Three cancelled trips later, along with the painful realisation that COVID-19 is here to stay, I (like many others who are privileged enough to even be able to travel during these times) had to rethink the idea of travel for the near to distant future. Out the window with visiting Turkey with my mom, Spain with my best friend or Madeira with my boyfriend, and hello continental Portugal with all it has to offer. And so, after quite a bit of research, this summer´s first trip turned out to be a girls´ trip to Évora, an ancient city about 1,5h from Lisbon. This post is not an ode to Évora though, but a chronicle of how travelling felt like to me during a pandemic.
First thing´s first – choosing a destination. This was much more time consuming due to the global situation as we had to take a bunch of factors into consideration. Were our options going to be too popular and as such overcrowded? Would we dare to stay at an Airbnb or would we feel safer at a hotel? Would whatever place we´d choose have the necessary safety measures in place to keep us safe? Would we go by public transportation or better by car? We ended up opting for Évora as a destination as we felt the inner side of the country would be more desert than the coast line. We went for a hotel we saw had plenty of safety measures in place (closed spa area, closed inside pools etc) and we chose to go by car and as such minimise our close contact with other people.
As we were about to walk into the hotel, I stopped and put on my mask – the new normal. The girls did the same and upon entering the lobby we quickly realised everyone was wearing one too. Masks were mandatory in the public (inside) spaces of the hotel. We would only be taking them out in our rooms, by the pool or when we were eating breakfast. And speaking of breakfast, oh, how breakfast has changed. The concept of buffet had had a dramatic shift, as one can no longer hand-pick one´s own food. The buffet in itself is still there, but waiters will be serving you with whatever you choose (from food to drinks). You basically choose the food and they place it on a plate that they hand over to you. And since the space and number of waiters is limited, hotels have now introduced breakfast slots. Upon checking in, you basically choose a 45 min slot (we chose 8-8:45) of when you intend to get breakfast so that the hotel can control the occupancy rate of the breakfast area and labour of the waiters. We, just like the waiters, had to wear masks while asking and receiving the food. We opted to eat outside, where the tables were about 1,5m away from each other and felt more relaxed to eat that way, but the whole thing seemed quite eerie to begin with.
Next we hopped over to the pool. As soon as we stepped outside we could remove our masks and choose some sun-beds to spend the rest of the day on. As soon as a sun-bed became free, the hotel staff would rush over with little tanks on their back and disinfect the beds through a sprinkler system. The bar was not open and as such we had to order from the inside restaurant and be served in plastic cups. The pool, however, was probably much emptier than it would be in non-pandemic times so that was great! Other than these details, while we were at the pool we would often forget for a couple of hours that a pandemic was out there. I doubt we could have done that if we would have been on the beach so I definitely think that was a good decision to choose such a resort. Some hotels we were considering would restrict their pool occupancy dramatically, but that was not the case with ours and while it was fine, I do think some limitations should have been in place in terms of number of guests allowed to use it at once.
Once we got to our hotel rooms, we didn´t see any special limitations in place so while we were there, it all felt like business as usual. On our second evening there we chose to go to a wine tasting organised by the hotel. We had to book it in advance as the maximum number of people who could attend was eight, and it was held by the pool. I imagine under normal circumstances this might be held inside and the attendee limit would be higher. But being in such a small group definitely felt special and as such we had a fantastic time. We spent the rest of the evening just us by the pool where we brought our own drinks and might have overdone it slightly, as such spending much of the next day getting over our hangover in bed, watching chick flicks.
We also dedicated about half a day visiting Évora, grossly underestimating the heat that the Alentejo sun would hit us with. The temperature was close to 40 degrees and so every time we´d walk into a close space and had to put on the masks it felt quite claustrophobic. Despite this, we visited the cathedral and went up the tower and into the monastery. We saw a maximum of eight other visitors while we were there and I am pretty sure under normal non-COVID19 circumstances this number would have been higher. We also visited the bone chapel where they were now limiting the entry to 10 people at a time. Signs asking you to maintain a 2m safety distance, disinfect your hands and wear a mask were everywhere. So were sanitisers, but we brought our own and would use them frequently. We went through one store to do some shopping (ironically we mostly bought soap) and there too was a limit of 5 people in the store. Lunch at a restaurant in the open air was also rather normal except for the waiter´s mask and the Alentejano gazpacho, which is the weirdest and most interesting thing ever. A cold soup with chopped (not blended!) tomato, peppers and garlic, served with sardines. These people sure know how to surprise you!
As we returned to Lisbon after four days of soaking in the sun and having too much sangria, we were happy to find super fluid traffic and realise there´s still so much of this country to see. I think this year I´ll hang around here, travelling at a minimum, staying conscious of the dangers of getting and spreading this disease and enjoying my home more than ever.