Ciampino airport and Castel Gandolfo. Two names that are forever burned in my memory – but for all the wrong reasons. 20 years apart, and two remarkably similar experiences.
It all started with the Australian countess.
“Really, you can’t miss it,” she said, brushing her blonde hair out of a beautifully made-up eye. In the dim half-light, drinkers quaffed real Guinness. Or as real as you can get in an Irish pub in Rome.
Tied to the bar-stool next to the countess, her poodle looked at us expectantly.
“You just take the metro to the end of the line, then catch the bus to Ciampino. It’s a just a few stops,” she said.
“Yeah, no worries,” she said cheerfully, and knocked back another Martini. “Refill?”
But I did miss it. The metro reached the end of the line, and the bus was just where she said it would be. But the airport? Well, that was nowhere to be seen. Just a long, straight road with no stops. No airport signs, no terminal buildings, no planes.
And then we came to a halt.
“Capolinea!” shouted the driver.
End of the line? What did he mean? My heart raced, my pulse quickened. What about Ciampino, I pleaded. Where was Ciampino?
45 minutes back, that’s where – and the bus didn’t begin the return journey for another hour. I’d miss my flight.
So for now, here we were in the pretty town of Castel Gandolfo, where the pope comes in summer to escape the stultifying heat of Rome. Not that I had time to appreciate it. I had other concerns.
I didn’t have enough to pay for the taxi, so I supplemented my cash with a top-of-the-line plastic Sony Walkman (this was 1987, remember). A white-knuckle ride later, we pulled up in front of departures.
And that’s when I discovered my flight had been delayed by two hours. Walkman-less, penniless, I trudged through the concourse and cursed to myself. Too late, I saw the nuns beside me. They gasped in shock and retreated to a far corner.
I sat and waited.
20 years later, and the journey starts in reverse. A leisurely drive from our holiday apartment to Castel Gandolfo, followed by lunch. Then on to the long, straight road towards Ciampino.
Just one thing left to do. Fill up at the petrol station just by the Hertz car park.
Simple. Or so you’d think.
The shutters are pulled down. It’s deserted. But wait – it says ’24 ore’. 24-hour self-service. Things are looking up.
Oh no they’re not. The machine spits out my credit card three times. And three other cards. Naturally, I haven’t got enough cash to feed it, so it’s Plan B. Except we haven’t got a Plan B.
The clock is ticking. The plane won’t wait. Do we allow Hertz to fill up at their inflated prices, or find another petrol station?
No contest, so it’s back down the Via Appia at breakneck speed. Ah, there’s one. A smiling Asian petrol-pump attendant come to greet us.
“Closed!” he says merrily in English.
“Closed!” he chirps. “All petrol station in Italy closed between 12 and 3. Self service only. No card, only cash.”
My heart sinks. Every station?
“Yes,” he says with certainty. Then, “No, maybe not all. Maybe 12 till 2.”
It’s 2.15, so we tear off down the Via Appia, heading ever farther from Ciampino. Look, there’s another petrol station.
Four attendants in grey jumpsuits are sitting around a plastic table. They’re swigging beer from 75cl bottles, and one is lighting up – just yards away from the pumps, but far enough to indicate that they’re Closed For Lunch.
I slide my card into the reader and jab at the machine. It spits it out. I try again. Spit. And again. Spit.
But there are Visa and MasterCard signs everywhere. Why isn’t it accepting my card? One grey jumpsuit takes pity on me. No, he explains, that slot is for loyalty cards only. You can only pay by credit card…
No, wait, don’t tell me. Before 12 or after 3? He smiles.
We ransack our wallets, and discover we might have enough euros to fill up. I feed several tens into the slot. Not quite full yet, so I put in my last ten. The pump dribbles 90 cents’ worth and the needle slides satisfyingly to the right.
And the change? Only after 3pm, he tells me. Or I could bring back the receipt next time I’m in the area. As if.
15 minutes later, we turn into the Hertz car park. And five minutes after that, we’re inside the terminal building.
I look around to make sure we’re in a nun-free zone, and then I let rip.
Swearing never felt so good.