In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento in Italy with my girlfriend Linda. We were due to go on the 12th June but at some point shortly before travel she fell for the charms of a reporter on the local newspaper and abruptly ended the relationship.
This created a problem because it was within the no refund period and so I was faced with the prospect of losing all my money. I could have begged I suppose but that would have been undignified so instead we had a family crisis meeting and the solution was found when dad enthusiastically stepped in and agreed to take her place. That’s what dads are for, I would do exactly the same!
And so, on the appointed Saturday, we travelled to Luton airport for the Monarch Airlines flight to Naples. Apart from the Isle of Wight this was the first time that dad had been overseas as well and to be honest he was slightly overdressed for the occasion in his rather formal sports jacket and tie.
There again this was still a time when passengers still wore their best clothes to travel, it was something special, airport departure was far more civilized without the dehumanising process of security checks and where officers at passport control called you Sir.
Airline travel was so different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable reclining chairs with adequate leg room and stewardesses who wore smart yellow uniforms seemed genuinely pleased to see you and served a complimentary hot meal and free drinks. These days they are called Flight Attendants in the same way that actresses are called actors. I really don’t understand why women/ladies/girls don’t want to be treated as feminine any more. I guess I am getting old.
The plane landed at a rather Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane on my Kodak Pocket Instamatic we were firmly warned against taking photographs. It wasn’t an especially welcoming sort of place as we passed through a rather austere passport control and baggage reclaim hall both decorated in varying tones of slate grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and then made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.
The twenty-mile drive to Sorrento took about forty-five minutes along a busy road running alongside the Circumvesuviana railway and on the way we got our first look at Mount Vesuvius which towers up dangerously close to the city, and then as we swooped down through cypresses, citrus groves and vineyards around the Bay of Naples we could see the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Capri.
I think I remember being speechless. The sea and the sky were so intensely blue that at times it was difficult to be sure where one finished and the other started.
This was breathlessly exciting stuff because previously we had never been further than Cornwall or Norfolk and the blue, almost luminous, water looked a lot more inviting than the grey North Sea that’s for sure.
When the coach arrived in Sorrento it started dropping off the passengers at their various hotels and finally drove to Sant’ Agnello and a position directly on the coast on the top of the cliff and guests stopping at the Hotel Mediterraneo were invited to leave the coach. This was our stop and we were immediately impressed with where we would be staying and I smugly congratulated myself on a good selection.
The hotel was six stories high and painted a dazzling white, so bright it hurt your eyes to look at it, with smart green shutters on the windows. At the front it was surrounded by trees with attractive pink blossom and at the back there was a secluded garden full of citrus trees with oranges and lemons hanging invitingly low in the branches.
At the reception we checked in and the clerk handed over a room key attached to a bell-shaped key ring which would make it difficult to misplace and he had a surprise for me and handed over a letter from the pigeon-hole behind him. It was my birthday (22) in three days time and this was an envelope, which obviously contained a card, with an English stamp commemorating the bicentennial of American Independence.
This is one of the reasons that I am proud to be British – we can even celebrate our defeats without any bad feeling. In 1966 we had a Royal Mail stamp collection commemorating the ninth hundred anniversary of the Norman Conquest.
The handwriting on the envelope I instantly recognised as Linda’s and that made me feel rather sad.
Our room was on the fourth floor and the hotel had one of those old-fashioned lifts that were little more than a metal cage that went up and down the shaft and you could see the walls flashing by through the grill. This was the sort of lift that you don’t see any more because if you put your fingers through the frame it would rip them off and sensibly they have been consigned to history by European health and safety legislation.
The room was on the back of the hotel overlooking the garden and although it was basic it was clean and comfortable and we agreed that it would do very nicely indeed. There was a tiled floor and real wooden furniture, beds with crisp white linen sheets and a bathroom with an old-fashioned bath suite. Being 1976 there was no mini-bar of course and no television and certainly no Internet access. We allocated the drawer space, emptied our suitcases and made ourselves feel at home.
I was in Italy, my mind was racing, my heart was soaring and my senses were filled with a whole gazetteer of new experiences….