I’ve been wanting to visit Rome since a good many years. I’ve seen so many beautiful places throughout the years and this was sorely missing in my travel CV. Indeed, it goes against this blog’s philosophy of exploring interesting places before they become too crowded, but Rome is special and anyone who’s ever been there will know why. To be perfectly honest, I had visited once, half a lifetime ago when I was young and foolish in 1981, hardly appreciating the richness, beauty and history of the Eternal City.

Which is why when a friend told me that he would be going there on holiday with a group of Maltese friends of his who, unlike me, live in Malta and most of whom I knew from my university years, led by another old friend of mine who’s a walking encyclopedia of anything historic, artistic and, in particular, Italian, I practically invited myself to join them. I WhatsApped this old friend of mine, the walking encyclopedia, several years after we had last spoken. We were still on excellent terms and connected thanks to Facebook, but when friends take different paths they form new networks mostly with people who are physically or professionally close to them, and it’s inevitable that separation makes friends drift apart.

“Hello…? Robert?”

Of course, he was surprised to hear from me and curious about the reason for my call. After the opening how-are-you’s and his “So what’s up?”, I mentioned that I had heard from our mutual friend that they were planning to go to Rome for a few days.

“Do you wish to join us?”, he saved me from having to beat around the bush, and immediately made me feel welcome in the group by adding me to the “Roma 2021” chat group, with a glowing introduction as an “old, old friend”.

Fantastic! I was finally about to visit Rome and reunite with a group of old friends from my university days, one of whom would be our expert guide. We agreed the dates and booked a hotel in Piazza Montecitorio, bang in the centre of Rome, across from where the Italian parliament meets and which I had seen countless times on Italian TV news.

The morning of the outbound flight I woke up early, having prepared everything the night before including train tickets and itinerary to Brussels airport. Groenendaal station at 07h06, then Brussels Schuman at 07h30, arrival a few minutes before 8 am. The flight to Ciampino Roma would leave at 09h40. The rest of the group would be flying out from Malta, arriving in Hotel Montecitorio late morning. I would arrive an hour later, leave my luggage in my room and join them for lunch. I only hoped my flight wouldn’t have any delay so I wouldn’t miss this reunion lunch and the launch of our long awaited vacanze romane.

The trains were as punctual as if they were in Switzerland. I entered the departure hall of Brussels airport relaxed and happy. A glance at the giant departures notice board showed me that the expected departure to Rome was on time: FCO Roma 09h50. I went through security… then had breakfast… which I dragged out much longer than necessary in order to have an excuse not to wear that hated face mask… on to gate 33, where I settled down to wait while browsing on the phone. It’s a routine that has become so familiar.

Behind me, at gate 31, they were announcing the last call for il Signor Mario Coppola before gate closure. Five minutes later, the call was repeated, basically announcing this was the very last call for Mr Coppola. Why wasn’t Mario Coppola showing up, I wondered. I thought of approaching gate 31 quickly as a silly prank to make them think I was him.

In the meantime, a long queue had formed in front of my gate 33. I’ve always wondered why people bother to stand for a full half hour in a queue before boarding their flight, when they already have their own assigned seat on the plane, instead of sitting the wait out comfortably in the lounge. I nearly always remain seated and go to the gate when most of my fellow passengers have already gone through. This time I was the very last passenger at the gate. I looked at the time: 09h45. I would be in good time to keep my appointment with my friends.

It may be an exaggeration if I were to say that, a moment later, I had the shock of my life. But it’s pretty close and definitely among the best of them. I saw written clearly on the monitor above gate 33: Roma Fiumicino. This wasn’t my destination! My flight was to Roma Ciampino! Oh no! I’d gone to the wrong gate!

I had an awful mix of strong emotions: incredulity, despair, panic. I was standing, alone, in front of the desk clerk who asked me for my boarding pass and ID. I explained the situation to her. “Oh dear, no, I’m afraid you cannot board this flight, Sir.” She checked on her computer about my flight to Roma Ciampino. It had already left. Again, my heart sank. “Is there any way I can get to Rome today?”

“Please wait here a few minutes, Sir, as I need to attend to this outgoing flight. We’ll see what you can do.”

She went away and I sat down (on the floor, I think, there normally being no seats next to an airport gate desk), holding my head in my hands. I had been so looking forward to this, which had suddenly become just a pipe dream and a missed golden opportunity. In addition to the huge disappointment, I was dreading my next few terribly moody days at home. Most of all, I was angry at myself for being so flippant and careless. It was unfortunate that the flight from Brussels to Roma Ciampino was just 10 minutes before that to Roma Fiumicino, that it’s easy to confuse 09h40 with 09h50, and that my Ciampino flight was the earlier one. If it were the other way round, I could have hurried over to the proper gate and wouldn’t have missed my flight. Later, I would strongly suspect that the elusive Signor Mario Coppola was actually myself and the Ryanair announcer had somehow got the wrong name of the missing passenger, although I can never be 100 percent sure of this. I should have played that prank and hurried over pretending I was Mario Coppola after all!

When the kind and patient clerk reappeared at gate 33 I recomposed myself to a respectable state. She directed me to Ryanair’s ticketing booth in the departures lounge, a 10-minute walk away, where I should explain my situation and possibly obtain a solution. What solution could there be? I had given up on making it to Rome, having checked on my Ryanair app that a last minute flight ticket, later on that same day, would cost a large sum of money. I had already written to my friends on the Roma 2021 chat group, regretting my error and to enjoy their trip without me. And yet… at the departures lounge they told me that within one hour of having missed a flight, you could rebook for a fee of 100 euro. There was a flight to Roma Fiumicino that evening and I was 10 minutes within the one-hour deadline.

My bad luck had run out. 100 euro was affordable and worth spending to save my Roman holiday. What a huge relief. I missed the reunion lunch and the first introductory round of sightseeing – the first half day of a five-day stay – but more than made up for it the following four wonderful days in this magnificent city, which I hope to find the time to describe to you, dear reader of this blog, in future posts. Here’s a pictorial preview:

There are lessons to be drawn from the above drama, namely:

  1. Never be complacent during travel. Missing a detail may disrupt all your plans. I once missed my flight back home from Malta by showing up at the airport one day late, having to fork out a good 700 euro for last minute tickets for three family members. Which makes me a repeat offender: errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum.
  2. Don’t give up too easily. I almost didn’t bother checking about a rebooking.
  3. Rome is a magnificent city and absolutely worth a visit.