Christos Mouzeviris recounts his recent trip though Europe and how he just missed the various lockdowns happening across the continent.
Little did I know, when I was booking my holidays for this March, how things would have turned out across Europe. During the past months, I was informed that my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease so I after an agreement with my sister, I arranged back in November to travel to Greece and sort a few issues that arose from this development. I like to book my trips as early as possible and since a week in Greece would not exactly be holiday time, on my return I opted to visit Salzburg in Austria for two days to clear my head from the overload of responsibilities I had to arrange.
Dark clouds over Europe
But as the time for my trip was approaching, things across Europe had been dramatically changing. By March the 7th and my flight to Thessaloniki from Dublin, via Gatwick airport in the United Kingdom, Italy was on lockdown as the death toll from COVID-19 was rising. There was not for one moment an option for me to cancel my trip to Greece as the family matters were quite pressing, however, I was becoming really stressed about flying through so many borders so on my last day at work I had a discussion with my manager about all options available should I become stranded in Greece or elsewhere in Europe.
Just the previous week, Greece had its first corona virus case in my hometown of Thessaloniki but by the 7th of March, more cases had been reported. Ireland also had its first case by then and people started becoming worried. I got myself a few masks and boarded my flight and on my way to Greece, there was no obvious panic, especially in Dublin and Gatwick airports. Both countries had still to adopt any precautionary measures and things were quite normal. Only a handful of people wore face masks and all retail shops in those airports were open.
During my stay in Greece, it got to a point that I had to stop listening to the news. Apart from the stress on learning about my father’s condition and all the options we could be faced after his inevitable passing, each day I was bombarded by new cases and deaths soaring across Europe. One country after another – Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden and many more started announcing lockdowns. I then started to feel more anxious about my Austrian break as the possibility of me becoming stranded there was becoming more real as time went on.
On Friday the 13th my siblings and I, together with my partner, decided to rent a car and travel in nearby cities in Greece to get away from all the doom and gloom. But it was not to last. We had a great time together yet by the time we had to return home, I got two calls that interrupted the evening. People in Greece, although the government had placed partial lockdown and most cafes, restaurants and bars were closed, were still out and about for walks as the days were bright and the temperature at 20-21 degrees. The spirits were up and the mood positive. I soon had to deal the fact that I was flying to Salzburg on Sunday and in one of the two calls I received on Friday, the hotel I had booked my two nights accommodation informed me that it was closing down due to the outbreak. The Austrian government decided to proceed with a lockdown, so all hotels, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes were to be shut. In a second call, my manager informed me that things in Ireland turned for the worse, so he advised me to seek medical advice by my GP before I return to work. The thing was, I was returning in Ireland on the 17th of March which is the St. Patrick’s Day bank holiday. Thus, although the famous parade had long been cancelled, it was doubtful if I could find a doctor available.
At my sister’s home I started weighing my options. I thought to cancel my trip to Austria but as country after country was announcing lock down measures, I was equally afraid to risk it. Flights were being cancelled, aeroplanes grounded, and it was a real mess. Most alternatives were too pricey or not available on the dates I was seeking. So I took a leap of faith and maintained my schedule, however I still needed to find an alternative accommodation. Searching through various websites, very few hotels were still open and those who advertised rooms still could also cancel by Sunday. I decided to book a room-to-let in the centre of Salzburg and hope for the best.
On Saturday my head was buzzing, and my mind was troubled by all this. What upset me the most was the constant bad news, the increasing measures and death toll together with doomsday and frantic reporting and misreporting by the media. For example Austria had closed its borders with Italy and Switzerland but not to any other countries, yet in various media websites they listed the country as in a complete lockdown situation, something that was valid only for its region of Tirol, close to the Italian border. At least the weather in Greece was still great and people were going for walks in the promenade under the sunshine, despite the Greek government’s warnings. A risky behaviour, however, a much-needed walk under some good weather uplifted my spirits.
On Sunday I arrived at the airport and everything looked normal, however after passing through the security checks and a just before boarding, Turkish Airlines cancelled the flight to Istanbul, therefor my trip to Salzburg from there was doomed. I ended up having to reschedule anyway, but this time fast. What made the whole procedure more stressful, was the dubious rumours among other fellow travellers about the situation. Some claimed that this was a result of the weather, others of the tension between the Greek and Turkish governments, some were saying that Greece is going into a lockdown and all flights will be cancelled. Complete and utter chaos.
When I managed to speak to an airline representative, she managed to find me alternative flights with Aegean Airlines and Lufthansa via Frankfurt to Salzburg. I quickly accepted any offer, as I was panicking at that stage that I would be left in Greece in a lockdown and not be able to fly out of the country as of next day, as many travellers were speculating. That of course was another false rumour, as Greece proceeded with such measures only a week later. Meanwhile I enjoyed a business class trip from Thessaloniki to Frankfurt and I arrived late in Salzburg on the same day. Partially I was glad I was out of Greece, but really worried of the prospect being stuck in Austria.
I got to my room, yet as my hosts were observing the lockdown by letter, nobody was there to greet me or advise me. They left instructions of how to get access to the room, in a beautiful 600-year-old building in the historic centre, by text. I had paid for the room online, so technically they needed not be there. In fact, I never met them. They left maps of the city and books for their guests to read on a chest drawer, so that was most welcomed. The next morning, I awoke in a city in an absolute lockdown. Nothing was open apart from one tobacco and tourist gift shop, plus a few boulangeries, selling sandwiches, pastries, pies and bread rolls to go. The city felt deserted, although the weather was excellent. There were numerous patrols by the police, checking people and their business as they were driving by.
Not that there were many who braved to be walking in town. Few and mostly tourists like me, some older people walking their dogs or trying to get to a pharmacy with few younger professionals still out. People were avoiding each other almost with a look of guilt, fear, surprise or suspicion, keeping the government advice or “social distancing” at two meters. Queues outside the few pharmacies still open were also kept with as much distance from each other and the beautiful old city of Salzburg looked as if hit by a plague. So empty and quiet with all shops and major attractions such as the city’s castle, closed. Still amazing though, under the spring sun.
I had spent a full day walking through the old town, up and down the castle road, the river Salzach and beyond, while taking photographs but finding something to eat was a challenge. I had to find the few supermarkets that were open in the old town, carefully tucked away in old historic buildings, camouflaging themselves as if not to disturb the medieval baroque essence of Salzburg. Sandwiches and chocolates kept me going through the day, but by nightfall I was starving. I went out looking for food, but nothing was open at that time, not even a tobacco shop. Luckily, I observed some take away delivery guys on bicycles. I kept one of the brands in my mind and returned to my room to order online. Chinese dinner it was that night. The delivery man just left the package outside my door and rang my bell, not even waiting for me to come down and hand deliver it. He waited from a short distance to check if I had got my delivery, before he wished me good night while cycling away. The next day I woke up again, packed, had a shower and left my room at 9:30 in the morning. My flight was at two but I wished to walk about and take a few more pictures of this beautiful city as I was exploring the other side of the river. I also wanted to leave early for the airport, as I had no clue if there were still any taxis or buses to take me there or if in fact my flight would still happen.
Some locals at one of the shops I bought a few snacks warned me that as of tomorrow, Wednesday the 18th, Austria would go in complete lockdown, banning all flights from or to the country. I felt so lucky and positive at that stage. As if they were waiting for me to leave. Here I was the last day that the country kept its airports open, trying to find a way to leave. They also explained to me why the police were patrolling. From the previous day, Austria introduced a fine for everyone walking out in larger numbers unless they were family or living together. That would explain the suspicious looks and distance kept by locals, except for a few “servus” I got from a couple of polite, mumbling locals. At about 11:00 I managed to find a taxi waiting by the river. Without any hesitation I approached it and after asking the driver if he was free, I got in. He was an older man, slightly sick and he was coughing. I could not help it but becoming worried and the ride to the airport became a bit long; I just wanted to arrive at the airport as soon as possible.
Last flight to London
During this short trip though, as I kept my face towards the window to avoid any floating germs (yes, I got that paranoid after all this constant cautioning from the media), I really enjoyed the Salzburg suburbia and surrounding mountain views. I arrived at an empty airport that seem abandoned. After wiping my hands with disinfecting gel, I went straight to the security checks. I was too early and a few people were also waiting for the last flight out of that airport to London Gatwick.
Again, rumours were circulating among other travellers of the possibility of the flight being cancelled and all of us becoming stranded in Austria. This time, I chose not to listen. I had a positive vibe that all would go well. As the time passed, more travellers to London arrived and the flight was on-time. From there my trip to Dublin was swift and easy. London had still to put any precautions at its airports with all restaurants and shops still open, contrary to Salzburg that the only bar-restaurant and duty-free shop were closed. However, I still got a call from my partner, saying that Ireland introduced a 14-day quarantine for everyone arriving from anywhere outside the country, since Sunday. He had to self-isolate and that meant that so should I.
The confirmation came later by text by one of my colleagues and manager. I arrived in Dublin and saw a slightly different picture than that in Austria. Cafes and fast-food outlets, tourist shops and some hotels even were still open. They remained so until the end of the week, when the country tightened its COVID-19 response strategy. It remains to be seen if it was wise or they should have followed Austria and Greece sooner. So here I am, six days into quarantine, still healthy but home writing this article. I do not know what tomorrow will bring or how long this situation will last.
But if I had to take one lesson from all this experience, is not to panic, ever. Stay focused and deal with each situation. Do not watch the news often or read articles on social media platforms. Follow the guidelines, but not suspend your lives, stay active and healthy. Try not to listen to rumours circulating by others on social media or in your circles. No one has ever done this before; things change by the day and they may not be as bad as people make them to be. Stay informed, positive and aware and we will get through this.