PC 133 A Travel Vignette

I imagine most of us get excited about the view of the earth from an aeroplane or hot air balloon, or even a parachute? I know I do, with my deep-rooted fascination with maps and all things cartographic. Many years ago, in 1970, I spent a couple of weeks at the School of Military Survey; a memorable fortnight in the summer, learning how to make maps from aerial photographs, amongst other things. And we finished early enough to enjoy tea and toast, with lime marmalade obviously, and a couple of games of croquet. Bliss!

Eleven days ago, pausing in my read of the newspaper, I glance idly out of the port side of BA2594, on route to Catania in Sicily. It was a gloriously clear day for flying. ‘Wow, that must be Lac Léman,’ I thought; ‘there’s no other body of inland water quite so big in western Europe. So there’s Geneva ……’ and I became absorbed ….. the quest for news forgotten!!

1 Lac Leman

Within a few minutes the Alps are beneath us. Not sure whether they are the French Alps, the Swiss Alps, Italian Alps or Dolomites; from 33,000 feet they simply look majestic, small from this height but dwarfing the valleys and hilltop villages – the scale is Toy Town.

4 More Alps

Then we leave the land behind and slip down the west of Italy. The port of Genoa is below and the memory of the motorway bridge collapse invaded my brain space. Later I recall a ferry ride from Civitavecchia to Olbia in Sardinia in 1975 and a return from Olbia to Genoa and thence the UK.

“Good evening this is the captain. Currently North West of Palermo and starting our descent into Catania. Those of you on the port side of the plane have a good view of Mount Etna (see note). Unusually clear.”

7 Mount Etna 2

The brown parched land visible below is somewhat corrugated, as if some giant has raked his finger nails across the earth. Etna sits brooding on the horizon as the land gradually flattens out and we make our descent into Catania airport. Everywhere you look green regimented lines march across the fields; Sicily is famous for its wine!

The Captain puts on his ‘Aren’t I wonderful’ voice and announces we’ve arrived five minutes early. We troop down the aisle to the stairs and waiting coaches. Julia, the warm friendly stewardess in charge of the Cabin Crew, gives us a beaming smile and a ‘Thank you for flying British Airways’; she could have added something about how we treat your data sensitively!

The luggage safely on the trolley, we look for the familiar red sign of the Avis car hire company. Every company under the sun ……. except Budget and Avis! Frustratingly it seems they are located outside, after the end of the terminal building. Pushing the laden trolley we make our way in the gathering darkness towards the car hire office – us and twenty others. Inside, after the initial shock of what we see, we take a ticket – F78 – and gather our thoughts. There are just two desks open, and the number shown on the overhead display is an energy-sapping F69! So nine others in front of us and even if each transaction takes 20 minutes that’s over 90 minutes. Celina dives back to the main terminal in search of supper. ‘Baguette or baguette or pizza?’ She reappears to find I haven’t moved. Fortunately the German couple next to us realise they drew two tickets and when their number, F71, is called they give us their F72 ticket. I start getting excited; ‘simple things please little minds’ is so true in these sorts of situations. I sheepishly make my way to the desk as F72 is called, scrunching F78 into a small ball in my pocket. I say sheepishly as I am sure others in the queue will be thinking ‘I was here before him’ and other more unkind thoughts!
Nicola is just doing his job; I focus, my world shrinking to just him and me, and ignore the chaos behind me. I remark how busy it is, he mumbles something about the systems being slow, I would like to shout ‘you should have some more staff’ but want to be charming, want to be out of there into the night, although now not looking forward to a 70km drive in a car I don’t know, to a place I don’t know, driving on the wrong side of the road!! Nicola notices I live in Hove ……. and launches into how he had managed the Eat fast food restaurant in Brighton just by the Clock Tower for three years. He lived in Worthing (looks too young to have lived in Worthing!!) and has now come home to Sicily. A small world! I almost tell him he should have gone to Hertz or Europcar but that wouldn’t help my progress through the bureaucratic process involved in hiring an Avis car.

Avis logo

‘Insurance?’

‘Ah! Yes!’ I say, ‘you’re going to tell me I need to spend lots of money to ensure that if a Lambretta driven by a bella signorina scrapes the car or the windscreen shatters or ……’. My mind filters out the long list, knowing the only sensible thing is to say yes yes yes …… anything to get me out of the door. My watch says 2030 ….. we landed two and a half hours ago! OK! Tell me where to sign and for that enormous extra insurance cost please lend me a Satnav …… for free? The conditions and retail agreement are emailed to me and I sign on a screen he thrusts under my nose.

Out into the dimly lit car park …… ‘follow the blue painted lane’ …….. I think it was painted when the Greeks were in charge of Catania and has not been painted since, but after pushing and pulling the trolley up this lane and under that barrier, you know how it is, we find the little Fiat Panda – shiny black. Our ‘free’ Jezebel 3 is plugged into the socket – I was going to write cigarette lighter but who smokes in cars these days? Come to that, who smokes?? – and we input the details of our hotel near Syracusa. We couldn’t see anything of the beautiful scenery, road works disrupt our southerly progress and Jezebel keeps ‘recalculating’ but eventually, after an hour and a half, we find La Rosa Sul Mare in the Plemmirio nature and sea reserve. We had arrived.

Richard  22nd September 2018

Note: Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, rises to 3330m above sea level and is situated in the north east of the island of Sicily. The most recent eruption in 2002 destroyed the visitors’ centre and a cable car station. This year it’s been quiet, thankfully!

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