My wife works in the travel industry. She is organised. She makes lists and timetables and she keeps to them. She anticipates everything that can go wrong and she makes sure she can avoid or fix each one. She plans our holidays.
I do not work in the travel industry. I lose lists and ignore timetables. I see no need to review my plans and am constantly surprised when something goes wrong. I have never planned any of our trips except one. If you can see where this is going, raise your hand now.
It was 1998. My wife was finishing an extended stay with her cousin in Germany. She called me to say she was missing me:
“Why don’t you come over? We could go to Italy together. You’ve always wanted to do that haven’t you? I just want to see you again. I miss you… Oh, and by the way, bring lots of money. I’ve run out.”
No problem, I thought, and booked the lot from Enzed. We flew down to Rome, which in September is scorching hot and eerily devoid of Romans. My wife found out what the word “Saldi” meant within about five seconds of arriving. Fortunately I had brought lots of money.
We stayed a block and a half from the Termini train station. This worked out well as Old Rome, i.e. the bits that don't look like every other city, is well served by the MetroRoma underground. In our case it got us to the Spanish Steps and that became the starting point for an easy Sunday ramble that took us past the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon and the Campo De Fiori to the river, and from there to the Circus Maximus and finally to the Baths of Caracalla. We could have knocked at least an hour off the walk if my Darling Beloved hadn’t stopped, salivating, at every shop window we came across. Thank God it was Sunday, and they were all closed.
Oh, and a note for other tourists: the baths of Caracalla aren’t actually baths. And you will look like a… fool… carrying swimming trunks through the turnstiles.
A-anyway, after Rome we caught the train to Florence and hired a car to see if this whole "Tuscany" thing lived up to its reputation. It did. So did the Italian driving. “Did you even see that scooter? You know the insurance won’t cover you if you kill him, don’t you? They drive on the right over here, Pat!”
We marvelled at the towers in San Gimignano, at the beaches at Viareggio and at the sunflowers everywhere else. We toured the Duomo, took rude photographs of Michaelangelo’s David and ate ice cream in the evening on the Ponte Vecchio. My wife discovered just how seriously shopkeepers take the word "Saldi". I discovered McDonald's in Florence serve beer. All in all, we had a great holiday.
Then came the time to return to Frankfurt.
Now in my defence I must say that the official Florentine travel literature expressly said that Florence airport is “regional only”. All international flights go from Aeroporto Galileo Galilei in Pisa. Great, I thought. We’ll catch a train up there in the morning, check out the Leaning Tower, grab something to eat and still have plenty of time for our one o’clock flight. Which is what we did.
On arrival at the airport, the first sign of trouble was that I could not locate our flight number on the board. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just sort it out at check-in.The woman at the counter looked at me quizzically. “What do you want me to do with this?” she asked, holding our tickets between her fingertips as though I’d given her a used tissue.
“I want to check in.” I replied.
“But this ticket is from Florence.”
“Yes…” Starting to feel a little apprehensive now.
"This is Pisa. Your flight leaves from Florence. You are at the wrong airport.”
I tried to disguise my panic. “I thought that all international flights from Florence left from here. That’s what it said in the brochure. Florence only handles regional flights.”
There was a flicker of pity in her expression. Then she remembered who I was: a Dumb Tourist, holding up an impatient line of other Dumb Tourists. “That is correct.” She replied, as though she was talking to an idiot. “Next please.”
It appears that flights from Italy to Germany are classed as regional. Now that would have been a helpful nugget of information for the bloody brochure.
We scrambled for the train back to Florence. That is, I scrambled. My wife had decided that we’d been made to look enough like a fool at the counter and was not about to make it worse. “Hurry up.” I said, “We have one and a half hours. We can still make the flight.” My wife, who as I said works in the travel industry, did not dignify me with a reply.
It goes without saying that we missed the flight. It also goes without saying that airline counter staff the world over have a strong sadistic streak: Yes, there is another flight in a couple of hours. No, your ticket does not allow you to rebook. Yes, you can upgrade your ticket for a fee. Thank you. Now let’s see. Oops. Sorry. That flight appears to be overbooked. No more flights for two days. Next please.
We decided to take the train back to Frankfurt. For somebody used to living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean it is a novelty to be able to travel between countries by train, something not to be missed. At least that is how I chose to view it. My wife disagreed. As soon as we had clambered onto the carriage she comandeered two seats and fell asleep.
Some points about train travel in Italy:
- Buying a ticket does not guarantee you a seat.
- Italian trains are routinely overbooked, and overflow passengers have to stand in the aisles. For about seven hours. This brings new meaning to the term “cattle class”.
- Standing in an aisle for seven hours makes you cranky, especially when you see somebody sleeping across two seats.
- Dealing with a cranky Italian backpacker is still preferable to asking your irate, sleeping wife to give up one of her seats.
The next day we were back in Frankfurt, recovering from sadistic airline clerks, officious train conductors, suspicious customs border guards, cranky Italian backpackers, German train passengers who were just – well, German, and a large blonde and braided frauleine at Stuttgart train station who screamed blue murder because we were standing in front of her shop. It was only at this time, nearly twenty four hours after my faux pas in Pisa that my wife managed to speak to me again.
“Pat, you are a bloody idiot.”
Tips for tourists. OK, these may be ten years old now, but I'm sure someof them are still relevant:
- The MetroRoma will get you within walking distance of pretty much anything in Old Rome except the Trastevere, and is quicker than the bus or taxis. Use it when you can.
- If you're there in summer, carry water with you, especially around Palatine Hill.
- Apropos of the above, always carry coins for "toilet money". Even if you aren't charged to get in, you may well be for toilet paper once there. And it's not the sort of thing you want to discover too late. Trust me on this one.
- While the Vatican and Sistine Chapel tours are a Rome staple, if you don't have the time or stamina any of the many churches in Old Rome are just as good, are mostly admission by donation and don't have a plethora of souvenir stalls and frowning guards with machine pistols to ruin the moment. The church of Saint Ignazio near Piazza Navona is an excellent case in point.
- If you do wish to visit the Vatican and see St Peter's Basilica, dress appropriately. This means long pants and sleeves. No exceptions.
- If you get the chance, take the bus down the Via Appia and out of town, to the catacombs of St Calisto. They are a welcome change from the pace of the city and are underground, so a welcome respite from the heat.
- In Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo on the south bank is a great place for panoramic views of the city. Well worth the trip.
- If you are driving and you encounter a toll road, pay attention. Pull over and ask if you have to, but make sure you go through the correct booth. Don't expect to get to the other end without a ticket and hope the Dumb Tourist routine will get you through. Again trust me, it won't, and it's an expensive mistake to make.