I hadn't planned on returning to Italy anytime soon. I did however have some annual leave to use up, and decided I didn't want to waste it. It felt like staying in the UK would be a waste considering the couple of years mostly lost to the global pandemic. I wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere with sun, and with new things to see.
When you’re looking for inspiration of where to go, the internet seems like an obvious choice. From a certain point of view, that’s what I did. There’s a travel show on a UK television channel where the host takes a famous person, usually a comedian, to a European city for 48 hours. For a few weeks I’d had episodes of it in the background, playing from their online streaming service whilst I worked, but did actually acknowledge some of what I could hear. There were many places I’d been to already, and the occasional glance was met with familiarity. Some of these places were new, but looked like they could be worth visiting one day.
I didn’t really want to spend too much on this trip, knowing I’d got a bigger trip to Jordan on the horizon. With prices being higher during the school holidays that eliminated July and August as possible months to go. With my leave expiring in September, it was clear that was the month I would go in. I stared at a map, and was drawing a blank. I considered Gibraltar, but decided there wasn’t enough there to see for the time I wanted to use up. I thought about France too, and got as far as looking at what races would be held there. None of them really fit in with the reality of running the London Marathon at the start of October.
My inspiration then came from looking at the events map for parkrun, the global running success that brought weekly timed 5K runs to everyone for free. One of these locations was Milan, a place I’d also seen on that travel show. This seemed like the perfect choice.
I had actually been to Milan once before. Sort of. In 2009 I’d been to Berlin, and from there flew to Naples, and used trains to then see Pompeii, Vesuvius, Rome, and Venice, before taking a train to Milan to fly to Athens. I’d not actually seen anything of Milan though other than what could be seen from the bus window on the way from the train station to the airport. I’d returned to Berlin in 2021 to finish off that city and see more of the country, and now a year later I’d be returning to Italy to see more there. Would this trend continue into 2023 with a return to Greece? I’ve wanted to do the Athens marathon for a while…
If I wanted to stay for around three nights, then most of the places in the city would be somewhere around the £300 point. However, there was an apartment situated not far from the parkrun location, and was priced at only £161.
I was already off to a good start, and just needed some flights. These started at £30 for cabin baggage only, but could also be up to ~£300. This didn’t seem too bad to me, so I went ahead and booked the apartment, and started to look at the sights I could see around the city. Somehow, I spotted that Florence had a parkrun as well. It wasn’t that far away from Milan either, so a train journey probably wouldn’t be too bad. Could I find enough to do during the week to warrant being there on two Saturdays?
There are a few places in Italy I still wanted to see more of. I’d not been to Pisa, or Verona, and I would very much like to return to Rome and Pompeii at some point to get better photographs.Though I also needed to know how much there was to see in Florence beyond what I’d read about in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
I now had a plan, or at least, most of one. I still needed to figure out what to do with flights and travel between the cities. I had thought I’d do Pisa straight after Milan, but found that trains from Milan to Pisa would go through Florence anyway, and increased the costs. I found it actually worked out better to stay in Florence, and to book a tour to Pisa from there, and was able to find one that also included Lucca - a recommendation from a colleague. It would cost £68pp, but this included entrance fees, transportation, lunch, and a guide. If I’d taken the train instead, tickets for that alone would have cost £23pp to cover both towns.
So whilst I could have had a nice relaxing weekend seeing sights in Milan for less than £300, the cost was starting to balloon, but I also thought it’d be nice to have some company on this trip after being a solo traveller for my last few. I checked with friends, and they were unable to, but my sister could. She’d not been overseas since Croatia and Slovenia in 2018, so it would be a good break for her, and would also split the cost of the accommodation.
Having a list of sights to see gave me an idea of how much time I’d need in each place, and an idea of how much currency I’d need to take with me. In Florence at least, I’d also need €50pp as a final cleaning fee for the apartment, €4pppd, and €0.37/kwh for electricity use. It was unclear whether we'd need €10pp for bed linen and towels as well, but the wording suggested we wouldn't.
In terms of what to take, this being a self-navigated multi-city break would usually mean that packing light works out best, but with only two appartments it wouldn't be so bad. However, I still kept to mostly just the essentials: one DSLR camera body and two lenses, my laptop for photo backups, and the usual sort of things you'd take on a trip like this. Some of the bits were just in case the appartments didn't have them, such as an immersion heating element for making warm drinks. I'd also packed a few snacks as well, just because they'd be nice to have. Our intention was to mostly cook food ourselves using whatever we could find at the local supermarkets.
Since the pandemic I’ve now got into the habit of visiting GOV.UK and signing up for notifications on changes to foreign travel advice for any country I’m going to visit. It’s one way to reduce the chance of surprise when travelling, and can give you more time to make changes if you need to. Whilst I hope we won’t be in a position again where we see the sort of restrictions that happened during 2020, it does also let you know when there are changes such as water rationing in the north due to a severe drought.
Whilst there might be very low concern about pandemic-based restrictions, there was the worry of flight cancellation as British Airways and other airlines have been cancelling flights at Gatwick and Heathrow for a few months due to capacity problems following the return to pre-pandemic levels, and the inability to get staff hired quick enough to cover them. It may have only been two months away, but it was going to be a long couple of months…
Just three weeks before we were due to check-in, I got a message from the Spazio Luna apartment simply saying “Sorry, problem!” and then an email from Booking.com to say the owner had requested cancellation. I messaged them back to say I was very disappointed they’d do this so close to the day, especially with no explanation as to why. I knew anywhere else I’d book would be more expensive, would affect all the plans for Milan I’d figured out so far, and would potentially be further away from the parkrun. That booking was mostly the reason I’d decided to go to Milan for their parkrun to start with.
I replied to them, hoping for an explanation, and whilst I didn’t receive one, they did at least seem to show some remorse.
“I'm desolated! really but for those dates I need the house for personal reasons. I am sorry.”
With so much now booked, I had no choice but to find the next best option after accepting the cancellation. I thought I’d found a place even closer to parkrun, and booked that: Park House Niguarda. Prices had increased in the last couple of months, and it was now around £300 extra to pay out between us. If our plans were to go as unchanged as possible, it’d have to do. Anything closer to the city would have been at least £100-200 more than that for three nights anyway.
It wasn’t until after booking it I realised Parco Nord Milano is actually two parks with almost two miles between them. Of course, parkrun was in the one that was the farthest away. It’d make things a little tighter timewise on that first morning, but hopefully wouldn’t be a problem. We'd certainly make the best of it!
Could anything else go wrong now? Sometimes that’s a question better left unasked, as you might not like the answer. My sister had some swelling in her ankle that had to be looked into due to her history with DVT. This involved scans and blood tests right up until the week before, but it looked like everything would be okay for travel.
At least we didn’t need to keep an eye on the pandemic as we were heading into the cooler months, or an eye on flight cancellations from British Airways. Oh wait…