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Travel: Your holiday disaster

The white wine, Richard Marsden was assured, tasted like paint stripper. But he thought he'd find out for himself...
We returned to Chateau Lucretia one evening, exhausted but exhilarated after a day's skiing in the Italian Alps. Copious quantities of red and white wine were served in carafes at the dinner table each evening by our chalet maids, Jane and Clurr.

My instinct is always to go for the red. Cheap red is usually drinkable, whereas cheap white tastes like paint stripper. Lucretia's white was no exception. Having avoided the paint stripper for the first three nights, I thought it was time I experienced what all the fuss was about. I was joined by David, the only other of my party who had been sticking to the red.

Simultaneously, we took our first swigs of the evening. In the split second before I drank I remember smelling the wine. "That's strange," I thought, "no smell." I had missed the only danger signal. David yelled first. Our mouths were on fire. It felt as though the skin on our throats had been ripped away, exposing the raw flesh to a deluge of hydrochloric acid.

Not even cheap Italian wine could be that bad. We soon found out that we had consumed industrial strength dishwasher fluid, otherwise known as potassium hydroxide, an alkali with a pH high enough to dissolve your chemistry teacher. The chalet was linked to a hotel and rather than going to the extraordinary expense of providing the chalets with dishwasher powder, the tour operator was leaving the maids to decant fluid from the hotel vat. Our maids were using empty wine bottles for this task.

David and I reacted by downing water by the gallon, pausing only to throw it up again in a desperate attempt to clear our systems. This was apparently completely the wrong thing to do, as it forced the alkali up and down our throats again and again.

Eventually an ambulance turned up, and we were rushed, with sirens screaming, along dark, blizzard-stricken roads on a hell ride to Aosta general hospital, at the bottom of the Mont Blanc valley. Once there, we were ushered through a warren of corridors and elevators for emergency endoscopies.

Half an hour later I was lying in the geriatrics ward attached to a drip. I was told that there was no space for David and me to be in the same ward. This may have been true, but in fact David was in intensive care, surrounded by an array of tubes and LCD displays.

It was a week before our insurance company gained permission to fly us home. During that time, we had no food and drink but were fed through a tube that ran up our right arm and into our chests. Alternate saline and glucose solutions plus (if we were lucky) a mysterious milky liquid flowed up our arms, day in, day out. The hardest task was going to the toilet attached to a heavy stand containing a bottle and electronic monitor.

Meanwhile, Dave and I are back on our skis. We were in France in January and will be back again in March next year. Anything goes on the slopes, but it is strictly red wine for the apres-ski.