Day 1: Travel from London
For my trip to Florence, Italy, I decided to come unprepared. Hundreds of books have been written about this city, and going through them seemed like a tiresome affair. Besides, I had not yet recovered from my recent Greek Odyssey and all the associated route planning. At the back of my mind, I was even half-inclined to stay in London and visit Florence another time.
But then a blessing of a business trip suddenly danced into my itinerary. I was asked to travel to Istanbul and Tbilisi (yes, BOTH) the week after my Italian weekend. It’s all or nothing for anjči, and there could only be one decision. I would not cancel my trip to Florence, but stay one day instead of two; I would then take a train to Bologna and continue by plane to Istanbul. My colleagues would reach Istanbul from London, and our fantasy business trip would pick up from there, as originally designed. Easy. I armed myself with a zillion print-outs explaining every connecting point of the journey (sometimes I think I really should have been a professional travel agent, not a banker) and set off.
The trip began in style. As I was passing security at London Stansted airport, the assisting officer there cast a brief look at my tray – the tray where the uncased netbook peacefully lay, where the liquids were pre-packed with love in a transparent plastic bag, and where my glasses had been neatly folded. “I wish everyone was like you”, he told me. What a compliment! I told him it wasn’t the first time I was passing airport security. As a matter of fact, I probably pass it every week. I even automatically pack my liquids into plastic bags when staying over in friends’ homes in London – whether walking distance from my flat or not.
After the most uneventful Ryanair flight from London to Pisa, I faced a challenge of finding the Terravision coach stop at destination. Apparently there was a Florence-bound coach at 11:15pm, which I had pre-booked on the Internet. I searched around the airport in vain, and was eventually enlightened, in solid Italian, by one of the taxi drivers. Of course the bus stop had no sign of an, erm, a sign.
It was already 11:45pm, and the bus was still “on its way”. A handful of us had to stock up on patience for another 15 minutes, until the bus finally arrived – not to the bus stop though, but to a narrow passage just in front. Unfortunately, the passage appeared to be viciously blocked by some parked little vehicle. We spent another 15 minutes listening to our bus’s deafening horn – which eventually did its job and rolled the owner of the obstructing vehicle from a cafe nearby. We left for Florence. Only one hour late! I guess it was my cultural welcome to Italy.
Another hour later, I stood in the centre of Florence, desperate to locate myself on the Google map (which I had thoughtfully brought along). Somehow the map didn’t make sense though – or perhaps it was me who didn’t. The world around me seemed rather hazy. Throngs of young people were chilling on the grass despite the late hour. McDonalds near the train station looked open. Tourists were still zooming around. Florence was visibly going strong, even at this hour – but I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. It was way past my bedtime.
Suddenly a motorcycle passed me by. A motorcycle passing one by in Italy, big deal or what? Well, that one stopped. The owner introduced himself, in broken English, as Roberto and offered help on reading my glorious Google map. He was somehow especially impressed by the fact that I had one.
My inability to speak Italian positively shocked my unsolicited helper. You don’t speak Italian, he cried out, What do you speak then? English is not enough in life. I fully agreed and suggested that we spoke German. Or Russian. Or Greek. Or, if he REALLY felt like speaking a foreign language, we could have a go at Swedish, Serbian or Latvian. We could have a foreign language night. Sort of.
Roberto didn’t look at all confused, and declared that there was no need for any foreign language – Italian included – as he in fact spoke “perfect English”. Having resolved our little language debate, we returned to that hapless Google map.
Anjči possibly being the world champion in map reading, it was not at all a wonder that Roberto, too, failed. Admitting failure was too much for a proud Italian, however – the map was ceremonially blamed for lack of clarity and Roberto’s own memory was offered as a (much superior) alternative. Judging from my new friend’s lavish gestures, I was being offered a lift to the hotel on Roberto’s motorcycle. A lift I politely declined. How many times has my mother warned me against joining strangers in their vehicles, especially in the dark?
Roberto seemed to take my refusal very personally. Why, he cried, looking genuinely disappointed. Somehow I felt he meant it well and feebly resisted that he “didn’t have a helmet for me”. To which he took off his own and put it on my head. The discussion was thereby closed. The night streets of Florence were soon whizzing past, the pleasant soft breeze touching my cheeks. I was thinking that it was rather cruel of my mother to impose such blanket bans on strangers and their motorcycles. It was quite a bit more fun than I had been told!
After a speedy ride (Hotel Medici was just around the corner, as it turned out), Roberto smoked a cigarette. I listened to a couple of his stories, as a courtesy for the services, before sprinting up the stairs to my room. So high was my 5th floor balcony, that I felt dizzy as I stepped out. I was never scared of heights, but the sight of the narrow cobbled street many meters below my feet wouldn’t leave anyone unmoved. I lifted my eyes. Past 2am on Saturday morning, Florence was breathing and blinking all around me. A great day of discovery was near!
Day 2: Florence
A two-minute walk from Florence’s undisputed champion of a tourist attraction – the Duomo – Hotel Medici was a winner. Duomo is in fact officially called the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, and is additionally known as the Florence Cathedral. The cathedral complex also includes the Baptistery of St. John (Battistero di San Giovanni) and Giotto’s Campanile. All three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site which covers the historic centre of Florence.
A sizeable number of tourists were lining up to enter Duomo when I came. The line looked so long already that I wondered if it could even encircle the complex entirely. The last thing I wanted was to queue up for hours with a bunch of camera holders. Instead, I set off to explore the myriad narrow streets around the Old Town of Florence. Without the map – it was meant to be an entirely map-less discovery.
As I was exiting the Duomo Square (Piazza del Duomo), I spotted a display of hand-made dolls outside a tiny shop. The dolls somehow turned out to symbolise Florence and, as I discovered later, were on sale in many more shops in town. One of the dolls, dressed in a blue flowery dress, looked particularly sweet. Ten minutes later, she was sitting safely inside my bag. I’ve named her Gloria. Gloria because Florence was such a glorious city. Original, I know.
Florence took time convincing me of the fact though. My first impression was rather a lack of such. It had been a while since I visited a truly touristy destination, and I was not used to share my visits with THAT many other enthusiasts. The historic centre of Florence was relatively small and somehow not designed to absorb the crowds it was receiving. It could also be that frequent travels had spoilt me into not being able to appreciate simple things. In short, I was unimpressed by Florence at first. May the Americans and the Japanese tourists forgive me.
That famous Duomo
A local welcome
A street in Florence
He and his morning paper
Since I came unprepared, I had no clue which direction to take. Thankfully, I remembered that famous bridge they had in Florence. Ponte Vecchio, right? It featured in every single travel guide with coverage starting from Tuscany and ending with the WORLD. I definitely had nothing against contributing to the millions of photos of Ponte Vecchio posted daily on Facebook, and made my way to the river.
The present-day Ponte Vecchio dates from the 14th century. It spans the Arno River at its narrowest point and is built entirely in stone. The bridge is perhaps best known for having the buildings lining up its sides, as was once common. These days, the buildings are mostly shops selling jewellery, souvenirs and art; in the past, the bridge was given to the slaughter of the butchers.
Having checked Ponte Vecchio off my (non-existent) Florence wish list, I desperately needed a panoramic shot of the city. Solely by intuition, I crossed the bridge and continued walking along the river to the south-eastern part of Florence. A staircase emerged on my right, leading to Piazzale Michelangelo square. There, crowned by a replica statue of Michelangelo’s David, I found some souvenir stalls, a Japanese tourist group and – and! – my perfect view of Florence. Now that’s what I call a treasure well found!
Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte
That promised panoramic view!
I sleepily wandered around the southern bank of the Arno for a couple of hours. The afternoon temperatures were soaring in the high 20s, but my earlier training in Greece was a good preparation. I even had a mild tan to show off. Unfortunately, there were far too many people for anyone to pay any particular attention to my tan. Therefore I decided to save my tan demonstration for the Faroe Islands (where I will be heading mid-August), searched for a quiet spot south of the river and took some non-stereotypical shots of the Duomo instead. After that, I was good as dead and headed to the hotel for my siesta.
South of the Arno River
After a blissful, hour long semi-nap, I hurried back to the city. I could surely catch up on sleep in London; in Florence though, sleeping was perhaps not the best time investment. The clocks were chiming five, and the bright sunlight had given way to softer, photo-friendly tones. I ran up 414 steps to the top of the Giotto’s Campanile and was stunned by glorious views of Florence and the surrounding hills. The city had by then grown on me, leaving little trace of an earlier disappointment.
He saw it first
The classic view over Florence
One hour till sunset
After descending back to earth (literally), I briefly considered seeing the famous Duomo from the inside. Could I ever tell to my friends I had visited Florence without entering the Duomo? I was hoping the queues would have by then dispersed, too.
It seemed like the church service had already begun, though. Hoping I could qualify as a devout Catholic, I walked daringly towards the doors. The guards let through a family of four before me, all wearing shorts. Through went a middle-aged man carrying a camera. My case was not as convincing, however, as the guards directed me out at first glance. I am clearly a failed case of a Catholic. Probably for all my sins!
Something I found remarkable in Florence was the number of ambulance vehicles hurrying to rescue any time of day or night, accompanied by that unique siren sound. I happened to be witness to one accident myself. A young woman had fallen badly and broken her arm. Her cries of pain, followed by uncontrolled sobbing, still echo in my ears. Having to rely on help from complete strangers is really the worst nightmare of solo travelling.
Worth noting also is the number of just-married couples driven through Florence and photographed in front of the city’s famous sights. One unlucky bride nearly went flying as a careless tourist stepped on her white train. Which, after a day’s share of dragging along the ground, was admittedly not quite so white anymore.
And of course the men in Italy. Oh, the men in Italy! Classic Italian boiling-hot-dark-macho men are not actually my type – but little did they care. The “ciao, bella” was already buzzing in my ears after a couple of hours in town. I just hope they don’t tell this to every female passing by. Do they?
As the night hour approached, the number of people in central Florence seemed to increase even more. Visitors surrounded the numerous Italian-tongued buskers and the street vendors selling those dancing-flying-spinning toys. People crowded by the windows of souvenir and sweet shops and occupied every sittable area along major streets and squares. Eager photographers were trying to beat each other in snapping every inch of the city. I almost felt reluctant to compete.
Just a street in Florence. My favourite photo from the trip
And just a facade
Ponte Vecchio near sunset
…and the night falls.
After hours of forcing myself to function, I just couldn’t anymore. Late evenings have never been my best friends. The time had come to retreat to the hotel and prepare for the next day. And it was a big day, too!
Day 3: Florence to Istanbul via Bologna
I wish I could just wake up in Istanbul that Sunday morning. A quick look outside confirmed that I was still in Florence, though. My final hurdle on the way to Istanbul was a train ride to Bologna.
I hesitated briefly at the choice of train options: a commuter one and a so-called Eurostar. The Eurostar took about half the time of the former and was twice as expensive (24 euros). I went for the time and did not wait long to regret. The “Eurostar” was rightfully so named. The bulk of the journey ran inside a tunnel and was safely deprived of any scenic views. I was disappointed. Will I ever find out what the landscape between Florence and Bologna looks like? I hear it is mountainous, but it was only the inside of those mountains that I saw. I recommend to all landscape lovers driving instead!
Bologna, too, left me unimpressed. Was I even there? Only the pictures seem to bear the evidence; my memory for Bologna is blank. Frankly, I expected a lot more from the home of the oldest university in the Western world, European Capital of Culture 2000 and what is widely acclaimed as one of Italy’s best cities in terms of quality of life. But then again, I was only there for a couple of hours.
A street in Bologna
A church in Bologna. I forget the name…
Bologna airport was unexpectedly large, busy and disorganised. Somehow the check-in desks were split between the ground and the first floors, and I wandered helplessly around before locating mine. An Italian lady at the desk paged through my passport and demanded a visa for Turkey. Sadly, I was of no assistance, as Turkey had abolished visas for Latvian citizens a long time ago. I trust I looked very apologetic indeed.
My next stop was passport control, where an officer glanced at my passport and shouted a question to a colleague in the neighbouring booth. After a heated debate in Italian (silently observed by fellow queuing travellers), the answer to the mystery question was finally found. The answer was a yes. Yes, Latvia WAS a member of the European Union. By that point, I could barely wait to leave Bologna – and the rest of Italy, for that matter – behind (view my full photo set for Florence and Bologna). Istanbul was near!
(Continued in “GMT+2: Istanbul”)