So I did a Friday morning casual dress photowalk, where I explored the grounds of the castle. This is the ‘Poppies Wave’, an art installation dedicated to the WW1 dead. Or any war, really.

So, this is inside the walls of Lincoln Castle but it took a very kind Lincolnite to point out to me that it’s actually the Courthouse! From here on in, you’re not really going to get any photos without people in them. It just got busier and busier!

And I was hugely under the impression this was Queen Victoria until someone asked me who the man was and I Googled. It’s George III.

The early bird ticket buyers all got medals for their promptness [and the extra money they paid. Imagine my delight when I found out they all had a typo. A kind gent let me photograph his, as of course I never paid the extra for one. I’ll pay the extra for food, very little else.

This is really how Lincoln was. Normal streets, and then huge chunks of stone history. This is the Newport Arch.

Pub sign.

There will be a few selfies throughout, as I wasn’t sure if anyone would take photos of me.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! It was on my way to the party that I had the really horrible bus driver incident, and on the way back that a member of the public made fun of my clothes, but I don’t want to write more about that. The party was warm. So warm I was worried I hadn’t topped up my suncream in a few hours, I was worried I didn’t have a parasol or sunhat. They operate a sort of ‘musical chairs’ system where the Hatter calls something like “Everyone wearing purple, move tables!” in an attempt to get people to mingle. And it works, to an extent although there were an awful lot of people who said things like “My partner’s over at that other table!” I hung back for the first few tables and then began to realise nobody was swapping names! So I began to take the lead and ask around each table for names, amazed no-one else was doing this. Funny, Angie’s partner Glenn was there [he took my Cheshire Cat photo] and I spoke to him at the end when he was realising he didn’t get anyone’s names. I told him it wasn’t his fault, no-one was really giving names as they seemed to all live safely in partner-land. I’m pretty sure even if I had a partner I wouldn’t be so complacent but… Who knows?

Speaking of Glenn and Angie, I was beginning to realise they probably wouldn’t ask me to work the tea stall for them. They talked a lot of big talk and said we could hang out, have a dinner, I could even chill out in their close-to-the-centre hotel for naps if I needed it during the day. I did suggest coffee once or twice and there was an attempt on Sunday but… nothing turned out properly. Maybe for the best, who knows? I do more when I’m alone, I’m learning that and every trip reinforces it. When I wait for people, I lose part of my trip and part of myself. I felt a little sad though, especially after barely seeing Alice in Edinburgh.







I know the make-up isn’t amazing, but it was my first attempt and it looked better when I first applied it, and from farther away! I might rework it again sometime.

Friday night was my first volunteer shift at a magic show but I liked the other volunteer Roxy, we got on well and somehow when our shift was over and we could go in and watch the magic show… we ended up just talking to each other instead. John [the organiser] said he would introduce us to the band Experiment Number Q but when we went over they were talking business so Roxy and I sat with Kevin who was taking over from us to do the late shift and although Kevin seemed rather sombre at first, I realised he was just nervous, or was reacting to my stress. We had lovely chats, although they revealed that I had been supposed to pick up a volunteer form which should be signed at each shift proving you were there and handed in for your refund at the end of the weekend. I hadn’t known about this which made me worry I had been struck off the list without knowing [for internet rudeness maybe?! My internet conduct can be a bit weird when I’m upset], or I’d been marked as a no-show? I nearly cried, but decided I would go to event control/wristband collection the next day and fix it. I was worried about it being busy on the Saturday but it was my only option really. I emailed Jackie [the volunteer co-ordinator] when I got back to my room and she said not to worry too much. Which was nice, as I’d been quite a way down the road towards worrying too much. I got some salted chili pepper squid from the nearby Chinese takeaway and rested in my room until bedtime.

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First’s The Worst…

September 14, 2016

Travel to the Asylum went fine. Travel when I got there was something else. Aggressive bus drivers and rude bus passengers meant travelling from my dorm to town dressed as I was became very difficult. I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve been to Whitby Goth weekend but Whitby is a small town, not a city. And WGW is 22 years old. People are used to it now. The Asylum Steampunk Festival, Lincoln is only in its 8th year and even though in the town centre, the cobblestoned ‘safe zone’ people were wonderful and dressed up, there would still be a Muggle who stared, who poked their friend and pointed at you, a woman who laughed in your face, someone who shouted “What the fuck?!” at you and actually quite a nice lady who was talking to her friend about me while staring at me so I asked if she was talking to me and she said no, she was talking to her friend but couldn’t take her eyes off me. Sums it up really. I don’t mind being noticed, but hostility makes me fold back in on myself. I started to wear my big black coat and dark glasses when on public transport to try and minimise attention. The buses were only a problem Thurs-Sat though, as the 7 & 8 bus route didn’t run on Sun or Mon or after 6:30 any evening. Of course I didn’t know that so I’d bought a week ticket, but such is life.

Lots of silly things happened to make me wonder if I should have gone. On Thursday I left my key card in my room, along with the ticket to the event I was heading to later so I had to do twice the walk to get it back, not to mention bother the university reception staff with the issue. They were lovely though. I got hair dye on the towel even though I was trying to not let it touch my hair, so I tried to wash it out at the sink. It started to wash out! …but I was standing there in just my nightdress and soaked my nightdress before bed so had to sleep in a shirt. I got caught in the rain on Saturday without an umbrella, missed the last bus by 4 minutes, would have had to wait an hour and a half for a taxi so just walked, only realising how hungry I was when I got back, rain too bad to go out again. I tried to order something from Just Eat but most takeaways had £12 minimum charge and I wasn’t going to spend that much only to throw it out. In the end I went to the university bar and they sold me a packet of crisps to tide me over until morning. I was lucky they had crisps, the guy didn’t even seem sure they sold them. Bars and their beer fixation, eh?

Apart from that [and a slight confusion with some paperwork that I’ll get into] it was lovely! Oh, and I developed crushes on nearly everyone. The easy manner, gentle ribbing, just general sense of joy emanating from everyone was really conducive to this.

Here’s my introduction to the city though, a photo walk I took [dressed casually] after I dropped my suitcase off at the university lodgings [which were lovely. Double bed, wifi, en suite, quiet neighbours, free breakfast].

Stairs! Why is it always stairs?! I climbed two hills in an attempt to find Steep Hill. They were both steep, but not Steep Hill.

But what’s this?! A glimpse of the Cathedral!

Imagine my embarrassment when I found I had been photographing the back of the Cathedral. This is the front!

Whomp, there it is.

It’s really tough to photograph a gradient. I think this is the best one at showing how steep it was!

These signs would have been super-useful to tourists… if the lettering wasn’t peeling off.

There was a group photoshoot arranged by a group of photographers but by the time I had navigated the bus route, got dressed, walked to the Cathedral, frozen in horror when I realised I’d forgotten my key and party ticket.. I was late. I was so disappointed but at least I wasn’t in my best outfit, and I found a photographer called Tim who had hung around until the end, and helped me get some of these solo shots here. I felt lacking in confidence because of all the key-forgetting hoo-haa, I would usually move more.

That evening I teamed up with Ivy from the next dorm and we walked down to the early bird party where everyone could show off their finery. I liked Ivy, she was pretty easy to talk to but I somehow had the feeling that when we both found our feet we wouldn’t see each other much. We watched Andrew O’Neill do some quite funny comedy, although he did try to sing within his routine a bit too much. You know, the kind who wants to remind us he’s a singer? I mean, I’d never heard of him but he was sledgehammering us with the singing. Still smiled a lot during his set though. Lady Violet Hugh started singing silly songs that to me, sounded like they were copied from Fascinating Aida, so I left as I heard a local Steampunk group were having cake at a nearby pub. And they were! I walked in shyly and they didn’t notice me as they were having some sort of sherbet related drinking game but I didn’t mind, as I got a nice vibe. Rob began to talk to me, then Greg, then I found Sharen who had invited me on Facebook. It was just a really pleasant evening with a group of people who are comfortable with each other, and who are reaching out to share that with others. Funny though, turns out this group [Steampunks at the Well] started after a dispute with the Lincoln Steampunk Society, and both groups blame the other. Anyone I met from either group was kind to me, although I only met LSS members in isolation, no group meets so they didn’t seem as co-ordinated at greeting new folks as a group. Nothing can ever be simple, eh? Sharen and Michael gave me a lift back to the dorm, and I gladly went to bed.

Hostelry

November 11, 2014

I have been on 15 planes this year. For me, that’s insane. Probably more than I’d been on my whole life up until now. But I’m back, with no real plans to be on another plane until April, and that’s not even a definite plan. But before I can move on with my life I need to finish writing about the Transylvania trip! We spent our first morning in Cluj much as planned, going to see the screening of Andrew’s short film and just wandering, going inside old churches and admiring the architecture of the Orthodox Cathedral. Here’s Andrew outside the Cathedral.

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I still hadn’t tried sarmale [rice and meat wrapped in pickled cabbage leaves, sometimes with sauce] so when we found a cafe that specialised in it we thought we’d give it a try, Andrew trying the pork sarmale and me trying the mushroom vegetarian option. We were amused when we were asked if we wanted chili and we said yes, expecting a dipping sauce or maybe flakes. They delivered us a whole chili pepper! We also found an ice cream cafe chain called Betty Ice and were surprised at the quality. I had a scoop of white chocolate and one of salted pistachio. I meant to go back the next day to try the chestnut ice cream, but time got away from us!

It was fascinating spending three nights in a hostel, especially one that attempts to foster such camaraderie between guests. Each day we woke up to find a new activity plus dinner plans on the noticeboard, so on Monday we went to Klausenburger; an outdoor rooftop restaurant which I thought specialised in burgers. It does indeed do burgers, but the name Klausenburg is what Germans call Cluj, so I guess it’s a multipurpose name! Andrew was watching a short film screening as part of the festival so I did that particular hostel jaunt alone, finding out more about the people and the lifestyle. I’d never before realised so many people were part of this… not an underclass, of course not, because even though they’ve opted out of the rat race for huge chunks of time they’ve certainly not opted out of life. If anything, maybe the rat racers are the ones missing out on life. Maybe a peripheral class? A parallel class? I don’t mean people who go on holiday for a week. I’m one of these people, and I’m fine with that. But there are people who hostel-hop long-term. They’re completely free. They book three days in a hostel but might extend their stay for another few days, as there’s no pressure to leave. The next step in their journey is completely dictated by them. Perhaps they’ll flat-hunt in a town they really like, and live there for a few months. Perhaps they’ll meet someone on a train, have a great conversation and carry on the next part of their journey together, simply choosing a place from a pinprick on a map. I spoke to Mick from Australia, who was thinking he might move to Romania for six months. Or a year. Just because. Eddie seemed to be practically resident in Transylvania Hostel. I’ve no idea how long he’d been there, but he seemed so comfortable there and embraced everything with gusto, teaching the newbies his zen-like ways. Richard [who everyone thought looked like Steve Aoki, mainly because he told everyone he kept getting told he looked like Steve Aoki. If someone didn’t know who Steve Aoki was, he would take them to the hostel computer and show them a Steve Aoki youtube] met some fellow Americans in a hostel in Bucharest and… well they just teamed up! I enjoyed the feeling of freedom that surrounded me when talking to them, yet I also enjoyed the anchor I had, knowing I had family and a job I like back home.

Tuesday would be my last full day so I had decided it would be filled with lovely things. In a nearby town called Turda I had heard there was a salt mine. Not just any salt mine, but a salt mine open to the public. I was public. I decided to go. As far as I could gather it’s still a working salt mine, but it has historical exhibits and active rehabilitation for respiratory system as well as a recreational area. Guess which area we spent most time in? Now we were quite lucky. Apparently there’s an old entrance and a new entrance. We just happened to get off the bus near the old entrance so we got to do the same tunnel walk the miners had been doing for… well, apparently a document in 1075 mentions these mines.10299512_10152413631671080_879095996404759587_n

The walls of the tunnel shone with salt. I quickly glanced around and on realising nobody was watching me, scratched some salt from the wall with my fingernail and touched it to my tongue. Unsurprisingly, it was salty! We studied several panels describing how the salt was mined in the old days, using horses to turn the mining wheels. Horses which died down there. Some say the unusual smell down there isn’t damp, or simply the smell of underground, but the smell of decomposed horses. The dead horses left our minds though when we reached Rudolf Mine, the central mine which covers I think seven floors which you can do on stairs or in a lift. Our cameras weren’t great underground, so here are some photos from the Salina Turda website.

Salty stairs!

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Salty stalagmites and stalagtites, and the Big Wheel.

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Boating lake four floors farther down, in Mine Teresa. Unearthly green lights shine from below the surface. Notice the marbled pattern the salt makes on the walls!

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And yes, we went boating. I got splashed a little from water from the lake. Yep, I licked my arm. Salty! Those of us on the boating lake were at the very bottom of this vast chasm and felt so isolated from reality down there that the young family in the next boat decided to try out the echo chamberness of the place, and were whistling and howling. I tried to stop myself but it didn’t last long and I managed a few howls and even a ‘Yodel-aye-ee-oo!’ I nearly ‘Ave Maria-ed’ but held it in. Andrew preferred to stay quiet, concentrating on rowing and worrying I would drop his camera into the lake.

Once we got back outside, we snacked, myself on a gingerbread cookie house I bought from a roadside stall. Andrew had read about a gorge/nature reserve which we weren’t sure if it was near, but it was called ‘Turda Gorge’ so it couldn’t be that far away… right? We started walking along roads with no footpaths, roads that seemed to be used solely by huge vrooming intimidating trucks. I was relieved when we took some steps down off the main road, although I admit I wasn’t sure if they were the right steps. The walk got increasingly more… I wouldn’t say rural exactly. We were passing shacks, things that resembled shanty towns. Vicious-sounding dogs barked from behind hedges and two stood in our path until their silent, staring owner called them off. Bags of rubbish appeared more and more frequently until getting off the path meant standing in things we might not want to stand in. I decided I might stop walking soon, but gave it a short while longer in case the gorge appeared. That’s my downfall, not wanting to miss out in case the gorge is just around the corner! We turned a corner on our narrow path only to find our way blocked by what may have been a bull. It didn’t seem particularly interested in us, but it had horns, and horns meant bulls, right? It also had rather low-hanging udders too so could have been female? We neared it and it swished its tail. This worried me, until I realised it was just swishing flies away. Then it released bladder and bowels. I figured this was a good sign though. I mean, what’s going to attack while having a toilet break? We quietly walked past it, trying not to move suddenly or anger it. Or giggle maniacally.

After cowstacle, we saw a nearby motorway bridge and thought that surely the gorge must be just beyond it, right? I walked under the motorway bridge with trepidation, seeing abandoned single shoes and feeling the uncomfortable uneven surface under my own shoes. I’ve never felt that comfortable around motorways anyway, seeing them as loud and confrontational, without the safety of footpaths. When we got close enough to the path we were planning to follow to see that it was actually a water drainage gutter, it was time for me to bow out. I didn’t want to be the next abandoned single shoe. Both of us were overly polite, me insisting I could call a taxi from a shop I could see in the distance, until we realised there was a river between myself and it, and Andrew being overly polite and insisting on walking me back to the town centre. I’ve never been so relieved to see a town centre in my life, and it took quite a while to get there, me feeling dreadful but minimising my dialogue to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ so I didn’t sound like I was in a weepy huff, which I was. I set him free when we reached town, figuring I could find the bus back on my own, and he could continue on his walk. I didn’t quite find the bus, but found a tourist information centre, in which the member of staff told me my bus was less than five minutes up the street. Win! I got the bus back to Cluj centre, found a bakery and got a caramel and almond strudel and struggled back to the hostel on sore feet and with fuzzy brain, collapsing into bed with my strudel and doing some packing for the next morning. Andrew appeared around three hours later, limping slightly with a tale of having to walk through some sort of briar patch and told me I’d perhaps been best to leave when I did, as the gorge was still quite some miles away and when he got there he’d missed the last bus back, and all taxis were busy. He had to then walk back into Turda centre and get a taxi back to the hostel. Yep, I maybe made the right choice. I think he’d even lost the will to take many gorge photos when he got there.

We still had a last wander round Cluj though, going to Toulouse for some raspberry lemonade and meatballs with sauce and dipping bread. We were too late for a last Betty Ice so grabbed some buns from a bakery at closing time, eating them on the street and thinking that we quite liked this Romania place. I knew the next day would consist of a taxi, two planes, a bus and another taxi, so I glady-but-sadly went to bed. And when I got back to Dublin and Belfast? Yep, it was raining heavily!

Glad The Invader

November 5, 2014

…which is what my Mum accidentally called Vlad The Impaler when relaying my story over the phone to my sister. A slight mishearing that changes the entire history of Wallachia. Wouldn’t it be a lot better to be invaded by someone called Glad?

I haven’t written anything about breakfast on my trip! This is a gross oversight on my part. I love breakfast. All I can say is that each of my holiday days were so full of things that my first-thing-in-the-morning meal was completely forgotten. At Kalinder we’d already paid for our breakfasts, up to a certain cost. We had to pay again if we went over that but the amount was negligible so we figured we might as well enjoy ourselves! I mean, the main thing pushing us over the prepaid limit was pure orange juice, but I wanted it. So there. On the first morning I was overwhelmed by menu choice, and slightly confused at the items they considered breakfasty. Sliced cucumbers? MBS, whatever that is? I had a very tasty ham and cheese omelette and the vaguely listed ‘cereal and milk’. I was surprised to find that it was cereal with hot milk, and made a mental note to find out the Romanian for cold milk before we left Kalinder. The next day I had a fairly bland mushroom omelette, but nice bread, butter and grape jam. On our last Kalinder day I felt very smart for ordering cereal with cold milk, but I had the words slightly wrong. I’m not sure the wording was even that important though as when I said this, the waitress was writing in her notebook and may not have even heard me. I ate my unexpectedly chocolatey cereal with hot milk.

It was time to leave Kalinder and Busteni, heading for our destination. We ran around, taking some final pictures before getting the train to Brasov, waiting and hour and making our connection to Sighisoara.

Final pictures: Rural place, rural things.

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Ski resort cobbles together gate from only materials they could find:

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Train station times.

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I quite like trains normally. I don’t get travel sick on them. But we had to spend what amounted to around 4 hours on trains today, and it just didn’t agree with me. I tried to sleep through it but kept waking up and realising I’d only zoned out for fifteen minutes. My feet and legs felt restless and occasionally went for a walk to the toilet just for something to do. I felt unwell, and was going quite batty. In retrospect, I’d walked quite a lot the day before, and the day before that and probably just needed a long, relaxing lie in that didn’t take place on a moving object. When we got to Sighisoara I felt about as useful as a dead cat and probably looked worse. I felt a sinking feeling when I realised it wasn’t just a medieval town, it was a medieval fortress town and as such, was basically on a rock up high in the middle of the town ‘proper’. The perfect protected vantage point it may be, but up high meant more steps. I sighed, and realised the quicker I climbed them, the quicker I could lie down. Round and round and round we went, with my wheelie suitcase, as the staircase spiralled around the fortress walls. But when we got to the top they had quaint little souvenir stalls, and I suddenly felt much better. Magic, that is. Our hotel was also on the central town square!

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The whole town [the bit within the fortress walls – known as The Citadel] as a UNESCO World Heritage Site so after a quick lie down we decided we needed to get out there and explore before the sun set, as the next day we would be getting another train to Cluj. Potted history: it’s a German/Saxon town. As Citadels often have, it was built with fourteen towers, each named for a guild [Tailors’ Tower, Butchers’ Tower]. It’s best known though, for being the birthplace of the actual Vlad Dracul.

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This is no touristy invention, like Bran. This is verified historical fact. There’s a small weapons museum in the house with a restaurant upstairs. I’d read that even though it was geared towards tourists, it was actually a pretty nice restaurant and Andrew was quite attracted by the thought of eating in the house Vlad was born in, so we made a note to go there.

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I personally didn’t want to eat until later though so we wandered around souvenir stalls and had a look at the remaining standing Towers until the sun fully set and photos were no longer possible. It was really fascinating just wandering around the cobbled streets, seeing what we would find. We found more Vlad.

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Yes, I’m wearing a bat t-shirt. On purpose. These things are carefully planned! I have bat leggings too but thought they might be overkill, until I saw a girl on the train with bat leggings. I said “I should have worn mine!” until she turned around and I realised she was about ten years old. This says a lot for my taste in fashion. When time for food rolled around we didn’t pay the extra to see the museum, or the room that apparently has a man in a coffin who sits up when you walk in, but we really enjoyed looking at the armour on display, and the mural.

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We sat in the outdoor terrace and were amused by the bulbs of garlic hanging from the ceiling, along with the items on the menu that had ‘blood’ put in their description to make them sound more Dracula-ish. Blood [jam] pancakes, anyone? Even though I’d been feeling unwell earlier I had a hearty beef goulash, with some bread to dip in it.

Some of the places here have pretty self-explanatory names. The School On The Hill, and The Church On The Hill, for example. They’re on a hill. Some wise owl years ago decided it would be a good idea to build a covered staircase so churchgoers and schoolchildren wouldn’t be bothered too much by bad weather when climbing the hill, so the Scholars’ Stairs were born. I knew I wanted to do the 175 stairs [I can’t resist a staircase] but was going to leave it until daylight. Andrew quite rightly pointed out that we might want a lie-in the next morning before rushing to our train, so he would use the torch on his phone and we could do them now. The stairs were lit themselves, but the torch certainly helped me, as tiredness was seriously setting in by this point and I can miss steps when I’m tired. We could hear the chirruping again [this time, in Drac-land bats seemed a very real possibility] and we gazed up at the cobwebby ceiling of the staircase. Not too much gazing though. Sometimes you don’t want to see certain things! We had an atmospheric walk around the grounds of The Church On The Hill and tried to find some views of the lights of the town, but they were mostly obscured by trees. We found a war memorial though, and when Andrew went up by himself early the next morning he reported finding a graveyard, which we hadn’t seen the entrance to in the dark. Sleep was seriously calling at this point though, and after trying to check my emails at the ‘Business Centre’ [computer behind the front desk, which led to customers thinking I worked there and me being awkward enough to play along and give directions, etc]. I was locked out of hotmail as they couldn’t understand why I was trying to log in from Romania. Unfortunately my secondary email address locked me out too, and as it was a joint account with my ex band colleague I didn’t know the answer to the security question. He didn’t change it or anything, he just answered with something that I wouldn’t know. I actually Facebooked him and asked the answer to the question [about a band he liked] and he couldn’t remember either! I had to fill out a form on hotmail answering questions about my account such as the email addresses of people I regularly emailed [names wouldn’t suffice], titles of a few recent emails, last four digits of my debit card, previous hotmail passwords… Once I did this [what I could remember] they said they would process my application to get into the account within 24 hours. Nothing else to do but wait, going to bed and watching a bizarre, misery-filled film in which Clive Owen plays a father whose daughter meets a stranger off the internet who is not what he seems.

Perhaps I’ve been dragging these entries out a little too much, with unnecessary information. Perhaps instead of saying we spent the train journey the next morning chatting to a Hungarian man who tried to translate things a woman seemed really eager to tell us, I should just say that we took a train. I should say that we got to the hostel without complaining that I had wanted to get a taxi but was too chicken to actually come out with it and say I wanted one. I should say that the Transylvania Hostel actually ended up being pretty nice, instead of saying that when I first got there I got negative vibes from the place. In retrospect, my vibes may have just been grumpiness.

Things that made me feel better about the hostel:

Seeing that the mascot was a cartoon bat.
Seeing the pretty darn big room with double bed.
Seeing the modern shower that resembled a dalek.
Sitting down.
Seeing the noticeboard with Sunday’s plans on it. At 6pm a group of people were meeting and going to a restaurant about 10 minutes’ walk away. All were welcome! I thought this was a jolly good use of a noticeboard and as we were hungry we decided to tag along, except it wasn’t tagging along, as all were welcome! About 12 of us ended up going to Mesele Yesele [‘Happy Tables’] and the waiting staff went out of their way to push all the tables together [which they didn’t have to do, two separate ones would have been fine, especially as some of the guests smoked! – Smoking in bars/restaurants is legal in Romania]. When table Tetris was completed and the menus came Andrew shared his phrasebook round so we all knew what we were ordering [although by now I was really getting better at basic Romanian] and the staff were pefectly willing to go round each of us individually and talk us through the menu. I didn’t wait for this though, just plumping for pasta with chicken and gorgonzola sauce [they brought grated cheese and parmesan on the side!]. Andrew got a bit of menu help and ended up with something called ‘Gypsy Neck’ with a side of vegetables and a lot of crackling! The hostellers [I’ll mention them more as I go on] went to a pub afterwards but I needed my bed, and Andrew decided to start as he meant to go on by attending a late night short film screening as yes, Cluj was the location of the film festival his film was being shown at the next morning!

Busteni Or Bust!

October 26, 2014

The first day was – as I’m sure you’d expect – a heck of a lot of travel. We did as planned, got the 6am bus to Dublin, arrived in Dublin at 8am and got our flight at 10am. Gosh, I was anxious on the bus. I don’t know why. Maybe because I felt I’ve been leaving home an awful lot lately, without enough time to settle in between? I felt as if I was leaving in the middle of something. That I wasn’t ready to go away again. I often feel homesick, or rather a kind of faux-homesickness when I even think of leaving on a trip. I felt like this until we reached Newry [roughly the halfway point of the bus journey] and the bus jolted, stopping at some traffic lights. I opened my eyes and saw we’d stopped outside a takeaway called ‘Transylvania’. I chuckled to myself and went back to sleep, telling myself that if that wasn’t a sign that I was going to the right place; nothing would be. It’s maybe the first time I’ve waited for a flight in my own country only to realise that we were the only native English speakers there. When on the plane the announcements were given in Romanian first, English second. Everything screamed “This is not a typical holiday destination! You are going somewhere unusual!” The flight took around three and a half hours meaning that we got into Bucharest at around 3:30 in the afternoon, local time.

As we’d decided to spend the first couple of days in a quiet mountain town called Busteni [pronounced Bushten] we had to get the train from Bucharest to there. Unfortunately rather too much caution meant we’d allowed ourselves too much time to wait for the train so we had to hang around the train station for longer than intended, eating in what seemed to be a chain diner called Springtime. Our first food in Romania turned out to be Lebanese! I got a halloumi, mozzarella and zatar wrap which was either oily, spicy and delicious because we were starving, or maybe it simply was just delicious. We got some Romanian pastries from a bakery nearby, me attempting to pronounce pandispan [and not doing too badly] and getting a slice of sponge cake for my troubles, although the language barrier meant that I thought I’d got my change when it turned out she had told me to wait until she got the rest from the till. They called me back when I started to walk away, peering at the amount of money in my palm that seemed far too little. We quite literally landed in Busteni with a bump, as when we opened the door to get out of the train, there was no platform. So we opened another door. No platform. We checked the other side; no platform. By now we were getting worried the train would start again with us still on it so when we opened another door and found a conductor out there with a torch I made motions to get off and he helped me down what was probably a four foot drop. Andrew’s good manners did him a disservice as they meant he now had to get himself, my suitcase and his own sports bag off the train, which was now starting to move. I may have unhelpfully started to giggle hysterically. As Andrew remarked later; the most remarkable thing about this is the fact that the conductor didn’t seem at all surprised. This is travelling by rail in Eastern Europe. We arrived at Busteni at around 8:30pm, in the dark with Andrew assuring me he knew the way to the Pensiune Kalinder which according to the map was just 1.3km away. This was probably true, but 1.3km with a wheely suitcase, having been on trains, buses and planes all day and above all, it being in a mountain town therefore uphill meant it wasn’t exactly leisurely. And then the dogs started following us. I did the typical thing: dropped back completely and let Andrew deal with them. In retrospect they probably weren’t in attack mode, just curious mode and the noise of the suitcase maybe attracted them. It was just when the first one started barking and the second one appeared then a huge-sounding one barked from behind a hedge… tears were not far away, let me tell you. All I could think was that I was going to get bitten and it would ruin my holiday and I didn’t want to go to hospital where I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t have travel insurance! Phew. Anyway, after nearly dying with suitcase + steep hill we arrived at Kalinder at around 9pm, incredibly relieved that it existed, that the snarling dogs [yes, more] across the road were behind a wire fence, that our suite was just two floors up, that we had a shower, TVs, fridges… We’re not usually the suite type, but we had realised while browsing accommodation that the exchange rate meant that we could almost pretend to be rich people in Romania. They use the Lei, which works out as about 5 lei to £1. This worked very much in our favour, especially in a ski resort town out of season. Not that we’d seen any mountains yet. It was dark, and the skyline was really just fog. We had high hopes for the next morning. Even snarling dogs aren’t as frightening in daylight. Right?

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh? The next day we were all for trying to do two castles. One in the afternoon and one in the evening. Peles Castle is in Sinaia, about ten minutes away by train. Bran Castle is one hour by train to Brasov then half an hour by bus. At least that’s what I’d heard… We ended up wasting most of the morning pottering up and down Busteni main street, looking through the supermarket and trying to locate a path we’d heard about that leads to a nearby waterfall. When we couldn’t find either it or the cable car [which we assumed would be quite easy to find, as it’s a main tourist draw] we headed back to the train station. The ticket machines were more complicated than we expected and we couldn’t work out which train took us to Sinaia, so we just got tickets to Brasov, settling for Bran Castle!This is roughly where the problem started. We were outside Brasov station, probably looking a bit puzzled. A man told us that to get to bran we had to get the number 23 bus and go four stops. This seemed a bit odd as I’d heard it took half an hour on the bus, but we dutifully tried this, counting the four stops and getting off in the middle of a motorway, not seeing any castle. We noticed a nearby motorway bridge and climbed it, thinking that it would be a good castle vantage point. No castles. Andrew reasoned that maybe we’d got the 23 going in the wrong direction and maybe it had been four stops the other way? So we walked to the stop going the opposite way and asked the driver. Nope, no Bran. We went back to the original bus stop and studied the map. No castles. I was starting to get stressed as it was nearly three by this point and the man had told us the castle closed at four. Andrew suggested we go back to Brasov station and try again so we walked to the other stop, again, slightly losing the will to live. A ray of hope appeared when we realised the other stop was near a taxi depot and Andrew took pity on me, wilting in the sun and suggested a taxi. Yep, the journey took about half an hour. It cost about £10 each which for Romania was a large price, but was what I’d been expecting of a taxi, and the sense of relief to actually get somewhere was palpable. And seeing Bran was a delight! People call the entire town a tourist trap, in that it’s geared towards tourist interests. But I like that sort of thing. Market stalls, handmade carvings, bustling medieval-style cafes… And yes, Vlad may not ever have actually been there. Historians aren’t sure. They know he didn’t live there, certainly. But the tourist board decided Dracula fans needed something to visit, so slapped the tag of Dracula’s Castle on it. Hey presto! When we arrived at the castle we found out that the man wasn’t quite right about it closing at four, but that the last entry was at 4:30. As it was only 3:30 we were in good time and the earlier 23-bus frustration dissipated!

Now the entry route to Bran is up a winding path, through trees. You can’t get much more than an glimpse of the castle and when you’re finally up there, you’re too close! The ideal view of the castle is from quite far away. Like, from another mountain. So I’ll give you a professional photo to give you the idea.

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Any photos of mine are quite bitty. Like: Look! Tower!

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Look! Piece of wall!

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Or Look! Medieval instrument of detecting witchcraft! If someone was found to be lighter than the particular pile of rocks that were piled upon the device on that day, well, they were witches and dealt with sternly. Sometimes they were weighed against a Bible which was rather good for them, as very few people are lighter than a Bible. Here’s me, being tested. I have a worried expression, as you would if you were being tried for witchcraft.

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Some Andrew-photos:

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Not many photos this day as inside the castle was dark, outside was very bright and busy with visitors and we were still a little tired from travel. We did take a walk in the castle grounds though.

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Our phones hadn’t yet adjusted to the fact that we were in Romania with absolutely zero network coverage which made splitting up difficult so when Andrew wanted to go exploring for an hour I didn’t fancy waiting in the same spot for him to return. I’d already done the markets and was still too nervous to visit a cafe alone with my poor Romanian so just followed him up the hill, hoping he’d get bored soon. We did see quite a few rural things: a man beating a pig with a stick, a man teaching a young boy how to drive a horse and cart, many horse… leavings. Most of it was houses though. Houses and gardens, some dogs, some cats. Eventually we realised nothing particularly picturesque was going to happen and headed down the hill; wondering where to get the bus back to Brasov. Andrew found the unmarked bus stop completely by accident. Pure luck, as one of the twice hourly buses was beside it! It wasn’t our bus so I waited in the little wooden shelter while Andrew scaled another hill. When the bus got us back to Brasov bus station we discovered what the number 23 advice had been about. Turns out from Brasov train station you’re supposed to get the number 23 bus to the bus station, where you then get the bus to Bran! It’s not four stops along though. Still not sure what that bit was about…

Rather than going back up the hill to Kalinder then coming down again for food, we decided to go straight from Busteni train station for food. I’d heard on Tripadvisor that the restaurant attached to Cantacuzino Castle was pretty nice, and we’d spotted it on the hill earlier in the day [yeah, another hill]. Here it is in daylight.

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We walked up slowly. It was dark by then and we could hear chirps which we assumed might be crickets. We don’t have much crickety experience here in Ireland. They got louder and louder though so I romantically entertained the notion they might be bats. It was pretty cool by this point and I didn’t have a jacket as I hadn’t expected we would still be out at 8:30pm! I had my scarf wrapped around me and didn’t expect to enjoy the night walk as much as I did but the views of the town from the Cantacuzino gardens were beautiful, so much so that we actually wandered a bit while Andrew tried to get a decent shot [which he hasn’t put up online yet]. Arriving at the restaurant we were a bit daunted by the prices but remembered to divide by 5 and closer inspection of the French-inspired menu showed that only the most exclusive dishes were 100 lei! I had pork parcels with mushroom risotto and beer sauce and a non-alcoholic cocktail called a green apple with apple, lime and brown sugar. Andrew had a fish dish with apricot juice to drink. All delicious, and I was only sad that I wasn’t hungry enough to try the pumpkin rolls with pistachio ice cream for dessert. All day we’d been slightly worried that our hotel had no maps of the town and the town had no signposts for our big walking day the next day. Our receptionist didn’t speak enough/any English and we didn’t speak enough/any Romanian to get good directions so when we arrived at this restaurant with friendly, English-speaking waiters we took the opportunity to ask for directions to the cable car, which we got, along with a high recommendation of the whole cable car experience! Which I admit, I was in two minds about. The chef also came out for a chat, asking how we’d heard of them, as wandering up a hill in the dark isn’t the usual way to accidentally find a restaurant. On leaving, we noticed the huge CantaCuisine billboard with his picture on it. Small-town fame, eh?

Back to the hotel we retired, me finding a Gwyneth Paltrow film ‘Bounce’ on TV to help me wind down after the long day. Strange what you’ll settle for watching when you’ve no other choice. Even stranger that you’ll actively enjoy watching it! The next day would be Walking Day…

With the magic of the internet we can now cut straight to that next day! The plan for today was the locate the elusive cable car and think about going up in it and not look down or cry or anything. I refer you to this picture. This view is from just outside our hotel. There’s a cross on the mountain.

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Following the directions of the Cantacuzino waiter, we duly followed the main street until we found Penny Market [a supermarket chain] and then started walking up the street [called Strada Telecabinei, which would have been a clue if we’d seen maps of the town for sale anywhere!]. Of course I was in two minds about the cable car. If all had gone as I planned, I would have had the chance to observe a few journeys on it before making a decision. Unfortunately the cash desk is at the front of the station, and you can’t see the cable car until you go through to the open bit, and you can’t go through to the open bit until you pay. Of course there was a walkway out back which I discovered later, but sometimes I need to be slightly forced into making that sort of decision [by being in a fast-moving queue], or else I won’t do anything.

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The cable car takes you up to Cabana Babele, beside the Babele rock formations. From there you have a choice. Go back down, chill out at the rock formations, have a sandwich in the Cabana or take one of the many marked paths that start from that point. Some paths were about 7 hours long and I ruled these out. I’m not overly keen on aimless walks either. If I’m on a walk I want it to have a clear destination; a point where I can say it’s time to head back now. I decided finding the cross would be such a point, and it was also about a 3 hour round trip. Totally doable. The only problem is, the signs were in Romanian so I wasn’t sure whether to follow the path to the Cabana Caraiman as the cross was on Mount Caraiman, or to follow the sign that said Crucea Eroilor. Now I was fairly sure that crucea meant cross. But Eroilor? If it meant ‘Hero’ we were fine, as the cross was known both as Caraiman Cross and Heroes’ Cross, erected to commemorate the WWI dead. If it didn’t mean here, we were probably going the wrong way. The symbol we had to follow on the signs was a red cross though, which I took as a hint. Fingers crossed!

First of all though, we wandered around the Babele rock formations.

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We found our feet on the surface of the moon.

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We [I] posed outside disused huts with unstable ground underfoot, as we [I] figured if it was really unsafe, it would be cordoned off, right? We thought that until we realised the cliffs themselves weren’t cordoned off and we [I] might be idiots.

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Onward with the red cross path!

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After about an hour of wondering where the cross was, because surely we would be able to see it before now, right? We scaled a hill and there it was!

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But we had to pass this first:

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See the clouds there? Yep, we were totally above the clouds.

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Larking about commenced:

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And a random stranger, to show how peaceful it was.

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At this point, things became a bit of a race against time, as I had a return cable car ticket to get back down the mountain. Andrew only bought a single and was going to walk back down, but was going to walk with me to the cable car station. Until we ended up going separate ways. I assumed his way would end up a dead end and with time not being on my side I just kept on following the path I’d used to get there [with the help of a man in his 60s at the chain part], walking quite fast and humming Holst’s Planets Suite to myself to keep my momentum going. Missing that car was not an option! After about half an hour of panic Andrew appeared, revealing that his path had indeed been a dead end and he’d had to double back and run to catch up with me. Up a mountain. We’re sounding super-fit here but I assure you, we’re not. I got back in time though. I’d assumed ‘Last cable car’ meant exactly that, and once it was full everyone else was screwed. But no, they kept sending empty cable cars up until the queue had gotten down the mountain. I genuinely enjoyed my time in the queue, meeting a Northern Irish family and I probably exist in someone’s Facebook holiday photo album as the random NI person they met in the cable car queue!

Once I got down I finished my water as I didn’t have to ration it anymore! I bought more, and got a salam biscuit [chocolate biscuit cake roll in the shape of a salami] from a nice-looking bakery and started the walk back uphill to Kalinder. I was so relieved to be finished for the day! I was also relieved that our phones were now both working, so I could text him and ask if he was still alive when the sun began to set. I watched some Big Bang Theory [which I never usually watch but like I said, on holidays anything seems amazing!] and the modern TV series of Hawaii 5-0 on Sky Universal, which concentrated on some people lost in a jungle/forest park. I hoped this hadn’t happened to Andrew.

He arrived back three hours after I had and after he’d had a shower I cautiously put the idea to him that my knees couldn’t cope with leaving Kalinder, going to a restaurant and then coming up that hill again, so could we eat in the hotel restaurant? He seemed completely up for this idea. Not sure his knees wanted another long walk either! I ordered ‘peasant sausages and polenta’. Polenta is a cornmeal mush, vaguely resembling mashed potatoes and it’s very popular in Romania. All I can really say about it is that it didn’t taste of much, and was relatively harmless. My sausages were gently spicy, although I was overwhelmed by the fact that they brought me six. Six sausages. I ate four and a half. We were amused to discover that the English menu lists everything at higher prices than the Romanian one did. I mean, initially I was horrified but once I realised they were charging us Romanian prices I relaxed. Maybe because we were hotel guests? Something to be aware of, at any rate!

And I’ll end this one the same way I end all of these: with a vaguely ominous sentence about the following day. The next day would involve lots of time on trains…

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.
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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!