So how close did we come to missing our transatlantic flight? We knew returning to Spain under pandemic conditions wouldn’t be easy. But of all the things I’d fretted about, I’d never anticipated a tardy Uber driver on the journey’s very first leg (which was so short it was more of a toe, really).
All Rich and I needed was a lift to the Airporter bus seven minutes away. We booked Uber in advance, confirmed, and re-confirmed. Standing on the sidewalk with our suitcases watching the minutes tick by — five … ten … fifteen … twenty … twenty-five — we began to wonder whether it would be faster to call a taxi, steal a car, or hitchhike.
Eventually the driver showed up, and when we explained the urgency of the mission, she put the pedal to the metal, achieving speeds of 80 miles an hour. Rich and I clung to one another, hoping we wouldn’t spend the rest of the trip dead. We made the Airporter with moments to spare, arrived at SFO’s international terminal on schedule (whew!), and rushed in toting sheaves of transit documents.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Covid-19 has complicated international travel paperwork enormously. And that went double for us, as the lack of direct flights between SFO and Spain meant a London stopover that added many hours, gallons of coffee, and handfuls of aspirin to the research and preparations.
We soon discovered the UK is very, very fussy about this stuff. Like many countries, it requires a Covid test within 72 hours of the flight. But not just any old Covid test. According to the official website, “The test must meet performance standards of ≥97% specificity, ≥80% sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml. This could include tests such as a nucleic acid test, including a PCR test, a LAMP test, or an antigen test, such as an LFD (lateral flow device) test.” Pretending we knew what any of that meant, we contacted various clinics in an effort to secure the right tests at the right time and, if possible, for the right price. Fees went as high as $300 per person, but luckily our friend John tipped us off to a free pop-up test center in San Francisco, with results sent to your phone in just half an hour. Thanks for that one, John!
A comment on my blog gave us a heads-up about the UK’s other monster requirement. My friend Jackie (author of the lively blog TravelnWrite) said, “Good luck! We just returned to the States via London. In addition to that test, make sure you have filled out your PLF, passenger locator form. It is required even for the shortest of layovers — ours was two hours long and it took nearly that long to fill out the four-page form.”
I thought she was exaggerating — you know how we bloggers love a bit of drama — but if anything she was understating the case. Working online in the comfort of our dining room/transportation planning hub, Rich and I spent ages filling in our passport numbers, Covid history, travel details up to and including seat numbers on every flight, phone numbers, and more. What, no eye exam or letter from a priest?
For Spain, we needed a Documental Control QR code attesting to our vaccination status. This could only be completed 48 hours before our flight, at which time they would let us know about any additional entry requirements. I spent weeks fretting about what they might want — an essay in Spanish about why I wanted to go to Seville? An oath of loyalty? A whopping service fee? But in the end, they mostly wanted to know if we were vaxxed. ¡Sí, totalmente!
All the hours we put into the legwork and paperwork paid off. We breezed through check-in at SFO, producing document after document, including printouts of our Spanish QR codes, and in return we received boarding passes for both flights. We were on our way!
The late afternoon plane was about half full, and we expected to sleep much of the next ten and a half hours. Then a woman sat down nearby with an infant who had a set of lungs like Pavarotti and the staying power of an Olympic athlete. Hearing about it afterward, my friend Bob said, “Sorry you had to listen to the screaming baby. It conjures the old aphorism: ‘The plane to Spain can make one go insane!’" Amen to that, Bob.
Except for the baby, everyone was scrupulous about face masks — so scrupulous, in fact, that during the safety demonstration, the flight attended had to tell people, “Remove your face mask before you put on the oxygen mask.” Good advice, people!
Rich and I happen to loathe Heathrow’s insistent, jazzy marketing and endless crowds, so on arrival we splurged on a pay-to-use lounge called Club Aspire, which is open to anyone. Or at least, anyone who is willing to cough up $33 for the luxury of sitting on comfortable furniture in a quiet room, enjoying free coffee, scones, and clotted cream while plugging in a laptop and maybe dozing off now and then.
Five hours later, we boarded the plane to Málaga, Spain, the closest we could get to Seville from Heathrow. To make us feel at home, they’d seated us near another screaming baby, but by now, who cared? A few noisy hours later we stumbled off the flight, zipped through customs, checked into our hotel, and found a small backstreet tapas bar. As we sipped ice-cold Cruzcampo beer and nibbled thin slivers of jamon Iberico (the best Spanish ham), we kept exclaiming, “We’re back! We’re really here! We’re in Spain!” Much as I love my native California, and appreciated the safe haven it provided during the worst of the pandemic, I was thrilled to fall into the warm embrace of Andalucía’s vibrant street culture once again.
It was even more exciting the next day when we stepped off the train in Seville and walked back to our apartment. To my astonishment, surprisingly little seemed to have changed. Roaming the city over the next few days, I saw some stores, cafés, and restaurants had closed while others had opened — in fact, I noticed just about as many changes as I’d have expected after any absence of 16 months.
There’s more outside dining now, although many choose indoor seating. People are very matter-of-fact about wearing masks inside stores and other public places, donning them with no more fuss than pulling on a sweater when it turns cool or buckling a seatbelt getting into a car. With nearly 80% of the population fully vaxxed, herd immunity is a fact of life, and as my friend Charles put it, “People have moved on.”
And so have we. Rich and I are just about over our jet lag and are busy reconnecting with friends to find out what’s been happening while we were away. More on that in future posts. For now, we’re just rejoicing at being back in our beloved Seville.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and what keeps attracting visitors to this vibrant community.
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9/29/2021 08:11:17 am
Thanks, Shéa. It is restful and rather wonderful to feel protected by herd immunity and able to move on to other things. Like exploring Seville to see how it's been reshaped while I was away. Lots more to come on that soon!
9/28/2021 07:15:56 pm
Hola!! So happy for you!!! Looking forward to each of your future posts!!
9/29/2021 08:12:26 am
¡Gracias, Susan! It's such a relief to have that journey behind us, and I'm looking forward to rediscovering Seville in all its nutty glory.
9/28/2021 07:30:15 pm
So happy you made it and are settling back in! Have way too much fun
9/29/2021 08:15:14 am
Thanks so much, Kathe. Yes, we're settling in; for some reason the jet lag was the worst ever, but we are finally adapted to the change and doing our best to have way, way too much fun. This week includes house guests and my birthday, so we're feeling especially celebratory!
9/28/2021 08:03:59 pm
Ahhhh you’re well and truly back in Espana 🇪🇸
9/29/2021 08:19:18 am
Yep, I'm still crazy about this amazing city. Of course, I'm sad to discover a few favorite places have closed, people aren't ready to kiss on both cheeks yet, and bare midriff fashion is back (although not for me!!). But it is still one of the most magical cities I've ever seen, and endlessly entertaining.
9/28/2021 09:46:14 pm
Much as I miss having you close by, it makes me happy to think of you and Rich back in Sevilla. I love the pictures!
9/29/2021 08:29:03 am
Thanks, Kate! I miss you and all our West Coast family and friends so much. But it is wonderful to be here. I had good fun taking pictures along the way. Don't you love Rich in his double mask? And the Superskunk store? (Where else can you go to buy bigger and better skunks?) And to top it off, our friend Donna really captured our relief and happiness in that shot of us on the church steps. So glad the return journey is in the rear view mirror!
9/28/2021 10:41:53 pm
Wonderful to hear you are back at home enjoying yourselves. We just booked a hiking trip in Portugal mid-October. The flight is nonstop but I do worry about the need of the negative Covid test within 72 hours of leaving. Which place in SF did you use? The more I know about the better. And Happy Birthday a few hours early.
9/29/2021 08:35:23 am
Thanks for your kind birthday wishes, Kitty!
9/28/2021 11:21:59 pm
So happy you’ll made it back safely. Enjoyed the photos of your fav hangouts . What strikes me is that you refer to “side street dives” as some of your fav places. I would never think of going to such places here...at least not in my part of the country....interesting!
9/29/2021 08:41:58 am
You're so right, Faye, that there are plenty of dives that cross the line between colorful and downright dubious, especially in larger cities. Luckily here in Seville there's a lively tradition of funky little local bars, often family-owned with grandma cooking in the back, so we feel comfortable trying new places that are a bit offbeat. In fact, I'm dedicating myself to checking out Seville's food and drink scene, so I can report it to my readers. More on that to come!
9/29/2021 12:17:57 am
We're just excited as you are when we return to Italy and our apartment. Just hearing the language is enough to soothe our souls. So happy you made it back safe and sound!
9/29/2021 08:44:44 am
So true, Nancy! When I heard Spanish spoken on the plane out of England to Málaga, I was delighted, and now that I'm surrounded by it, even happier. I know you are drawn to Italy in much the same way and I hope you get back there soon!
9/29/2021 08:46:55 am
Thanks, Ken! We were lucky that our house guest, Donna, is a great photographer and knew how to capture our feeling of WHEW! Rich and I are so glad that journey is behind us and delighted to be back in our favorite city.
Denise San Antonio Zeman
9/29/2021 03:07:16 pm
So happy to read that you're back, safe, and healthy! Dorothy kept me posted, but it's great to see the two of you back in Seville!
9/29/2021 06:20:52 pm
Thanks, Denise! We're delighted to be back and I am still pinching myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.
9/29/2021 03:55:27 pm
I am so happy for you. I miss going to Spain and Portugal. I see that your favorite tapas bar is Los Caveles. The is our favorite too. The first time we went to Sevilla we stayed practically next door at an apartment that looked over the roof of the Santa Catarina church and also the bus stop/station in the back. We went to Los Claveles many times over the 2 weeks we were there, On each of our future trips to Sevilla we were sure to stop by at least once or twice during our visits.
9/29/2021 06:25:47 pm
Lucky you to stay so close to Los Claveles, Dave. My Spanish teacher first took me there, explaining it was "Sevilla profunda," the real Seville. To be fair, the food isn't extraordinary, but I just love sitting there soaking up the atmosphere. For people watching it's the best in the city, a never-ending parade of characters foreign and domestic. I see why you keep going back, as I do!
9/29/2021 07:59:32 pm
We (me, 58 y.o American, she is 54 y.o. Polish-American) heading to Spain in December for latest retirement reconnaissance trip. Heard your episode on our friend Gil and Gene's podcast. Will be making a stop in Seville on our way from Valencia to Malaga as a result. Just ordered your "Dancing in the Fountain" book. Enjoying reading your blog, especially episode about my wife's hometown, Krakow. Keep up the good work!
9/30/2021 07:02:35 pm
So glad you're considering Seville, William. It's my favorite city in the world. Someone called "Dancing in the Fountain" a love letter to Seville and its quirky people, and nearly ten years later, coming back after a long absence, I'm even more enchanted. A lot has changed, of course; cities never stand still. I'll be writing about those changes and suggesting places to go for the best food, classic old-school atmosphere, and good times. So watch the blog for updates! And say hi to Gil and Gene for me; I love their interviewing style. We had fun together.
9/30/2021 07:04:14 pm
So true about the tiny bars and restaurants, Rey! In fact, so many have opened and closed since I left in early 2020 that I'll be devoting the rest of 2021 to checking out the city's best places to eat and drink so I can report on them to my readers. I know, tough work but somebody's got to do it!
9/30/2021 05:56:53 am
Yaaaay, congrats!!! I'm green with envy, but hoping to follow soon in your footsteps!
9/30/2021 07:07:28 pm
The double beso (kissing on both cheeks) has been suspended for the duration, Elizabeth. My neighbors offer elbow bumps, very close friends will ask permission to hug, and occasional kisses are offered when parting after too much wine has been consumed. But for the most part, the double beso is on hold, at least for now. Like you, I find it a charming tradition and really miss it, but given the risks, it seems a sensible precaution.
9/30/2021 08:19:51 am
Thank you so much for this encouraging post. We have been longing for our nest near Nerja, Málaga, but terrified at the prospect of traveling there, even though we are twice vaxxed (but still awaiting the Q code from the Panamanian Ministerio de Salud). I'm much obliged to hear that Andalucians are not mask-phobic!
9/30/2021 07:14:47 pm
The paperwork is ghastly, of course, but once you fight your way through that, the actual journey isn't too bad (depending on the number of crying babies). And people here are very compliant with mask mandates when indoors and often wear masks out on the streets as well. People take the pandemic seriously, but with nearly 80% vaccination rates and herd immunity being achieved, a lot of the fear and stress has gone out of it. Which totally works for me. Good luck with the Panamanian Ministerio de Salud, Alicia, and I look forward to the day you can return to your nest in Nerja!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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