Travel in the age of Covid-19: Seville
There's a reason why few people come to Seville in the summer. I certainly haven't, up till now. For one thing, it's hot. And I mean, properly hot, not "OMG it's 30 degrees! where is my factor 50 sunscreen?" kind of hot. Imagine a 40-degree furnace instead, with the air deathly still and the afternoon heat bouncing off the stone walls in the medieval quarter of Santa Cruz, and you get the picture.
If you happened to have been in Seville on June 23rd, you might've seen me picking my way along the bank of the Guadalquivir River...
...past the Torre de Oro...
...past the La Maestranza bull ring...
...while muttering "only mad dogs and Englishmen", over and over to myself, like a mantra. I don't particularly care for the heat. I'll endure it if I must (and have done so on occasion, while travelling for work). Forty-seven degrees in New Delhi and 45 degrees in Aktobe, Kazakhstan spring to mind. But it boggles my mind that some people would actively choose these conditions for a pleasure trip, with the sun literally baking their bared limbs as they walk around, or flip over beside the hotel pool every 15 minutes, like rotisserie chickens on the barbecue.
Not counting the odd trip to Malaga Airport to switch my rental cars, this is my first proper outing since lockdown began in March, and I'm filled with apprehension. It's part of an assignment for an American website dedicated to luxury and boutique hotels, and the plan is to get in and out quickly, staying overnight, but otherwise exposing myself to risk as little as possible. Also, I'm curious to see what measures hotels and other reopening businesses are taking to keep customers safe.
I'm staying at the EME Catedral Hotel, which has kindly offered to put me up. It's as central as can be, overlooking the cathedral and La Giralda bell tower (which is either a bane or a boon for light sleepers in the mornings, depending on whether or not they love the sound of church bells).
The receptionist is wearing a mask. Mask wearing is compulsory inside the hotel. As we talk, we both keep readjusting our masks, as his slips down his beard and mine slides up into my eyes.
There are bottles of hand sanitiser dotted all over the hotel, and there's a limit of three people in the elevator, which seems a bit pointless to me, since it's impossible to socially distance inside it, and droplets from an infected person may hang around for a while after they've left. I take the stairs as much as possible.
My room is wonderful. After a couple of decades of backpacking and bad mattresses, I've come to really appreciate a good orthopaedic mattress.
I'm particularly thrilled about the deep bathtub in which I intend to soak my grotty feet, ravaged by months of hiking in hiking sandals (my flat doesn't have a bathtub).
In the bathroom there's a sanitary kit, containing gloves, mask and hand sanitiser.
It's useful, but as I check out other hotels and observe people interacting at the reopened restaurants and in the streets, I'm not convinced that it's even remotely sufficient to prevent the coming resurgence of contagion.
Take mask-wearing, for instance, which is compulsory in Spain in indoor spaces and also anywhere outside where it's not possible to maintain a distance of 2m from other people.
It's been established that if everyone or the vast majority wear masks, the level of contagion drops, because masks catch at least some of the germs that you're breathing out, and having a barrier between your face and other people is always better than nothing. Except that masks must be worn correctly, or they're pointless.
Half of my face is sweating profusely in its own little sauna, which adds its own element of discomfort to the relentless heat, and it's tempting to remove the mask when there's no one nearby and let the sweat dry off. Which would then mean that any germs and dust floating around in the air will then adhere itself to the damp inside of my mask and I'd be breathing it all in when I put it back on.
I'd say that about 85% of people on the street in Seville are wearing masks. However, many are wearing them 'creatively':
on their chins
covering their mouth but not nose
on their wrists, ready to be put on if they have to enter a shop
on their upper arms, like some sort of bizarre epaulette
Furthermore, Spanish people arbitrarily remove their masks for the following reasons:
to chat to a friend walking next to them
to have a fag
to talk on their mobile
I'm guilty of the last one. I took a risk, went into a tapas bar at the very beginning of service, when there was no one else there, and are some pork cheek carrillada (slow-cooked in a port wine reduction).
I'm a good cook and enjoy cooking for myself, but this pork cheek - the first thing I've eaten for months that's been cooked by someone else - is one of the best things I've ever tasted.
Servers were wearing masks and I sat near the open door, but whether or not I've exposed myself to contagion depends on whether any infected people have been inside the bar and left their signature in the form of contagion droplets.
Wearing masks can lull you into a false sense of security, and it's important to remember that while it reduces the risk of contagion, it doesn't prevent it - something I was acutely aware of every time I briefly ventured into an indoor space (like an Asian grocery shop, to pick up ingredients hard to obtain near where I live, or the Mercado de la Encanacion beneath the Setas de Sevilla...
...or just walking down the more crowded streets. I've accepted that it's likely that I've exposed myself to some contagion, and my one hope is that it's not enough to make me ill, or that the severity of the illness will be proportional to the exposure. Otherwise, I'm doomed.
During my perambulations, I discover some wonderful new things, like this hole-in-the-wall speciality coffee shop...
...whose one-man show owner was happy to discuss his wares (I was excited to come across coffee from India; I hadn't realised that India grew coffee).
And some less-than-wonderful things, such as the outdoor restaurant terraces set up with sprinkler systems...
...that spray their diners with a fine, cooling mist. Which is fine during scorching Andalusian summers under normal circumstances, but not fine during a pandemic, when droplets of contagion, exhaled by infected people, may catch a merry ride on this spray of water droplets and be transmitted to everyone in the near vicinity.
There are some unexpected pleasures to be had, even with the threat of deadly illness hanging over my head. Wandering the narrow streets...
...of Barrio Santa Cruz, with no one else about, is a real joy.
I'm less overjoyed when I get back to my room in the evening. Something's wrong. The lights are on, even though I never leave them on. The shades are drawn. Someone's been in my room. I then realise that well-meaning hotel staff must've performed a turn-down service, which is a nice gesture during normal times, but that's exactly the point. These are not normal times. I don't understand how it doesn't occur to them that during a pandemic, it's not a good idea to have strangers enter your room and potentially spread contagion, especially if they then go room to room. At the very least, guests should be asked whether or not they can manage turning down their own bed. I don't like turndown service at best of times, because I don't like people coming into my room and observing the tornado my belongings, liberally strewn about the place. During a pandemic, turndown service frightens me.
I fling open my floor-to-ceiling window and do my best to air the place out while admiring La Giralda.
And in the morning, I enjoy some tranquility on the hotel roof while doing laps of the small outdoor pool...
...while swallows dart overhead. 7am is the nicest time to enjoy Seville in summer.
To sum up, efforts are being made to keep customers safe, but they are not sufficient and common sense often seems to be lacking. And, as the restaurant sprinklers and crowded tables demonstrate, Spain is making an attempt to return to normal life, and it's just not possible. So I expect to see a rise in contagion in the coming weeks and a new lockdown.
My throat feels scratchy. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go and fret about the possibility of becoming a succubus of viral plague.