Trains, planes and automobiles

Well I haven’t posted for a while – I can’t believe I’ve let the departures of Clarkson and Blatter (almost) pass without making comment on the toe-rags. But there you go. Anyway we’re here in Italy staying with our lovely neighbours and friends B&F as we check over our house after nearly 3 years away. It’s not a pretty sight but we hope that my recovery is strong enough now for us to tackle getting the place repaired and straight again.

But the point of this posting is not to talk about the house but to describe the bloody saga of our journey here at the centre of which is the dreaded hell-hole that is Stansted airport. Longer-term readers will know that I have poured scorn on this place over the years and its sister in misery, the hated Ryanair. But it had been 3 years since we’d experienced either and we kept reading reports at how both had changed and become more customer friendy so we felt charitable and a little excited about the prospect. This of course was matched with a little anxiousness at the thought of what we might find and, of course, slight nervousness as I’d been warned about how to prepare for flights during the course of my treatment  over my heart issues as it had been found that I’m susceptible to passing out mid-flight because of some vaso-vagal/circulatory issues. It is the most unpleasant experience and to try and prevent it, during any long journey I now need to drink lots of water, avoid alcohol, remain as active as possible, get a good night’s sleep beforehand  and above all,  create the most stress-free conditions for an enjoyable journey. What could go wrong?

Well pre-planning went well. Since we last used the  service, the flight, the only one now to our local airport Ancona, has been brought forward by Ryanair, in their wisdom, from 9.50 am to 6.30am which is a ridiculous time to fly especially as the gates close at 6.10am. It’s not like Stansted is easily accessible is it? But no worries we thought, we checked into the Radisson hotel right next door to the terminal on Saturday evening after a 3 hour journey across London. Before checking in we popped into the almost deserted terminal with our bags just to check with the only Ryanair counter clerk around  that as we had pre-booked our check-in online that all we had to do was turn up at the security gate with the photocopy of the booking confirmation and our carry-on bags. Yes, she said, it’s as simple as that. A breeze. Oh brilliant I said. I even checked the weight of the bags to make sure there’d be no problem over weight – both were just under the 10kg limit. Perfect packing!

We toddled off back to the hotel and checked in. We booked a 4.45am alarm call and, because that sort of feels like the middle of the night, set one of the iPhones alarms on as back up and headed for an early night. We figured we’d have a quick shower etc, no breakfast at the hotel and just get over to the terminal for no later than 5.15am giving us 55-60 mins to get through security and possibly grab some breakfast airside before heading for the gate. Surely we thought, that’d be more than enough time that early in the morning.

We woke with the two alarms and got ready as swiftly as possible, went downstairs and checked out leaving our car key with the concierge and toddled over to the airport terminal. Unlike the previous evening it seemed remarkably busy in the reception area and we headed off for the departures entrance which is now located right down one end of the the huge terminal, We toddled through the doorway and couldn’t believe the view in front of us. What seemed like 1000’s of people were being herded along long snaking queue lines waiting to be processed through the security function. Oh gawd this didn’t look good. The queues moved along at snailspace. They only seemed to have around 6 operational points to process this mass of humanity. How many flights are scheduled to leave this early? Clearly too many for the staff to cope.

As the line inched along the hands on my watch were whizzing around. It took us 45 minutes just to reach the place where you put your bag into the tray on the conveyor belt for them to run it through the X-ray machines and ahead of us on the belt were about 10 trays already. Christ we had 10 minutes to get through this and get to the Gate. It might just be enough time. Well that was until the lady uppengruppenfuhrervonsekurity challenged the number of liquids we had in the clear bags. We’d painstakingly put mouthwash, shaving balm etc into 100ml bottles as requested online and put them with C’s make-up, toothpaste, little aerosols of shaving foam and deodorant etc. All neatly bagged into 3 clear plastic bags. Oh nein, fraulein Schickelgruuber declared, you haff too many bottles. Only two plastic bags are allowed, she said, whereupon she tipped everything out and asked us to present what we needed in two bags. Nowhere did we see a note about only one clear bag each but never mind we explained that we needed all this stuff; none of it was superfluous. Well I see you’ve got one deodorant, she said to C, whilst he appears to have two, she declared in my direction. Why do you do need zwei? Well one happens to be almost empty I responded but what business is it of yours how many deodorants I take on holiday to a hot climate? She got more unhelpful as my anger started to rise. Noting the time, we just dispensed with 4 or 5 items – sun cream, shaving foam, toothpaste etc (I held onto the 1.15 bottles of deodorant on a point of principle, bitch) whilst we managed to get everything that was left into two plastic bags. Can we go through now please, we asked. Not zo fast, she twinkled, I have to go and have these analysed first. What??? Off she toddled with my potentially dangerous cache of Sure for Men deodorant and Nivea after shave balm and stuck them through this testing device. Thankfully they proved to be just as the labels described them and not some illicit shipment for ISIS and it was now 6.05am. We then were allowed to go through the security arch. Both Carol and I set the bell off so we were then stripped of our belts and shoes, I undid several buttons and had probes and fingers run all over our bodies and finally asked to go through the machine again. 6.09am!! Oh shit.

C has had a knee replacement so cannot walk quickly let alone run. But she and I grabbed all our spare things and tore out of the security area clutching plastic bags and belts and converse pumps only to find ourselves coralled within what seemed like a mile of duty free outlets – so that’s why they’ve shrunk the security area into a space about the size of a hamster’s cage, so they can get me to waste time and money re-buying the bloody products they’ve just confiscated from me. Bloody Stansted.

We hurried through as fast as we could, only to find that we had to get on a train over to our gate which was, of course, at the furthest point away. In fact it was about 3 minutes walk from the Radisson hotel that we’d left in great optimism just about an hour ago before embarking on this no stress, fast track check-in procedure. Ha! We got to the Gate about 6.20am. The plane was still at its position and we could see people still embarking but of course the sullen Ryanair girl at the desk could only say the Gate’s closed, you should have been here 10 minutes ago. I know I seethed through gritted teeth but I’ve just spent well over an hour going through a security check that your colleague told me last night would be effortless, simple and speedy.  And to be frank it was the opposite experience. Is there any way you can allow us throw after all they are still boarding the plane? No the computer’s all closed now – it’s at times like this you know where David Walliams got his inspiration from for ‘computer says no’.

But the girl wasn’t for budging so we asked what the options for us were. Well you can’t stay here, she said, helpfully, as you are now airside and have no plane to connect with. So go over to that phone and call the number shown and airport security will come and collect you and remove you back landside to book alternate flights or whatever with our ground crew. And with that she turned and left. Behind me I noticed quite a few other people who were gathering around us, victims too of the hopelessly inadequate security checks. A guy arrived shortly and took our growing band back airside in a naughty children’s bus. On board were more people who’d also missed their flights including two nice young New Zealand girls who’d missed their holiday flight to Dubrovnik whilst their friend had just made it and they had no money other than some cash for spends to buy another ticket apiece. They’d missed their holiday flight by moments. It was heart-wrenching stuff.

You’d imagine this was a pretty unusual occurrence. Oh no. By the time we’d got to the info desk there was a crowd of more than a dozen people all in the same boat, some people with young children, several people crying and lots of short tempers. Everyone was venting their spleen or begging for a break and to be fair to the young Ryanair girl behind the desk she resisted saying well you should have got there earlier and instead she focused on alternative flight possibilities. The reason would become apparent in a second. Our choices were go home and write off the trip,  re-book a seat on the following morning’s flight, or catch another flight the same day to another destination in Italy.  We opted for two tickets on the 8.50am flight to Bologna some 3 hours north of  Ancona airport where we had a hire car booked. I threw in my usual throw-away line when I’m looking for some mock sympathy, ‘I do have cancer you know’. It didn’t raise a smile and C was annoyed because I’d embarrassed the girl. That wasn’t the intent. I tried to make amends by saying she’d been the most pleasant and helpful person we’d met so far. Had my charm worked? Well there was no refund of course on the price of the tickets for the missed flight and the cost of the two new tickets? Just the £100 each. Ouch. We were now paying more than if we’d gone for a scheduled flight with dignified check-in procedures, reasonable baggage allowances, and not over-crammed planes leaving at times which start at mid-morning with complimentary nibbles and drinks thrown in. And from Heathrow airport which is a short bus ride away from where we live. Sigh.  I kept thinking about those words of advice from my cardiologist; keep it enjoyable and stress-free. Umm.

The good news was we were spared going through the security procedure again in Nazi-occupied  Stanstederania. We toddled off towards the Gate – at least we’d be first in line for this flight. It was now around 7.30am and were starting to feel a little hungry and thirsty especially as we’d had no dinner the night before. We came across a cafe sort of place and I ordered two paninis and a bottle of water. £11.40 please, said the spotty youth with dirty fingernails, behind the till. Ouch. The ‘paninis’ turned up. I was expecting some lovely ciabatta containing freshly warmed prosciutto and tasty Italian cheese. It was two slices of white bread with a bit of boiled ham and some searingly hot processed cheddar. Sigh. These were as close to paninis as I am to appearing on X Factor. At least  the water was refreshing. We sat at the Gate and ate the over-heated cheese sandwiches.

They were actually just taking on board the last few passengers for the flight before ours to Basle. I overheard the girl behind the desk say to her colleague, just two more minutes before we can close the Gate thank God.  I was keen to observe what happened. Two people ran up all flustered and they let them through. Now I swear those people hadn’t gone more than 5 yards down the passageway when another young man came running up brandishing his passport and boarding card. Sorry said the Ryanair girl, Gate’s closed, you’ll have to go to the info desk and re-arrange your flight. He pleaded that it was only a minute past the last boarding time and he’d been held up through security and visible through the window passengers were clearly still embarking. Sorry, she said, there’s nothing I can do. Umm.  Now I’m absolutely sure the earlier couple hadn’t even reached the bottom of the stairs yet. Surely she could have let this guy through? But no. Several more people ran up and had the same frustrating conversation with her. I bet it’s the same every flight. Half a dozen people just miss their connection and each time of course it’s a further £100 into the pockets of that unlikeable O’Leary bloke. There’s no attempt to get these late arrivers onto their plane, even if the need is dramatic. It’s clearly a company policy to extract yet more money from their long-suffering customer base. And I thought they were changing. Huh.

I could just imagine the memo O’Leary sent to his staff about the new ‘be nicer’ policy:

Dear Colleagues

I’m saddened to report that in the last two years our annual profits have fallen from around £750M to a miserable £500M. I’m told this is due to the fact that a number of the poor saps who used to fly with us have become fed up with the ingenious ways we soak every last drop of spend from them and have chosen to go with other more customer friendly and ‘honest’ airlines. Unbelieveable. Somebody even told me my innovative plan to charge passengers for going for an in-flight piss was not universally well-received. What do they think I’m running – a public lavatory? 

Now how am I supposed to maintain my Croesus-like lifetsyle racing my string of very expensive racehorses and crying like a broken-hearted teenage girl and getting all sentimental over the memory of me dear old daddy whenever one of these beauties wins, if these buggers choose to fly with our useless competitiors.

So we’re going to attract them back by adopting a new more caring customer care approach. Oh I know it’s all marketing babble but it’s what the public wants. So in future please remember when you’ve syphoned the last bit of money out of the dopey gits, sorry our valued customers, then instead of taking the cash and sneering condescendingly, I’d now like you to smile, condescendingly. That should do it.

Remember my business motto; soak the poor and enrich the rich.

Profiteeringly yours

Michael O’Leary, CEO

Now of course I’m spoofing to make a point. I’m quite sure Ryanair’s new friendlier customer care policy, led by their admirable CEO, is both genuine and heartfelt….

Ahem. So I thought I’d put it to the test. As we’d been allocated the last two seats on the flight, we’d inevitably ended up with seat allocations at opposite ends of the plane. Because I was slightly bothered about the possibility of having a passing-out attack in front of a complete stranger and subconsciously peeing my pants into the bargain (oh yes, being married to me is one long treat for C), I thought I’d ask the girl on the desk before the embarkation rush began if she could possibly do anything to ensure we were sat together (I could have but didn’t mention the heart and loss of control of my bladder and bowel movements stuff having embarrassed one young woman too many already). Er no, she said, the computer won’t let her do that. I was shocked at the extent of her enthusiasm to help. Sigh. She suggested I ask the in-flight crew to help us. OK fair enough.

I returned to our seat where passengers were beginning to gather. We met a lovely Italian guy with whom we shared the morning’s travails. He was  great fun and simply suggested that the weather was great in Italy at present and we should look forward to the great cuisine, the company of lovely friends and some cool crisp wine. He was absolutely right and he had the perfect attitude to cheer us up. Forza Italia!! (which might actually be an Italian political party but it sounds right).

So up we trotted up the stairs to a plane, hurrah!, and asked the senior air stewardess who greeted us if she could help us sit together by chance. Of course, she replied (blimey), just move to row 35 at the back of the plane and I’ll ask the stewardess at the rear to sort something for you. Jeez. She called her colleague as we fought our way past all the passengers heading towards the front of the plane who’d boarded at the rear.

We met the stewardess who was lovely and she allocated us a row of three seats tentatively until everyone had boarded, which took another 5 minutes or so. There were 9 seats free around us. I looked at her and asked, can we have these seats now and are these all late arrivers by any chance?  Yes and yes, she said and smiled knowingly and not a bit condescendingly. Umm. Another £900 in MO’L’s backpocket I thought. You’ve gotta wonder why the mafia have never got into this no frills airline lark, haven’t you?

Anyway the flight passed without incident thankfully. In fact we got into Bologna ahead of schedule at around 11.10am local time. It took us no time to exit the terminal and the weather was glorious as our friend had forecast. Bene.

Our plan was to catch a train down to Ancona because we knew the line passed right by its airport. We hopped in a taxi and it took no more than 10 mionutes and €20 to get to the train station, which was pretty busy for a Sunday. Well I guess it is a fairly large city. There was one of those take a ticket and wait for your number to be called to gain entry to the ticket office. I looked at the number on the ticket, there were about 50  people ahead of me in the queue. So we headed for the smaller queues at one of the many ticket machines. Fortunately it offered an English translation for the instructions which were simple to follow. We ordered and paid €35 for two single tickets to Ancona and the final instruction was please take your tickets. So we did. Simples.

We checked the departure board and a fast train to Ancona was just leaving the platform. Bugger. The next train was an hour away at 12.35pm and it appeared to be a stopper given the number of  places we’d be visiting en route according to the monitor. Never mind. We got some more water and headed over to platfrom 6 and waited for the train. I then got a call from B our friend and neighbour in MdF, our Italian home. She wanted to know if we were OK and where we were as she’d been expecting us two hours earlier and  had breakfast all ready! Obviously our messages hadn’t got through. I explained what had happened and said we’d hopefully be there by around 4pm all being well.

The train arrived on time and we got on board. I don’t know why but although we  seemed to be chewing through money, it felt like a bit of an adventure and we were going to try and enjoy the experience. There was plenty of room on board and we settled in. When I said the train was a stopper I wasn’t joking. We picked up people from virtually every town in northern Italy I think. Hey ho. Then along came a jovial-faced ticket inspector who spoke no English. I handed him my tickets and he studied them hard, tut-tutted and started jabbering on about no valedazione. Eh? I explained in my pidgin Italian how we’d bought them from a ticket machine at Bologna and showed him the receipt. But it wasn’t enough. He flipped the ticket over and in English was a little para that said tickets needed validating. But I still had no idea what that meant – he kept indicating that we seemingly needed to put the tickets back into the machine, which didn’t make sense to me. And there was certainly no further instruction from the machine about what to do other than take them.  Anyway the upshot was that we’d missed out some stage in the process for which I apologised. He smiled condescendingly and said €10 please. This guy has a career ahead of him with Ryanair if he ever gets fed with the trains. We’d been fined. Unbelievable. Welcome to Italy.

I couldn’t be arsed to argue anymore and just paid up whilst he gave me a receipt.

I thought I’d get my money’s worth from him instead and asked him if he could just confim that  the train stopped at Ancona airport. Oh no, he replied, we needed to be on the express train for that. This train, whilst stopping at every village with two peasants and a dog, wouldn’t stop at the busy airport at the heart of the bustling Adriatic coastline brimming with holidaymakers. Makes sense, but only if you’re an Italian transport authority. Sigh.

We could, he said, get off at Ancona town train station which is some 15 kms from the airport or instead get off at the little station of Falconara Maritimo which is just two or 3 kms away. Is there a taxi service there I asked on a Sunday. I think he said ‘probably’ or it might have been ‘possibly.’ But catching that Ryanair-like twinkle in his eye, it just might  have been ‘how do you fancy a long walk’. Anyway after a journey of two and a half hours we took a chance and disembarked at the metropolis of Falconara Maritimo. We were the only disembarkees. I’ve seen busier train stations.

We left the terminus – it didn’t take long to find our way out – and saw the sign for the taxi rank and would you believe it, there was a long line of nothingness. Not a bloody taxi in sight. Sigh. What was that about an adventure? Oh lawd. There was no way C and I could walk 3 km in this heat carrying luggage, even if I knew how to get to the airport. I was just thinking about our next move when suddenly this shiny metallic vision came heading towards us like a vehicular angel sent from the Gods of compassion. It was a bloody great big coach with the words Ancona Airport emblazoned on the front. I swear C had a little tear in her eye as we boarded enthusiastically. €6 please the driver said. You’re definitely going to Ancona airport? I enquired. Si, of course, he said, this is the airport bus. Just checking I said smiling happily. He dropped us at the departures area and couldn’t understand why we wanted the arrivals terminal instead, where the hire car offices were.  It was no big deal and not a marathon to get there, in the searing heat.

I headed to the Sixt desk whilst Carol went to the loo. I’d remembered that I’d failed to bring my paper counterfoil of the licence, praying it wouldn’t matter. And  we were not just late – we were even later than the time we’d given as a new ETA by nearly two hours. The place was deserted save for one soul in the next office. I asked if he knew the whereabouts of the Sixt representative. Oh he’s gone he said, my heart sank. The Gods had been toying with us after all. Then all of a sudden he just pointed outside and said, hey there he is! Our man was heading off to collect his car presumably and I dashed after him. He was a very nice young guy who seemed remarkably pleased to see us. It took him less than 2 minutes to process all the paperwork and hand me the keys. I was done before C returned from the loo. Speedy, friendly, brilliant service.  He’ll never have a career with Ryanair.

So we collected the car and headed off to MdF. We got there via a short stop at a brand new Iper supermarket to get some essentials – wine, shaving foam and the other things Fraulein Schickelgrubber confiscated from me many hours ago. We arrived at F&B’s around 5.30pm. We’d missed breakfast but were on time for dinner. It was lovely to see them after so long and they’ve made us feel so welcome, just like the view from their terrace – this is our valley…


Their home and garden is so delightful now.

Unlike ours which we looked at the next day. It’s had terrible damp ingress from a major crack in the terrace on the etension and the place is full of mould. And the garden is, well, let’s just say mother nature’s reasserted its control. But you know what, it’s manageable. And after just two days scrubbing and cleaning the house is looking a lot better. We’re seeing a local builder tonight to review options etc so fingers crossed.

The other delightful surprise was that our other great friends and near neighbours J&C turned up too. They’ve been helping us with the cleaning etc bless ’em on their holiday! Good friends eh. It is so lovely to be back if only for a short spell.

So this is our first holiday since my illness. As ever with Italy it’s been hard work but in the evening with a glass of something cool and crisp in my hand and chatting amusingly with our friends, the mould and cracks, security queues and unhelpful officials seem a long long way away. Oh and that validation thing. Our friends here told us that after you buy a train ticket in Italy you have to present it into a little yellow box located somewhere on the platform to record its day of use. Of course you do. And then turn around 3 times and howl at the moon. I might have made that last bit up…



4 thoughts on “Trains, planes and automobiles

  1. Great read as always Paul. Share your frustration with airport security. I have panic attacks and cold sweats for days in advance. The older I get, the grumpier I get. Think the secret is to get a burka and claim discrimination! But good that you are feeling well and here’s hoping for many more trips back to Italy (not necessarily with Ryanair)!

    • Hi Al

      Great to hear from you and hope you’re well too. Thanks for the kind comments and I might try that burka trick next time I’m going through the dreaded Stansted. Take care mate.

  2. Sadly it’s our only option flying to our local airport of Ancona. But those scheduled services to Bologna or Rome with their 3 hour drives are starting to look more appealing

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