Booking a 7am flight from London Stansted seemed like a good idea back in the depths of February when holidays were a distant dream. Seduced by the improbably cheap price of a trip to Bologna with Ryanair, we successfully blocked out all our scruples about the aggressive scrum tactics required to board the aircraft, the infuriating plugs for dubious electronic cigarettes and even more dubious lottery scratchcards and clicked "purchase". Somewhat inevitably, booking a 7am flight from London Stansted seemed like less of a good idea once it was Saturday June 29th and calculations indicated that we needed to leave the house at 2.45am in order to be at the airport parking for the required time...
It’s even less of a good idea if you decide to work until about midnight and then go out to withdraw the cash you’ll leave on the table for the lovely catsitter.
Getting to sleep the night before was a struggle equalled only by the struggle of dragging ourselves out of bed a mere four hours later, flinging the last few items in our cases and setting off on the 100+ mile drive to the airport. The faultless directions of the SatNav combined with the blaring tunes of Metallica combined to keep us both awake and on time and before 5am we were merrily crossing the threshold of Stansted airport, unsuspecting of the chaos that would await us. 5am is generally a pretty quiet time of the morning. The day was still in the process of dawning and the roads had been deserted as we made our approach to the airport. The interior of Stansted airport, however, was akin to the interior of the Birmingham Bull Ring on a Saturday before Christmas, and sadly not because it was decked with festive fairy lights. The airport was quite simply heaving with expectant holiday-makers. Walking in anything approaching a straight line was a distinct impossibility, as queues from various Ryanair check-in desks snaked aimlessly around each other, across each other, into each other. There were no helpful barriers or staff on hand to indicate where one queue ended and another began. Travellers laden with luggage were standing helplessly wherever the fancy took them, unable to ascertain where to turn next. Chaos was too polite a word for it.
Of course, had people bothered to see where the queue was leading instead of passively joining the end of the ever-lengthening snake they would have seen two much shorter queues further ahead which were maybe eight passengers deep. It was to one of these two queues to that we appended ourselves.
We eventually located the general area where we were supposed to check in, and struck lucky when 50% of our queue migrated to another desk suddenly opened for those who were on the verge of missing their flights. In less time than we originally expected, we were therefore on our way through security, an experience marred only by the fact that yet again I set off the metal detector for no conceivable reason and had to undergo a search. The departure lounge was only marginally less crowded than the check-in hall, with almost every available seat already taken, but we struck lucky getting a table at Wetherspoons, where we were able to tuck into a much-needed American breakfast. Who knew that sausages and maple syrup went together so well?!
Suitably fortified, we survived the challenge of boarding unscathed, managing even to secure seats next to one another. A short nap, some reading and a triumphant proclamation of Ryanair's punctuality later, we touched down in Bologna and were hit by a wave of warm dry air as we took our first steps from the aircraft. Wow, this was summer then!
Bologna airport is situated a few kilometres outside the main town of Bologna, but there is a convenient "Aerobus" which, for the modest(?!) price of €6 per person will transport you and your luggage directly to the main train station, Bologna Centrale. We were a couple of the last people permitted to board this particular bus, which resulted in there being nowhere to stow my luggage except for a precarious spot on top of another bag on the highest shelf of the vehicle. I spent much of the 30-minute journey anxiously eyeing up my case as we bumped and bounced through the outskirts of Bologna, weighing up the possibility of some particularly bad example of Latin driving causing it to be flung across the bus and take out several German tourists. Fortunately, because I'm not sure whether my travel insurance would have covered the damages arising from such an eventuality, we arrived at Bologna Centrale without incident and after a bit of wandering around the station's maze of corridors, managed to locate the baggage office which the internet had assured me would be there and deposit our bags for a few hours while we killed some time before checking into our apartment. I should add that we had to pay the somewhat extortionate price of €5 per bag for this pleasure.
Our overwhelming desire at this point was simply to have a nap, but it was only 11am and the earliest we would be able to check into the apartment was 2pm. Our vague aim was thus to walk into the city centre and lose some time wandering around the medieval town. Armed with a guidebook to Bologna, we naively assumed that locating the town centre would be a pretty straight forward task, only to be thwarted at the first hurdle when it transpired that the only map in the guidebook stopped short of showing the area around the station. Babel has a pretty good sense of direction and determined that the town was located due north of the station. We therefore set off in a direction approximating due north and proceeded to follow it for the best part of an hour without seeing anything that looked remotely like a town centre. The particular high point of the excursion was probably the point at which, having arrived in a small square with a park, I chanced upon a plaque which appeared to be commemorating some military happening which had taken place on VII November 1944. Given my non-existent command of the Italian language, I was pretty chuffed to have worked this out and, after a brief consultation of the map, concluded that we must be in Piazza VII novembre 1944. This seemed quite reasonable in the circumstances and, armed with this new knowledge of our location, we began reassessing the best route into town. Having located our desired street on the map, it was perplexing not to be able to locate it in real life. None of the streets leading off from the square had the names properly assigned to them on the map, so we struck off again in the direction which seemed most sensible and hoped for the best. It later transpired that we had actually been in Piazza dell' Unita which, despite having a monument to commemorate the events of VII November 1944 is quite distinct from and indeed nowhere near Piazza VII novembre 1944. Go figure.
Eventually, having first walked past a business park and then a football stadium, we were forced to accept that never mind walking into the town centre, we were in danger of walking out of the town altogether. It had been pleasant strolling in the sun though, and we stopped at a little pizzeria where we ate surprisingly large pizzas while perched on surprisingly small stools, before turning around and heading back the way we had come. Fortunately we made it to the station to retrieve our baggage without any difficulty and headed off to check into our apartment.
On first impressions, it appeared to be good value for money. There was a spacious bedroom with a small kitchenette and en-suite bathroom. The air-conditioning took a while to get going, but did make some impact on cooling the place down. As the week progressed, we did identify a few shortcomings, most notably the fact that the fridge refused to be cold and the kitchenette was not equipped with anywhere near enough implements to successfully self-cater. The sight of Babel attempting to chop onions with a butter knife the following evening was really one to behold. For the first evening, we were far too tired to try anything so adventurous and after a quick lie down on the bed which accidentally turned into a 3-hour nap, we headed out again only as far as the nearest Lidl to pick up some cheap wine and some much anticipated paprika crisps. Perhaps not the most exciting first evening in Italy, but all we could manage after such an early wake-up call!