On the day that the volcano in Iceland exploded back in April, I was due to fly from Porto back to Gatwick after a few days visiting our factory in northern Portugal. I’d packed my suitcase and was about to leave my hotel room when my husband called me on the phone. "You may not get home today" he said "some volcano that nobody can pronounce has blown up in Iceland". Iceland was a long way away and surely any delay would be short and not too serious. I checked out of the hotel and headed to the factory assuming it would all ‘blow over’.
That morning I started to realise that things might be more serious than I’d initially thought. My colleagues in Germany and Belgium told me that airports were closed in northern Europe. I called the travel agents who knew nothing so I checked the website of my carrier and learned that my flight was cancelled. I called the agents back and they booked me on another airline later in the evening. So began a long process of calls back and forth, checking back into the hotel and out again each day as one by one my rebooked flights got cancelled again and again.
The volcano started causing disruption on the Thursday morning and by Saturday it was clear that nobody was going anywhere over the weekend. On Monday with yet more bookings cancelled, I had a confirmed booking for Thursday at the earliest. Fortunately I wasn’t alone – two colleagues were there at the same time and one had his wife and small son with him too. We spent a pleasant weekend around Porto playing a ‘wait and see’ game but we agreed that we couldn’t put off doing ‘something’ forever. Should we stay and wait it out, or should we try to take control of our situations and get back to England.
Boats from northern Spain were full and despite rumours that Gordon Brown was about to send a couple of naval frigates and the famous Ark Royal aircraft carrier to help rescue the stranded, we had no news on how to take advantage of such an opportunity. (It turned out to be rubbish and to the best of my knowledge the ships never showed up). Car rental firms were engaging in shocking profiteering and prices were heading sky-high but we decided to hit the road.
A local colleague spent hours on the telephone trying to get us cars and came up with a plan and bookings. He booked a rental car for us to get from Porto to San Sebastian (7-8 hours drive) and then we would swap for a car with Spanish plates to drive through France to Calais and take our chances on the channel crossing ferries. The price was shocking and Avis were clearly laughing all the way to the bank.
We had a small rental car that had been hired from Porto airport when my colleague first arrived and it was far too small to get three adults, a baby and all the baby paraphernalia to the border. Shame and curses upon the manager of the Avis at Porto airport who treated us shamefully. He wanted his rental car back but wasn’t prepared to hand over another until 12 hours later even though he knew we had an appointment to pick up a car at the border between Spain and France just a couple of hours later. Jenson Button himself could not have got to the border in the time that he allowed us. I also didn’t trust that once he got the car back there would be another coming later.
I told Dominik, my colleague, that if the manager wanted his car he could come and get it but Dominik, being German and so genetically programmed to follow rules, got up in the small hours of the morning to return the car, get to the factory for a few hours before we all jumped in a taxi to head for the border. Yes, you read that right. We took a taxi all the way across Northern Spain to get to the border. It cost us €900 including road tolls and it wouldn’t have been too bad if the driver had been a bit more awake and a bit less interested in texting his girlfriend as he drove along.
We left the hotel in Santo Tirso just after 10 am with a mission to get to San Sebastian by 6.30 pm. It was always going to be a tight time scale but about 10 miles into the journey, my colleague’s two-year old son Lennart threw up from the winding roads and we realised that where was still a very long way to go. Ironically for just a couple of Euros the driver could have taken the highway but that would have meant toll fees and he was being mean with our money (so that it would become his money).
With Lennart’s clothes changed and him back in the car seat bought specially for the journey in a late night panic session in a local shopping centre the night before we were back on the road. I don’t have kids and I’m not by nature a worrier but my colleague’s wife Marita was one of the most nervy mothers I’ve ever met. Her poor little boy was an angel but even angels get ratty when their wings are clipped in a car seat for hour after hour. We took only one break in the entire long drive, getting a quick drink and a pee-stop and then discovering the driver had disappeared for a more ‘proper’ break. We played in the children’s playground and reluctantly locked Lennart back into his car seat and headed onwards.
The landscape of northern Spain and the top corner of Portugal was beautiful and if I had two days to drive, stop and take in the scenery, it would have been a real pleasure to be somewhere so rugged and beautiful. Sadly the constant need to move on towards San Sebastian meant we were constrained to looking out of the windows.
When San Sebastian got closer we kept a look at our watches as the time crept closer to the cut off point at Avis. By this point Lennart was really quite poorly with a high temperature and a bad case of the grizzles. The driver was taking non-toll roads again and the time was ticking.
We’d been told that once we got the car we would have it for only 24 hours during which time we’d have to get to Callais. I’d booked us into a hotel that needed another 3 to 4 hours drive so we’d have a chance to eat up the rest of the French highway if we left early and drove like bats out of hell. Marita was almost hysterical. "My baby and I are going nowhere until I get his temperature down. I don’t care if we have to steal the car and get chased through France by the Gendarmes, I’m not going any further today".
I called the travel agents, told them to cancel the hotel near Burgundy and find us something in San Sebastian and then I prepared to have a fight with Avis.
Avis had changed our booking several times. Each time the price went up and the time we had went down. I was ready for a fight. Dominik and I headed into the office whilst Marita tried to cool Lennart down outside. I stomped up to the desk and told the assistant that it just wasn’t acceptable that we had to get to Calais in 24 hours. We had a sick baby and it was impossible. She looked at me with big eyes "What is ‘sick baby’?" she asked me. I did an impression of a howling hysterical baby "Ah yes, sick baby" she replied and smiled. "You have nothing to worry about" she said "the car is yours for up to 3 days, you just pay a little more if you go over two days.". She then watched me return to a rough approximation of a human being, then she checked the paperwork and drew a map of how to get to the hotel that the agents has hurriedly booked and waved us on our way with a cheery "Good bye and don’t worry". For a moment we almost felt human again.