Vacanze Romane (Prima Parte)

I returned from Italy safe and sound on Sunday afternoon, having not been horrifically killed in a plane crash, nor drowned on a sinking ferry off the coast of Sardinia. The following is an account of our trip, recalled through brief notes typed on my iPhone throughout. The ‘brief’ notes are extensive enough, and as such I apologise for the sheer length of this uber-post.

Day One: Part One: Departure

As is the norm when I am preparing to take a flight I awoke frighteningly early. If I could wake up as easily during the working week, my morning ablutions would be somewhat less hurried. As a result, I was up and showered by a time I have never even seen on a clock before. I was anxious about the day’s travelling, and took a diazepam to help with settling my nerves. Our flight was due to leave Manchester Airport at 7am, and as such we had to be there for around 5am. As my wife is significantly more organised than I am, 5am was the time we arrived.

We dropped the luggage off at the desk and sallied forth to the security checkpoint. After some hellish queuing we made it through to the nightmarish prison that is the departure gate area (where the shops are). This place is merely a diversion or an inconvenience for the majority of folk. For an aviophobe such as myself it’s the second worst place in the world; a close runner-up to being sat 36,000ft in the air on a mechanical metal death trap with wings. After taking my second diazepam tablet of the day I noticed signs for a smoking area and, intrigued, we made our way there. It turned out to be a little metal cage stapled to the exterior wall of the airport, full of people drinking wine and quaffing ales, an activity I would have given my right kneecap to join in with, had I not been taking the tablets. This of course was despite it being 6am on a Wednesday morning and my breakfast thus far consisting of a mere bowl of cornflakes.

Cigarette extinguished, we made our way over to the boarding gate. A third diazepam was shakily shoved down my desert-dry throat and moments later I found myself on the aeroplane itself. Although we were due to take off at 7am, we were delayed by some thirty minutes due to a strike by the French air traffic controllers. I assumed at the time that the reason for their dissatisfaction could only be that they couldn’t face being part of a system which puts people like me through this hellishness every day, but now I think about it, it was probably about pay rises or something.

The beginning of the flight was essentially as I expected. Taxiing was scary and take-off horrible. I generally find myself gripping my wife’s leg with my left hand and holding on to the seat in front with my right when in flight, as if this alone is keeping us in the air, and the wings/engine/thrust/pilot are simply backup. I noticed as the aircraft climbed higher that a fellow passenger across the aisle adopted the brace position the whole time – something even I don’t do – and I found myself wanting to talk to him. As we levelled off however, and the seatbelt light was turned off by the captain, he disappeared.

After some forty-five minutes, and a further two diazepam tablets, I stumbled through the cabin to the toilet near the front of the plane. I will not use the toilets at the tail end – the rear of the plane is a no-go area for me. Heading back to my seat I bumped into the passenger I’d seen bracing himself during take-off. I introduced myself and asked whether he shared my fear of flying, as I’d suspected. He confirmed that he did, and we spoke in the aisle for around twenty minutes, as we saw the snow-dusted Alps passing below through the cabin windows. He told me that he’d learned to deal with his fear better by walking around the plane while in flight. He felt less of the turbulence and felt more comfortable. I had to agree with him. In the past I’d been fearful of walking around on a plane at all, but we both barely even noticed the turbulence we were encountering over the mountains, and we were relatively comfortable chatting. Soon, the captain announced that he was preparing to descend, and the only part of flying I actually enjoy was pleasant enough. We soon landed at Fiumicino Airport, and then taxied for what must have been around four million years, made to feel even longer due to my desperate need to relieve myself.

We disembarked the plane, collected our luggage and traipsed over to the train station adjoined to the airport. We found that one particular train – the Leonardo Express – would take us directly to Roma Termini within the hour. So we bought tickets at €14 each and hopped on. The countryside between the airport and central Rome isn’t the most picturesque, and not unlike most capital cities, the closer we got to the centre, the more graffiti and sun-battered apartment blocks we saw. Soon, we started to catch glimpses of ancient Roman architecture – viaducts, columns and ruined temples – and we knew we were about to arrive. Seconds later, we did. The train pulled into Roma Termini and everybody lugged their sizeable suitcases and holdalls onto the platform. A quick check of the map revealed that our first hotel, a B&B called Daysleeper, was on the same street as the station. So we dragged our cases outside into the baking midday sunshine, through the crowds and the many taxi drivers trying to pull us into their waiting cabs, and set off down the road. The map, as it transpired, was not to scale – and neither did it warn us in advance of the crazy Italian drivers and scooter riders flying past us, missing us by inches, as the ‘pavement’ (for that was what it was supposed to be) narrowed steadily the whole way.

After around ten minutes, we reached the bronze-painted metal doors of the building containing our hotel. We buzzed the intercom and our host, a friendly fellow named Francesco, came down to greet us. He directed us to the lift with our luggage while he took the spiral marble staircase up to the second floor. Meeting us there he invited us in, and we chatted for a while about the local sights, and convenience stores, and transport links. He gave us a Disney-style map, which featured little drawings of all the famous tourist sights in Rome, and circled each one with his trusty pink fluorescent pen. We learned that we were some twenty minutes walk from the Colosseum, and only ten minutes from the nearest Metro (underground) station. We also learned that there are only two real working Metro lines in Rome, which meant we would have to be ready for a decent amount of walking for the duration of our stay.

Francesco soon directed us to our room. While small, it was beautifully decorated, with modern fittings, and a lovely bathroom. The enormous shower was calling us both after our morning’s travels, and so we took it in turns to jump in and get ourselves scrubbed up. After we’d both scrubbed up we checked out the room and its facilities a little more. In one corner were shelves and shelves of cakes, biscuits, tea, coffee, wafers……which we were told would be replenished, free of charge, every morning. Francesco’s wife had even left us some home-made jam tarts, which I wasted no time in shoving down my throat. We were also pleased to note that the air-conditioning was capable of making the room feel like the Arctic, should we wish. Following a short rest on a most comfortable double bed, we decided to make a move and start to explore the Eternal City. First stop, the Colosseum.

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