I’d been tossing up a few ideas for December’s ejo, but they were all cast aside when I discovered this old gem lurking in the depths of my computer. I do believe I am about to present to you my very first ejo, written over seven years ago. My first travel essay, written about my first travel misadventure, on my first solo trip abroad. Some of you will remember it. For others it will be new. I present to you the abridged, Editor’s Cut version of the essay for your holiday season reading pleasure.
Buon giorno tutti,
I am about to regale for you, a tale of travel misery and woe.
It all started when I landed at Milano Bergamo airport on the 28th April 2006. I’d caught an early flight from London, so had been up since 4.30am. When I landed in Italy, I took the shuttle bus from the airport to Milano Centrale Stazione where I was to catch another bus to Milano Garibaldi station to catch a bus to Siena. Simple, right?? Sure, except that someone told me there were no buses at that time. No problem, I caught a taxi (for €10, which was a bit of a rip off, but hey, I was excited about being in Italy). When I got to Garibaldi, I went to the ticket area and asked about my planned 2.15pm bus to Siena only to be told that it had been cancelled because of a national transport strike due to finish at 3pm that day – crazy Italians and their crazy striking. I asked about the next bus and was told that all buses to Siena that day were booked out. “OK”, I thought to myself, “there are other avenues for me to take”. I’d go to the train station across the street and catch a train to Siena. Who needs the bus! So I schlepped across the road with my two suitcases and my heavy handbag thinking, “Wow, this is shaping up to be quite the adventure”. Oh, little did I know! I got to the train station ticket area and waited in line for 45 minutes before being told that all the trains to Siena were booked out for the day. No more seats to Siena.
I started to panic internally, but tried to keep a cool facade. ‘Keep It Together’ became my mantra, whispered under my breath over and over again. My problem was that I’d booked a car rental in Siena that had to be picked up by 11am the next day. If I didn’t collect it, the reservation would be cancelled. I figured (after a bit more thought) that the best solution would be to hire a car from Milan to Siena. I walked 20 minutes into town carrying my cases and my big, fat, stupid handbag looking for car rental offices. I eventually found a Thrifty where they told me they had only one car left – a Smart car (you know, those ridiculous little boxes that seat two people and not much else). It was €55 for one day. I suspected they were trying to rip me off, and (thinking myself the rather savvy traveller) thought I should be able to get a better deal somewhere else (oh, the naivety).
I walked around town for another half an hour (yes, lugging my luggage) to discover that I’d somehow managed to arrive in Italy on a long weekend (who knew!!!), so all the cars were gone. ALL OF THEM! I hurried back to Thrifty and was relieved to find the Smart car was still available. However, because I was going one way I would have to pay an extra €45. This seemed quite ridiculous and, at that stage, unacceptable, so I figured I’d spend the night in a Milan hotel and get into Siena first thing in the morning to pick up my Siena car rental (are you following all this??).
I haughtily turned my back on Thrifty and returned to the bus station to ask about the earliest bus into Siena the next day. It didn’t arrive in Siena until 2.45pm, so I rang the Siena car rental office to change my booking pick-up time from 11am to 3pm. They told me that they closed at 12.30pm and that if I didn’t pick up the car before then I would forfeit the rental. ARGH!!!!
So I trudged across to the train station to find out if the trains left any earlier than the buses. But no, it was the same deal with the trains. The earliest didn’t get there until 1pm. Too late for me.
I had now reached desperation stage. Melting under the Milanese sun, I dragged myself – hot, shitty and sweaty – back to the Thrifty car rental place, resentfully forked out €100 and signed the paperwork on the bloody Smart car. It was the only way I could get to Siena in time to pick up my Siena rental. When they pointed out that Thrifty didn’t have an office in Siena, I waved the problem away. “You have an office in Firenze, 70km north of Siena?? No worries. Please just give me the car keys. Now!”
I devised a cunning plan (pay attention, now) to drive the Milan rental to Siena, sleep the night in my booked accommodation, drive the Milan rental to the Siena rental place, pick up the keys to my Siena rental, park it somewhere it wouldn’t incur a ticket, drive the Milan rental to Firenze, drop it off and then catch a bus from Firenze back to Siena to pick up the Siena rental from where I’d parked it and then drive to my villa in Tuscany. Brilliant plan, no?! Obviously I like to make life difficult for myself – but I honestly couldn’t think of another way around it. I had exhausted all other options.
I got directions out of Milan, but somehow managed to find myself a) in peak hour, long weekend traffic, b) going round in circles because the stupid signs didn’t make any sense, and c) driving like a maniac in order to avoid being murdered by what I had started referring to as Fucking Crazy Italians!!!!
It took me two, long and exhausting, hours to get out of Milan onto the highway for Siena. I literally whooped with joy when I was established outside of the city. It was, by now, 6pm and I had a 375km drive ahead of me, after having eaten NO FOOD for 14 hours, and being VERY TIRED INDEED and having a PRETTY BAD HEADACHE!!!! Still, things were OK. All I had to do was concentrate on the fact that I was driving a death-trap and that I was doing it on the wrong side of the road. Oh yes, and deal with the thunderstorm that decided to follow me along the highway dumping rain on me and my little jalopy, drastically reducing my visibility and traction on the road. And then, at about 11pm, I also had to contend with a 30km bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on the freeway due to roadworks into Siena. But I was heading in the right direction and I was happy.
So around midnight I made it to Siena, proper – absolutely exhausted and kind of hallucinating about going to sleep. I won’t even go into how many times I had just wanted to stop the car and transport myself back to Australia, back into my bed, safe and sound asleep. Let’s just say it was LOTS.
So, as I was circling the city it occurred to me that, whilst I had a street address for the small hotel I was staying in, I had no map and no directions. Minor problem after what I’d just experienced, quite frankly. “I’ll just drive around and find it,” I thought to myself. HAHAHA!!!! Have you ever been to Siena? It’s a city with a population of about 50,000. It’s freaking huge. Good luck finding a hotel if you have no idea where to look. This eventually dawned on me and I stopped at a large hotel to ask for a map. I found the street I was looking for on the map and realised it was inside the city walls, i.e. no cars allowed. So I parked close to where I thought the hotel would be and headed into the ancient city on foot to conduct a reconnaissance mission. I found myself delving deeper and deeper into the city, going into progressively darker and creepier little alleys – though by this stage the idea of being murdered, and my body being disposed of, was actually very comforting. Just as I was about to give up, resigned to spending the night in my “vehicle”, I looked up from my dragging feet and there it was. Hotel Antica Torre!! There was a note on the door with my name on it, with a key inside. I squealed a little and jumped up and down with sheer happiness at having found it.
I managed to find my way back to the car and dragged my suitcases along the cobbled street, probably waking up all the Sienese residents – but I wasn’t about to do anyone any favours by carrying them. I just didn’t have it in me at this stage. As I climbed up the stairs to my room, I could SMELL sleep!! I had a shower, and collapsed on the bed. I had very bad dreams that night!!
The next day was better. But I truly must be an arrogant and audacious individual, because I took the Milan rental car to Firenze with absolutely no directions, no map, and (even worse this time) no address. What is WRONG with me!!?? Once I got there, I just drove around in crazy circles (like a Fucking Crazy Italian – the streets of Italy no longer held any secrets for me). I stopped and asked for directions about twenty times, and then, lo and behold, I found the damn office and I dropped off the damn car, got on a damn bus to Siena, caught a taxi to the Siena car rental, drove to my villa and pretty much died of happiness.
Last year, David and I spent some time in Siena (still one of my favourite places in the world despite my traumatic experience). Why don’t you check out my photo series from our visit: Pedestrians Of Siena.