Travel: Holiday disasters

Barney Southin discovered that his free holiday as a volunteer tour guide was worth less than he paid

Not long ago I was asked to co-lead an expedition of 25 university students on an art and architecture tour of northern Italy. As payment, I was promised free room and board, plus a seat on the coach as it ferried us from Florence to Siena and then Rome. "Free holiday" was how I described this windfall to my friends in the pub.

Things, however, began to go wrong on the very first day. In a display of portentous incompetence, my co-leader left two of his students in central London. This would have been disastrous if, after two hours of driving, we had made it beyond Finchley. Our Liverpudlian coach driver had decided that Dover was best reached by driving in the only direction he knew: north.

Eventually we caught the ferry to France, though not the one we had booked. That had sailed four hours earlier - while I was separating a fistfight between my colleague and two irate students.

In Calais we met two new drivers, "Terry" and "Bill", who had been lured out of retirement. For them, the trip was a reward for a lifetime of hard work: a kind of carriage clock on wheels. And so, with time on their hands, they dodged all the toll-roads on the drive to Florence. At one point during the night, the coach veered off an unlit country road and almost crashed when one of them fell asleep at the wheel. By then I had passed out, lulled by an endless Robson and Jerome video.

Florence and Siena were uneventful, apart from the protracted negotiations about pay and conditions with Terry and Bill. We rejected an outrageous claim for a parking fine and broached the touchy subject of toll dodging. Terry and Bill emerged richer, but at least they knew we were on to them.

Nothing, however, could have prepared us for Rome. We arrived in the Eternal City on the evening of Good Friday: arguably the busiest day of the year. Stuck in the Easter Weekend traffic gridlock, we were unable to find our hotel. This was because the map we had been given was completely wrong. By now there was a distinct whiff of mutiny on the coach, and I felt like Captain Bligh.

After hours of searching, we discovered that our hotel was in the red- light district. More precisely, it was the red-light district: haggard prostitutes were abandoning the rooms as we arrived. There were pubic bath-plugs, mould-covered carpets, ubiquitous blood and urine stains, army bunks instead of beds, and a complete absence of the promised disabled facilities. (We had two disabled students.)

My room was distinguished by a festering bidet. On discovering that one mattress was covered in a Lake Erie-sized urine stain, I summoned the twitchy Moroccan manager. His words of comfort were: "It is not wet."

To cap it all, Terry stormed into the hotel red-faced, screaming a torrent of abuse directed at "filthy dago scum" and "stinking Italians". Unfortunately, he had witnessed a display of genitalia by an enthusiastic black transvestite in the street outside. Never in his life had he been so affronted. As a result, the drivers abandoned us, taking the precious coach with them. I believe they spent a couple of nights sleeping in a car park before I found them the last decent hotel room in Rome.

Needless to say, a number of students threatened to go home early or take action against the universities or both. We did make it back to London a week later, though we never got back to our starting point. An IRA bomb scare shut down central London and we were forced to abandon the coach in a traffic jam on Tottenham Court Road.

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