02 May 2010

LIFE: Journeys Through a Cloud (of Ash)

SARONNO, Italy - The stories of Italians trying to get back to Italy during the recent volcanic ash incident are just starting to come in. The one I heard last night was from Nadia who was in New York when the volcano in Iceland began to erupt. She said a friend in Italy phoned her to tell her that the Milan airport had just closed and that her flight back to Italy scheduled for the next morning was probably cancelled. So instead of seeing the sites of New York as she planned to do, Nadia and her travel partner hot footed it over to Newark airport to see what was going on.

“There were a lot of people there, just milling around as news of the closing of one European airport after another started to come in. At first they told us that there was no problem with our flight, but then, half an hour later, they announced that the Milan Malpensa Airport was indeed closed and our flight cancelled.”

Without wasting any time Nadia and her friend checked to see what flights to Europe were available and managed to find a couple of tickets to Spain: one to Madrid and another to Barcelona. They took them. Nadia chose Madrid.

But once she was in Madrid the severity of the problem began to sink in. Her plan was to find a flight from Madrid to Milan’s Linate airport, which is used by many of the smaller airline companies for inter-European flights. Unfortunately the ash cloud had worsen and even little Linate was closed. Her next choice was to try and book a seat on one of the high speed trains that run from Madrid to Milan, but again she was turned away. The trains were booked to the max and no seats were available.

It was at that point that her travel mate called from Barcelona and said she, along with some other Italians, had rented a car and if Nadia could get herself from Madrid to Barcelona by 3 that afternoon, she could be back in Milan before midnight. She was able to get a ticket on a Madrid-Barcelona train and arrived in plenty of time to meet up with the group.

Fabrizio, who was in England that weekend also opted to take the train back to Milan. His adventure began in idyllic Oxford where he took the train to London and from London to Paris with the hope of booking a seat on a train to Milan. But by then all of the European transport systems were in tilt and there were no seats available on any train going in any direction. He had to wait for two days before he could leave.

”But it wasn’t so bad,” he said with a smile, “after all if you have to be stuck in a city what better city to be stuck in than Paris?” The down side was that the train he ended up taking was the train that went to Zurich, Switzerland before it went to Milan, making what is normally a 5 hour ride a 10 hour odyssey.

But it was Andrea who had the most difficult journey. He was in Singapore when the ash cloud began to rise and his route home via Bangkok and Rome was long and torturous.

“I finally managed to get from Singapore to Bangkok where I spent another 2 days waiting for a flight to Rome,” he said. “I thought I'd be able to pick up a flight to Milan from there but when I got to Rome I found a real mess at the airport,” he said. “There were people everywhere and no one seemed to know what to do next. I took one look at the crowd and moved as fast as I could to book a seat on the first train north. “I was lucky to get a seat on the FrecciaRossa, the high speed train,” he said, “and after traveling for almost a week through three different countries, I was never so happy to see Saronno.”

In every story I’ve heard so far the trains have helped save the day. Which brings me to this: my American relatives and friends, without exception, find train travel in Italy confusing. This is especially true if the train ride is only the beginning of their journey. Any combination of train plus subway or train plus tram or boat seems overly complicated, and I guess compared to driving yourself to where you want to go, it is.

And maybe it's because I've lived in the center of cities for the past 30 years and haven't had a car that I've gotten used to moving around on public tranport. But I really believe that once you get the hang of it, it's really a lot more fun to sit back, relax and let someone else do the driving.

Photos: Some of the wonderful places you can get to by train: Rome, Bari, Florence, Torino, Genoa, Lecce, Siracusa and Saronno of course.

Any travel in Italy stories you'd like to share? Send them to me at thisitalianlife@yahoo.com and I'll put them in a future blog.


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