Although not confirmed for a couple of weeks or so, on February 18th 1861 King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont and Savoy assumed the title of King of a united Italy. I studied Italian unification at school and university and became obsessed with the idea of visiting the country and soon after starting work and earning money I fulfilled that ambition.
In the spring of 1976 I made arrangements for my very first trip to continental Europe and booked a Cosmos holiday to Sorrento 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.
Airline travel was different in 1976, the flight had proper seat allocations and the plane had comfortable seats with adequate legroom and stewardesses who wore smart orange uniforms and served a complimentary hot meal and we both enjoyed our very first airline journey.
The plane landed at a Spartan military airport base near to the city of Naples and after I had already taken a picture of the plane 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 drab grey and in dire need of a welcoming makeover and made our way through to the coach that was waiting for us.
The twenty-five kilometre 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. 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 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 secretly congratulated myself on a good selection.
The hotel was six stories high and painted a dazzling white with smart green shutters on the windows. At the front trees with attractive pink blossom surrounded it and at the back there was a secluded garden full of citrus trees. 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 and have been consigned to history by European health and safety legislation. Our 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. There was a tiled floor and real wooden furniture, beds with crisp 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.
It is hard to remember how different travelling was thirty years ago. Staying in touch was difficult because there were no mobile phones, no satellite television with United Kingdom news broadcasts and whilst I could happily do without those today there were no bank debit cards or ATMs if you ran short of cash, which I now find rather handy.
Getting holiday spending money estimates right was quite important because getting a top up if you needed one was a real problem. Dad and I had taken £60 each for spending money, which I suppose would be about £200 now and although this didn’t sound a lot we were on full board arrangements at the hotel and I didn’t drink quite so much beer in those days! In 1976 £60 in sterling converted to several thousand Italian Lire and so for a few days we were able to spend as though we were millionaires.
In the late afternoon we had been invited to the Cosmos welcome meeting and as we thought that this was probably compulsory we went along to the hotel lounge with all the other guests to get the information that we all needed. Later on, on package holidays, I stopped going to the welcome meetings because they began to tell you less and less and only wanted to sell you more and more but this one turned out to be very worthwhile. The holiday representative was an attractive Italian woman called Maria who was very informative and gave us good advice before she sold us our trips. We planned our fortnight to go out every other day and chose to go to Amalfi, Capri, Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Rome as well as two entertainment nights in Sorrento. That was just about everything that was on offer although we did pass on the Monte Casino option. Trips must have been a great deal cheaper then and much better value for money because even after we had paid for them all we still managed to have plenty of spending money left over.