Thursday 15th April was our day for visiting Vesuvius. We drove the hire car up the volcano’s flank as far as we could go and then walked up a steep path towards the crater rim. The clouds drifted away, the sun appeared briefly and in the distance far below we could make out Pompeii, the ancient Roman town we had visited in pouring rain on the previous day. We knew that its citizens had had a nasty surprise on 24th August 79AD when an eruption had buried them in ten feet of ash. We sniffed the air and watched coils of smoke escaping from the crater walls. All seemed quiet. But back at our hotel people were clustering around the reception desk. A volcano in Iceland had erupted and all flights were cancelled – hadn’t we heard? Our holiday had three days left but from that moment it took on a new character as our thoughts kept returning to ways of getting home. We heard that all trains and buses going north were fully booked and decided that our best bet was to hang on to the smart Alfa Romeo estate (a free upgrade) that we and the couple we were holidaying with had been lucky enough to be allocated in Naples. Perhaps we could drive it all the way across Italy and France and leave it at a Channel port.
Compared to many travellers, some still stranded abroad at the time of writing, we were very lucky. Our tour company Sunvil decided to help its customers get back home. We were told to leave the silver Alfa at Sorrento (pity about that!) but we could hardly believe our luck when we were handed rail tickets from Naples to Turin. We enjoyed a four-hour train journey from Naples to Milan via Rome, Florence and Bologna and then a shorter one from Milan to Turin, all courtesy of Sunvil. The next morning we collected a Renault Modus (a what? – no upgrade this time and it was a bit of a squash for four but we could hardly complain) to drive through the Alps and across France.
It had rained on and off for most of our week and we had scrambled around Roman and Greek sites under umbrellas. But when the holiday was due to end, the weather changed to sun and blue sky for the whole of the unexpected extension. Our road trip back across France, freshly green and blossoming, was a highlight of the holiday. We stopped for the night in the Burgundy area. We paused to admire the newly-cleaned stained glass windows in Chartres cathedral. In their uncleaned state they were spectacular – now they are crystal-clear kaleidoscopes of colour. We had managed to book an early morning ferry crossing to Portsmouth after hearing tales of Calais being crowded with exhausted travellers and of companies charging extortionately for hire cars dropped there. So we spent a final night at Ouistreham, the port of Caen, before sharing the ferry with a large party of tired but relieved Glaswegians returning from Majorca. We thanked our lucky stars that we had booked this particular holiday not via the internet but through a tour company which turned what was a worrying situation into a bonus. We are a bit poorer as a result but the tour company carried much of the cost.
R Wingfield, 29 April 2010