Going Solo

September 17, 2014

I swear I’m nearly finished. I swear. I’m writing this for my memory as much as anything and I’m trying to include everything, so I can look back at it in the future. Which means I ramble. Whoops!

I had to be up fairly early on Sunday morning as free breakfast finished at 9:30am but it wasn’t such a chore as I wanted to be leaving Blues at 9:30 anyway. It’s now the law in Italy that state museums are free entry on the first Sunday of every month – I think they’ve done this to make up for the fact that they’ve recently changed the law for over 65s. They used to be able to go places for free, but no longer – and I’d saved one or two places specifically for free Sunday. Not the hugely popular places, as they would be insane on a free day but some things that were off the beaten track a little and mightn’t attract large crowds. First on my list was the Pyramid Of Gaius Cestius, an actual real pyramid that I thought was 12th century but was actually 12BC. It’s usually only open two Saturdays a month but it was on the Sunday free list so I decided I would give it a try, and if it was closed at least it was beside what’s commonly known as The Protestant Cemetery but is actually for anyone who isn’t Catholic so a lot of famous overseas visitors reside there. It also contains – you’ve guessed it – a cat colony! You’ve also guessed that the pyramid was closed, but I didn’t mind too much as at least I’d checked. The graveyard was leafy and cool, providing shade and peace from my itinerary. Little signs appeared here and there pointing towards Goethe and Shelley but this probably would have required going up and down every row, which seemed a little too energetic to me at 10am. I saw a sign pointing towards the ‘new’ part of the cemetery and it seemed a bit sparser, with park benches so I sat down, admiring the views of the pyramid. There were passers-by and I asked them if they could take a photo of me avec pyramid but all attempts ended up disastrous. One man even pressed the digital zoom button instead of the phototaking button, and I don’t think he even realised. I thanked them nicely though. Sometimes, there’s nothing else for it but to take a selfie.

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It’s a bit arty because of the angle and the sun, but I really love the way the sun creates a sunspot at the point of the pyramid. I think it gives it added Egyptianness, or maybe just added Stargate. Here’s a photo without me to give you an idea of the setting.

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I did find poet John Keats as he was in the new section, buried beside his close friend. I didn’t find Shelley, but on Via Del Corso there was a plaque dedicated to him, which I found the next day. So I sort of found him.

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And I found a graveyard cat.

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I was reluctant to leave the peace and quiet but had realised when map-planning that I was very near Aventine Hill; one of the seven hills of Rome. I had a quest there, but I really enjoyed the tree-lined walk, random cats and segway tours I met and the fact that I wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was going. Atop this hill is the villa belonging to The Order of the Knights of Malta and I’m not sure how this was first discovered, but at some point someone looked through the keyhole to their front door and saw that the view had to be seen to be believed. I suspect it was originally designed this way, but somehow this news got out to tourists as a niche thing to do and I found a queue of about 20 people there when I arrived. I would’t say I was sceptical before I looked through the keyhole, but I’d seen images online and wasn’t expecting the real view to be anything near as perfect as a photoshopped glory. It was breathtaking! An avenue of bushes, trimmed to form a pathway for the Knights to walk along, the dome of St. Peter’s hovering magically as if a hologram in a kaleidoscope. I tried to take a decent photo but a man behind me shouted at me for taking too long so I became quite flustered and forgot how to use my camera… Here’s a press photo.

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In Rome, it doesn’t matter if the bus you get is on the return part of the route you want, as all routes are cyclical, or at least go from A to B to A again so when I realised I was on the 85 but heading the wrong way, it wasn’t a huge problem. Until an hour later in quite bad traffic and stifling heat taught me that this was one of the longest routes in the city. Plans to visit the Domus Aurea [possibly getting renovated], Castel Sant’Angelo or possibly Galleria Borghese on free day went completely out of the window as I clung to my battery-powered fan [I’m sure people envied me] and got back to Termini an hour and a half later. I gasped towards a tram and went the two stops to Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, hoping that icecream would help bring me round. I’d had water, yeah but was trying to ration it on the bus. One scoop of tiramisu icecream and a scoop of creamed rice icecream with grains of rice inside helped a good deal, as did the price. 1 euro and 60 cents. You pay first then order your flavours at the counter, when the server asks if you want whipped cream on top for no extra charge. You say yes. As well as tables and chairs what I liked about this place is the park benches they had dotted around the interior, for solo diners. I sat on one, chewed on my delicious grains of rice and refilled my water bottle. Still though, I walked right back to the hostel and I’m honestly not trying to sound sexy, immediately put the ceiling fan on, tore my clothes off and had a cold shower. It was a brutally hot day. I napped for about two hours after that.

So trying to see the St. Agnese Catacombs after this was perhaps a little ambitious. I knew which bus I planned to get, but as my last bus journey had been so warm when someone on Tripadvisor told me there was a metro station near it, I plumped for that. Arriving at the station though, I was in an area that didn’t seem to make much sense to me. Burials at the time had to take place outside the city walls so this particular place was off my map – and off the map in the train station, which was perplexing – which meant I was relying on my rapidly flying memory. I couldn’t see anything churchy so eventually got on a bus, trying to get back. The bus sat in the 34 degree heat for about 20 minutes and of course as soon as it started moving, I spotted the street name I’d been looking for. I didn’t want to get off the bus right away, so went a few streets and tried to retrace my steps. Easy enough, but I wasn’t countering for the heat. Weather reports were marking it as high 20s but an inner city street can go much higher and I believed the sign in the window I passed. I reached the gardens of St. Agnese at around 5:15 and couldn’t see anything pointing towards catacombs, although I sat in the grey, cool interior for a while, breathing. I saw a gardener and considered asking him but realised they were probably closing up for the day, and I truly couldn’t face more walking after that anyway. I got two buses back to Termini and found my local tram. Whether because it was 6pm, or just that the tram schedules were reduced on Sundays it seemed there were an awful lot of people waiting to get on the one tram and when it finally arrived it was like a scene in Mumbai, people grabbing their friends by the arm and pulling them on. It was sweaty, to say the least. Another cold shower and nap beckoned. I was well-hydrated though, with sun lotion and a sun hat, so never fear!

At around 8 I’d cooled down enough to begin the search for food, and took the metro so I didn’t have to tackle another bus. The temperature had reached a comfortable level and I did some ‘final night’ walking around, amused that shops were open at 8:30 on a Sunday night as in Ireland on Sunday we have reduced Sunday opening hours of 1-5, and even on weekdays shops are only open 9-6. I’d heard there were a few decent restaurants on Via Della Corso but I couldn’t find two the guidebook mentioned, and the third didn’t have the thing I wanted to eat. I took a wider tour, looking for some other guidebook places but by then I had a very specific idea of what I wanted, and nothing else would do. I headed back to della Corso and chose a place called Difronte a… and chose the Fettucine alla Norcina [pasta with cheese sauce, sausage and mushroom]. I was a little disappointed as the sausage was beef instead of pork [I shouldn’t have assumed] and the texture of the pasta seemed a little off. Reading on Tripadvisor lots of customers seem a little unsure themselves, but it was a reasonably priced meal and was certainly filling. So filling I couldn’t even manage a bedtime gelato! I slept well, which was handy as I had a flight home ahead of me…

I always arrive at the last day of a holiday with a huge list of things I didn’t have time to do, and stress myself by trying to do it all before I get on the plane. This time, for the last day I had consciously took the pressure off and made a very light itinerary. Bus 85 to San Clemente, 85 again to Tritone and San Crispino gelateria, then whichever bus I could get to take me to a park. Yeah, I was making time to actually relax. Don’t know what came over me!

Checkout time at my hostel was 10am. Sabine said he could mind my case for a few hours but I had to collect it at 2:30, as he had an appointment after that. That suited me, meant I could wander caseless for a while and after 2:30 all I had to do was sit with my case in a restaurant for two hours. My bus to the airport was at 5 but I was going to get there at about 4:30 in case of queues and getting lost and alien abduction.

San Clemente is a church. A quite lovely 12th century church. But all churches in Rome are quite lovely. What marks San Clemente out as different is the fact that it’s built on top of a 4th century church, which was in turn built above a 1st century Pagan temple dedicated to Mithras. A male-only fertility cult, apparently? In a land of excavations, people are obviously going to dig [hoho; when I get tired, I reach for puns] stuff like this. And it’s fascinating, frescoes in the mid-level cut-off halfway by the foundations of the current church, an altar in the Mithraeum on which bulls were slayed, and the water you can hear rushing by on the lower two levels. On the third level they have the excavated remains of a Roman house with a spring water well in the room which they presumably used to drink from. I bent down and touched the floor, which was damp. Narrow corridors offer windows on half-completed excavations and passageways that may one day be safe for visitors. You’re not supposed to take photos but everyone was, so I couldn’t resist one:

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Everyone says San Crispino Gelateria is the best in Rome. Now they do things I personally don’t like. They don’t have chairs so you have to find a shop doorway to sit in. They don’t display the gelato, keeping it in silver-coloured containers to preserve the flavour. A cone would also contaminate the flavour so they have no cones at all, but I always go for tubs anyway. One scoop caramel meringue [containing real meringue] and one scoop ginger & cinnamon later and I was sitting in a doorway [that I later got shouted at for sitting at, but oh well. Rome lacks seating areas in public squares. Unless you pay to eat at a cafe or sit on a fountain, you have to stand] marvelling at the strength of the cinnamon and the amount of meringue pieces. I went to a bus stop on Tritone and found that the 170 went to Villa Borghese which by all accounts is a lovely park. I decided to go for it.

Having six miles of… park, I didn’t do much more than brush the periphery, as tiredness dictated I have a rest. I passed a few occupied park benches and hovered a bit, unsure if you could sit on the grass. The sight of a few couples doing exactly this reassured me, so I found a tree with a wide trunk and sat for about an hour, feeling incredibly relaxed.

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About a thousand birds were vocally making themselves known from nearby trees but although the chattering surrounded me I found it calming. Nature going about its business, man. The park was alive! Further careful reading shows me this park has a zoo, a boating lake, the famous Galleria Borghese, statues and some sort of helium balloon, but that’s for another time. I was just grateful to that tree. Are they Cyprus trees, does anyone know? A tall, slim trunk with few branches on the lower level and a puff of cloud-shaped greenery near the top. On my Roman journey I also found some orange trees. We don’t have orange trees in Ireland!

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I collected my case in an amazingly smooth transaction with, once again, no hidden charges! Ritmo Blues B&B was a nice place. Four rooms at most I think. When I was there the only other paying guests I saw were a German father and daughter there for a weekend of sightseeing. How lucky to choose two clean, pleasant, quiet guesthouses! If you want a party, pub-crawling hostel, you probably shouldn’t get me to do the choosing.

All that was left was for me to find somewhere to have a relaxing dinner, and laziness dictated I chose somewhere near Termini station as that’s where I was getting my airport coach. I wheeled my suitcase around the nearby streets, checking menus. As soon as I found a place I was told they wouldn’t let me sit inside. Not sure why, maybe to keep the more ‘exclusive’ tables tidy for later guests? No matter, a quick five minute walk led me to a place that would let me sit indoors and even though it was slightly more expensive than the places I had been eating, I decided to go for a last-day treat! Once again, Tomoko Tudini receives mixed reviews on Tripadvisor but I found my starter of bruschetta with real white, creamy mozzarella and anchovies pretty good. Yeah, I might have gotten an anchovy bone stuck in my gum and had to do some awkward fiddling in my mouth to find it… but that’s probably not strictly the restaurant’s fault. I ordered spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino as I’d had it in Florence and really liked it. It’s basically plain pasta flavoured with olive oil, chili peppers and garlic. I admit it was nicer in Florence as they had full cloves of garlic and here the garlic was just a light flavouring but again, that’s personal taste. Altogether with water and a cover charge it was slightly less than 20 euro so my idea of an expensive treat is possibly cheaper than most people! The service was perhaps slightly impersonal but I sat there without feeling uncomfortable, eating slowly and reading Anno Dracula [on second thoughts, perhaps with reading that it was best not to have a heavily-garlicked meal!] and psyching myself up for the coach from 5-6pm, the wait at the airport, the flight at 8:30 and getting the midnight bus from Dublin to Belfast. I deserved those two courses!

So! That’s the end of the trip. No point writing about the buses, plane or airport except to say that they were all perfectly ordinary and as expected. More point perhaps writing about the places I didn’t have time to visit, like the famous catacombs that have been so popular apparently some bones had to be moved elsewhere, as tourists kept stealing them… I didn’t have time for Janiculum Hill and the view from Orto Botanico, visiting the canon that booms midday every day. I didn’t have the time or appetite for saltimbocca alla Romana, which seems to be veal escalopes wrapped in ham. Mmmmmmmmm. Perhaps one day I’ll boat on the lake in the Villa Borghese, go inside the Cestius Pyramid, explore what’s left underground of the Domus Aurea – a palace or series of palaces ordered by Nero and built over afterwards by Emperors embarrassed by Nero’s legacy. Oooh, and more gelato…

I’d been home for about two days when I texted my friend Andrew and asked him if he wanted to borrow Anno Dracula now I’d finished it, as he’d been waiting to read it. He replied saying “Speaking of Dracula, I’m eyeing up a trip to Transylvania in October if you’d like to travel again that soon. Up for it?”

Well…

LOLosseum

September 14, 2014

It was a pretty sleepless night. I never sleep well if I know someone has gone out. Not because I’m worried about them, but because I hate being rudely awoken just after I’ve fallen asleep. For that same reason I can’t sleep if I have an alarm set, or if I know someone is calling the next morning. I knew Georgia our hostess was calling at 10am to get payment for our stay, so I woke at 9 in readiness and woke the sleeping beauties at 9:30. As tired as I was feeling, I became quite chipper at seeing the green-around-the-gillsness of the others. Money was handed over with no hidden charges, good feeling and Georgia telling us we could stay as long as we wanted that day, leaving our keys on the table when we left. Donna and Gemma were getting the train to Florence at 6pm so I was going to head on my solo adventure then, going to a guesthouse a few streets away as the current one didn’t have a single room for me. We left our suitcases in the room and headed on to our Friday activities: mainly the Forum and Colosseum. We had another free outdoor breakfast at the Cafe on the corner of Via Merulana facing Santa Maria Maggiore. I can’t remember the name of it though… I’m not one for eating outdoors because of smokers, passers-by, noise, insects… but the others loved it, and I figured I could eat indoors to my heart’s content on the solo part of my trip! We had nice little tables with umbrellas though.

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I had read there was an English language tour of the Roman Forum [basically, the ruins of the old City Centre] at 12:30 costing 5 euro on top of the price of tickets we’d already purchased. When I phoned they said they didn’t have the information on whether there were spaces left to hand, so we should just show up. When we did show up at the Forum entrance we were told that the tour begins at the Palatine entrance [something neither the website or phone information had told us] and it was around half an hour’s walk away, so we might as well just go in the gate we were already at. I’d been told that the information signposted at the Forum wasn’t very helpful. When I read a few of the signs I found they were reasonably helpful, but incredibly dry. And I like historical info! So I had a loose plan of trying to find a tour guide and tagging along for free at some point. A good tour guide can really make something come alive.994484_852470311437557_828445748913504821_nIMAG0104

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The sun beat down mercilessly and I think I was probably best off, as I was the only one with a sunhat. We stayed together for a few pictures and then Donna and Gemma rested their hangovers under a shady tree. I tackled Palatine Hill at this point, finding random staircases and following them up until I reached the Villa Farnesiana. I’d spotted a few guides giving personal tours to couples but at the top of this hill, in a shaded area a tour guide was guiding a group of 15 people and I crept along behind, enjoying the stories, the shade and my dishonest resourcefulness! He took us down some steps to a wonderfully cool area that contained a grotto and waterfall, blocked off by gates. When the tour finished I joined the others, who had relocated to a cafe for some cool drinks and we sat for a while, gathering our strength for the Colosseum.

Our internet tickets of course meant that we could bypass all queues but we still spent a good amount of time observing from the outside, noticing things we’d never seen before, like the huge sign on the side.

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It’s a huge place. Huge. There’s a notice for visitors saying the Colosseum is limited to only 3000 visitors at a time. Only?! We all know the stories. Entertainment took place there; entertainment that was free to attend! Gladiators fought with animals that were kept in underground cages and brought to the surface with moving platforms and winches. Exotic animals were brought over to Rome by ship, as of course the Roman Empire extended far and wide! Gladiators fought with each other, and they stayed underground too, prior to their big moments. You can see a pale wood platform that sightseers are standing on and the underground area is viewable beyond that.

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It was coming close to train time for Donna and Gemma so we got a last meal together at a place very near the Colosseum called Angelino ai Fori dal 1947. I had satisfyingly meaty Fettucine alla Romana and we had all reached exhaustion point, so it was a pretty quiet time for us all. Donna remembered last minute that she hadn’t got to see the Bocca della Verita [mouth of truth], a statue that features in the film Roman Holiday. Rumour has it that if you place your hand in the statue’s mouth it will bite your hand off if you tell a lie. Apparently it was used historically to ascertin the honesty of wives. But not husbands, apparently? They dashed off to find the statue and I went back to finish packing and to have a bit of a much-needed lie down. I admit, I was starting to feel nervous about changing hotels and having my solo time!

They’d taken so long at the statue we had to leave pretty much right away and after they headed to the train I carried on down Via Napoleone III praying I wouldn’t throw up in public through sheer nerves. I reached Ritmo Blues B&B in about 15 [panicked] minutes, feeling a little more uncomfortable when the neighbourhood began to look seedier and seedier. I kept control of my stress during Sabine’s Introduction to Blues talk and started to feel calmer, especially when he told me I could use the guest computer, and when he made me try the key in the lock with his supervision as there was a knack to it, and had I been left to do it alone I probably would have just given up. That’s one thing I always notice with hostels. Most of the locks are tricky but the staff expect you to work this out by yourself, be it clockwise, anticlockwise or just a little extra elbow grease. The practice run was very much appreciated! My room was lovely with a double bed, ceiling fan, private bathroom and fridge, so I lay down and tried to be calm.

And calm I was. By about 9pm I realised a walk would be beneficial, to help me sleep and get me familiar with the area. Slightly apprehensive, I felt much better when I stepped onto the street and the first thing I saw was a family with a small child. And then another! This was reassuring. I walked around the corner spotting a few restaurants and heading towards lights found a supermarket where I heard a bunch of Australian students getting their holiday groceries. I grabbed some bottles of water and rosemary and olive flavour Pringles, which you can’t get here. The icing on the cake was when I spotted Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a guidebook-recommended gelateria less than 5 minutes walk from Blues! A quick nip inside showed me an amazing array of flavours and a wide open airy seating area. I was sold, and relaxed enough to sleep with my first solo full day ahead of me!

The next morning I was so excited about the solo part of my journey! I could spend ages staring at maps without appearing antisocial, I could keep checking and rechecking things, I could take my time finding things [for example, if I didn’t find the Pantheon right away I could keep trying without worrying about boring people] and wouldn’t have to compromise on destinations and wouldn’t have to eat outdoors! I could buy a three day bus ticket for my remaining three days and literally bus-hop, going to random places. I could do anything!

So it started off with me getting hopelessly lost. I’d read on the Couchsurfing website that there was a free walking tour – taking in some of the more unusual sights I wanted to see like the keyhole on the Aventine Hill [I’ll explain later], the statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the Bocca Della Verita, the Jewish Ghetto, Bernini’s elephant statue – starting at the Circus Maximus at 10:30am. All I needed was a bus ticket to get there. I had enough money for a single ticket but decided it would be more economical to buy a three day ticket, so I had to find an ATM. On finding it, the machine asked me if I wanted 20 or 50 euro. 20 would buy the ticket but not be enough for dinner too, so I plumped for 50. The machine gave me a 50 euro note. The ticket-buying machines said they accepted 50 euro notes, but didn’t. I tried more than one. It also didn’t accept cards. By then I was quite a distance from that first bank machine so I randomly picked a busy street and started walking, figuring that a busy shopping street would have another ATM sooner or later. I didn’t mind which direction I was walking in as I knew whenever I got my ticket I could just get a random bus. When I found another ATM it told me I was at my limit for the day, so was kinda trapped with a 50 euro note. I walked for a while, thinking I might be able to buy a ticket at the actual manned ticket booth at Termini. Halfway there, I realised I had another card which I don’t use often, but might just help me out. Trouble was, it wasn’t compatible with many ATMs. Certainly not the first one I tried. I’m not sure how I ended up on Via Merulana but I didn’t quite realise how far I’d walked until I reached San Giovanni in Laterano. Which I wouldn’t have minded seeing, but not right then. And it was completely in the opposite direction I’d wanted to go in! I retraced my steps, found an ATM that accepted my second card and realised just how gosh-darned hard I was pushing myself to walk fast. I accepted I’d missed the tour and wouldn’t be able to find them so I made a concerted effort to walk slowly and not go hell-for-leather. I walked to Termini and got the Metro to Spagna, as that was fairly central and could be the start of me conducting my own walking tour! It’s not easy to get a good photo of the Spanish Steps as they’re so busy, but if nothing else this shows how busy they are!IMAG0065And here’s me:

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As this was the first morning of my holiday and I had no real schedule, I decided to try and find a nearby gelateria called San Crispino, considered by many to be the best in Rome. When I arrived I couldn’t for the life of me work out why the door seemed to be locked on a Saturday, until I read the opening hours and realised it wasn’t yet 11am. Usually at home I’m still asleep at 11am! I had about 10 minutes to wait but fickle as I am I decided to try the next-best option, Giolitti, apparently a few streets away. Guidebooks say it may be past its best but as I’d never been there before, I would have nothing to compare it to. I got one scoop pistachio [which I was delighted to find contained whole pistachios] and a bright, sharp-tasting scoop of mint, taking it with me the two streets I roamed looking for the Pantheon.

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Most of Rome’s buildings from BC are ruins. The Pantheon – rebuilt in 126 AD – is still a working concern. Its Pagan origins led to consecration as a Christian church in 609. I ain’t a historian though, so have some pretty pictures of the bronze doors that were replaced in the 15th century.

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And the tomb of Victor Emanuele II:

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The interior is spectacular, cool marble surrounding the hole in the ceiling that’s constructed to let air and light in. The sunlight through this oculus causes circles of light inside the building, which I would have photographed had I a better camera! I went outside, leaning against a pillar and writing a postcard before taking a closer look at the fountain nearby.

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Aimlessly pottering after this, with a loose view to looking for Piazza Navona and instead found this dude, called Minerva’s Chick.

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I never did find Piazza Navona. I came out of the winding streets at a[nother] set of ancient ruins set behind plexiglass, which I recognised as Largo di Torre, a site of four excavated temples which historians believe contain the site of Julius Caesar’s murder. They say Shakespeare set the murder in the Forum as all the other action took place there, and simply wanted to save theatres have another set change. Whatever the truth, the truth now is that there’s a cat sanctuary there and I looked around through the ruins awhile, playing spot-the-cat.

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It was 11:55 and the sanctuary opened at 12 so I waited a while, considering how I didn’t want to wait at San Crispino for it to open. Priorities, eh? The volunteers vaccinate each cat, treating existing conditions and neuter all cats, to try and reduce problems in the future. Reading about the sanctuary on Tripadvisor I once again became annoyed at ridiculous comments like “This place smells of cats” or “It’s depressing, seeing blind cats”. I think the fact these cats have good care is anything but depressing! Yes, it was sad seeing a cat with no eyes [eye infections are rife with stray cats] but the soft grey cat in question had a comfortable place to stay, seemed fairly content and could have been a lot worse. I was mildly amused that a black, blind cat was called Stevie Wonder though… Their naming policy is odd. I have no idea what monstrous thing this particular cat did to get such an awful name:

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Here are some inmates.

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I had no food in my bag.

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Cats can read? In… English?

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Cat-garden:

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I couldn’t afford any of the souvenirs [a cloth shopping bag was 15 euro] so scrabbled around in my purse for some coins. I don’t think the other visitors I saw donated, but to be fair I was outside the door before I remembered, I had to come back in. They don’t have signs up asking, which is nice and unobtrusive but… leads to forgetting.

By now I thought going back to the hostel for a nap was a great idea, after a quick lunch. I found an Italian restaurant very near the hostel and I can find it on streetview, give you the address and describe the decor, but none of this is helping me find the name online. I had some garlic bruschetta with actual cloves of garlic and some fiore di zucca, or battered zucchini flowers. Sometimes this is cooked with mozzarella and I wonder if there was some in mine, as it contained more flavour than a deep-fried vegetable has right to have! Somewhere between a fishcake and a potato cake. Yeah, it tasted mildly fishy. No, I’m not a food writer. Can you tell? I felt perfectly comfortable eating alone anyway and I was totes indoors! After the food I couldn’t face going for a nap as there was a city to explore so I did a bit of bus hopping, finding [my favourite Piazza?] Piazza Campidoglio which was designed by Michelangelo and if you take one of the little side streets off the rear you have wonderful aerial views of the Forum and yes, this is where the statue of the she-wolf resides! I jumped a bus again, partly looking for a post office and partly just… looking. The heat was starting to properly bear down on me by this point though. Have I told you about the public drinking fountains? Clean, cold drinking water gettable from fountains dotted all over the city, placed strategically in popular tourist points and/or points that don’t get much shade. Bring a bottle and refill, these things are life-savers!

I’m not sure how to describe the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Monks. The top part – the above ground levels – is indeed a museum and I spent a lot of time reading about the lives of the order, how it has changed over the years, the significance of the hood shape, the lives of particular monks [some awaiting confirmation of sainthood] as I didn’t want to appear to be a bloodthirsty hag who just skipped immediately to BELOW. And the top level was very interesting. More interesting than the signage in the Forum, let me tell you. But most people do visit this museum because of BELOW. Below is monk bones. Not unusual for a crypt, you might say. But these monk bones are arranged. Into… collages? Tableau, anyhow. 4000 monks were used in the making of these pictures, often with a message of worship, or more commonly, making the use of time while you have it. Skulls are winged [a wing perhaps formed from half a pelvis?], hourglasses are winged; “Time flies” is the message here. Use it while you can. Photos aren’t allowed, but a few professional ones exist online for website purposes. Instead of describing any more, I’ll put one or two up.

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I was enjoying peace and quiet in the ossuary, some gentle chanting music being quietly piped in when I loud-voiced lady appeared, leading a tour group. I quietly raged, until I realised she was telling more information than the signs were given, so I slowed my pace to listen. After 10 minutes or so another tour group appeared, with an equally loud-voiced lady giving slightly different information, which gave me a fuller picture of the picture, as it were. I stood between the two groups and listened to both descriptions, pleased at my luck. Much like the cat sanctuary, I wouldn’t say it’s a depressing sight. Peaceful.

Being a cool dude, I went back to my room at 7pm, eating Pringles and reading for the rest of the evening. I checked the guest computer and slept my first proper sleep since getting to Italy. I slept like a stone through the night.

Roman Roamin’

September 12, 2014

If I don’t start writing about this holiday now, I’ll probably start to forget things! And if I forget things these entries will be shorter, which would never do. Writing about the actual process of travel isn’t that exciting, so I’ll get it out of the way. I got the 2:30am bus and instead of being empty like I expected, it was pleasantly busy with Dublin airport-bound folks. I slept part of the way on the bus, meaning that annoyingly when I tried to sleep on the plane, I was wide awake and trying to suppress my restless legs. I found Donna and Gemma quite easily in Ciampino airport, and the first meeting with Gemma went pretty well, with smiles and excitement and enthusiasm. We fried a little in the sun but only had to wait 20 minutes for the Terravision bus. I refused to take my denim jacket off, as then I would have to carry it. I also refused to search in my case for my sunhat. Laziness is a terrible thing. When we arrived in the city centre I consulted [one of] my map[s] and managed to get us about three quarters of the way to our hotel. Unfortunately I then became slightly confused as I mixed the back of the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore up with the front [the back was so ornate it never occurred to us it was the back]. Gemma took the map and edged us slightly forward and we suddenly figured out the problem.

When we got to Mia Lodge we were delighted at the things that we hoped it would have, but weren’t 100% sure. It had an elevator! A fridge! When in Rome, you’ll find a fridge for your drinks is a necessary thing. I’d been kind of wanting to write little paths and cafe locations on my maps but because I’d borrowed them from my friend Steve I realised I couldn’t. All this was solved when Georgia from the hostel gave us an introductory talk about Rome, circling things on her pad of tear-off disposable maps and giving me the idea to do the same on the one she gave us. We had a triple room [one set of bunks and one single] and it was clean and peaceful, with a ceiling fan and unexpected balcony, greeted delightedly by smoker Gemma. Our room faced an inner courtyard and as we were on the third floor, we barely had any outside noise. For the first night of our stay there wasn’t anyone at all staying on the same floor as us and when the other guests did arrive they were two very quiet girls. Relief, exhaustion and peace & quiet dictated that we all napped. So we did.
Courtyard:
10704192_10154600294875694_1232735173466002491_nWe’d decided before we left that the plan for the first day was to wander, looking at things that were either free or just looking at things from the outside. No point booking tickets to see expensive things if we were all too tired to enjoy them. Georgia had told us that the Colosseum was at the bottom of our street [Via Cavour] so we decided to start walking towards there and head wherever the wind took us. Well, I say “wherever the wind took us”, but I had a fairly specific idea of where I wanted to go… The first thing the girls did was get a gelato but I declined, holding out in some kind of protest, waiting until we reached a gelateria that was guidebook-recommended. Our first glance of the Colosseum was scaffolding-side, so we didn’t take any photos until we got to a more familiar view.It’s certainly stare-worthy, but the Roman Forum is right beyond it which means that whichever direction you look, there are ancient ruins, precariously standing tall and well-preserved, with bermuda-shorted tourists pointing cameras at them. We were starting right in the centre of everything! Stopping frequently to look down at the Forum from the viewing stations set up along the street, we meandered towards what we soon found out was the Vittorio Emanuel II Monument, built to remember the first King of the United Italy. An imposing white building which manages to fit in pillars, marble, gilt, steps and statues of horse-riders, it’s very busy aesthetically and tourist-wise. Posing for a few photos on the steps we heard a far-off whistle, only realising it was directed at us when the security guard came running over to tell us [in mime] that standing and climbing were fine, but sitting was not allowed. Still, we got this!

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Then I stood up. See the area with the statue against the gold background? That’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We couldn’t understand at the time why machine-gun wielding soldiers were on guard, thinking it was just… a statue. The flame you might be able to see is a memorial to Italy’s war dead.

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Directly facing us from our vantage point on those steps we could see Via del Corso, one of Italy’s main shopping streets and straight as a die, in the Roman tradition of building roads going straight from A to B, no messing. I also had a fairly good idea that the Trevi Fountain was somewhere in this direction and although I’d heard it was under restoration and currently had no water in it, I figured it would be worth a look. Like I said earlier, Rome is full of surprises, excavations and pillars around every corner. When you’ve been there for a while you get to realise when one is coming up. You see a square [or ‘Piazza’] ahead, the street you’re walking along begins to get brighter, light up ahead. Not so with Trevi though! It backs onto a building and isn’t in a particularly spacious area, so you’re likely to come upon it by surprise. It’s a superstition that visitors to Rome are supposed to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain if they want to return. Because of the current lack of water, this is frowned upon as the coins hitting the dry cement is chipping the plaster, so they’ve set up a tiny ‘Temporary Trevi’ for your coins. There’s also a bridge going across the fountain so you can get closer to the parts of it that aren’t being worked upon. You can cross this bridge for 2 euro…

Temporary Trevi:
IMAG0068IMAG0069We were pretty near the Spanish Steps by this point but as we were all pretty sleepy Donna suggested we stop for food. We ended up eating outdoors at a place called Al Caminetto and I tried Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe which is spaghetti noodles cooked with black pepper [which gives it a kick] and pecorino cheese which is not unlike parmesan. It sounds plain, but was anything but, almost having too much flavour for me! Delicious! Feeling duly fortified, we made our way to the Spanish Steps and climbed to the top, chatting to two American men on the way, me reading to them from my guidebook about the history of the steps. I was amused reading reviews of the Steps on Tripadvisor. Some people indignantly exclaimed “They’re just steps!” The clue’s kinda in the name, guys… As the Pantheon was free and also apparently nearby we tried to find it along with Piazza Navona, but both eluded us although we were following the signs. The next few days showed me that while most are correct, some signs in Rome are definitely pointing the wrong way! In the end Gemma just pointed at an obelisk in the distance and we walked towards it, discovering on arrival that it was the rather beautiful Piazza Del Popolo which is overlooked by the Pincio Gardens. We were too tired to do much more than sit at the fountain listening to the emo kids play Metallica and Green Day on their ipods and we chilled out a while, eventually getting the metro back from Flaminio to Termini, which was the nearest station to our hotel. We were in our pyjamas by 9pm and while we stayed up chatting and didn’t sleep right away, none of us were up for a night out. It had been a long day!

Thursday was to be an early morning for us as we had Vatican Museum reservations for 10:30am. I once again had to tread the line between reminding the girls that we had a reservation but gritting my teeth to stop myself from actually mentioning the words “hurry”, “up”, and “late”. The fact that I hadn’t slept might not have helped. I always have trouble sleeping on the first night in a new place. Silently, grimly throwing psychic waves at them eventually worked, and we arrived at the museum just a little after 10:30. Such a relief to breeze past the insane queue against what looked like a fortress wall, telling the ticket touts “It’s okay, we have ours!”10675609_852464241438164_3985848452495695417_n

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Now, inside was mostly art. I tend not to take photos of great works of art as I figure my camera won’t do them justice and if I want to see them, there will be amazing professional photographs of them online. The photos I take on holiday tend to be of… me. Sorry! Mainly because there ain’t no-one else going to take pictures of me. Also, inside the Sistine Chapel specifically [it’s part of the Vatican Museums] there are signs up saying No Photography. Donna got one of the ceiling though.

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Yes, we saw this in real life! We had to struggle through these crowds to get there though.

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So obviously progress through the rooms preceding the Sistine was slow. It gave us time to appreciate the art though, and when we finally got to the Sistine we were very glad to sit down on some benches they have along the walls and just stare at the ceiling, leading to a condition I call ‘Vatican Neck’. Just think, Michelangelo lay back flat on a board laid atop a ladder to paint that ceiling. It took him four years. When he was commissioned to do it he was known for sculpture and didn’t consider himself a painter at all. He thought he might as well give it the old college try. That wasn’t the only painted ceiling though. Check out this average staircase:

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And I found a mini-Sphinx.

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After a few hours we found the spiral staircase exit, and exited. After photos of exiting.

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After all this, we were lured into Giuly’s Cafe on Via Santamaura by the promise of 7 euro pizza. Or rather, they were. I had my eye on something different: Pizza Bianca. Basically a pizza base without sauce and sometimes without cheese. Just a crisp base, flavoured with olive oil and in this case, rosemary. I really enjoyed the cheeseless treat but would love to try one with mozzarella sometime. I’m all about sampling the local delicacies. Then it was time for the other part of The Vatican: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. How does one make a Basilica look even more Holy than it already does? Surround it with pillars. Lots of pillars. This is exactly what Bernini did. We’re not experts with the old panoramic photography, but here’s Gemma attempting to show the scale of the collonade beside the Basilica.

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And for even more scale, here I embrace an individual pillar.

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Of course, as this is the square where the Pope makes his public addresses, we have some chairs set out for Pope-fans.
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The Vatican have their own ‘police’, the Swiss Guard. Interesting uniforms:
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It’s free to enter the Basilica, but you have to queue for security, and the queue snakes round most of the square. It probably took us half an hour of waiting, which is nothing really. You do have to pay to climb the dome though. You can pay 5 euro and climb around 550 steps, or pay 7 euro and take the elevator up part of the way then climb roughly 330. We were exhausted by this point, so it was a no-brainer. Before you reach the summit there’s an interior viewing level where you are inside the dome and can look down into the Basilica, or around you at the mosaics covering it. You can touch them! As a dome connoisseur by this point [it’s kinda my thing when I go to a big city; climbing the dome] I can say that St. Peter’s is a thoroughly pleasant climb. One way staircases which means you don’t have to hold your breath and flatten yourself against the wall when someone comes along in the opposite direction. Well-lit, tiled walls, wide stairs. Of course, by the last 20 or so steps you’re in a very tightly winding spiral staircase which has no room for a bannister so instead a rope hangs down from the top and you can grasp it to keep yourself steady. But we need a bit of a challenge, don’t we, folks?

View from the top!
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Me obscuring the view.
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What I especially loved is that, since the staircase to go up is one way, the staircase down is on the opposite side of the dome. There’s a little gift shop at the bottom of the steps, just before you get the elevator to take you the rest of the way and the only way you can reach this particular shop is if you’ve made it to the top and find this staircase down. A gift shop staffed entirely by nuns selling beautiful pieces of jewellery, ornament, religious iconography… They don’t even have cash registers, they add the prices up on calculator. It’s so… non-consumerish.

After our climb we deserved a gelato and I lifted my embargo on non-guidebook recommended places. I had a tub with one scoop lemon and one scoop creme caramel. We walked down to the side of the River Tiber and looked at the water for a while, admiring the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge and the Castel Sant’Angelo behind us.
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A quick dash to the 40 Express bus back to Termini was our first overground journey and gave us real perspective on the city, spotting things we recognised and things we were intrigued by. It made us feel like it was all more real, somehow. A nap followed and Gemma and Donna had a small balcony picnic in our room, whereas I was holding out for a quick bite in a cafe later. At around 10pm we headed to a nearby cafe, the one where our breakfast vouchers were for. I tried a mushroom pate bruschetta and a filetti di baccala which is basically a small battered piece of cod. Not really any different than what we would get in a chip shop here, but at least I tried! The bruschetta was great. I headed to bed at around 11pm while the others decided to try to find some Roman nightlife. I wished them well, but needed my bed!

Well, here it is. Part The Last. My last full day in Florence. If I were to write about my last half day, it would just be mentioning buses and planes, and a vague sense of awkwardness wondering if my host actually liked me as she seemed a little irritated, and if I should get her a thank you gift. In the end, neither of us got the other a gift. I don’t know what to do in situations like that, especially when the other person has been away for a week and you are only seeing each other as you’re packing to leave. The day before though, the last full day! I always tell myself I won’t have built up a list of things I need to do that I haven’t had time to do yet but, er, I had a list of things to do that I hadn’t had time to do yet. There was a patisserie that had been staring at me every day when I got my bus home, so I called in there and had quite a sensible Italian conversation with the shop assistant when I asked if a certain amazing-looking pastry had rice in. She said no, it was ricotta and pointed to a frankly pathetic looking article that contained rice. I chose the ricotta. As it was a lovely 20-something celsius day I decided to eat it outside, and what better location than the courtyard of the Bargello? The main sculpture museum in Florence, the only reason I hadn’t made it there yet was because it closed at 2pm daily. What’s with that? A lot of people go here to see Donatello’s Davids. Yes, he sculpted two Davids and still neither of them is famous. The marble David has a slight campness but is nothing compared to the bronze hat-wearing, hand-on-hip, sword carrying [don’t remember a sword in the Bible story] Ru Paul’s Drag Race David. Not quite sure why everyone was sculpting Davids. Italians, eh? The ‘you can take photos in the courtyard but not indoors’ rule was confusing, especially when one wannabe indoor photographer was told to desist and just snapped away anyway, smirking. I hated that man right then. A large part of my job is trying to stop people from taking photos of shows, and it’s one of the most powerless positions ever. The Bargello is also famous for displaying the runners-up in the competition to design the Baptistery doors, but as the second floor was closed when I was there they will just have to remain unseen by me. For now. Florence is at any time full of closures for refurbishments but on the whole I had it pretty lucky. One floor of the Bargello, the Museo dell’Opera, certain other things covered with sheets and room 40-something of the Uffizi. Not bad.

Speaking of the Uffizi, I did return there to watch the parade of proud penises. I did the Third Corridor and it wasn’t as horribly packed as I had been led to believe on a Saturday. Maybe the crowd just hadn’t got to the Third Corridor yet. I became quite taken with Bazzi’s Saint Sebastian.

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The Niobe room was also quite impressive. Daughter of poor sod Tantalus, she bragged about having more children than Leto so Apollo and Artemis killed them all. Basically a roomful of statues poised in flight, running from vengeful Gods. It’s always nice for me to hear new Greek myths too. An old hobby of mine. I went home to cat-tidy and have a quick nap before what would be my main adventure that day: the hike to San Miniato al Monte.

There’s no real reason why I saved this walk for the last day. I was supposed to do it on Sunday, but there was a thunderstorm which… dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Then the weather was a little grey for a few days, and you don’t really want to see an amazing view in grey weather. The forecast for Saturday was good so… Saturday it became! I decided to do what my guidebook suggested and start the walk at Ponte Vecchio. But because I can never do anything in a straightforward fashion, I realised this was my last chance to look at the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, founded in 1221. Free entry and although I didn’t have a lot of time I enjoyed the peacefulness of the place, wanting to try the testers but not wanting to be nabbed by an overeager salesperson. Imagine an Apothecarist’s, with different ingredients in neatly labelled drawers stretching up the ceiling with an abundance of mirrors, glass jars and the obligatory statues, ceiling frescoes and Jesuses.

Now I hadn’t really planned this walk at all, as I knew there was a step-by-step description in the guidebook. Unfortunately the description was slightly more confusing than I had expected, telling me to turn onto Costa di San Giorgio after Santa Felicita, neither of which I could find. Probably because I was assuming an alleyway was the first turn, instead of looking for a real street. I found Costa dei Magnoli though, a steep hill through a dark, narrow entryway and figured that this hill would probably meet the other at some point. I was right. I ended up on Costa San Giorgio before long, joining the panting pilgrims, all slightly embarrassed but all in exactly the same state because of the steep incline. So steep I nearly missed Galileo’s house, as I was fixating on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s just that I saw a man step back from the path and take a photo of the house which made me step back and notice the paintings, the plaque dedicated to Galileo. A fork in the road led to me following two confused-looking bald men, knowing full well I was probably going the wrong way, but when I turned around and realised everyone was then following me because of my guidebook and confident solo stride, I kinda had to carry on. Sure enough, we reached the locked gates of Forte di Belvedere and realising the mistake, I immediately went to the previous turn, while everyone else stood around and assumed Piazzale Michelangelo was closed that day. I still wasn’t completely sure I was on the right path, but I was told to look out for a large gate with St. George fighting the dragon on it. I found a large arched gate with a faded painting that could have been that… It could have been the English flag, although the Florentine flag is the same, so who knows?

Once again my book seemed to differ from everyone else’s, telling me to make the radical change of going downhill now along the Forte walls, one of the nicest parts of the journey. Also one of the quietest, I imagine because everyone else thought going downhill was going the wrong way. Huge walls, Spring trees in blossom and just a little time to myself. At the bottom of the hill civilisation rears its ugly head again, traffic and cafes appearing along with all the other people who took a different route. Then the steps begin. I didn’t have the presence of mind to count at the time and have searched online to see how many steps there are up Via di San Salvatore al Monte, but have found nothing. More than you would expect, although I did walk steeply downhill five minutes previously so… The steps are lined with stations of the cross, but I confess I was more concentrating on my apple juice right then, and surprised to find a chicken coop. When we arrived at the top we were delighted, assuming we were at the back of San Miniato because it didn’t look familiar. Careful studying of signs revealed that this was the other church up there and there was still a way to go. As San Miniato was out of view, I just started heading uphill and found it within about 5 minutes, another steep staircase not daunting me as my destination was in sight. Such a giddy good mood came upon me that some charity workers at the gate got me to sign what I assumed was a mailing list – “Would you like to sign for solidarity?” – only at the end realising that they expected a donation. I escaped quicksmart, the charity guys laughing at their friend who hadn’t been able to persuade me to part with my money. I had been told that the monks sang Eucharist at 5:30 daily so had tried my best to time it reasonably well. Imagine my delight when as soon as I entered the church they began singing! They were my soundtrack for exploring the cool interior of the church, watched by peace-sign Jesus on the ceiling as I climbed the steps to the high altar, eventually settling in the crypt where the service was going on. Perhaps the monks singing weren’t really monks, as the singing seemed to be done by a group of middle-aged males and females in plain casual dress. Some of the men had monk-like hair, but they may have just been balding. I did see some actual cassocked monks later with rope belts, but managed to restrain myself from taking a photo. The service was as puzzling to me as I guess a service in a foreign language would be to someone who hadn’t been brought up in that religion. Everyone stood up on the sound of a bell but I didn’t, in case I was expected to accept a wafer in Italian, or something. I was just a silent observer at the back, enjoying the calm and the music. Other observers were not so silent, snapping photos of the priest and forgetting to put their phones on silent.

After a while I went outside, unable to enter the graveyard as it closes at 5 but I could view it from certain angles, seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s grave. I found a seat and ate my chocolate, watching everyone mill about. The top steps were pretty full with seated tourists even in late March. As I hadn’t been to the famed Piazzale Michelangelo yet I made my way down a hill via the only-open-summers rose garden and approached the Piazzale, which I was expecting to be a rather small lookout point. It actually stretches quite far, although the farther North you go the less likely your photos will include the Duomo. Instead of one or two burger vans, there was a full on market, most offering free samples of biscotti, bread with olive oil, chilli pepper paste and… flavoured honey. Mint honey. Raspberry honey. I could have tried them all, but realised there’s a point where it looks bad if you don’t buy anything. I filled up from a few different stalls with enough to get me through until dinner at 7:30. Perhaps it was that the sun was setting and that the lights below were coming on, maybe it was knowing it was my last night, maybe it was tiredness from the walk or the acoustic covers singer on the steps, but I did become a little emotional, my face on the downhill route twisted in a big grin. Just… grinning at nothing and nobody. The risk of a solo holiday had been worth it. Should you take a risk? Well, research it well. Take a map. Get a good hotel or a host with references. Plan in advance. Don’t just up and book something for next week and if you’re cautious, choose a city, like I did and not an isolated rural area. But if a weirdo like me can do it…

I got down to the river bank at about 7:15, pondering a locked tower with stairs and wondering if it was open in the daytime. By 7:30 I was at St. Mark’s near Santo Spirito to meet Annie and we got a quick meal in the nearby Il Cantinone, which you enter through a staircase that leads underground. At the time we were taken aback by a rude waiter, who couldn’t understand why we were leaving so quickly [we had theatre tickets] but a quick look on TripAdvisor shows that the waiters are rude to everyone, which helps a little… Still though, my Crespelle Fiorentine were delicious, pancakes with ricotta and spinach in a tomato and bechamel sauce. It was certainly the most reasonably priced place in the area.

So we finished the evening and indeed both our holidays with La Bohème in St. Mark’s Anglican Church. Yes, it’s 30 euro although if you’re lucky like we were, someone will not show up and you can move to the 36 euro seats. It’s edited slightly, down to a five-hander but the cast are incredibly likeable, with a narrator who explains things humorously in English between the acts. Certain things are edited because of the church setting, for example Marcello’s naked lady painting is of a boat, as the narrator comically points out. Singing and acoustics are wonderful though, as they would be in a church and the single pianist deserves a standing ovation just for himself. As there are just 11 rows, no balcony and with definitely fewer than 200 seats – again, I wish I’d counted – it’s a special experience. We walked the 10 minutes to my bus stop beside Santa Maria Novella station and got a quick coffee and a [horrible, my first bad food in Italy] pastry in the station, and said our goodbyes.

And there you have it. Go to Italy. Go with me! Go with me somewhere else. Take me somewhere. PLEASE. Or else I’ll go and annoy some more cats. Nobody wants that, least of all the cats.

Thursday started off as a pretty relaxed day. Antonio had told me that if he had time during the week he would talk me through the mysteries of Italian menus and we arranged Thursday after 6 as a good time. He suggested Fiesole, a town I’d been planning to visit but couldn’t quite work out when. This decided it! I knew the Archaelogical Museum and Roman Ruins site closed at 5 though, so I figured I would get there by 3pm, have a good look around and go for dinner when Antonio finished work.

Fiesole [not Fee-soul but Fee-ay-so-lay, this revelation leading to my understanding of quite a lot of Italian pronunciation] is a little hill town above Florence. It’s recommended for tourists as it’s on the ATAF bus route which means your Carte Agiles will work. It’s quieter than Florence, so you can get away from it all for a day. It contains bizarre walks and wonderful views. It contains a Roman amphitheatre. It’s also nearly impossible to get lost as everything runs off and returns to a central square. I figured I could do worse than follow a sign pointing to the ‘Passeggiata Panoramica’ and pottered up and around this hill for about half an hour, not being quite sure if each view was THE view or if I should go a little farther. Eventually I stopped. Later, looking at my route it appears if I’d kept going I would have ended up back at the square. Nothing lost then! I’d put the amphitheatre off for long enough though. As it was a slightly foggy day with occasional drizzle, the Roman ruins were pretty much just being explored by me, and a school trip. I was so taken with the amphitheatre I wanted a photograph of myself there. I almost asked a teacher, then realised teachers are supposed to actually be doing work and also, have a reputation for being disobliging. I asked a 14 year old boy instead. The right thing to do. I pottered around for quite a while near the Roman baths and Etruscan walls, eventually going into the archaeological museum purely to get warm. I was most fascinated by the Longobardi skeleton they found and had carbon dated, to the point of being able to count tooth cavities and seeing that this person had worked regularly with an axe, as the repetitive movement showed on his skeleton. Having a look at my guidebook I realised that the panoramic walk I had taken – while still perfectly acceptable – was not the recommended one. I spotted another brown sign and a steep hill and assumed that this time I was right, although the sign seemed to be pointing to some sort of police memorial park. When I reached the park I took a break from hills and sat on a bench, looking around. I saw a building above me that may have been the church I’d heard of. It may not, but I might as well check. On closer inspection it seemed I’d taken a leafy shortcut to the Monastery of San Francesco so, unsure if I was actually allowed to or not, climbed some stairs and ended up visiting the cell of St Bernardine of Siena. No Fra Angelico frescos here, just a lovely calming atmosphere. And writing desks. A missionary museum is apparently there, but I think it must have been closed that day. I didn’t see any other doors anyway. On a downhill slope now I came to a small group of people with cameras perched above a police memorial statue and taking in the benches and the lack of camera-obscuring wire fences, realised THIS was the real view. I took a closer look at the statue but my Italian wasn’t good enough to discover exactly why these policemen needed a memorial. After taking some quiet time I got a camomile tea and a custard pastry in a tobacconist/Cafe Deja Vu. Still having roughly half an hour to kill before Antonio arrived, I walked up the other hill where the shops were, and found a Coop. I’m almost sure it’s not a Co-Op, I think it’s simply a Coop, as in chicken. I bought some bread and a pint of milk and puzzled over why lamp and handbag shops in Fiesole have signs outside saying “No entry charge”.

When the sun set, Antonio arrived and it was dinnertime. He recommended Vinandro, and totally against my better judgement I had three courses. As an appetiser I had wild boar salami with some sort of friend potato mash and what was described on the menu as tomato oil but turned out to be amazing sundried tomatoes. I ate them all. For a main I had the gnocchi and wasn’t planning on dessert but Antonio seemed so delighted at the prospect of creme caramel I gave in and had a darkly moist slice of chocolate orange cake. Yeah, I tried to be clever and got off at the wrong bus stop on the way home, or the right stop, but went the wrong way after that. What should have been a fifteen minute walk turned into an hour because I turned the wrong way, and I felt self-conscious about consulting my map alone. I found my way eventually though, and totally nonchalantly pretended to the cats that nothing had gone wrong. I actually kind of enjoyed seeing where I’d made my wrong turns when I was safely back home consulting the map.

Once again on Friday I felt I needed an indoor day to make up for all the hiking the day before. To explain this though, I need to explain Florence’s bus ticket system. Basically, you buy a ticket from a shop and activate it when you get on the bus. Once activated, the ticket lasts for 90 minutes before you need to activate another one.  So I figured on this day because of laziness I would get a series of buses within the 90 minutes to get me as close to Palazzo Pitti as possible. There are a series of C buses [C1, C2, C3 and the curiously named D – why not C4?] that do constant loops of the city centre so you can literally switch between them as often as you want during the 90 minutes if you want. If you’ve nothing better to do. I was standing outside Santa Maria Novella station where my 17 drops me, waiting for a C3 or D when a lady asked me which bus she should get to the Uffizi or Pitti. Basically, she had reservations at both but wasn’t sure of the times so needed to get to both to confirm. I told her I was going to Pitti so we ended up getting the bus together, me telling her about the cats and explaining various bus routes. We exchanged names and as Annie and I walked towards the Pitti ticket office, a lady was handing out flyers for an opera show that night, a selection of arias. I commented that I’d heard St. Mark’s Anglican Church did full operas and she exclaimed that she’d heard this too, and fished out a St. Mark’s flyer from her bag, which told us La Boheme was on Saturday evening. We exchanged choir stories and then exchanged numbers, thrilled by the prospect of an opera buddy. I invited her on a Couchsurfing dinner I had planned that night with a guy called Francesco and we went our separate ways, me inside the palace, her on to check her Uffizi reservation.

As it was coming down to the wire with only two full days left in Florence I had been a little worried that I wouldn’t make Palazzo Pitti at all. Or, more specifically The Palatine Gallery and Royal Apartments as I’d already been to various other parts of the complex. I can’t detail all the paintings here. All I will say is there are over 500, collected by Ferdinando (III) de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, known for being a patron of the arts. Don’t be so distracted by the beauty on the walls that you forget to look up though, the ceilings often displaying the most intricate images, all the more startling as you can’t help but wonder how the artists actually painted 360 degree panoramic images on a ceiling. Things get stranger when you reach the Royal Apartments, with even a Duke’s bathroom surrounded by art, the only thing signalling the other use of the room being the tiled floor. There are about four different waiting rooms before you get to the throne room, designed to intimidate each group of nobles told to wait there, because of course these groups cannot mix. What looks like wallpaper is actually silk and what looks like a velvet boudoir is actually a chapel, the one concession to religion is that there are no paintings hanging in this room. Go, and be tempted to redecorate your house. I skipped the misleadingly-titled ‘Museum Of Modern Art’ which is turns out is art from 18th century onwards, but art fatigue had set in. Perhaps if I go back before 2015, as my Amici card will still be valid. I may also find the Museo degli Argenti, which is also here, but somehow I couldn’t find it.

I’d got a text from Ryanair that morning ominously telling me I had an email waiting for me at home with the details of my changed flight. I’d been trying not to think about this all day, but finally I got home and read the email. My flight was delayed by about half an hour, which wasn’t a huge problem but this meant my original boarding pass was invalid, so I would have to print another one. Which would involve finding an internet cafe with a printer in Italy on what I had planned to be my busy last day. I asked Francesco from Couchsurfing if he knew anywhere and he offered to print it for me, which he duly did when we met up with Annie for dinner that evening. The kindness of strangers, eh? We had booked for Ristorante del Fagioli on Antonio’s recommendation but by this point I’d kind of exhausted my list of exciting Florentine dishes I wanted to try, so settled for rosemary-roasted pork which was deliciously juicy and just broke apart on the fork, with white beans in olive oil as a side. As with all Italian dishes, it looks very small when it arrives, but finishing it is a task. Making our way to San Marco later for the bus home -Ryanair boarding pass safely in my handbag – we took a few photos in front of Palazzo Vecchio and fake David and simply enjoyed the noises of night buskers, the wonderfully clear night giving me memories of a place I was already beginning to say goodbye to. One more full day!

Christ, I’m at Part 6. Well, you can’t say I’m not thorough. As I’m pretty sure on Tuesday I climbed 1000 steps, and of course went back down again, I needed my Wednesday to be reasonably relaxed. Museuming, fooding, catting. When I met Antonio and Valentine on Saturday they had given me a list of places I should go to. One of them was the Convent of San Marco. What could be more relaxing than a convent? Also, it was included on my Amici card. Decision made, I set off. In the 1400s this convent was rebuilt inside and out, each individual cell playing host to a fresco painted by the resident artist monk Fra Angelico. There is some repetition of the frescos though, most of them following a crucifixion or annunciation theme. It’s interesting to see the variations though, some of the monks lucky enough to share a room with the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary, or a nice Palm Sunday scene. I wondered if they got to choose their cell decoration, or if it perhaps signified rank, the grimmer paintings adorning the walls of the lowly novices, to remind them of their oaths. This Angelico dude was quite prolific, being summoned by Pope Eugenius IV to to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished.

Afterwards, realising I was less than five minutes away from the Accademia I decided to walk past and try out my skip-the-queue card. I’d heard a lot of things about Michelangelo’s David in the previous few weeks, from people telling me it was “Meh”, to being told it was unmissable. As I was allowed to skip the queue, I figured I didn’t even mind if it was meh. It wasn’t meh in the slightest, but I had been expecting it to be in a room alone. It’s not, placed as the focal point where three corridors meet. As I entered the room from a mid-point though I turned left instead of right and browsed the paintings along the back wall, had a sit down and even sent a text before looking up and seeing the huge height-of-three-humans David naked and not at all easy to miss. What I had never realised before is that this isn’t just any David, it’s Goliath-slaying David. Some say prior to the slaying, some say after it. His right hand holds a stone, and the sling hangs over his left shoulder. He stands a way out from the wall, so you can get a 360 degree look if you want. And you might as well. There’s an intriguing sculpture room, full of busts, horses, nymphs and goodness knows what else as we could only view the long hall from behind a velvet rope at the door. I’ve no idea if it’s open normally or if this is how it is always viewed, but considering I have my Amici card, I’d be willing to go back and see.

I’d worked up a large hunger by this point, calling into Cafe Toto again for a pizza slice. I’d progressed from “A taglio… margherita” to “A taglio funghi, salsiccia e mozarrella… e uno cecina per favore”. Yeah, I really wanted a sausage, mushroom and mozzarella pizza slice, but I got a cecina on a whim, after Valentina told me it was a really tasty kind of chickpea pancake, which it was. Both of those cost 5 euro altogether. As I was so close to the ice cream parlour Perche No! I had a quick dessert, a scoop of coconut and one of cassata Siciliana, which seemed to be vanilla icecream with little bits of sponge cake and candied fruit. As it was my relaxy day, I decided to walk to Piazza del Ciompi to find the flea market, after a quick stop at the post office to send my Mum a postcard, and trying to figure out their ticket system as you need a different ticket for travel money, information, postal enquiries… The flea market was a bit of a disappointment in the end, just a few rows of antique shops not unlike Smithfield in its heyday. Quite expensive, and good for dealers of such things, but not really for a girl wanting an afternoon out. I headed back to feed the cats.

There was supposed to be a Couchsurfing meal that evening but as I was staying near the stadium on match night buses in my area were delayed, so I arrived at Santa Croce church half an hour after the meet-up time. Birte had been there at the right time and hadn’t seen a massive group, but she found a Couchsurfer called Kirsten who was traveling alone after a recent breakup and hadn’t wanted to waste the tickets they had bought together. We went to a restaurant called I Ghibellini and I had the main of Papardelle al Cinghiale with a desert of Vin Santo e Cantucci di Prato, which is basically almond biscotti dipped in a sweet dessert wine to soften them. Strong wine, but a really nice dessert experience. Then home!

 

You know when someone posts on a travel forum saying that they just have one day in a huge city and asking what they should do there? When all of the regular forum posters stop being disgusted because this is not how they recommend anyone travel, they suggest about three big hitters, must-sees that you could conceivably do in one day. This was my Tuesday. It wasn’t what was planned, not at all, but ended up being so much the better for the lack of planning. I had read online that on 25th March every year there was a parade starting from outside Palazzo Vecchio [the City Hall] at 9am and winding its way to Piazza SS Annunziata where there would be food stalls and a church service, as this was traditionally the Florentine New Year. I figured I couldn’t miss this. 9am seemed a little early though, so I arranged to meet Birte from Germany at 9:30 beside the Perseus-holding-Medusa’s-head statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi, as I thought it would be a cool place to meet. I’m a bit morbid. Anyway, we didn’t see a parade, or hear a parade far away, or see any parade debris. We decided to go around to Piazza Santissima Annunziata to see if there were any stall or if I’d just imagined the entire thing. There were stalls! The obligatory souvenir lot, sweets that it was too early in the morning to even consider and, bizarrely, kitchenware. We gravitated closer to the Basilica, ready to leave again if they charged entry but they didn’t so we entered a place so cluttered with gold and silver it could have been an antique shop. Most striking upon entering is probably Michelozzo’s Tabernacle, at the time surrounded by elderly ladies who seemed to be waiting for the service to begin. Candles reflecting on gold, many ornate incense lamps of different sizes and the general feeling of expectation led to this being the focal point for the exploration. Still, we walked around the rest of the busy church, especially touched by the paintings by primary school children showing their interpretations of several Bible stories. Oh, and in case you were thinking there wasn’t enough gold, the ceiling is gold.

Stopping by the Duomo ticket office quickly as there was no queue, I got myself a Duomo/Campanile/Baptistery ticket for 10 euro. The tickets are valid for 6 days after purchase, but must be used within 24 hours of entering the first building. That was fine by me. You could climb one building late in the day and do another the next morning if you were tired by the first climb. We headed over to the Uffizi as Birte was curious and as my card had skip-the-queue privileges it didn’t really matter when I went! The queue for people who already had reservations was so long it spiralled in the street, as wall space was taken up by the non-reservation queue. It was pretty fast moving but we soon realised it was the wrong one for us, as the Northern Irish couple in front of us in the queue explained. Birte would have either had to spend 25 euro for a reservation right then and there from the wandering clipboard people who circle the queue or join the two hour queue to get a ticket for the normal price. Basically, reserve the day before you want to go. Or earlier. Just go late in the day and there’ll be no queue at the reservation desk. As the Uffizi seemed a bit of a non-starter Birte suggested we go back to the Duomo and maybe begin some climbing as there was less of a queue. We began in the Baptistery, as I was still mentally debating whether I wanted to climb anything at all. Hidden behind scaffolding, we were relieved that it was open, and there was no queue. The main attraction is the domed gold interior ceiling, a smiling Jesus in the centre with tiers around him showing at the bottom evildoers, gradually working through stories of humans [including John the Baptist, for whom the Baptistery is named], the seraphim, Archangels… you get the idea. There are also bronze doors sculpted by Ghiberti, initially winning a competition to do so, one set of doors taking him 21 years to complete, the other set so painstakingly crafted they took 27 years. These were thankfully uncovered by scaffolding, so we had a good stare at them.

I decided I was still in two minds about the Duomo, so thought we should start with the less terrifying Campanile, which was about 50 steps shorter. Looking at it from outside, it also appeared to have regular viewing platforms and rest stops, so seemed the wiser choice. There were indeed rest stops inside, but long staircases before you reached them, so a fitness testing walk! I’m not sure why I was surprised to see a me-sized bell inside the bell tower, but I was. We were all jarringly surprised when the bells rang midday when we were inside, and all gritted our teeth and waited it out. It was great to see the gradual ascent through the windows. For the nervous, at the very top you’re enclosed in a cage with fantastic views of the dome and a huge feeling of accomplishment. We decided we deserved some ice cream after that before we attempted another climb, so ended up at Festival del Gelato on Via del Corso very near the dome. It had the largest selection of any gelateria I visited this holiday. I had pistachio with crema fiorentina, which seemed to be cream with mascarpone and honey. Amazing.

We next went inside the Cathedral which you don’t need a ticket for. It’s considered to be reasonably plain in comparison to some others, but from your angle you can’t see Vasari’s paintings on the dome interior, which you need to complete the climb to properly appreciate, although craning your neck to look at a ceiling while standing on a narrow platform hundreds of feet above the Cathedral floor isn’t for the faint-hearted. It certainly nearly finished me off. We also explored the Crypt of Santa Reparata, at which I was actually surprised [I need to stop being so surprised] to see the skull on display in a glass case. After all this I decided that I was enjoying company, and might as well do the climbing when I was with someone as that would give me the extra kick I needed. To explain my hesitation, I recently had a climbing fail at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I made it up to the first exterior gallery and was all set to go up to the top, until I saw that the stairs for the next part of the journey were metal treads, with see-through gaps between, the entire spiral staircase relatively open which means you can see right to the top… and right to the bottom. Not for me. After this I searched Youtube for film of the Duomo climb and found that it was all enclosed stone staircases. So I did it! There was a queue, which lasted about 30-40 minutes. In Florence, land of queues, this ain’t half bad. Like I said, there were more steps than the Campanile, and fewer viewing platforms, but more stops between staircases for you to catch your breath. Enclosed in stone, the only real wobble I had was at the first interior viewing gallery. After that, I was focused on getting to the point where I could go down if I wanted, as an escape route is a reassuring thing. At the second interior gallery there is an exit point but we didn’t have to walk around that gallery as we had the previous one, edging our way round painfully slowly one foot at a time, with too much time to think about falling. After the second gallery, the staircase became hilariously two-way, with much squashing against the wall, thanking and apologising in multiple languages and being told by people on the descent that we didn’t have far to go. We all ended up chatting to each other, reassuring each other and laughing at our mutual breathlessness. A lovely, companionable experience. Finally, the summit! There was a railing, only just above waist height but somehow I didn’t feel too worried. I helped take a photo of a couple on their ipad on panoramic setting, which means if you press the button and then scan the view horizontally for five seconds, the photo will take in the entire area. This amazed me! Argos-camera doesn’t do that…

After the descent which was made easier by the American high school girls singing Miley Cyrus to their nervously claustrophobic friend, we needed food badly so had a bit of a wander, ending up at Tavernetta Della Signoria. I had Crostini Misti as an appetiser, which is basically mixed toasts. One with mushrooms, one with mozzarella, one with chicken livers and one with tomatoes, which I quietly ignored. As primi [first course] I had ribollita, which I’d been dying to try since I’d read about. Described as a vegetable soup with potatoes, cabbage and carrots it’s really more like a stew, as it has bread in too, to thicken it. It was hugely comforting but had a mostly plain, cabbagey flavour. This was fine, but when they brought me a bowl of parmesan to sprinkle on top, it really zinged! Highly recommended. Just after this, at about 4 we heard music and what could only be a parade. We made our way to Palazzo Vecchio to see the New Year’s parade on their return journey: medieval dress, a Firenze flag, lots of yellow outfits for what may have been the military, feathers in hats and what looked to be noblemen in maroon-coloured onepieces, some nobles forgetting their nobility and yawning or looking amused. I preferred those who kept deadpan expressions.

Birte went back to the hostel so I decided it was time to try my Uffizi skip-the-queue card, not intending to stay long. As it was 4pm there wasn’t much of a queue anyway but everything went smoothly. At the Uffizi, you climb the stairs to the second floor, starting with the famous first corridor, moving around to the second and third. After this, you descend to the first floor, which includes the Foreign Painters Rooms, amongst other things. I only managed the first and second corridors before I became so tired I had to go home, but the beauty of the Amici Card is that I could return to do the rest of them. The busiest section was of course the Botticelli  room, with a crowd around the awe-inspiring painting of Venus. I read that on Saturday [my second visit to the Uffizi] a man stripped off his clothes in front of Venus. There’s a picture online of him doing this and my first thought was “Why isn’t there a crowd in front of Venus?” then I realised the crowd probably moved to get away from the crazy naked man. I didn’t see him anyway, that was my first floor day.

Also worth a long look is the Tribune, an octagonal room in the first corridor which you can’t enter, but must view from behind ropes at the door. Covered in red velvet and  designed for the Medicis it was one of the first collections of masterpieces anywhere, a place the favourite works of a family that already owned huge amounts of world-famous art. After all this though, it was time for home and cats. I had discovered that Betty responded positively to me singing Whitney Houston. Maybe because I sounded like a cat, who knows?

Before you start reading this, you should know that nothing much of note happened on Sunday and Monday. Those days were also slightly demoralising as anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. But will I leave them out? No. Samuel Pepys wouldn’t leave them out, would he?

I’d  made up my mind that I was going to have a lie in on Sunday. I felt I deserved it after all the walking. I was meant to meet a Couchsurfing girl at 2:30 and that was early enough for me. Unfortunately just before I left the house a thunderstorm began. Elham canceled and I don’t blame her, as I’d been just about to cancel myself! I spent a little bit more time chilling with Betty on my knee [a breakthrough!] and by about 3:30 realised thatI should just leave the house anyway or it would have been a wasted day. I donned my raincoat and decided to go to the Bargello, having worked out a circuitous two-bus route there. Unfortunately when I arrived it was closed as though I’d worked out that it was open every other Sunday and this was an open Sunday, I’d neglected to check the opening times. It closes at 1:50 every day. As I was already in town and didn’t have much in the way of thunderstorm-worthy socks with me, I decided to go into  H&M and get some. Most of what they had on sale were 5 packs, which I didn’t need but I found a Hello Kitty 3 pack for what I thought was a great price. Turns out I was looking at the wrong sign and they were nearly 10 euro. Oh well. I got them anyway.

I managed to stumble accidentally into the Mercato Nuevo, characterised by the bronze statue of the wild boar near the entrance. Rubbing his snout is meant to bring luck, or ensure that you will return to Florence or something so I did this. Other people were feeding pennies into the snout. I didn’t. I hope this doesn’t cancel out the snout-rubbing good luck… Still, I managed to get a picture taken with him, which was one of the things I wanted to do over here. Yeah, my ambitions are small.

That day as I’d left the apartment I’d noticed market stalls in my street [because it was football match day in the nearby stadium? Who knows?] but it had been raining so heavily I hadn’t stopped to browse. Luckily for me they were still there when I got back at about 5:30 and the weather was dry so I had a look round, taking a few free samples of bread and buying what I thought were small sugared dough balls, but turned out to be rice-filled as well. Win! I then nipped into the local rosticceria and got myself some toasted bread with garlic, cheese and mushrooms and took my bounty home to eat. The rest of the night was cat-time, with a little blog-time.

 

On Monday I had agreed to meet Lucyna from Poland to go to the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. A girl called Marina had posted up on CS saying she wanted to go, and then just never replied. Another guy called Jonathan messaged me, then vanished. So it was myself and Lucyna for better or for worse. Figuring out the take-a-number train ticket buying system, we were a little surprised that returns to Pisa were 15 Euro, as I’d mistaken the single price on the website for the return price. We went anyway though. Just as we’d worked out where our platform was – through some sort of hidden door – a guy came over and asked us if we were going to Pisa. We were already heading towards the platform but he came with us and I realised he might be one of the beggars I’d read about, even though he seemed well-dressed, in an expensive-looking leather jacket. I knew to validate my ticket but he showed us the machine [which, to be fair, would have been helpful if I hadn’t known] and when we got on the train it turned out I was correct and he wanted payment. As we had already worked the system out for ourselves and resented the fact that he hadn’t expressed his desire for money before ‘helping’, we didn’t give him anything. I wonder does that actually work though? I wonder do people give him money? When we got to Pisa we spent a jolly half hour taking the obligatory ‘holding the tower up’ shots, me angling the camera so it looked like it was leaning a little more than it actually was, as the lean in real life wasn’t looking too impressive on camera. We enquired about prices as there didn’t seem to be a big queue, but it was 18 euro to climb it, and the unexpected train fare meant I didn’t have this amount with me. I decided it was a lovely building, but probably not high enough for an amazing view worth locating a bank machine for. We got the train back and ate outside at the Osteria Santa Spirito, which had blankets on the chairs if the outdoors got a little too cold. I was too embarrassed to use mine though, not to mention that eating spaghetti while trying to keep a blanket on my shoulders would have been hilariously awkward. Yep, I got spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino which is spaghetti [just the pasta, not to be confused with spaghetti with bolognese sauce] with olive oil, garlic and chili peppers. Hotter than I expected [why didn’t I expect it to be hot?] and a huge portion for 7 euro, I was delighted to see full cloves of garlic in there. Must have been an entire bulb in the meal. I consider this a good thing.

We went to Boboli next where I was able to explore the parts I hadn’t seen, moving into Bardini as Lucyna faded and went home. The Bardini Gardens are a puzzle, connected to Boboli by first the walls of the Forte de Belvedere and then a residential street that makes you think you’re lost, except there was no other way you could have gone. All of the artwork and grand staircases of Boboli are here on a much smaller scale. Almost homely, really. After looking at the view for quite a while, I decided to go back to Boboli and work the perimeter so I wouldn’t miss anything, making it all the way to the Green Of The Columns, a green surrounded by imposing statues, seeming even more intimidating on this chilly day. Imagine the Hall Of Kings And Queens in The Magician’s Nephew. Proud faces towering over you.  I also found Cyprus Alley, this time with trees towering over me. I stayed until closing, but never found the Limonaia [unless it was one of the closed, unmarked buildings]. Perhaps you will have more luck.

That evening I decided to try to be useful and get some water for the cats from the water-cooler-type-thing at the park. I tried to take the bike, which was a mistake as realistically I knew it was too big for me. I fell off the bike, although I don’t know why people say “fell off” when usually they are still on the bike, but fall over, with the the bike trapping one leg and the other leg trapping the bike. I flapped around like a gasping fish for a while, eventually managing to lift the bike off me and by then being too embarrassed to put it back so just wheeling it round the park with me. Where I found the wrong gate that the bike could not fit through, so tried to lock it to the fence. Then could not operate the lock. I eventually figured it out, hoping the teenage boys watching me didn’t decide to try and steal the bike. When I got to the machine I noticed one tap had no queue and after trying it – incorrectly – decided it was broken and that was why no-one was queueing there. I stood for a horribly long time as a strange elderly man filled his bottles one by one then realised this was the sparkling water line [who would queue for sparkling water?!], so had to go back to the other, in shame. I filled my water bottles quietly while people speaking Italian giggled at me. I hid in the apartment for the rest of the night.

First off, I need to stop being so long-winded. I originally intended each of these entries to detail two days, but so far I’ve written about two days, and had two entries. I don’t want to end up with ten blog entries! Even the most hardcore won’t read them. Friday morning brought a Spartan breakfast. It was no-one’s fault though. The day before I’d had Daniela’s home-made bread with jam, and as she’s a vegan I decided to try soya milk. All was fine until my lips started tingling. And swelling. I looked in the mirror and it looked like I’d been punched. I started to panic a little, as having an anaphylactic shock in a country where the hospital doesn’t speak your language wouldn’t be top of my list of things to do. I went out and tried to forget it though and the swelling started to go down. It took a few hours though. Note to self: I’m allergic to soya milk. So, on Friday I had the bread and jam with water. Later Daniela took me to the local Lidl [they have Lidl!] and I stocked up on supplies of cornflakes, non-soya milk and other groceries to take me through the week. I made a friend too! Grimmy began to sit on my knee. Shame he was the one cat I wouldn’t be sitting. Sod’s law.

Friday was going to be a little different from Thursday as I was meeting my first couchsurfing sightseeing buddy. I met Jay from London at the outdoor leather market Mercato San Lorenzo which is outside the indoor Mercato Centrale, the main produce market in Florence. We were fascinated by the fish stalls, splayed-out octopi on display beside chopping boards dripping with fish blood. Not enough to put us off our food though! I got battered calamari and chips. We worked up our appetite in the Capelle Medici though [yep, them again], their Chapel Of The Princes a cold, awe-inspiring room of blue marble, belying its humble exterior. The New Sacristy shows work of Florence’s darling Michelangelo. In fact, he built the darn thing. Worth 6 euro. Or nothing, with an Amici card. Icecream from a non-famous gelateria followed, as I was unable to remember exactly where Grom was. I don’t think we suffered though. My one scoop of raspberry and one scoop cinnamon was perfectly pleasant.

Cat-things followed, with me learning how to put the harness on the cats and take them into the garden for walks. Ever tried to put a harness on a cat? Give it a try. It’s an… interesting experience. That evening I walked around the exterior of the football stadium, Stade Artemio Franchi as it was between myself and a couchsurfing party which I wasn’t sure if I could be bothered going to or not. I’m glad I did. People who can cook [not me, then] had brought dishes representing their nations and about 40 people showed up, sharing food, stories and some bizarre party games, one in particular involved 30 of us in a circle, facing the back of the person to your left, and slowly sitting down until the entire circle was sitting on each other’s knees, supported by the circle. It actually worked! I got a taxi home at around midnight, as I had house-stuff to sort out at 8 in the morning before Daniela embarked on her week in Germany!

On Saturday I was relying on the kindness of strangers when I met up with Antonio and Valentina; friends of friends. Or friends of friends of friends. When I told my friend Sarah I was going to Florence she put me in touch with her friend Jason, who knew Antonio. Hey presto! Another tenuous internet connection is born. It was a great day, with Italian advice and historical context for a lot of places and buildings, Antonio being the type – like me – who retains odd little pieces of information about things and can wittily recount them, not unlike Thursday’s tour guide! My research in advancealso helped, although I must find out more about Savonarola… Anyway, they suggested we start our day in the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, one I hadn’t really heard of mainly because it wasn’t on my Amici card list. People say you only really go to this place to see one room, but honestly, the place was so stunning I’m not 100% sure which room the main room was. We began in the tiny Chapel Of The Magi covered – and I mean COVERED – in frescos painted by Bennozo Gozzoli. Brightly coloured images of the aforementioned Magi but with hidden details that deserve taking some time to study. A man with a pet leopard, for instance. A hawk savaging a rabbit, revealing its intestines. Brightly coloured odd stockings on folks. And a disgruntled Pope, painted looking gloomy as apparently he disapproved of the Medicis, so they decided to immortalise him looking a fool. If you would like to know more about the paintings, there’s actually an interactive feature downstairs in which you stand in a booth and point at characters in the paintings, and a voice explains who they are, or what their typical counterpart would have done. Impressive tapestries follow, and a gold room which may be a ballroom is exactly what it says on the tin – painted gold, with chandeliers and mirrors for added effect. The chadeliers and gold reflected in the mirrors have an effect close to sunlight, and the only thing spoiling the room is the fact that it was set up for a conference, with a projector and microphone. The chairs for the conference guests, however, were transparent, which camouflaged them nicely. A puzzling exhibit of modern art in another room was probably amazing but somehow seemed laughable after all the frescos we’d seen. Sorry, modern artists.

A stop for food in Pallottino helped keep us going. I had the Crostini i Toscana and the waiter was concerned I should understand it was toast topped with chicken livers, in case I was another damn fool tourist who ordered the wrong thing. We split a plate of artichoke fritters between the three of us and I dipped them in the liver, not caring if this was the done thing. Valentina had Pappa con Pomodoro which was described in guidebooks and a cold soup of tomato stewed with bread but she let me try a little and it was warm, thank goodness, and hearty although as tomatoes are my mortal enemies, I probably won’t ever order a whole one. Antonio had Pappardelle al Cinghiale which translates as thick ribbons of pasta with wild boar sauce. I tasted a little and all I can compare it to is the tinned spaghetti I ate as a child, except nicer, and not tinned.

Duly fortified, we moved on to Santa Croce Basilica and museum, a surprise for me who begrudgingly paid expecting to find only one room. There were many rooms, although even the ‘one room’ was worth it. Michelangelo’s tomb, a monument to Marconi, and an empty grave for Dante who was exiled and fined – which he did not pay – by the Florence Government. Later pardoned, after his death the Government requested his remains but because of their shoddy treatment of him during his life, his remains remain in Ravenna and Santa Croce keeps an empty monument. Plaques on the walls show the water line of the 1966 flood which was high above head level and the Opera Museum shows pieces of art under process of restoration because of flood damage, most famously Cimabue’s Crucifixion. More graves are in an underground crypt, and a bizarre series of modern sculptures inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, showing winged beasts torturing humans, a parade of hooded skeletons, people being supended by their feet and a father eating his son. Kinda makes you want to read the book… Or just watch the Baz Luhrmann film.

We parted ways and a cat-trip home followed. Later I crossed the bridge to meet Robin [Florida] from Couchsurfing who really wanted to try Cuculia, a restaurant she had read about. A friend one told me that if the waiters bring you an aperitif you didn’t ask for, it’s going to be expensive. They charged us just for what we ordered though, the puzzling green and yellow soup with what may have been walnuts just a pleasant extra. The whole thing was a little more sophisticated than we were expecting though, the menu defying logic even when translated into English. In the end I ordered a kind of pasta with zucchini and buffalo mozzarella and Robin ordered truffle ravioli which was fine, but she was a little confused as to why they felt the need to top it with blood oranges. No matter, food was had, and bed was calling!

 

I woke up on my first morning in Italy with a real excitement, knowing I had a whole city to explore. My reseach had taught me that a company do free walking tours twice a day, starting at Santa Maria Novella Church, where my bus oh-so-handily leaves me. Not being sure whether we were meeting at the front or the back of the church, I briefly joined a group of American college students on a tour, realising my mistake when their teacher started talking to them about which coach they were getting. Melting away from them and hoping nobody had noticed me there in the first place, I walked to the front of the church where I saw twos and threes of confused-looking oddly-dressed folk with large cameras. I had found my people. So this company run a tour at 11am and one at 2pm, loosely titled the Medici tour and the Renaissance tour. I went on the Renaissance one at 11, mainly because that was the time I woke up at. I wasn’t sure if I would really learn a lot, but I figured it would help orient me in the city, locating places of interest, maybe meeting people and, well, it would be better than a kick in the head, right? It turns out I did learn quite a lot, not least where Vivoli, Perche No! and Grom were located [the top three gelaterias in Florence, according to my cross-section of guidebooks and websites]. When we finished up in Santa Croce Square at around 12:30 I fully intended to do the second tour after a light lunch, but life got in the way. Already tshirt weather by 11:15am, the tour group shedding layers of clothing rapidly, I figured I could do worse than attack Vivoli, paying at the desk before ordering my flavours at the counter and enjoying the shade of indoors as I reached the end of my stracciatella and mango tub far too soon. Consulting my map, I realised I was right by the river so a sunny day’s walk along the water was required, and when I got that far I decided I might as well go the whole hog and cross the Ponte Vecchio. Tourists – of which I am one, I totally own that – thronged around the bridge, posing for photos and giggling. Being on holiday alone means you don’t have anyone to take photos of you but you get resourceful, picking your victims with care. Elderly couples taking photos of each other are usually willing to take one of you if you ask politely. You have to play down the wacky shots, but it’s a small price to pay. I got photos taken by all nationalities. German, Italian, Spanish, English… Only one lady refused, barking “No!” at me aggressively. In French, in case you were wondering.

So here I was, Oltrarno side and probably a bit late for my tour. My map told me how close I was to Pitti Palace and I got out my Amici Degli Uffizi card and prepared for the free entry it provides. Not really free, of course, as you had to buy the card, but it saves you carrying cash and unlike the Firenze card, it lasts for one calendar year [as opposed to 72 hours] and you can enter each place as often as you want, whereas the Firenze card allows you one entry in each place. So, should you want to take in the Uffizi a little at a time, day by day, you can! Which, according to the rumours of how large the Uffizi is, isn’t a bad idea. I haven’t been there yet, as I have another 5 full days to go here! Er, I digress. So at the Pitti Palace you can choose one of two tickets. Slightly more to it than this, but I’ll call them ‘indoors’ and ‘outdoors’ for ease. As it was 25 degrees, I chose outdoors. So, like, the Medici family were rich and stuff. They had palaces all over Florence. This one is different, as this one includes their garden. Sculpted hedges, countless water features, heavily ignored ‘keep off the grass’ signs and the occasional tiny lizard running too fast for a camera to catch make this the perfect place to spend a sunny day. It’s far too large to take in in one go, so after finding secret grottos, the Porcelain Museum with its views of San Miniato and the half-submerged statues, I decided to find Cypress Alley and explore the ‘little sister’ park Bardini Gardens at a later date. Needing some shade I went to the Galleria Del Costume which has some nods to the Medici family but really is simply a fashion museum, dresses donated by fashionistas in Italian history. I wonder did they ask if the Museum wanted the dresses or if they just assumed? It’s an aesthetic dream, the current exhibition of hats through the ages getting a little samey after a while but still imagination-firing. It’s only when you forget yourself and look up at the ceiling, seeing the frescos that you remember this is still a Medici Palace. It was nearly cat time again, so I refound a little cafe I’d spotted on the tour that sold pizza by the slice, and a few doors up got a rice pastry from a pasticceria. I would be back. To all of the places.