Throwback Travels: Rome in the time of ash

Even the best made travel plans need to be improvised at times, especially when Mother Nature takes us by surprise. I have been lucky enough to avoid dramatic natural disasters and therefore I’ve never been evacuated from the path of an approaching hurricane, tsunami, or forest fire. However, the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010 did put a little twist on my and my husband’s otherwise oh-so-normal trip to Rome.

IMG_5088Arriving at Heathrow early in the morning, we were oblivious to what was happening in Iceland. It was only when we were boarding and saw the news that I realised why the northbound flights on the departure board had been flashing ‘cancelled’ all morning. At no point did I think the eruption would have any impact on our own holiday. After all, we had managed to take off and wouldn’t be returning until several days later. Surely everything would be back to normal within a few days! By the time we arrived at Rome, Heathrow had been closed. I just felt relieved we had reached our destination: after all, no compensation from travel insurance would have made up for a missed holiday!

IMG_5271 copyRome itself was as fabulous as ever and our B&B conveniently located in a quiet area near the Baths of Caracalla, only a stroll away from the ever-impressive Colosseum. The identical twin brothers running the place were difficult to tell apart at first but then we noticed one always had bloodshot eyes in the morning. (Too many late nights, maybe?) Although all rooms were perfectly fine, we were always moved to a better one as and when one became available. Finally we ended up in a large room with a balcony – perfect for an al fresco breakfast!

IMG_5429At this point the European airspace was still closed and all northbound trains had been booked weeks ahead. When it became clear we wouldn’t be flying anywhere for a while, we checked the possibility to stay longer at out B&B. Luckily for us, the new guests couldn’t arrive for the same reason we couldn’t go home so we booked an extra night on a daily basis and continued exploring the city. These additional days gave us a chance to walk down the Via Appia Antica and visit the local cat sanctuary (see my previous post La bella Roma). There are worse places to be stuck in!

However, as great as it was to roam in Rome, eat gelato, and enjoy la dolce vita, we didn’t want to wait indefinitely for ‘someone’ to sort everything out. Other visitors trying to make their way back to the UK told us how hire car prices had shot up ridiculously high and how someone driving a coach to England had apparently requested full cash payment a day in advance. That sounded dodgy as hell! As soon as the French airspace opened, we started to hunt for an internet cafe to book tickets, if not home at least towards home. (After all, this was a time before tablets and super light laptops!)

IMG_5431We finally found an internet cafe that didn’t insist on taking copies of our passports, and started surfing. Flights came and went, prices changing constantly. The Eurostar was no better. At last, on an Italian website, we found a reasonable flight to Paris Orly operated by an airline neither of us had even heard of. (For the record, my Italian is sufficient for ordering pizza and buying train tickets, not for anything more complicated than that.) Miraculously, with a little help from a translation programme, we filled in the necessarily details and booked the flight, as well as train tickets to Calais and a ferry crossing to Dover. It was time to go home!

IMG_5444Having arrived at Orly late in the afternoon, we decided to take the train to Paris itself and have a little stroll to get at least a glimpse of the city neither of us had visited before. It felt slightly surreal to have been bidding farewell to the Colosseum in the morning and greet Notre Dame and the Seine only a few hours later. As our train to Calais was due to leave early the following morning, we had decided to skip the hotel and stay overnight at the airport. One night won’t hurt, I thought. It should get quiet around midnight and we could doze off on the bench like at other airports in the past. Wrong!

Floor cleaning machinery and routine test announcements were the sound of the night, all nigh. We both felt cold and absolutely exhausted in the morning but there’s little a strong coffee and a fresh croissant can’t cure. Sitting comfortably on a train and seeing the French countryside in the sun definitely cheered us up. The crowds had disappeared from the port of Calais and the ferry ride across the calm, gleaming English Channel towards the white cliffs of Dover made the trip feel like a proper holiday.

IMG_5459The surreal feeling didn’t disappear on our arrival at Dover. As soon as we got off the ferry, we were greeted by people handing out water bottles and lunches from cancelled package holiday flights. Outside the terminal the Salvation Army was distributing hot drinks and sandwiches. For those who had travelled days on end or lived at airports or railway stations, it must have been the most welcome gift ever. For us it was just another quirky incident on our return journey.

Were you on holiday ‘in the time of ash’? What are your memories from those days and what impact did it have on your trip?

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