Tom Parker Bowles On The Horrors Of The Family Holiday

"Landing at Naples was a thrill that never waned."

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It was a day we looked forward to all year. But a morning we loathed. The ridiculously early, pre-dawn start, with its nauseous, murky feel; a time when you’d give anything – even that new Asterix that you'd packed away neatly in your Ghostbusters rucksack, alongside the wine gums and sticker book and outsized Walkman – for a few more moments’ kip.

But we’d stumble through breakfast, my mother and father and sister and me, then shuffle into the car, packed with battered suitcases and a few hundred litres of good English sunblock, and set off on the road to hell – or Gatwick, a rather more terrifying ordeal. A few hours spent snoozing to the soporific murmur of Radio 4, then the meeting, muted at so fresh an hour, with grandparents, uncle and aunt and cousins. And queue. And queue and queue.

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There would always be a drama. A forgotten ticket (ah, those were the days: real paper tickets, in triplicate), or passport. A last-minute dash back to Dorset or Wiltshire and 30 miles bombing back down the hard shoulder. But we always seemed to make it. Then the plane, BA, with its lacquered stewardesses, with their fixed glossy smiles, and its gross, deranged approximation of the full English breakfast. And our entreaties to our parents to get the Smirnoff and Bacardi and Famous Grouse, at 8am, just so we could collect the small glass bottles.

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There would be a row. There were always rows. And tears and glares and sulks and whines and threats. Plus the occasional whacked leg. My grandparents sat up front. They were wise enough to stay above the fray.

Landing at Naples was a thrill that never waned. The first blast of southern Italian heat. You didn’t have to see the deep blue skies and crumbling apartment blocks to know you were here. Naples has a smell all of its own, the tang of car fumes and drains and cigarettes and sun baked pavement and pizza and tomato sauce and joy. My cousin Ben would descend the steps and kiss the soft tarmac. Just like the Pope. We laughed. The grown-ups frowned. “Silly boy,” they’d mutter.

More drama, as a bag would invariably disappear. Lost, or nicked, or misplaced. And my aunt’s broken Italian would be called to the fore. After endless shrugs and sighs and insincere promises, we’d jump into taxis. And hold the hell on. Because the Neapolitan taxi driver is a breed unto himself, an acolyte of San Gennaro and Santa Maria and, hell, even Santa Sophia Loren, and thus, immune from harm. And possessed with an absolute belief that red lights and speed limits and one-way streets do not apply to him.

Oh, and every time we’d pass a pretty lady (and this being Naples, it was hardly an infrequent event), he’d pump his fist, honk his horn and leer lasciviously. All the time driving on the wrong side of the road at about 110 miles per hour. My mother and aunt would shut their eyes. We would squeal with unfettered excitement.

But eventually, we’d reach the safety of the port. And fall into the gelato’s cold embrace. Our first, and ever-treasured, taste of 14 days in Italy. On the island of Ischia, at The Excelsior Hotel. Our faces smeared with chocolate, we’d climb aboard the aliscafo for the islands. And watch Naples retreat behind us. The same man, Mario, met us at the same port, just like he’d done for the past 10 years. He’d pile the bags into the minibus, and we’d clamber into the back of Italian tuk-tuks.

At the hotel, our rooms – with the balconies overlooking the sea, and the bidets where we kept the sea urchins until they died and began to stink, and televisions that had topless ladies after midnight on RT1 – looked the same as they always did. We’d rip off our travel rags, and clamber into our trunks. A sprint down to the pool, and its warm, over-chlorinated water. It was only when your eyes stung that you knew you were really there.

Ahead of us, a fortnight of watery Coca-Cola and spaghetti bolognese (there was little time for pasta snobbery back in those days) and ageing video arcades and waterskiing in the shadow of the castello and pure, uncomplicated delight.

Originally published in Esquire's Big Black Book. Download the digital edition here.


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