aircraft. The flight is full, so observing distance to others is impossible. As far as we know, we are free to travel to Bulgaria with our EU passports, but a message we receive just before departure still makes us a little insecure.
Arrival turns out to be easy: we have to fill out a form, and swiftly enter the country with our EU passport. We pick up our car at the airport: we have decided to rent cars on our trip, to limit exposure to other people. A few hours drive takes us to Rila Monastery, which we find almost empty. We take a few weeks to explore the country, visiting historic sites, cities, nature, mountains and seasides, islands and monasteries, Communist-era monuments. we have most, if not all, of the sights to ourselves, which is great for two reasons. One, it is quiet and we can explore freely, and second, the chance of getting infected is low.
When we are back in Sofia, we hand in our car (we prefer not to risk taking a car across the border with potential problems if borders close), and find out that several countries are still closed, and public transportation is not running. We end up taking a bus to Kyustendil, towards the border with North Macedonia. We charter a taxi, which takes us to the border. I take the number of the driver, in case we end up getting stranded. We do not know if we will be allowed across: we have read that the border is supposed to open on July 1, and it is June 30. Crossing a border in Europe has become an adventure, and when the official finally waves us through after some calls, we do a high-five, and take pictures of the flags flying above us.
A taxi takes us straight to Skopje, where we find almost all hotels closed - even though they are all bookable online. We end up walking for an hour before we finally find a hotel that has just re-opened: we are the first, and only, guests for a couple of nights. People are wearing masks here and there, often on their elbows, or hanging from one ear. After exploring the city, we visit Tetovo on our way to Kosovo. We are not sure we can enter, but the border crossing turns out to be a formality. We mostly concentrate on nature in the small country, and I return to North Macedonia where I rent a car again.
Travel is actually very easy: hotels are never full and happy to have customers, and the same goes for restaurants. Sights are empty, and I only see people in city centres where it is easy to avoid them. Meanwhile, we read that infection numbers of Covid-19 are increasing fast in the Balkans, and decide it is better to at least be inside the EU. From Skopje, we take a taxi to the border again. Entering Bulgaria is more than a formality: we have to fill out a health declaration, and have to see a doctor who takes our temperature. One traveler is sent back and advised to go into quarantine. When we are waved through, we are relieved.
The number of the taxi driver comes in handy now: he is happy to see us again, and we take a bus to Sofia. There still is no direct transportation to Romania, so we buy two tickets: one to Ruse, and the other to Bucharest. On our evening stroll after dinner, we end up in an anti-government demonstration, make sure to wear our masks, and keep distance as much as we can, while our curiosity makes us wonder about what is going on around us. The train trip to Romania turns out to be easy, and the first thing we notice in the elegant Romanian capital is that people are more seriously sticking to health measures.
The other thing we notice on our grand tour of this fascinating and varied country, is that there are a lot of tourists around, and bar a few exceptions, they are all Romanians. With the travel restrictions in place, most people have decided to stay in their country for holidays. It means we sometimes find hotels full, we find the centres of medieval towns choke full with visitors, and have to be more vigilant for our own safety. I end up going home earlier to go into quarantine, before I do a work flight to Santiago de Chile, where I am quarantined again in the hotel.
My next trip is to Cyprus, which requires a negative PCR test. Turns out that the test is not as bad as people say, and with the negative test in my bag, I am on my way on an almost empty plane to Larnaca. I have been here when I was 9 years old, when war broke out, and it has been a long standing dream to return. It is strange to see the many tourist facilities, most of which are empty. Measures are quite strict here as well: entering a shop or other indoor facility without a mask is virtually impossible. A quarantine is required the day after I come home, so I am just in time.
My next trip is to Sicily, another destination which I have wanted to visit for a long time. I take almost three weeks to travel around this highly fascinating island, which has so much to offer, with the excellent food and gelato as a big plus. The first week, I am required to fill out forms for hotels and restaurants with my details. People are really scared of the pandemic here, probably caused by the horrific onslaught in March and April in Northern Italy. The week after I come back, PCR tests are made mandatory for visiting Italy as well.