Like many other families we found our Easter holiday break involuntarily extended due to the closure of UK airspace at the end of last week. Having had a terrific week in Rome (more of which at a later date) we were enjoying dinner in a restaurant with friends on Thursday evening (which we believed to be our last night abroad) when we received the news that a volcano had erupted in Iceland. We naively laughed off the idea that this might in any way interfere with our travel plans.
The following morning as we were due to leave for Rome Ciampino airport we discovered that our flight had been cancelled. After some frantic searching on-line we eventually managed to re-book 4 flights for the following Monday. Making the most of this setback we headed south down the coast to Sperlonga where we enjoyed a terrific weekend on an empty beach before heading back into Rome for our second 'final night' of the holiday. It was only on the train back to Rome that we found out Monday's flight had been cancelled, as had the following day's and the days after that.
The situation was beginning to look serious so we earnestly began to explore other routes home - via Corsica by ferry? by train? via France by plane? Unsurprisingly we had little joy in getting any train or plane bookings but through a friend of a friend pulling strings we did manage to locate what was possibly the last hire car available in the Eternal City. After a breakneck trip across town on the back of our friend Maura's motorbike I reached an Avis rental office and never has a battered old Lancia looked more attractive. For a pretty reasonable 180 euros I collected the keys and a SatNav and then had the baptism of fire that is driving in Rome. I picked Pippa and our boys (Alfred 11 and William 8) up in San Lorenzo and we hit the autostrada. Fortunately Pippa had had the presence to pack a picnic so we were able to belt north unrelentingly before an enforced overnight pit-stop in San Remo. We weren't allowed to leave Italy with the hire car and San Remo is the most northerly outpost of Avis in the country but the office had closed for the evening by the time we arrived.
After a fretful night in the appalling Hotel Eveline (too bad to go in to detail) we dropped the Lancia off at 8.30am sharp and got a taxi across the border to Nice airport. The only car available here was a Peugot 207 for which we were fleeced an outrageous 900 euros by Hertz (at least Dick Turpin wore a mask). We then headed west then north across the autoroutes of France with minimal stops at service stations. At 9pm that night we checked into the reassuringly old-fashioned Hôtel de la Bannière in Laon, just north of Champagne.
We were up and running (sans breakfast) at 6am to honour our 9am car rental return at Calais Sea Port. On arrival our hearts sank as the scenes before us looked like something from a disaster movie. Files of coaches were backed up onto the autoroute slip road, hire cars were abandoned indiscriminately and files of foot passengers were being herded into queues. Happily the evacuation operation was being well run and within 2 hours we were on board the 'Pride of Dover' heading back to Blighty at a not unreasonable 195 euros all in.
By lunchtime we had docked at Dover and after a ridiculous schlep on foot across town to Dover Priory station we caught a high speed train to London Saint Pancras. After that it was a relative doddle with a tube to Paddington, train to Westbury and taxi home to Frome, Somerset. I then had the unenviable task of heading out to Bristol airport to pick up my long abandoned car. Seldom has it felt better to eat at our own table and sleep in our own beds but it was a Herculean effort to drag ourselves out of bed to get to school and work on Thursday morning. There's nothing like travel to make you appreciate getting home and when a neighbour asked the boys if they'd had a good holiday they replied 'yes great thanks'.