Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My adventure at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

This is the story of how I survived the Schiphocalypse! (Oh, I'm so funny.)

So last week I went back to the Old Country for my birthday, and to prepare for my brother's wedding in May. For the first time in nearly nine years I was flying into Cardiff via Amsterdam. The last time I'd done Italy-Cardiff-Amsterdam was when I came home at the end of my Erasmus year, and it was the first time I'd done the Italian leg from Milan. I'd never had any problems with the connecting flights in the past, the only issue I'd had was when my baggage decided to stay at Amserdam after Easter, but I got it the next day.

I thought the outbound flight had problems, but it was nothing compared to compared to my epic trip back to Milan.

I arrived at dinky little Cardiff airport in plenty of time, but straightaway at check-in I was told the flight had a 15 minute delay. I could live with that, my flight from Milan had a 15 minute delay too and I still got to the gate in Amsterdam in time for boarding. But that was just the beginning. Cardiff airport is so tiny, at the time there were no other planes going to Amsterdam, so I had no idea of any other delays. 17.15 became 17.50 and I started to worry, I would still make it in time but I would have to run. Then a scary message came up on the screens: 'Next info 17.50'.

At that point the captain came out to speak to us. The flight was going to be delayed for three hours due to strong winds at Amsterdam. I'm not a person who really gets angry when things like this happen, I just curl up into a ball and cry, which is pretty much what I did. It was in those moments when passengers were desperately trying to find out information about their connecting flights (the majority of the plane) that I met an Italian who was dealing with the whole thing in a typically dramatic Italian way. He was being a bit too angry for my liking - after all, it was nobody's fault - but I was still glad to make myself useful by translating the latest information we got.

Just before we boarded I was told by the ground staff at the gate that the Linate flight had been delayed until 22.55, and that I would make it. I was very relieved, but after making some calculations I was dubious, as the scheduled flight time from Cardiff was 1 hour 20 minutes, and the flight was due to take off at 20.20.

It was near landing that I got the bad news. The captain read out a short list of about 4 flights that people would be able to connect to at Amsterdam, and Milan wasn't one of them. My heart sank.

We ended up getting to the gate at Schiphol airport around 22.45. The Linate flight had been delayed a bit longer, but I still wouldn't be able to make it. We'd been instructed to go to the transfer desks by the captain during the flight, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the chaos.

It was in the massive queue that I met my 'companions of misadventure', V & F, a couple who turned out to come from the same area of Veneto that my friend S is from! It was also there I got my first indication of how bad the situation was being handled. It was getting near midnight and an announcement came on saying that the transfer desk would soon be closing! Some people had been waiting for an hour and now they were being told that they wouldn't be helped tonight. We were told to rebook via social media, phone, or come back to the airport tomorrow morning. The 'rebooking via social media' strategy is one that I saw emphasised during my time at Schiphol, and all I could think of was what if it had been my mam coming to visit me and finding herself in this situation?

Before getting to the actual desks there was one where, from what I saw, easy rebookings were made, and then numbers given out for more complex issues. After a bit of translation by yours truly (a bit of bigging myself up never does any harm!) V&F got rebooked on a flight for the following evening. Even though the chap at the desk had said they would be the last ones he would help that night, he asked for my boarding card, and I got rebooked on the 5pm flight to Linate. Relief doesn't even come close!

That now meant that I had just over 17 hours to kill before my next chance of getting back to Milan. That obviously meant having to pass the night. Somewhere. KLM were claiming that all the hotels were full - wait, what? - and that they wouldn't be booking hotels for anyone - again, wait what? - it was up to us to sort out our own accomodation and then to get a refund. By now in true Italian style we'd struck up a friendship, and decided to chance it in the airport, especially after having seen the insane queue for the hotel desk. It was now around midnight, and in a city none of us had ever been to - what could we do? We firstly went to look for somewhere to eat, we had some sandwiches, and it turned out that some places were open all night.

My view for the night, taken around 4.50am.

We'd been ordered out of departures and into arrivals, so that narrowed down our options considerably for a warm spot to pass the night. We wandered around the building, but it wasn't easy. We spent most of it on some very uncomfortable chairs, and combined with the light system constantly changing the strength of the light and music playing all night, I didn't get a wink of sleep. And it got very cold near dawn! I tried curling myself up, stretching out, tried desperately to find a comfortable position, but no luck.

We had a very early breakfast, it was before 7am when we sat down. Again, we scoped out the warmest places - especially after getting cold during the night - and settled on a Dutch cafe, where I got some tasty, but typically over-priced airport style, Dutch pancakes. No photo as I was far too tired and hungry for that!

Our flights weren't due to leave until the evening, but we decided to see if we could get past security to go to the warmth of departures. Result! And double result, we found some lounger-type seats where we spend the morning pretty much passed out on. Unfortunately with all the noise I still didn't manage to fall asleep. The 'mind the gap' announcements of the moving walkway will haunt me in my sleep.

We parted ways in the afternoon, as their flight was going from one area of departures and mine another. I had a very delicious smoothie for lunch, and had a mooch around the shops. I tried using the bikes they have in an area upstairs that you can use to recharge your phone by cycling, but it wasn't having any of it - in my over-tired state was I going too slowly?? The normal phone charging stations in the airport were a life-saver though, I don't know what I would've done without them.

I was so scared to look at the departure boards because I was so worried that my flight would be cancelled. Even throughout the night we'd seen some flights that had meant to be arriving the following morning already cancelled, and a couple had been from Italy. Nearly all of the flights departing were delayed, from what I saw mostly with a delay of between one to two hours.

I got to my gate and the flight still wasn't showing a cancellation. Could it be possible that it would be one of a handful of flights to leave on time that day? Nope. About 5 minutes before boarding (thanks for getting my hopes up) the delay popped up on the screen. 17.00 had now become 18.45. I got up and went for a walk, sitting down meant that I was falling asleep every couple of minutes.

Finally, we boarded. A little later than we should have with the new departure time, but I was past caring. At that point I'd been in Schiphol airport for nearly 20 hours, and I was finally going home. I actually did a little happy dance on the way down to the plane!

The flight arrived in Milan Linate at around 20.30, after leaving Amsterdam Schiphol two hours and 10 minutes late. It was nearly 22 hours later than when I was originally meant to arrive.

The scenes I saw in Schiphol were things like you see on tv when airports are paralysed because of snow or strikes. I saw hundreds of people queuing back back back at transfer desks, families with small children walking around the airport late at night, and an airport that had basically stopped functioning normally. Last night I slept for over 14 hours, but I'm nowhere near recovered. I'd like to thank my 'companions of misadventure' for their company, I don't know what I would have done on my own. It was an experience I'll certainly never forget. I wish I could say never again, but unfortunately I'm already booked to do the same thing to get back for the wedding in May!!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Chiuso per ferie!

I'm doing a very un-Italian thing and having a holiday at a random time of year.

Tomorrow I'm off to spend a week in the Old Country! It'll be my first time back in Wales - or anywhere in the UK for that matter - for a year and a half. This time my journey consists of a connection at Amsterdam, something I haven't done for nearly nine years, the last time was when I finished my Erasmus year. I've got an hour and a half both ways at Schiphol airport, and I'm hoping to get some tasty Dutch food!

I'm looking forward to going back, and being able to relax and unplug from my life here in Milan, which has been a bit stressful recently. What I'm not looking forward to is being cut off completely in the middle of the countryside without any internet!

Buona settimana a tutti!

Sunday Classic

Way back on this day in 1960 this song was No.3 in Italy, it's Quando vien la sera by Joe Sentieri.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum, Milan

A few weeks ago I received an email from a lady called Star, she wrote about the Bagatti Valsecchi museum where she works (btw, she also has a blog over at My Milan, very handy if you're planning on visiting or living in the city). The email described a museum unlike any other I'd seen before, a Renaissance time capsule, which was created by two brothers in the 19th century. It sounded fascinating, and today Star was kind enough to give a couple of us a guided tour around the museum.

What is now the museum was created by Barons (their father was the first in their family to receive the title) Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi, who lived in Milan from the mid-1800s to the beginning of the 1900s. At the beginning of the 1880s they started on a transformation of their house, to turn it into a home that would have been inhabited by a Renaissance prince.

If it weren't for her wealth of knowledge, I would have missed out on so much. I studied the Renaissance briefly during my third year of university, but the main focus was on the literature of that period. Doing my Erasmus year in Urbino - an important city during the Renaissance, which has preserved a lot of the architecture from that period - has probably given me a better eye for all things Renaissance than the average person, but I'm in no way knowledgable about the period. So many small details would have gone without being seen - such as the white and gold decoration on the ceiling in the entrance.

One of the most impressive pieces in the museum - if only for its size - is The Madonna of Mercy from 1495. It's huge!

Like good Renaissance men, the brothers had a library. There are two beautiful globes there - one of which has been restored recently - of the earth, and the sky. On display in that room is a book containing original prints of the room as it was when the brothers were alive. Oh, and the ceiling is beautiful!

One thing I found quite amusing during the visit was the presence of skulls in different rooms of the house. Little trinkets on display in a box, and there was this in Fausto's room. You can't see it well in the photo, but on the forehead there's a clock - and the entire thing functioned as an alarm clock! Star explained that in the late 1800s people had the same sort of fear that we had at the end of the 1900s, of the new century, and the belief was that it was the end of the world. So the skulls served to remind them of their own mortality - how's an skull-shaped alarm clock to remind you that your time on this earth is limited??

This looks like some kind of fountain, right? Nope, it's a bath and a shower! These guys had running water, and were also one of the first homes in the world to be hooked up with electricity - a curious mix of the modern blending in with the new.

How's this for a fancy bed? Giuseppe was the only one of the two brothers to get married, and this is the room he shared with his wife Carolina Borromeo. In this room there's also two dinky Renaissance children's chairs, and a baby's walker!

The last room we visited was the Gallery of Arms, which as you can see, does what it says on the tin. Apart from one coat of arms, they're all original Renaissance pieces - including some pretty scary pointy stuff!

I would highly recommend a visit to the museum not just for people who have any kind of interest in the Italian Renaissance, but also in Italian culture and history in general. These guys were geniuses, and the work that they did to put together the house is staggering. They collected works of art, used part of a church cupola, created papier-maché ceilings, commissioned tapestries to cover the walls... I couldn't get my head around it. It's a place that leaves you lost for words.

The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is in the Montenapoleone area of Milan, in Via Gesù 5 (a side-street off Via Montenapoleone itself). It's opened Tuesday - Sunday from 1pm to 5.45pm and is closed on Italian bank holidays.

You can reach the museum with public transport on the M2 yellow line by getting off at Montenapoleone, or with a slightly longer walk from M1 San Babila (red line) where the 54, 60, 61, and 73 buses stop. There's also the number 1 tram that stops in nearby Via Manzoni.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Classic

This is one of my favourite songs by one of Italy's old rockers, Ligabue. It's Piccola stella senza cielo ('little star without a sky') from his debut album in 1990.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A weekend in the mountains

This weekend I was up in the mountains, in an area called Lavarone in the province of Trento (the city's about 35 kilometres away), up towards the border with Austria. My friend V is one of a few Italians I know who have a house up in the mountains (lucky them!), and sleepy Lavarone was a welcome break from the smog and chaos of the big city.

The comune of Lavarone is made up of several small villages, with houses climbing up the hillside. The piazza in Cappella is made up of three hotels, a small church (obviously), and residential buildings, and there's a supermarket just down the road. Within walking distance of V's house there are also hairdressers, bars, and a cheese shop - I couldn't believe the queue there on a Sunday morning! It's much more the image of a quiet mountain village in Austria or the south of Germany that one you would associate with Italy. One of the things I like the most about being up in the mountains, the completely different architecture, the houses are so pretty!

I don't have a car, so getting up to the mountains is more of a trek than it would be otherwise. This time I got the train to Verona - they haven't got rid of the Milan-Verona regionale yet!! - where I met V, and then we drove up to Lavarone. There’s the motorway, but the fun and games start when you hit the mountains – even if I had a driving license there’s not enough money to make me want me drive up and down those narrow roads! Ever since moving to Italy and spending less time as a car passenger my travel sickness has got worse and worse, but I was so ill on the journey up…

Obviously being over a kilometre above sea level, the weather’s very different. There was fresh snow - and with that, plenty of skiers - and beautiful sunshine all weekend. The night wasn’t as much fun though, I slept with thick pyjamas and socks, a heavy duvet, and five woollen blankets!

One of my favourite moments of the weekend was when we went for a walk on Saturday evening. It was a clear, crisp night, and the stars were out. I was hypnotised. Living in a big city, the only lights I see at night are planes, and something that I used to take for granted such as seeing the stars was wonderful. And we think we saw the International Space Station too!

I bought about a kilo (!) of food back, that I had to run for the train with in Verona! Two types of cheese, and salame from that area. I’m looking forward to my supper tonight!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Classic

Lucio Dalla sadly passed away three years ago today. I heard one of his songs being played on the radio this morning to commemorate the anniversary, Tu non mi basti mai from his 1996 album Canzoni.