Europe travel mayhem as arctic freeze strikes again

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Snow swept Europe on Friday causing travel chaos in the continent's north, shutting Bulgaria's major Black Sea ports and leaving Italian cities blanketed in a rare covering.

Britain's national weather service, the Met Office, said if the cold snap continued it would set a new record for the month after two bitterly cold weeks in early December.

With just days before Christmas, the weather conditions caused disruption for travellers in Britain and Northern Ireland where some airports closed, roads were blocked and rail services including the Eurostar were delayed.

Heavy snow forced the closure of Northern Ireland's Belfast International Airport, while runways were also closed at Exeter in southwest England and briefly at London City airport, which serves the capital.

London's Heathrow airport reported delays, although it was open and both runways were clear of snow.

Police and emergency services warned of hazardous driving conditions, particularly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and hundreds of schools were closed.

Delays were reported on trains nationwide and Eurostar trains between London and Paris and Thalys trains between London and Brussels were subject to speed restrictions causing delays of up to 30 minutes.

Christmas deliveries have already been hit hard, with a number of Internet retailers stopping deliveries in Scotland.

"Pretty much everywhere in the UK will be affected by snow showers at some point this weekend and temperatures will really struggle to rise above freezing during the days," said Aisling Creevey, a forecaster with Meteogroup.

Temperatures fell to an average of minus 0.7 degrees Celsius (30.7 degrees Fahrenheit), some 4.9 degrees below the normal average for the month of December.

In Ireland, the national meteorological service issued a severe weather warning that cold temperatures and widespread snow would continue into next week.

"A band of heavy snow is expected to spread across the country from the west and northwest, with all areas at risk," it said.

In Germany, snowfall caused motorway tailbacks of up to 40 kilometres (25 miles). Some regions reported shortages of petrol as tankers got stuck.

More than 200 flights were cancelled at Frankfurt airport, the country's busiest, and more than 100 at Munich airport in the south. Both of Berlin's main airports also reported cancellations and serious delays with more heavy snow forecast.

In Bulgaria, the largest Black Sea port of Varna was shut on Friday afternoon, while the other major port of Burgas re-opened around noon after a similar closure in the morning.

Snowdrifts shut a key highway going south from the capital Sofia.

Traffic police urged motorists to avoid travel in all of eastern Bulgaria except in emergencies, while many people were stranded in their cars by heavy snowfall in the northeastern region of Dobrich.

Access to some 20 villages was cut in the northern region of Ruse, blanketed by 40 centimetres (1.3 feet) of snow, and classes were cancelled in several regions to the east.

In Italy, rare snowfall disrupted the tourist destinations of Pisa and Florence, forced both airports to close and severely disrupted traffic and the region's rail network.

Police escorted ambulances through the streets of Florence and flights were cancelled late morning due to poor visibility.

Snow also fell briefly over Rome, where temperatures had dropped overnight to below zero, causing water in the capital's fountains to freeze.

© 2010 AFP

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