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We’ve all told the odd white lie about why we’re home late, but ‘sorry, love, a volcano erupted’ doesn’t normally hold water. Until last week, that is. Here’s my own tale of enforced overground travel, hire-car hell, and unruly sheep. I think it gives an insight into the kind of journey that tens of thousands of people have undertaken (and are still undergoing) to get back to their motherland – in our case, back to Blighty.

No rooms at the inn

On our visit to Milan’s furniture-design fair (think Earl’s Court on steroids), my sister Hannah had told me that to avoid baggage reclaim and maximise our time, we should ‘pack light’. Famous last words…

Before we could go to the fair, a couple of potential Smith hotels needed visiting, including the new Maison Moschino. Moschino is the latest fashion emporium to create a boutique hotel (has two in Paris, Missoni one in Edinburgh, Ferragamo several outposts in Florence and Rome), and it looks like an ideal addition to Mr& Mrs Smith’s Italian hotel collection. However, a word of warning if you book this hotel: everything (and I mean everything) is white, so I have visions of Franco and his fellow fashionistas scrubbing his virginal vision with Vanish after a few guests have passed through its doors – keep us posted if you go when it opens. As you can see from our photo, we were especially taken with the ornamental sheep.

This was a last-minute trip, so there was no glamorous abode reserved for this Mr Smith and his sibling, just a dreadful overbooked Best Western, an experience further soured by with a massive fall-out with a travel company whom it would not be, ahem, expedient to mention by name. After listening to five recorded phone calls recounting the booking process, they begrudgingly agreed that we had indeed booked separate rooms for three nights. So much for the ‘customer is always right’ philosophy…

However, that mix-up ironically got us home, as we decided to spend what we thought would be our last day hunting for new Smith hotels around Lake Garda. A hire car courtesy of the (then very helpful) Europcar and a 24-hour stay in the Italian countryside sounded like a very pleasant way to round off the trip.

As we speed off in our Golf, we hear the volcanic news, and Smith HQ goes into overdrive (a huge thank you to Mary and Carla) to book us into various hotels while we hoped the cloud would literally blow over.

Hotels du Lac

A beautiful boutique hotel called Villa Arcadio was our first stop. Styled by its Scandinavian owners, it’s perched on a beautiful spot overlooking Lake Garda and the trip immediately felt like it was turning into a real success already. (We then invited Arcadio to join our Italian collection – it’s a real find.)

We also got to pay a visit to one of the most beautiful hotels on the planet – Villa Feltrinelli, right beside Lake Garda. I can’t say enough good things about this property: it’s quite simply sublime. The setting, attention to detail, and ethos are second to none and I have it on good authority from some well-travelled friends that ‘it’s the best place they have ever stayed’. They’ve subsequently been four times and now measure all other hotel stays in units of ‘Feltrinellis’. Mussolini lived here under house arrest during WW2 and, having spent the briefest moments at the hotel myself, I bet he hoped the war would never end. If it joins our collection (and I hope it does), start saving your pennies now – it’s worth every last one.

We head for Verona to stock up on underwear (a result of my ‘pack light’ instructions and new nomadic life) and then onto meet our next hosts Orietta, Franco, their two-year-old, Phillipo, and his pet chickens and ducks who live in their lovely gardens. Again, I’m struck by people’s generosity in a time of crisis, and I’m touched when they open up their guesthouse just for us. This place (which they built themselves) is another joy, and reminds me why we do what we do at Smith.

Just after breakfast, we hear that the eruption could go on for weeks. Hmm. There’s only one thing for it. We decide to kidnap our car and make a break to Calais – just under 2,000km away.

We thank our hosts, ring Europcar and tell them we need the Golf for a little longer and would it be okay to drop it off in Calais?

Apparently not. Apparently we’re not allowed to take it out of Italy.

We politely ignore them and head off.

Cut to the chase

We speed out of Italy, looking over our shoulder for the Europcar cops. En route we experience one of life’s strange moments when after several hours at the wheel we see a flock of sheep ambling towards us down the dual carriageway (perhaps on their way to visit a friend back in Maison Moschino?). Their shepherd has chosen this moment to migrate his 1,000-strong flock to a neighbouring field.

Half an hour of ovine fun later, we move on to Switzerland and continue our march to La Manche. Map-reading problems halt our exit from the Alps. As we unknowingly stop in the middle of a tram-lined road (I swear we didn’t see them), a police car pulls up behind us. I apologise and request ‘directions to France, please’. The policeman must have seen the desperation on our faces and invites us to follow him to the French border. Result.

Several more ignored calls from Europcar, a border crossing swifter than a McDonalds drive-through and we’re foot to the floor on those wonderful French peage roads clocking up the kilometres.

Maybe we were getting a bit carried away as we sang along to the French radio (by this time we were going slightly demented) and perhaps I forgot to take my foot off the accelerator (for a hundred miles or so), but then suddenly a gendarme came speeding up behind us. As we moved over to let him pass, we realised we were his intended victims. Damn. Had Europcar finally caught up with us and it’s off to the Bastille? Were we about to be charged with worrying sheep? How many laws could I actually have broken?

Thankfully, there were no cliffs nearby, or we might have gone the full Thelma & Louise

  • Travel tip 1 When driving in France, always carry €100 in the glove compartment if you plan on doing 162kph in a 130kph zone
  • Travel tip 2 If you plan on taking the accelerometer over 180, up that €100 to €750.
  • Travel tip 3 If you ignore travel tips 1 and 2, make sure you’re at least conversationally fluent in French before you attempt to turn a nearby bar landlord into an ad hoc bureau du change.

Dunkirk spirit. And wine.

The stretch between Reims and the coast is somewhat bereft of suitably Smithy accommodation, so we hunker down in an eccentric château for our last night on the road. We’ve heard that Calais is full, so it looks as though we’re headed to Dunkirk.

To catch the ferry from Dunkirk, however, you need a car or a motorbike (cue lots of Brits boarding with shiny new bikes). Our friends at Europcar, now with steam coming out of their ears from the recent news that we’ve taken their car through three countries, explain that under no circumstances should we take their vehicle to the UK. Or there’ll be trouble. Really, this time.

Feeling that we’ve probably pushed our luck, we’re forced into the rather ridiculous position of coercing a friend into driving over from England to chauffeur us home. Fortunately, I’m good at coercion.

Then, three things happen.

1) As we arrive in Dunkirk, the rendezvous with our driver doesn’t go according to plan, thanks to the road-clogging traffic trying to pass through the port, and, sure enough, we miss the ferry.

2) I discover that my laptop has consumed a fair quantity of shower gel en route, and, although certainly more fragrant, is less than functional.

3) We return the Golf to Europcar. I’d have thought they’d be relieved to get it back. Instead, I was relieved of €2,901.40. Thanks, Europcar. Next time I’ll get a cab.

So, beset with misfortune after an unplanned five-day road trip across Europe, what do you do with two hours to kill in Dunkirk? You do what any self-respecting Brit would do, head for the nearest supermarché and turn the whole nightmare into a beautiful booze cruise. Armed with as many bottles of Pouilly Fumé as we could fit in the boot, we headed home.

I’d like to thank my co-pilot, Hannah, for being such great company and wish all of you still trying to get back the best of British. I do hope that the lady we met on the boat returning to her four children in Milton Keynes made it home safely. It’s been, well, not fun exactly, but at least I’ve seen a lot of countryside. And sheep.

Bon voyage,

Monsieur Smith

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