Saturday, 18 May 2013

Semana Santa travels: From Santander to Milan

Santander - Bilbao - Barcelona - Civitavecchia - Florence - Milan; March 30 - April 8, 2013

During Easter Week (Semana Santa) there was a 10 day break from the university, so Corin and I took the opportunity to do some travelling in Spain and Italy, the highlight of which was visiting our cousins in Milan.  We took the long way there (bus, train, ferry, train) and the short way back (plane).  Here are some pictures and travel notes from that trip.  


Guggenheim museum, Bilbao
We arrived in Bilbao by bus  on Easter Saturday.   Despite being Easter weekend, everything was open -- museums, shops, and restaurants.  Trains and trams were running frequently.  We had 24 hours in Bilbao and managed to fit in two museums, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts.  (They are very different, but equally good, although the Guggenheim was approximately twice the price). In the Guggenheim we saw works by Picasso and Dali, as well as L'art en guerra.  In the museum of fine arts we saw work by El Greco, Paul Gaugin, and Goya.   

Corin on the transporter bridge
On Saturday night we took the local train out to Portugalete, a suburb of Bilbao, to see the Puente de Vizcaya, the world's oldest transporter bridge.  We took the elevator to the top of the bridge, walked across, and rode the ferry back across the estuary. The ferry rides just above the water without touching it; it's suspended by cables from the bridge.  In operation since 1893, the transporter bridge is now a World Heritage Site. 

the ferry rides just above the water

Sunday morning was Easter Day, and we went into the casco viejo and watched the Easter parade.  We found lots of good places for pinchos (snacks -- like tapas, but a bit bigger).  Then it was time to head for the station, and the train for Barcelona.  

Easter Parade, Bilbao
Travel advice:  Bilbao is a beautiful city, well worth a stay of longer than the 24 hours we had there.  Both museums are well worth seeing (but don't try to see them both on the same day!)  Don't forget to ask for the student discount, it saved us quite a bit. If you want the musems to yourself, go Easter weekend!  They were practically empty.  Also in Bilbao, walk along the river, shop on the Gran Via, eat pinchos in the casco viejo, and if you are interested in bridges, visit the Puente Vizcaya at Portugalete.


Six and a half hours later, at about 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday, we arrived in Barcelona.  We had booked a hotel at the port, 
and the first thing we did was look out of the window to see if we could see our ferry -- the one we'd be taking to Italy the following day.  Sure enough, there it was, right next to the hotel.  

Our favorite place to eat in Barcelona is a Syrian restaurant called Ugarit.  We discovered it when we were there in January, and loved it.  They have delicious, healthy, food made with all fresh ingredients.  Better still, a vegetarian or even a vegan could eat there every day for a month and never have the same dish twice.  So we headed straight there for one of their delicious 'sharing plates' full of vegetarian delights.  If you're ever in Barcelona, don't miss the chance to eat there.  Here's their website.  And here's a picture (from their website) of what we had (one of the vegetarian sharing plates).  

Travel advice:  Enough has been written about Barcelona.  All I have to add is, eat at Ugarit! 

Ferry.  At 9 p.m. on Easter Monday we boarded the cross-mediterranean ferry, bound for Italy. The check-in/boarding process was not pleasant; Corin commented that it was like cattle waiting for the slaughter.  In fact, this turned out to be an appropriate metaphor, because while check-in and boarding were bad, things were about to get a whole lot worse.....  

I had imagined the ferry from Spain to Italy would be a sort of 'cruise experience' without the cruise price tag.  I had pictured myself up on deck, looking out over the sea, taking in views of the shoreline of Spain, various islands, and then Italy.  I saw myself relaxing, chatting to my fellow passengers, having a snack and a drink.  A cappuccino, perhaps, or a mojito!    

However, things did not quite work out like that. Luckily, I had found a Farmacia open in Bilbao and picked up some Dramamine.  That turned out to be the best four euros I've ever spent.... 

our ferry, Easter Monday, Barcelona
Yes, it was a rough crossing.  All 21 hours of it.  I've been on ferries in bad weather before, but this was the worst ever.  Thanks to the Dramamine, Corin and I did not become victims of the mal de mer; however, I can't say we felt particularly well. We stayed in our cabin, lying down on the bunk beds as the boat moved up and down, back and forth, and side to side.  (I believe the technical terms are 'rolling' and 'pitching.') Once, we left the cabin to get some air, but the stairs were blocked by passengers who hadn't booked cabins; they were lying on the floor, moaning and groaning. Plus, there were piles of sick in the corridors. We decided staying in the cabin for the duration was the best bet.  

Apparently the crew weren't aware of what was going on because the reception desk staff continued to broadcast announcements encouraging passengers to ‘try our selection of drinks and snacks in the swimming pool bar on the top deck.’ In a cheerful tone of voice.  At 10 minute intervals.  In 3 languages. I’m surprised someone didn’t go out there and shoot them. 

Travel adviceIf you’re taking a cross-mediterranean ferry, spend the extra 30 euros for the ‘outside cabin;’ the one with a window.  Then go to the supermarket and stock up on food and drink to bring on board.  The money you’ll save on the poor quality, overpriced ferry food will be well spent on having a window so that you can get some visual point of reference to go along with the motion of the ship.  (We didn't have one, but I think it would have helped). And, most importantly, take Dramamine before boarding!!! Don't risk it!!!!

Civitavecchia (pronounced Chee-vita-vekkia).  

After disembarking from the ferry from hell, all we wanted was to find our hotel and get something to eat.  It was 9:30 p.m., and we hadn't eaten all day, so the excitement at setting foot on Italian soil for the first time was partially eclipsed by hunger pangs. After a brief argument about whether or not to consult Trip Advisor (I said no, Corin said yes; I won) we went into the first ‘ristorante pizzeria’ we saw.  We were lucky, the place was fantastic!  With no knowledge of Italian except words we know from music (and a few others borrowed from French and Spanish with an extra syllable added!) we managed to order a delicious pizza with grilled veggies and spaghetti with seafood.  

Travel advice:  If you find yourself in Civitavecchia, eat at Ristorante – Pizzeria – Bar ‘Da Vitale’ s.r.l. Viale Garibaldi 26/28, 00053 Civitavecchia (Roma). 


The next morning, we got a train to Florence, or as it's called in Italian, Firenze.

Duomo, Firenze

We had four and a half hours, which of course is not enough time in this beautiful city!  However, we did our best.  We went to the ponte vecchio (old bridge), piazza della signoria, and saw the cathedral from the outside.

Piazza della signoria

Of course we couldn't miss the Uffizi museum.  Not having booked in advance, we were lucky to get in.  Knowing we didn't have time for everything, we decided to focus only on the Renaissance art on the second floor.  There we saw paintings by Botticelli, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Michelangelo, and other artists whose work I had never imagined being able to see first hand. I wished I'd done more research, but as it turned out Corin knew about many of the works of art, having studied them recently in his Baroque and Renaissance Humanities class at Valencia.    

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Travel advice:  If you only have a day in Florence, make sure you get a train that stops at the station in the center of the town, called Firenze Santa Maria Novella.  There's a left luggage, and you can walk everywhere from the station.  Book tickets for the major 'can't miss' attractions, such as the Uffizi museum, in advance.   


At the end of a long day, after four nights spent in four different places, we finally arrived in Milan.  The next four days were spent with our cousins. How we have cousins in Milan is a long story starting with my grandfather's brother, who emigrated to the USA after world war I, and continuing with an American girl, his daughter, who went to Florence in 1948 to study art.  Once I get the details straight, I'll update this post (at the bottom) with a summary of the story, so check back later if you are interested!  

family dinnerr in Milano with cousins:   Jeanne, Isabella, Lorenzo, Laerte, Lara, and Corin

In Milan, we were incredibly lucky to have family to stay with and show us around.  There's Jeanne, who is my mother's cousin, and three cousins of about my age:  Luca, Isabella, and Lorenzo.  In Corin's generation there are six cousins between the ages of 18 and 4.  

Milano duomo

Isabella took us north of Milan, close to the border with Switzerland, where we visited two beautiful lakeside towns:  Orta and Stresa.  

Orta, Italy

Sarah and Isabella -- cousins reunited after 40 years!  in Orta, Italy

cousins Lorenzo and Margherita

In Milan we visited various places of interest including the cathedral, the GalerĂ­a, and a church called San Bernardino alle Ossa where there was a room full of bones from people who had died in the black death. Very 'macabro.' 

Other places we visited in and near Milan were a loch designed by Leonardo da Vinci, the church of Sant'Ambrogio, and the monastery Certosa de Pavia (pics below).   

Cousins:  Luca, Letizia, Isabella, and Corin, 
at Sant'Ambrogio, Milano

Certosa de Pavia, near Milano, Corin and me

We came home the easy way:  A short flight (1 hour 20 minutes) from Milan to Bilbao, followed by a 75 minute bus ride back to Santander. 

Travel advice:  The best way to enjoy Milan and northern Italy is to have cousins who live there!  Also, be prepared to gain weight because the food is delicious -- pasta, pizza, fresh cheeses, bread, red wine, salad, risotto, cake, pastries ... I could go on, but you get the idea!

Pizzeria in Milan

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