Europe

Breaking the rules for a ‘Covid-19 break’: ‘I just want to feel alive for a few days’

Sara wanted to visit museums again, David found a sneaky way to get around border checks and Matthew is taking the first chance he gets to jump on a plane to Italy: One year into the coronavirus crisis, more Europeans feel the need to go on Covid-19 breaks.

Before the year of Covid-19, Sara*, a 37-year-old Parisian, would set off on an international trip once every six weeks, on average. “It was a part of my lifestyle,” she said.

But as the global pandemic spread at the start of 2020, and country after country began to shut their borders, she quickly saw her travel plans crumble. “It was so depressing.”

When France, along with many other European countries, imposed stringent anti-Covid-19 restrictions – including two nationwide lockdowns and the long-term shuttering of restaurants, museums and cinemas – she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “It made me realise just how essential culture is to my life. I love culture and museums, and all of a sudden I wasn’t allowed to do anything but to stay at home,” she said. 

In December, as France announced that its second lockdown would give way to a 6pm curfew but restaurants and cultural venues would remain closed, she couldn’t take it anymore. She bought plane tickets to Portugal for a “Covid-19 break” for herself and her nephew.  

“It was heaven, because pretty much everything was still open,” she said. “The feeling of just being able to go and sit down at a restaurant and to be served at the table. It was heaven.”

Sara and her nephew (pictured) skipped Paris and its nighttime curfew just before Christmas to spend a few days ‘living a normal life’. © Private

The brief getaway from Covid-19 restrictions gave Sara a taste for more of the same and she is now planning a spring trip to Rome, which is still under a 10pm-5am curfew but where bars, restaurants and museums reopened earlier this month.

“I want to go where there are the least restrictions possible. There’s no point in going somewhere where everything is closed. I just want to feel alive. But I’ll respect other Covid-19 restrictions, of course, by wearing a face mask and by practising social distancing.”

Full plane to Stockholm

Sweden, which has gone against the grain and adopted one of the world’s most relaxed Covid-19 strategies, has become another popular destination for Covid-fatigued Europeans.

When a team of FRANCE 24 reporters flew from Paris to Stockholm in early February to do a report on Sweden’s controversial Covid-19 strategy, they were astonished to see the number of French tourists that were headed for Stockholm.

“The plane was full,” said one of the reporters, Clovis Casali.

“And when we arrived with the shuttle in central Stockholm, everyone just looked at each other with confused expressions on their faces as if to say, ‘What do we do now – do we wear masks or what?”

“When you wore a face mask in the street there, everyone just looked at you in a weird way,” he said.

While in Stockholm, Casali spoke to a French couple who had taken a brief weekend break from the restrictions at home.

“They told us how great they felt about being able to walk around without masks.”

Party central

Birgitta Palmer, a spokeswoman for the tourist information agency Visit Stockholm, said that although tourism in the city has dropped quite dramatically during the pandemic, “it hasn’t dropped as much in Stockholm compared with the average in other large European cities”.

Although she said it was still too early to tell whether this could be attributed to Sweden’s lighter Covid-19 restrictions, she said that international tourists interviewed by Swedish media have stated that Sweden’s “openness and the option to move around more freely are the main reasons for their visits, rather than individual attractions”.

In April last year, when most European countries – including France, Italy, and Spain – were under their first nationwide lockdowns, the Swedish tabloid “Expressen” reported that European jetsetters were flocking to Stockholm “to get their hair done, go to restaurants and to party”.

The newspaper interviewed a hairdresser who recounted how a Swiss woman paid the jacked-up price of €1,800 just for a flight to Stockholm to get her hair done. “She was super happy that she could come here and colour her hair, and apparently a lot of her friends had done the same,” she said. “It is women from Europe who travel here because their own countries have closed down. They come here to fix their hair and nails, eat out at restaurants, and then they party at night.”

Since then, however, Sweden has tightened its Covid-19 restrictions: Bars and restaurants are only allowed to serve food and drinks to seated guests, and they are not allowed to serve alcohol after 8pm.

Not always ‘super legal’

David*, who runs a London-area business active in the construction sector, said that thanks to the many exemptions his industry has been granted during the pandemic, he has been able to use his work projects as an excuse to keep travelling.

“Over the past few months, my trips haven’t always been super legal,” he said, citing Britain’s current lockdown and rules against non-essential travel. He lists France, Italy, Spain and Turkey among his most recent destinations.

“At first I was kind of scared by saying the trips were all work-related, but I’ve never ever been checked.”  

Matthew, who lived in London, is planning to travel to Italy the first chance he gets.
Matthew, who lived in London, is planning to travel to Italy the first chance he gets. © Private

Matthew*, a 26-year-old Australian globetrotter who currently lives and works in London, said he has no choice but to respect Britain’s current lockdown rules, “because no one is letting people in from the UK at the moment anyway [because of the British variant]. But as soon as I can go, I will”.

“Italy is relatively open now, so that would be one place I would go to. I would pick destinations based on them being more relaxed than in London.”

In August, just as Britain started to tighten its Covid-19 restrictions, he went for a three-week trip to Portugal. “It was a way for me to get away from the stress of living in London, Covid-19-wise. It was definitely what I would call a Covid-19 break.”

A woman takes a photo in front of the closed gates of the Louvre museum in Paris. On February 22, 2021
A woman takes a photo in front of the closed gates of the Louvre museum in Paris. On February 22, 2021 © FRANCE 24 / Louise Nordstrom

Meanwhile, Paris – which regularly ranks as the world’s No. 1 tourist destination – has been severely hit by the near year-long Covid-19 restrictions that still reign in the city, resulting in a 14.3 million drop in visitors to just 9.4 million in the first half of 2020.

On Sunday, when spring-like temperatures brought large crowds outside, everyone FRANCE 24 approached in front of the closed gates of the Louvre museum turned out to be either expats or French locals.

By the Eiffel Tower, a Russian family almost ran over FRANCE 24’s reporter in their rush to get to the feet of the “Iron Lady”.

“We don’t have time to talk,” the father said, pointing to his watch. “Curfew!”

*Names have been changed

 

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