Part One: AROUND THE WORLD IN 50 DAYS, Or My Trip into the Heart of Covid-19

Spain and Italy

The idea to travel around the world in six weeks dawned on me two years ago on a safari in Namibia. American tourists in faraway countries love to talk (brag) about all the exotic places they’ve visited.
And so, one foggy afternoon on the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, I mentioned to a safari mate how much I disliked China. It’s the one country out of the 80-plus I’ve visited that I’d recommend to no one. Why? I saw there how the Chinese had colonized Tibet, making it impossible for those people ever to take back their country. On a more personal level, I’d become very sick on a luxury cruise down the Yangtze River, which is a toilet. And even worse, I developed a chronic cough breathing the bad air of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and other cities in China. Ten years later, I continue to battle remnants of that hacking cough.

Which is why I never wanted to travel to India. Too many of my friends had gotten sick there.

“Oh, don’t worry about India,” my Namibian safari mate told me. “All you have to do is travel on Palace on Wheels. They’ll take care of you in India so you don’t get sick.”

A dining car on the Palace on Wheels train which has a capacity of 104 passengers.

So, I booked an eight-day train ride on Palace on Wheels through Rajasthan, the northern state of India. From there, I extrapolated eastward in my around-the-world plans to include visits to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Japan and South Korea. Also, I didn’t want to endure the 13-hour flight from New York City to New Delhi, and decided to break it up with a couple of weeks in Spain and Italy.

Before leaving, I stocked up on face masks and Wet Ones antibacterial wipes. Little did I know at the beginning of my trip that those items would be more needed in Japan and South Korea than India.
Here are a few of the highlights from that 50-day trip that began on the evening of December 14, 2019, and ended on February 1, 2020. It’s the day I left Seoul, South Korea, with the Coronavirus nipping at my heels.

Days 1 & 2: I see that Sonya Yoncheva and Javier Camarena are scheduled to perform the Bellini rarity “Il Pirata” at the Teatro Real. So hello, Madrid! The great Mexican tenor will sing “Il Pirata” at the Met next spring. From what I hear and see in Madrid, he’s not to be missed when he reprises the tenor role in New York. Yoncheva also impresses in Madrid, although Diana Damrau takes over for her in New York.

Day 3: I’d never been to Segovia, Spain, and since it’s only a 45-minute train ride from Madrid, I put this Castilian town on my itinerary. Segovia is so proud of its Roman aqueduct that they’ve made it the city’s coat of arms. I’ve never seen a more awesome way to transport water anywhere in the world: Seventy-seven single arches and 44 double arches remain of this granite-block aqueduct, which dates back to 112 AD. Especially impressive is how the aqueduct cuts across the town’s major plaza, connecting one hill to another.

Segovia’s other big attraction is the medieval Alcazar. The fortress-castle rises above a rocky crag like the bow of a ship, and is said to be the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland. Odd, I always thought King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria had to carry that dubious burden.

Days 4 & 5: Amsterdam and Rome are the only two West European cities to have direct flights to New Delhi. I pick Rome.  First want to see a few Italian cities I’d visited years ago but only for a quick lunch.

First up is Bologna. The capital of Emilia-Romagna gets hit with a two-day downpour when I’m there. No problem. Thanks to the city’s lengthy porticos, I rarely have to break out my umbrella. Venice has its canals, Verona its balconies, Bologna its colonnades. It’s also home to the University of Bologna, the oldest in the world. Young students dominate every piazza, coffee house, museum. The university includes the Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio, with its reconstructed operating room, or theatre, from the 17th Century. I’d never heard of the Archiginnasio, but that’s the thing I love about Bologna. It’s a great walking city, and strolling through one of its many colonnades, you can’t help but stumble across some magnificent place you never knew existed.

Bologna’s colonnades

As with so many Italian cities, a tragedy is the number of young African men stranded there, begging for money and food. In Bologna, they make a stark contrast with all the smiling, happy university students who are their age.

I stay at the Hotel Corona D’Oro on the very narrow Via Oberdan, the major artery running through the city’s erstwhile Jewish ghetto. Invariably, these Hebraic parts of town, symbols of horrific discrimination in the past, now offer the most old-world charm. Via Oberdan is near the gorgeous Teatro Comunale di Bologna, where I take in a performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci,” not my favorite operas. But I want to see the opera house. After hearing so many provincial Italian tenors on my last trip to Europe, it’s nice to report that Angelo Villari, performing the lead in both operas, proves to be a real surprise. He’s no youngster, having started late as a professional singer. Regardless, the Met Opera needs him for those difficult-to-cast dramatic and spinto roles Turridu and Canio.

Piazza del Campo in Sienna

Days 6 & 7. I could spend all day in an outdoor café on the Piazza del Campo, the principal public space in the medieval center of Siena, Italy. I’d forgotten how concave the piazza is. Thankfully, unlike my previous visit at the height of the tourist season in 1983, I’m here now in the dead of winter with few tourists and not a single horse. The horse-race Palio de Siena takes place on the piazza twice a year.

The town offers the best tour ever of a medieval cathedral, because the Duomo di Siena allows access to its roof and those large cubby holes directly under it. I have some impression how Charles Laughton felt filming “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I can reach out to touch some of the stone angels and gargoyles. But don’t.

Day 8. I didn’t want to book my train tickets ahead of time, but that laissez-faire approach to travel creates a big problem getting from Siena to Naples. The three-hour express trains are all sold out, so I’m stuck spending 12 hours instead on local trains. Bummer.

  • Robert Hofler is the author of "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson" and other books. He is also the lead theater critic for TheWrap.

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