“How long do you reckon it is since we’ve had a proper holiday?” Mr Blue-Shirt’s intonation underlined the word ‘proper’.
“You mean one that hasn’t involved house-hunting, house-buying or house-restoration?” I responded, only half joking.
“Well, partly that…” He put his mug down on the coffee table and drew his laptop towards him.
“In that case it must be five or six years ago when Nick and Elaine came with us to Pam’s, and the year before that when we drove down with Diane and James.”
“Good god! Was that five years ago??”
“Yup! ‘Fraid so!” I counted off on my fingers the trips and milestones in the intervening years to show it really was that long. “And before that, it was the week we spent at your folks’ timeshare in the Algarve just after my mum had died and we desperately needed somewhere ‘easy’ to flop after all those trips back and forth to Devon.”
“Well, that clinches it then. But what I meant was, how long is it since we had a proper holiday with no other purpose than exploring somewhere completely new – the kind of holiday we used to have when we had the camper.” His laptop whirred into life as I sipped my tea.
I knew exactly what Mr Blue-Shirt meant: a holiday where at least half the fun is the unfamiliarity of the place, of the culture, of the language, of the food; where the traffic is terrifying, where shopping is conducted through a combination of mime and guesswork, where ordering a meal often means a gastronomic leap in the dark, and where you actually have to read the banknotes and coins to understand how much money you’re handing over. Peering through the window into the gathering Sunday afternoon dusk I continued mentally scrolling back through the ‘twenteens’ and then into the ‘noughties’.
“I think it must have been when we went to Russia with Diane and James. And I’m pretty sure that was in 2007.” Mr Blue-Shirt raised a sceptical eyebrow at me, and this time we both counted back through the years, and yes, that memorably freezing week we spent in Moscow and St Petersburg with our great friends from Brunei really had been in early 2007. Then it was later that year we had made our first trip to Le Marche – and the holiday die was cast.
“Why do you ask, anyway?”
“Because I think that after the last few months, we deserve a decent holiday this year. And I think we should go somewhere completely new so it feels even more like a holiday.”
I wasn’t about to disagree. It was early January and we had just spent a very quiet Christmas and New Year, hunkered down at home, still recovering from Mr Blue-Shirt losing both of his parents the previous autumn, just seven weeks apart, and the series of gruelling trips to the UK, first to make their funeral arrangements and then attend their cremations. And before that, of course, there had been the burglary in spring which had left us almost too anxious to go out, even less go away, until we had beefed up security. So yes, it had been one hell of a year.
“Gets my vote! Where were you thinking of?”
Mr Blue-Shirt tapped at his laptop, opening a row of web pages he’d bookmarked.
“How do you fancy Croatia?”
“Croatia? Are you sure?”
He had done three six-month tours of duty in the Balkans during the wars of the 1990s and I knew that not all his memories of that part of the world were good.
“I spent most of my time up in Bosnia, remember – and I certainly don’t have any desire to go back there.”
“Too many ghosts?”
“Probably…” He stared absently into the fire for a moment as I uncurled myself from the sofa to put another log in the wood-burner.
“But you travelled through Croatia too, I seem to recall.”
“Only down to the coast for twenty-four hours of ‘decompression’ in Troghir before flying home to Germany for R&R and at the end of each tour. It was just along from the airbase in Split.”
“Gosh, yes! I remember now. Troghir! I haven’t heard that name in a good twenty years.”
“Getting on for twenty-two: I finished my last tour in late ninety-eight….”
“…and then we left for Brunei in spring ninety-nine. Before we went, do you remember us getting all suited and booted for that meeting up in London at the Bruneian Embassy, and we…?”
“Let’s save that trip down Memory Lane for another time. Back to Croatia…”
“Sorry, yes. Well, if you’re sure it’s not going to give you bad dreams or anything, then it sounds great. It’s even longer since I went there. In fact, it was still Yugoslavia when I rode through it on that motorcycle tour I did when I was at uni. We came in from Venice, travelled down the coast to Split, then on to Dubrovnik for a couple of days. A spectacular fortified town with ramparts plunging straight into the sea. You’d love it! From there we had to get a ferry round to Greece as Albania was completely closed off back then, and…”
“Yes, sorry! Which part did you have in mind?”
“Well, that strip you just mentioned: Split to Dubrovnik and maybe a couple of the islands along the way. What do you reckon?”
“Sounds fabulous! I remember that coast being absolutely stunning – although it’s probably changed quite a bit since I saw it last.”
Mr Blue-Shirt turned his laptop towards me. “I’m glad you said that. I’ve been doing a bit of research….” He tapped on the touchpad and up popped websites for ferries and airlines, hotels and holiday flats, restaurants and events “…and a map and a guidebook arrived the other day.”
“You’ve been planning, haven’t you!” I teased. After making things and cooking, planning trips is probably one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s favourite activities.
“Just doing some groundwork,” he said a little defensively as he shifted our mugs and spread out the crisp, new map that he had produced from under his laptop. Maps! I love them! Just looking at one gives me itchy feet and has me reaching for my suitcase. I was already sold.
“OK, so tell me about your ‘groundwork’ then,” I said, knowing full well he would already have sketched out a full itinerary.
“Right, so I thought taking the night ferry between Ancona and Split would be the most efficient way to travel, and then we could…..” As he clicked back and forth from site to site, he ran through his preferred route, the places he favoured stopping in, and the number of nights in each one; the possible hotels and apartments and their locations, prices and facilities; and even the restaurants we might book for our first night in each new place. In no time, I was eagerly poring over the map and leafing through the guidebook, rapidly trying to bring myself up to speed with all the different places, their geography and history – and totally onside with Mr Blue-Shirt’s plan. In a nutshell this consisted of taking the overnight ferry to Split, driving down to Dubrovnik for a three-night stay, then a brief ferry ride over to the island of Korčula, where we would stay for a week, before returning to Split in time to catch the overnight ferry back to Ancona. Perfect.
Within a couple of weeks, we had finalised our itinerary, selected and booked our accommodation and, to secure the best price, paid for everything in advance. We couldn’t wait. It was going to be just like old times.
But barely a fortnight later and with Coronavirus spreading fast, all borders closed, all travel ceased and, quickly followed by most of the rest of Europe, Italy went into complete and indeterminate lockdown. The best laid plans…