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April 21st, 2010

The Great(ish) Escape

So we made it home, under the shroud of the ash.

We were in Barcelona, for a couple of press briefings, due to fly home Thursday evening. Thursday morning our flight home was cancelled, and we ended up (with everyone else at the hotel) trying to organise an alternative route home. But as the airspace closed across Europe the options started disappearing. First we looked at flying to Paris, but the flights there filled up just like that, and then the French closed their airspace. Then Germany, then...

All over Europe, without any fuss, the airports were shutting down.
(Apologies to Arthur C. Clarke)

It was time to rebook the hotel room and go get some tapas. If you're going to be stuck somewhere, then Barcelona is probably one of the best of a bad bunch. Nothing against the city, it's just the being stuck bit that's the problem.

Friday morning we tried another tack. "Train!" we thought, only to discover that (a) SNCF was on strike in the south of France and (b) that meant the sleeper to Paris had been full for weeks. No joy there. One of the hosting PR folk thought they had a line on cabins on the Santander ferry, so we tried to see if we could book a minivan to take the UK contingent there. But by the time we'd got all the ducks in their proverbial row, we were too late to get the cabins.

By now we were looking at anything that might work, even driving all the way to Calais. But by that time on Friday night no one was offering one-way rentals to a different country, and even if we could get to France to pick up a car, the one-way fees were now approaching €1000 a car. It was time to sleep on it. At least the hotel still had rooms for the night, even if we did have to move to another room.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and we knew it was time to make a break for it, no matter what the cost. One of our hosts had organised rental cars across the border in Perpignan, and had booked a taxi-van to take us there. It was time to hit the road. The journey from Barcelona to Perpignan was straight forward, and there was little traffic. We made good time through the edges of the Pyrenees, and were at the rental office by 1500 - only to discover that the cars we'd booked weren't there. Somehow the girl behind the desk managed to find us two small vehicles - a Fiat Punto and a Volkswagen Golf - and also gave us a very good price, nowhere near the quoted rate.

Time to head across and up France!



We rolled through the Languedoc, up and around the Midi, and then on up to Lyon and Burgundy. Then it was through Champagne, before we finally arrived in Calais, at around 0400. It's surprising how quickly you get used to GPS, though. Google Maps on a phone is an inadequate substitute, especially when trying to navigate the Autoroute junctions in the tunnels under Lyon.

We decided to first check into the hotel we'd booked for the night, before heading into Calais docks to get tickets for a sailing later in the day. Our fellow journalists in the other car had arrived first, and were reporting open ticket windows, no queues and seats on the 0530 sailing. Driving through the docks there were rental cars everywhere, parked all higgledy piggledy on the verges. We pulled in just in front of the ticket office, and walked in. Ten minutes later we had tickets, on the 1355 to Dover. Time for some sleep, before returning the next morning to catch the ferry.

The car park outside the ferry terminal was a lot tidier by noon on Sunday, and we were able to quickly return the car to the waiting rental agents. As we walked to the terminal a chap asked us if we had tickets, and we said we had, he replied "Shame" and walked off. I suspect he was one of the so-called rescue flotilla of open boats that was trying to take stranded folk back to the UK. Unfortunately for him there were little or no queues in Calais, and plenty of space on the ferries home...

But still, 13 hours (with bio and food breaks) of solo driving, around 1200 km (750 miles or so) - which comes to an average speed of just under 60mph. Pity about the Golf's terrible gearbox, though...