Traveling to Spain During a Pandemic on the Day it Reopened

DISCLAIMER: This was back in June of 2021. The situation is ever-changing, especially now with the delta and omicron variants, so please defer to public health professionals and institutions for all information regarding travel. 

During lockdown, I, like everyone else, watched a lot of movies (shocking—I know). One movie piqued my interest about its setting so much that I decided a trip to this city would be necessary as soon as was feasible. The film that inspired me was Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, the second installment in his self-titled ‘A Whit Stillman trilogy’ about well-educated 20-somethings acclimating to adult life; it’s a witty, bourgeoise delight about a young American expat working in sales who deals with an unexpected visit from his cousin, a playboy on leave in the Navy. Their personalities couldn’t be further apart, and this polarization sets up a comical and intelligent dynamic. Though the story is as erudite as it is enjoyable, it was the setting that ultimately fascinated me. Stillman’s Barcelona had me deep diving into the history, culture, and politics of Antonio Gaudi’s Gothic, gaudy city (say it 5 times fast). Very quickly it became apparent to me that my next destination had been set in stone: I would take a trip to Barcelona. 

But we were in the midst of a global pandemic, and international travel had entirely desisted, so when? 

While others dreamed of diving into ball pits of toilet paper rolls, I fanaticized about wandering aimlessly through the Gothic quarter and eating my bodyweight times over in Jamón ibérico. Unfortunately, as we’re all too tragically aware of, in June of 2020, the prospects of travelling anywhere other than twelve feet to the fridge for your second beer (eighth *cough*) were grimmer than the prospect of the Detroit Lions winning a Super Bowl. So, buzzed and jamón-less, I bookmarked the idea, and focused on my other burgeoning quarantine passion, making crocheting Tik-Toks (kidding).

Fast forward a year and I’d foolishly bought a non-refundable ticket after hearing vague murmurs of an opening date for Spain (for fully vaccinated, non-EU tourists) in June. I arbitrarily selected a cheap redeye from the 6th to the 7th of June, thinking the opening date would logically be the 1st

Turns out that was a terrible assumption.

Apparently, it was still up in the air when exactly they would reopen for non-EU tourists, and that was dependent on myriad factors due to COVID cases, etcetera. For weeks I followed any news about Spain opening each day, constantly refreshing the Google news search feed. Finally, I got an answer: June 7th. Upon hearing this date, I was filled with nauseating excitement. What were the chances of me having gambled and won like that?! 

Alas, my euphoria was short-lived, as I realized that since I would be departing on the 6th and arriving on the 7th, this only made things more complicated, and only beget more questions. How would I prove my vaccination status? What documents would I need to show? Would I even be able to board the plane since the time of boarding would still fall on June 6th? (Even though at the time of boarding it would have been just past midnight in Spain.) The process had become so stressful that I began to wonder if it was even worth going. In the nights preceding, I woke up from nightmares of being rejected at the gate. The other Spanish passengers trying to return home to Spain for some doubtlessly noble reason would throw moldy airport fruit and overpriced sandwiches at me as I would flee to my Uber to retreat to my apartment in Brooklyn. Luckily, I didn’t allow myself to dwell on potential negative outcomes for too long; I found that taking action, by being as prepared as I could be, assuaged most of my anxiety about travelling. 

And so, I prepared. 

Pandemic Trip Preparation

I wish I were talking about packing. But no, packing was the cherry on top (I’m on of those freaks that actually enjoy packing; I’m quite good at it) of the sundae of things that I had to find out and then execute. However, thanks to some search-engine navigation resourcefulness on my part, multiple calls to the Delta helpline, and mostly/pretty much entirely a lot of help from a Barcelona tour guide, Patrick Reyes (Patrick Barcelona Guide on YouTube; he’s the best), I figured that I ONLY needed to fill out an online Spanish Tourism health form, bring the flimsy paper vaccination card I was given at the vaccination site, and proof of a negative PCR test 72 hours before boarding. While these requirements were a bit of a logistical nightmare, and demanded a lot of coordinating, I felt prepared heading into JFK on June 6th.

At JFK Airport

After a calm Uber ride to JFK, I was immediately greeted with waves and waves of people waiting in lines to check in that seemingly spanned the length of multiple football fields. Normally, I would have just checked-in on my phone, but because it was international travel during a pandemic, I had to do it in person. The line moved quickly and when it was my turn to check-in, the agent told me that non-EU tourists weren’t allowed in until the 30th of June, which was partially true. The EU had recommended that non-EU tourism could return by then, but it was up to the individual nation states to decide who to allow in. Spain was opening that day. 

So, I informed him rather aggressively (fearing any unassertiveness would cut my journey dramatically short), and he double checked, and sure enough I was right. He asked for my passport, negative PCR test result, and vaccination card. I took my ticket to security, which was a similar experience to how security has always been: soul sucking. 

After buying a sandwich and bottle of water for $1000, I sat down at my gate and listened to Yung Thug – indispensable on any epic journey. Thirty minutes before boarding, we had yet another documents check, where we had to show our vaccination cards, negative PCR tests, passports, and tickets. Shortly after that second pass on the documents we began boarding, which passed quickly enough. On the plane there were many empty seats, whole aisles were open, and the stewards and stewardesses were as lenient as I’ve ever seen. They let people sprawl out across seats, switch assigned seats, and remain unbuckled if they wished. I didn’t have people within five seats of me in every direction. The one thing they were strict on, regardless of the entirety of the flight being vaccinated, was the mask wearing policy, which was understandable. It was a pretty seamless flight, and I enjoyed Don’t Walk, Run, a Cary Grant movie and listening to my audiobook of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As always with flying, I couldn’t sleep, despite trying multiple times in vain. 

It didn’t matter, though, because when we first flew over the Iberian Peninsula, and I looked down at the Spanish earth and the stark slopes of the foothills of Galicia, as cliché and grotesque as it sounds, my heart beat quickly with the excitement of adventure. I thought of good cava and Spanish kindness and the dankest Jamón.

Arrival in BCN 

Airport customs was a breeze, requiring for the thousandth time the vaccine card and negative PCR test. Luckily, since the flight arrived early, it didn’t take much time to get around the airport. The only thing different about my airport experience here was the COVID health checkpoint, where, for the last time (thank God), we were to show our proof of vaccination. Once through the checkpoint, I grabbed my suitcase, exchanged some currency, and got in a cab for Fort Pienc, where my airBnB host awaited me in front of the 1990’s apartment complex. 

Experiencing Barcelona as a Tourist during the COVID Pandemic

The café culture in Barcelona is unreal. Abuela’s gossiped as they sipped on beers or espressos, old men read actual, physical newspapers, and young people in extravagant suits typed away on their laptops. The heat was sweltering, and I was covered in a layer of sweat not five minutes after a cold shower (of which I took many). Masks were required, vaccinated or not, although not many people were vaccinated at that point—as of early June, Spain was still only vaccinating those fifty and older. Not to be grossly patriotic, but it was valuable perspective illuminating for me the privilege of being American in a global crisis. If you were eating out, or getting a drink, you were allowed to leave the mask off, obviously, but other than the mask requirement, and hours not being as late, Barcelona was largely what I imagined it would be like, sans pandemic. 

Most everything was open, including the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, and neither were very crowded due to tourism being limited to a few EU countries, and just recently some non-EU countries.  This meant most of my trip included hearing almost no English, a total cultural immersion I greatly enjoyed. 

I had a wonderful time travelling to Barcelona and, even though it was difficult, just as good of a time planning and preparing for it. I met and broke bread with thoughtful and intelligent people, felt baptized after my first dip in the Mediterranean, and wandered for hours around the labyrinthine Gothic Quarter. Travelling always opens my mind and leaves me inspired by possibility and curiosity, and my trip to Barcelona was no different. 

Can’t wait for the next one.

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