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  • The Long Way Home: Barcelona, Battleships and Old Blighty
May 2010

Editor's note: The following is a first-person account written by Photonics Media's Penny Pretty of her sojourn home from the 8th EMVA (European Machine Vision Association) Business Conference held April 16 and 17, 2010, in Istanbul, Turkey. Thanks to the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, the trip from Istanbul to London took six days. Accompanying Penny on the trip was Colin Pearce, CEO of Active Silicon.


The Turkish word for cancelled, sent Colin Pearce and me on a roller coaster journey from Istanbul to London. On the course of this journey we entered a world of disinformation; nothing was at it first appeared.

Our roller coaster plummeted between desperation, frustration, exhaustion and stress to then be elevated to dizzy heights when a new problem was conquered. A sense of adventure, a shared sense of humour and the determination to get home eventually got us there. Over the course of the six-day journey a team spirit developed between us, sustained by the odd bottle of wine or two to celebrate a hotel found, or a new mode of transport discovered. All good journeys are the same, all epic journeys are different, here is ours.

Day 1 Saturday 17 April

Having been told on Saturday morning our flights were cancelled, Colin and I decided to leave the conference and jump into a taxi to Atatuck airport to try and get a clearer picture of the flight situation. Sheer chaos awaited us, eternal queues, desperate people and ill-informed staff. BA had no way of getting me home for at least a week, they could not offer a hotel as every room in Istanbul was full. Turkish Airlines told Colin " they just did not know anything" the attendant reminded us of Manuel in Fawlty Towers;" I know nothing"!! Feeling despondent we embarked on another nail biting taxi ride back to the conference hotel. In the meantime 40 other delegates were trying to organise a Bulgarian coach to take them across the Balkans back to Germany. Although a 48-hour bus journey to Munich did not appeal, Colin's wife was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, so he needed to get back. Besides the hotel could only accommodate us for one more night, so a decision had to be taken.

Day 2 Sunday 18 April

No hotel rooms were to be had in Barcelona. (Photo by Penny Pretty)

Having found a flight to Madrid that day through another stranded passenger that we had met on the doorstep of the hotel, we decided against the coach, as in the 5am bus meeting earlier that morning the trip was looking very uncertain. In an optimistic mood having secured seats with Span air online, and in the hope that we might be back in Western Europe later that day we wished the others luck, donated our bottle of gin to the bus party and set off to catch our flight to Spain.

Back at the airport the scene was surreal, queues everywhere, people wearing expressions of desperation. As we joined the long snake to check in for our flight, handled by Turkish airlines we noticed; no baggage was going on the carousel and no boarding tickets were being issued, we soon found out why. It turned out that our booking was not "On the system," we were told that Span air's system had crashed and booked thousands of seats on planes that were already full. It was so bizarre, totally out of our control, we felt bereft. I then telephoned Span air in Spain, who of course blamed Turkish airlines, fortunately having been brought up in Argentina my Spanish came in very handy and we soon had a booking for the next day with ticket numbers that according to my Spanish girl were valid for the midday flight.

As we had now embarked on our journey home we did not want to back track by returning to the conference hotel, which would no doubt have sold on our rooms anyway, so we ventured into the bowels of the airport to try and find a hotel for the night. We were quickly accosted by a large Turkish man who promised us a hotel within minutes of the airport. Having taken our money for the night he offered Colin and I a lift in "his car." A blacked out van resembling a hearse drew up and whisked us off on a ride to a resort hotel on the seafront in a town called Ismir, a good hour from the airport. We dumped our cases in the Ismir version of a Disney hotel and headed for a restaurant on the seafront where old men exercised on rusty, squeaky exercise bikes. They had a menu but you were served what they had in the kitchen despite taking a detailed order, totally ignored! A couple of bottles of wine and a few stories later we realised it was late evening and we had to be up at 5 again!!

Day 3 Monday 19 April

Colin Pearce hangs out at the Barcelona airport. (Photo by Penny Pretty)

A clapped out old banger, circa 1960 drew up in a cloud of smoke, we climbed in with trepidation, but had little choice as we had to get to the airport. The journey was interesting to say the very least as a wheel from another car bounced down the road in front of us, missing us by a few centimetres. Back through airport security positioned at each entrance, we penetrated the dreaded airport for the third time in as many days, joined the now familiar snake at the Turkish airline check in desk and awaited our turn. "Not on the system," we were told. 

At this point Colin and my expressions were a reasonable representation of Edward Munch's "The Scream." After much negotiating and proof of purchase they accepted we had a valid reservation but could only offer us Barcelona in 3 hours, with the ash cloud threatening to descend on Istanbul later that day, we took our boarding cards with joy and scuttled off to the gate. We would be first on that plane!! Landing in Barcelona was rather like Groundhog Day, the same war zone as Istanbul airport greeted us. Hordes of people sitting on cases, a 3 hour queue to be told by the tourist office there were no rooms in Barcelona. As for renting a car, that was beyond the realms of possibility.

That is until we met Macarena, a Spanish girl who worked for the Corte Ingles, a local travel agency. She and I became best friends, so rather than joining the many sad campers at the airport we were soon ensconced in a hotel in town. This deserved celebrations, off to the Rambla for a drink and to watch other poor souls dragging their suitcases in a desperate attempt to find a bed. Dinner over a map of Europe, but how were we going to get home, all trains were booked solid for days. We had to get a car.

Day 4 Tuesday 20 April

The only mode of transport available in besieged Barcelona. (Photo by Penny Pretty)

Over breakfast we decided that we needed to contact every rent a car company in Barcelona; surely someone would have a car. Various taxi drivers had offered to drive us into southern France for a price equivalent to a new car. They all had a brother or Paraguayan cousin who would be happy to take us. With the assistance of a helpful concierge, and a second mortgage we eventually secured a car for the next day. At this point Colin started muttering about upgrades to a better model...........boys and their toys!!

That afternoon we had heard about British battleships coming to pick UK citizens stranded over Europe. Both Colin and I got very excited about the idea of sailing back to the UK on a battleship, government Web sites were visited, colleagues sent on quests to find out where and when they were arriving. The HMS Albion was coming to Santander, should we head there or maybe Bilbao, but all the UK help websites said to head for Northern French ports where the HMS Ark Royal and the HMS Ocean were being deployed. In the evening we saw a report on Spanish television of the Albion picking up 200 stranded travellers and leaving thousands standing on the Santander quayside. Decision made, route planned, off to France tomorrow, another step nearer home.

Day 5 Wednesday 21 April

6 am, breakfast, quick check on battleships, and off to part with a vast amount of cash in return for a car. She was a Ford Focus, metallic blue and German, which we thought was weird as they had charged us an extra €1000 to take a Spanish car over the border!! We named her the Blue Pearl. Negotiating rush hour traffic out of Barcelona was a challenge, yet another one to overcome, but we eventually found ourselves on the motorway heading for France, passing hitch hikers bearing signs: Germany or France. Skirting the Pyrenees we weaved our way to the French border.

Driving through the Massif Centrale in Southern France was breathtakingly beautiful, our altitude rising to a thousand metres around lunchtime. This is where we discovered a mountain retreat that was truly magical. All the service stations on the motorway were overcrowded with travellers heading North, so we decided to drive up into a mountain village where we found "Les Vielles Portes".

Work must go on! (Photo by Colin Pearce)

In the front garden three generations of a local family were having a late lunch. We traversed a portal that took us from the hammering motorway to a place where time had stopped. A world of mountain flowers, home cooked food and happy faces. We were convinced we had temporarily arrived in heaven! Unfortunately we had to rejoin the purgatory of driving another 1000 miles towards our French port. We soon discovered that the migration North across France was going to mean that finding a bed for the night was going to be our next problem. By now problem-solving was our middle name, Colin's lateral thinking and my languages made us a winning team, all we needed was a local French guest house book. Fortified by our "steak/ frites," stunning scenery, we motored on, crossing the vertiginous viaducts leading into middle France.

Up hill and down dale, many hours and miles later we reached a place called Berry Bouy near Bourges in Northern France. This was where we had found a guest house that could accommodate us for the night. An amazing surprise awaited us on arrival! A mini French Chateau, all for €70 a night a quarter of the price of the overinflated hotel rates we had been paying in Barcelona.

Lawrence our hostess showed us to beautiful rooms furnished with Louis XIV furniture before directing us to a local bistro for supper and local wine. Back for a last check to see in which port the Navy ships awaited us. They didn't, another Gordon Brown myth. Colin then scanned the ferry companies well into the night finally securing us 2 foot passenger tickets from Le Havre for the next day.

Day 6 Thursday 22 April

Bonjour France! (Photo by Penny Pretty)

The smell of brewing coffee guided us to the main house, where Lawrence served us fresh croissants and homemade jams. This last day augured well, we stocked up with half a case of Lawrence and Gerard's wine from their vineyards and pointed the Blue Pearl in the direction of the Le Havre.

Only 250 miles to go. We reached Le Havre in good time, sadly bade farewell to the Blue Pearl at Le Havre airport, actually a private flying club reminiscent of the days when flying was glamorous and taxied to the Port.

It seemed an age since we had experienced the crowds pushing and shoving in the queues, but we knew this was hopefully the last one, so only queue barged once. Colin was quite happy when we landed in front of a pompous Englishman that had barred our exit from a lift earlier. Soon we were sailing out of France, and knew that in three hours we would be back in good old Blighty!! Somehow getting back to the UK had been the objective of the mission, now back on British soil the welcome was distinctly frosty. Greeted by a customs officer, who was as reluctant as St Peter to let a sinner in at the Pearly Gates.

Then a train conductor who assured us the train we were boarding went to London. It didn't, we were given a 2-minute window to change at a station on the way to catch the last train to Waterloo. It was nearly our Waterloo.

We finally reached our chequered flag, Colin's home at 2 o'clock on Thursday morning. Should we have sat it out somewhere and waited for the skies to reopen? NO. Despite the fact, that this was not an option.

An adventure was had, a team was formed, experiences were lived, friends were made. Moreover I was fortunate enough to have a travelling companion who could always turn our tears of exasperation into tears of laughter.
Penny Pretty


I subsequently received this comment on my travelogue from former EMVA President Gabriele Jansen:

Dear Penny,

what a story! Whow! If someone had planned a survival vacation for the both of you they couldn´t have "organized" it better. I can imagine that what sounds funny in your well written travelogue must have been crushing frustrating at times. Just to imagine the scenes at the airports… There is one recurring aspect I find in all stories I´ve heard so far. No matter how the journey went, everybody is convinced to have made the right decision. I think that this is a very strong point in all of us "visionaries": we make a decision, we carry it through, while looking ahead, staying positive and trying to make the best out of every situation.

Thanks for sharing your story.

With best regards,

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