Escape from the Ash Cloud: Journey Across Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, Spain, and Andorra

Cesta (De la Fratta), the highest of the Three Peaks on Mount Titano in the European microstate of San Marino

In every traveler’s life, there comes a time when things don’t go according to plan. Flight cancellations, lost luggage, and breakdowns in transportation inconvenience thousands of travelers every day. But on one week in April, 2010, the travel plans of millions of travelers in Europe were interrupted simultaneously by a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland, grounding thousands of flights and throwing the entire continent into panic mode. As it happened, this little travel ‘disruption’ caught me and my fellow travelers Joel Oleson and Paul Swider while we were in the Balkans (blog post on that trip here), stranding us on the continent and interrupting our plans to continue on to an event in London.

In the strange world of happenstance, I had actually driven right by this Icelandic volcano earlier in the year, a trip I covered in an earlier post on Iceland. It still seemed oddly coincidental that it decided to erupt a few short months later, but I promise that I didn’t deliberately pour any baking soda into the volcano when I was there to try to make my life more interesting.

In any case, after a fascinating and education trip through the Balkans, Joel, Paul and I had a decision to make. Sit out the ash cloud on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia or try to get home via other methods? Stirring the spirit of adventure in the three of us, we opted for the second option, making the determination that we would make every effort to get out of there as soon as we could. We were able to identify that flights were still leaving from Barcelona, Spain, and it looked likely that we would be able to get home from there, IF we were able to make it there in the first place.

The key to getting to Barcelona was to cross the Adriatic Sea first, so, we boarded a creaky old overnight ferry ship between Split, Croatia and Ancona, Italy and began our journey across the continent, in a mad dash to escape the ever-spreading ash cloud.

As a funny aside, I should point out that a trio of computer experts tends to have a lot of gear to charge. In a small cabin on a re-purposed old Greek ship, with only one outlet to use, this leads to some rather ‘interesting’ device charging situations.  We were probably lucky not to have started a fire on this ship.

Our dubious electronics charging setup on our ferry from Split, Croatia to Ancona, Italy

Bright and early the next morning, we arrived in Italy, directly into the jaw of the transportation chaos that was gripping the continent. And when I say chaos, I mean chaos.  The motorways were crowded with cars, and the train stations were packed with people wandering in a daze, with grown adults openly weeping in front of the departure boards. It was a sad, strange, and bizarre sight.

We had naively come to Italy assuming we’d be able to take a train straight to Barcelona, but were unable to book anything beyond Bologna. For the time being, we were stuck. And what does this band of travelers do when we are stuck? We visit new countries!  Not far from Ancona is the Mountain micro-country of San Marino, and we made the decision to take a taxi to San Marino to figure out our next plan of attack.

Walls of San Marino City, San Marino

San Marino sits on a series of hills, and is smaller than a typical US suburb (61 square km total.)  At the same time, it is a country rich in history, having the distinction of the republic with with the oldest constitution used that is still in effect.

The tower on Cesta (De la Fratta) peak as viewed from the tower on Guaita peak in San Marino, a microstate surrounded by Italy in Europe

At the top of the highest peak in San Marino, Mount Titano, stands a series of fortifications and three towers that overlook the tiny microstate.  The tower that we ascended is known as Guaita, and was previously used as a prison.

View from the window of Guaita tower on Mount Titano, San Marino

Near the top of Mount Titano, in the European microstate of San Marino, we sat drinking Italian cappuccinos and discussing various ways we could make it home. We also realized that it was unlikely that anyone was feeling sorry for us, and of course, and if you were going to be stuck somewhere, this wasn’t a bad place to be stuck.

Eventually, our need to keep moving and get home got the better of us, however, and we devised a plan to get a rental car in Ancona and drive it all the way to Barcelona. Turns out the rental car companies were completely against that thought, however, and expressively forbade it. After briefly considering driving it there anyway and paying the fee to have it driven all the way back, we instead drove in the general direction of Barcelona through Bologna and then into the city of Florence (Firenze.)

Dining near the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, resting spot of Michelangelo and Galileo

In Florence, we were told to stay put temporarily by the folks at Joel’s company, Quest Software, who were working in the background to help us find a flight out.  Apparently there were some flight options that might be able to get us from Italy to Barcelona in time for some intercontinental Barcelona to Philadelphia flights that we would need to get back home.  So, once again, we waited and rested, this time in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

Self-portrait at the Florence Cathedral in Florence, Italy

Now, Florence is indeed an amazing place, and one that I recommend you visit less hastily than we did. A walk around the city was pleasant and involved a tour of some stunning architecture, most notably the Florence Cathedral, which is inlaid with an extraordinary amount of detailed statues and carvings on its elaborate façade.

Frescoes on the Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy

While we were visiting Florence, the word came in from Joel’s office…due to the diligent work of Michelle Gamlin, one of Joel’s colleagues and our hero on this trip, we managed to snag three tickets on a flight from Rome to Barcelona.

Close-up of a fresco on the Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy

So, off we drove in our hijacked rental car…off to the capital of Italy, Rome!  The flight wasn’t until the next afternoon so we had a day to kill in this ancient Roman metropolis.

Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II  (Altare della Patria) in Rome, Italy

Arriving later that day, we first visited the Trevi Fountain, which was a relaxed place even under the current travel chaos.

Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

The next morning, we then journeyed across the city to Vatican City, a sovereign city state that is technically the smallest country in the world, both in terms of area and population.

St. Peter's Square, with a view of the Vaticano Obelisk and the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, in the city of Rome

A portion of Vatican City is the area known as St. Peter’s Square, designed as a location for the Pope to speak directly to a large number of people. A simple fence separates it from the country of Italy surrounding it.

In the center of St. Peter’s Square is a large Egyptian obelisk.  Indeed, Rome is filled with Egyptian obelisks, a fact not lost on modern day Egyptians, many of whom are not necessarily pleased by this. This particular obelisk, called the ‘Vaticano,’ is the only obelisk in Rome that has not toppled since Roman times.

Portion of the ceiling in the Vatican Museum

Taking a tour of Vatican City is quite the experience, both from an architecture and an art perspective. The only real downside is dealing with the massive throngs of tourists, all shuttling along through the corridors of the Vatican Museum and the famous Sistine chapel, stuffed with tourists trying to secretly sneak photos of the ceiling, while at the same time the museum security tried in vain to stop them.

Vatican City is guarded by the famous Papal Swiss Guards as well, who wear a distinctive multi-colored uniform and carry a ceremonial halberd, effectively a large axe on a pole.  Some of the Swiss Guard even carry around assault rifles and sub-machine guns, though you don’t typically see these ones in the tourist areas.

Papal Swiss Guards, Vatican City

The Sistine Chapel likely has the most famous ceiling at the Vatican, if not in the entire world as a whole, but it’s not the only beautiful ceiling there.  Throughout the building are elegantly painted and elaborate ceilings, and it can take days of sightseeing through the Museum to see everything there.

Portion of the ceiling in the Vatican Museum

If you are in a relative hurry, and simply want to get to the Sistine Chapel, you still need to pass through the long walk that leads up to the chapel, and depending on the number of tourists who are there, this can take anywhere from a half hour to an hour.  Once there, the ceiling is most impressive, particularly the famous ‘Creation of Adam’ section (no pictures allowed.)

Ornate portion of the ceiling in the Vatican Museum

Vatican City is also home to the world famous St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world and a brilliantly decorated structure.  Underneath the church you can find the ornate burial crypt of St. Peter (no pictures allowed here as well.)

Self-portrait in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

Our next stop in Rome was the world famous Colosseum of Rome, a nearly 2000 year old Roman amphitheater that could originally hold up to 50,000 spectators.  Originally known as the ‘Amphitheatrum Flavium,’ it was used for gladiator fights and other public spectacles.

Self-portrait at the Colosseum of Rome, Rome, Italy

A final spot we visited on the trip were the famous Spanish Steps in Rome, a series of 138 steps that were completed in 1725.  The Spanish Steps are now a major tourist destination as well as a gathering spot for locals and travelers alike.

Self-portrait at the Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

After our whirlwind walk through Rome, we then boarded our scheduled flight from Rome to Barcelona, arriving in Barcelona a full two nights before we were scheduled to fly home via Philadelphia. This was my third time in Barcelona, and I greatly enjoyed the previous two visits.  I can honestly consider Barcelona to be one of my favorite cities in Western Europe.

Edifici Colon (Columbus Building) in Barcelona, Spain

We arrived, settled in, and that evening ate at a Barcelona institution, the Los Caracoles restaurant in the Barri Gòtic neighborhood, the historic old town of Barcelona.  This restaurant is a must-do in Barcelona, and serves up traditional Catalonian food in a beautiful and authentic setting.

Port of Barcelona, Spain in the evening

Barcelona is a wonderful city, and deserves its own blog post by itself. On this visit, we only spent a short time there, however, limiting our time in the City to a walk down La Rambla, a beautiful pedestrian mall and also visiting the Sagrada Família, the Gaudi Cathedral under a seemingly perpetual state of construction.

Columbus Monument / Column (Monument a Colom / Mirador de Colón) in Barcelona, Spain

The next day, our friend Joel flew home a day earlier than we did as he was able to snag a seat on a flight the day before the two of us were able to. Paul and I were not confirmed until the following day, however, so we had an additional day to kill. What better way to spend the time than to drive up to another small European country, this time Andorra, a mountain principality a short drive from Barcelona near the border with France.

Driving to Andorra through the Spanish Pyrenees

Andorra was reportedly given autonomy by Charlemagne over a thousand years ago in return for their help in keeping the Moors contained on the Iberian peninsula.

Caldea thermal spa building in Les Escaldes, Andorra

The drive into Andorra is relatively straightforward and, although Andorra is not technically within the Shengen Area, we quickly drove through the border without the need for passport checks.  The capital of Andorra is known simply as Andorra la Vella, and is the highest capital city in Europe.  It lies a short distance from the southern border of the country, and is a pleasant and clean alpine city.  Residents here either speak Catalan (the official language,) French, Spanish, or all three. In addition, English is also relatively well understood here.Pont de Paris Bridge, Andorra la Vella, Andorra

Andorra is most definitely a skiers paradise, and there are numerous ski resorts lining the Pyrenees mountains that make up the country.  Considering how late in the season it was, there was still plenty of snow up in the passes.

Ski slopes in Andorra

Not wanting to backtrack, we drove over the Port d’Envalira pass (2408 meters high) into France.  This pass is the highest in the Pyrenees and one of the highest paved roads in all of Europe.

Eneveig village, Pyrénées-Orientales department, Languedoc-Roussillon region, France

Our final leg of the trip took us through the Pyrénées-Orientales department (area) of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, a picturesque location that was historically a Catalan speaking area. Along the way, we made a brief stop in Eneveig, a small village made of ancient looking stone buildings and streets so narrow that I was wary to drive the rental car through. Running into a local teenage boy, I made an attempt at communications to try to find directions for the way back to Barcelona. I roughly understood what he was saying, but between my limited high-school French and what I understood to be the rather challenging local French dialect, I only understood bits and pieces.  Nonetheless, we did find our way back to Barcelona, re-entering Spain at the city of Puigcerdà.

The next day, we boarded our flight to the States with trepidation. Would the ash cloud move in just in time to sabotage our plans of getting home? Were we actually going to make it out of the chaos that was Europe in its current state? And yet, despite our trepidation, we did take off on time and had an uneventful flight.  When the plane finally landed in Philadelphia, cheers erupted from the American passengers on board, who like us were obviously relieved to have made it back home.

In the end, despite all of the challenges, this ended up being one of the more thrilling travel experiences, mostly because we didn’t know exactly where we would end up and how we were going to get there. The uncertainly of it all can be mildly disturbing, but it can also make for an fascinating challenge, and we took it as such. At the end of the day, we made it home, the ash cloud dissipated, and we ended up with a great story to tell!

2 thoughts on “Escape from the Ash Cloud: Journey Across Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, Spain, and Andorra

    • Thanks Joel! I’ll update your links to point to your new travel blog…I have most of them pointing to now, but I’ll go through and change.

      And yeah, bummed you didn’t make it to Andorra that trip…could have wrapped up continental Europe for you. 🙂

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