So I said goodbye to the boys in Bologna and took the train to Florence, enjoying more time to myself to read and think and stare out the window. I hadn’t travelled far, but as soon as I stepped off the train I could feel how different Florence is to Bologna. Even in early March, away from any of the peak tourist weeks, it was teeming with foreigners. In front of the McDonalds and the Starbucks opposite the station were market stalls selling all sorts of useless made-in-china junk, and in between these stalls stood clumps of people speaking dozens of different languages, none of them Italian. I know it’s self-important and arrogant to expect to be the only foreigner in a city like Florence, but I’ve become so used to being the one who comes from somewhere exotic, so used to being the outsider. All of a sudden people were speaking to me in English first, Italian second.
Florence was such a contrast to Bologna, whose economy and culture centres around and caters for students. Florence is for wealthy travellers, who arrive in swarms to mount the Duomo, eat gelato and snap pics on the Ponte Vecchio. Of course I did all these things too, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the city was being pimped out to foreign cash. Every vendor or waiter I spoke to was born outside of Florence, but they all assured me it was the most beautiful and unique city in all of Italy and that it was absolutely essential that I bought leather products from Florence! and ate minestrone soup in Florence! and climbed the Duomo in Florence! and saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence!. To me, Firenze was a city that had been rebranded and marketed as ‘Florence!’. The real city was still there, somewhere, but it was as though it was hiding behind Disneyland façades.
Unable to find a couch surfing host that wasn’t exceptionally creepy, I’d booked two nights at the Ciao Hostel and after checking in, climbing the stairs, unlocking two separate doors and tripping over a pair of sandals the size of scuba flippers, I discovered that I’d been assigned the left hand side of a double bed, presumably next to bigfoot. Not too eager to spend the night spooning a stranger, I moved my diamond ring on my right hand onto my engagement finger and went back downstairs. I asked the receptionist (yet another foreigner in Florence) if I could possible move to another room, I was even willing to move to a 16-bed dorm, if it meant I had my own personal sleeping surface. He said it absolutely wasn’t possible, as he had already assigned me to a bed. It was a Tuesday night, off peak. I knew he just couldn’t be bothered to move me. I ‘absentmindedly’ touched the ring on my left hand and explained that I really wasn’t comfortable with sharing a bed with a man I’d never met. “It’s something that is very important to me, sir, if there’s anything you can do at all, I’d really appreciate it.” So he huffed and puffed and gave me the keys to the room next door, a four (single) bed dorm. Tommy from the US was sitting on his bed, folding and unfolding what seemed to be 25 different maps strewn across his bed. He looked up and gave me a heavily accented “ciao”. He was broad shouldered and bearded, but he had childlike eyes and was unable to conceal his enthusiasm and excitement at having met an Anglophone. He wore a grey t-shirt that shouted ARMY across the front and was eager to show me all the gifts he’d bought for friends and family back home. A tiny woman named Sabrina came into the room, her thick accent announcing she was from Argentina, but had been travelling for almost six months. I’d arranged to meet a couchsurfer for a drink and a night-time tour of the city, so I invited Tommy and Sabrina to accompany me to meet a ‘local’.
Like all locals in Florence, Martin wasn’t born in there. He wasn’t even born in Italy! But he’d been living there for six months so he offered to meet us at an aperitivo bar that was off the tourist trail named Kitsch Deux. For the first time ever, I saw my father’s favourite drink on the menu: a Harvey Wallbanger. I don’t normally drink cocktails, but I love the combination of orange juice, vodka and vanilla Galliano and ordered one despite the snobby looks from my tablemates who sipped beer and Italian red wine. For AUD$15 I had my delicious, if trashy looking, cocktail and access to an enormous buffet of baked salmon, gnocchi, pizza, fish parcels, bruschetta, spaghetti marinara, parmagiana, fresh bread and three different salads. I ate two plates, and then went back for a dessert of fresh fruit and yoghurt while everyone else had a second drink. Martin showed me a small bar on the other side of the river that reminded me of In Situ (for the sydneysiders reading). We walked past a few of the key sites in Florence together, and I enjoyed finally having the city to myself (it was by now 3am).
The Duomo and its Bell Tower
The next morning I walked along the river towards the famous Ponte Vecchio, the only pre-WWII bridge that remains in Florence. Built on the bridge are shopfronts with small residences above them. They are all jewellery stores, and I couldn’t even begin to estimate the wealth that is suspended there between the left and right banks of the Arno River. Once across the bridge, the jewellery stores gave way to shops filled with leather products and I spent a long time wandering in and out of them, admiring the variety of products. Lunch was at a small pizzeria on the south side of the city, and I ate next to a French couple and their Chihuahua who, naturally, had her own leopard print throw rug to sit on. The dog had her own slice of pizza, and as I ate mine I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversation and marvelling at how spoilt this hideous little dog was. On the other side of the small restaurant was a lone Japanese girl who had accidentally ordered herself an entire mozzarella pizza instead of only one slice. She looked simultaneously horrified and excited. In her defence, a whole pizza was only 5 euros and there were vendors selling sparse, lukewarm slices for that price in the Piazza della Signoria.
The Ponte Vecchio
I saw the replica of David, standing guard of the entry to the Uffizi gallery. More impressive, was a statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi, the open-air gallery of replicas of Renaissance art. Benvenuto Cellini’s ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’ stands tall and intimidating over the many people with their backs to him, photographing the David replica. The blood and brain stem of Medusa dangle from her neck, held high by Perseus as he stands on her corpse, wearing a look of smug triumph. I watched schoolboys juggle a soccer ball in the middle of the square for a few minutes, enjoying the way their clapping and cheering resonated through the great square.
David, Perseus, and the throngs of photographers.
Wandering, vaguely in search of a coinpurse, I was dragged into a store full of leather jackets. Despite insisting that I was only there for a bag, before I knew it I was trying on jackets of varying quality and colour. I had no intention of buying from the store, but I was interested in how low they would go when negotiating the price. The ticket on the jacket I was wearing said 590€, but he was happy to let me walk out of the shop with it for 100€ cash. I promised him I’d return if I couldn’t find anything better. Caught up in the fervour of ‘Florentine leather’, I ended up buying a jacket from a very young vendor (born in the south of Italy, not Florence) named Franko. As I was paying, I asked where the best gelato was in Florence and he insisted on taking me there. He walked me fifteen minutes away from the shop, arm in arm the whole way. He insisted I return to his shop at 7 so that he and his friends can take me for the best pizza in town, and he even offered to pay seeing as I’d just bought a jacket from him. He left me with a kiss on each cheek and a “ciao bella!” outside a gelataria called GROM. He was right, it was excellent.
Salted caramel (the flavour that will forever remind me of this entire year) and dark chocolate gelato
The prospect of pizza with a group of teenagers didn’t seem so appealing, so instead I opted for dinner in a small, cheap restaurant nearby with my two newest hostel roommates: Jesse from the UK and Taku from Japan. Taku spoke about 12 words of English, but he was still better company than the Pom, who was fussy and rude and spoilt and rushed through his dessert in order to get back to the hostel and watch the football. Exhausted, but still wanting to see more, I let the two boys go back together and I wandered the streets alone again. I went and said hi to David again, and he looked magnificent in the dark. Wandering the backstreets I could finally overhear Italian conversations tumbling from apartment windows above me instead of American tourists asking waiters if there was wifi in the café.
I fell ill overnight, and woke up sweaty and nightmarish. I showered and had breakfast, left my luggage at reception and walked slowly to Piazza della Signoria. Too exhausted to survive three hours in a museum, and wanting to profit from the sunshine, I paid 8€ to climb the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. I’d been told it’s better to climb the bell tower than the Duomo, because from Palazzo Vecchio one can actually SEE the Duomo. I’d intended to do both, but only had the energy for one. As I was climbing the tower, the midday bells rang and it was magical. The bells echoed through the city, and I peered over the edge at the people and the pigeons in the square below me. The view from the top of the tower was stunning, and it was worth the wobbly legs on the way down! Exhausted, I slept on the kitchen bench of the hostel until my train to Pisa at 5pm.
Views of bell towers, photographed from bell towers.
I arrived in Pisa, and was met at the station by my next host, Giuseppe. His apartment was brand new, and he made creamy salmon pasta for us for dinner. The hardest part of this scrumptious meal’s preparation was the deliberation over WHICH pasta to use. He scoffed at my ignorance when I asked why you couldn’t just put everything with spaghetti, and explained that long, thin, pasta like linguine and spaghetti is best for tomato- or oil-based sauces. For cream, it’s imperative that you use penne or macaroni or something similar. After dinner we biked into the city center. Pisa, like Lyon, has a communal bike share system. I’ve adapted to riding on the right hand side of the road, but I still have trouble negotiating tight corners on bulky bicycles and I’ve had a bicycle crash in almost every country I’ve visited so far. We had wine and aperitivi in a small bar in the centre of town, and already I liked Pisa more than Florence. It had a grungy side, a personality that Florence seemed to have forsaken in order to be more attractive to a broader base of people.
Giuseppe humoured me when I asked that we get gelato, and we walked to the tower, chatting about his time in the city and the many faces of Italy. It was not far at all to walk through the center of Pisa to the tower, which stands in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) next to the cathedral and baptistry which, i was pleased to learn, all lean too. Despite himself, Giuseppe jumped to its defence when I said, “wow, it’s actually really tiny!” as we rounded the corner and the famous Leaning Tower came into view. It was a surreal moment on so many levels. I’ve seen many Facebook photos of people at the tower, and I even wrote a project on it when i was 10 years old for my Italian class. When I was young, I was enthralled by the way that Signora Stephens spoke about this magical tower that seemed to defy gravity. It captivated my young imagination and I truly believed that it was a wonder of the world. When I finally saw it, what I felt was not disappointment, but disenchantment. It IS beautiful. It is truly an icon of Italy, and historically significant (Giuseppe, among others, told me proudly that Galileo used to hang out at the tower and drop rocks off the edge to test theories of gravity, but apparently that’s just urban legend). Gazing upon it for the first time was somewhat underwhelming. After two months in Europe, I’d begun to understand that the things that strike me most when I travel are impossible to look for. Of course I’d gone to Italy to eat gelato and pizza, buy leather goods, see the architecture and meet a few Italians along the way, but those are not the things that I cherish most about the journey. It was the things I could never have predicted, never have googled in advance, that will remain in my memory. The little French boy playing soccer on the grass in front of the tower of Pisa – more concerned with keeping the ball away from his baby sister than the tower his mother had brought him to see, the conversation I had with the man who ran the gelataria under Florence train station, who told me I looked like his sister who had passed away a few years ago, the ferocity of the argument I inadvertently started by bringing up the TAV (a proposed high speed rail network), the kind eyes of a waiter in a busy restaurant who helped the old man next to me cut his steak. I’d gone to Florence expecting to see David, but was captivated by Perseus. Travelling alone allows me to really observe where I am, and gives me opportunities to talk to people. Travelling with others makes me lazy. I can be walking through a foreign city, through centuries of history and culture, with something new on every corner, but if I’m discussing something that happened in Australia, my eyes are open but my mind is elsewhere. I love to travel with company, but my experience of a place is nowhere near as deep or comprehensive as when I’m alone.
The tower and the cathedral of Pisa
I slept well and woke early, hopeful that I’d shaken the illness I’d felt the day before. Heeding Giuseppe’s caution, I stayed well away from the food vendors near the tower and bought a Panini from La Carta Gialla. The man who worked there was ancient, wrapping the sandwiches on a tiny bench and muttering to someone who I assume was his wife who was audible, but out of sight. There were twenty different combinations of Panini with meat, cheese and even fruit. They were enormous, and for only 4€ Ibought one with salami, a fresh cheese that was the consistency of whipper cream, Parmesan and kiwi fruit. I stowed it in my bag and wandered around Pisa, discovering orange trees hanging over laneways, old bicycles, and gypsies playing accordions.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brilliantly and the air was clear and still. There was still a chill in the air, but the sunlight was warming everything. Knowing that Pisa was small, I’d packed my novel and a towel-sized piece of fabric I’d bought in Bologna for 50 cents that would be my picnic blanket. I found a spot on the grass in front of the tower and lazed in the sun for three hours, reading and eating my Panini while watching the throngs of people come to see the tower, take their pictures and leave again. I was lost in my novel when Giovanni, a young Italian in a very expensive looking suit, boldly asked if he could come lie down next to me. His friends were standing a few metres away, laughing and he gave them a thumbs up. I shuffled over and he chatted to me in his limited English. He told me he’d just graduated as a Civil Engineer. I remarked that he must be here to finally climb the tower, and he was surprised I already knew of the suspected link between tower-climbing and dropping out of university, as I’d learned in Bologna. We ran out of things to say, and he scampered off behind his friends after insisting that I come to Piazza dei Cavalieri that night for the graduation party.
Soccer games and sandwiches and posing for photos
The Piazza dei Cavaleiri by day. That’s the ‘tower’ referred to in Dante’s Inferno, for any lit nerds who care.
I’d been told it was unheard of to drink cappuccinos after breakfast in Italy, but I was tiring and needed somewhere pleasant to hang out until I met Giuseppe outside the university’s department of mathematics where he’d been working all day. We went for dinner at a diner-style restaurant named número unedicci and ate parmagiana and tagliatelle as Giuseppe told me about job he’s just accepted in San Francisco with Facebook. He cringed as I cut my tagliatelle with a knife in an attempt to preserve the cleanliness of my clothes, and we laughed about how seriously the Italians take their pasta. After dinner we met his friends who were drinking beers from plastic cups. It was scene I’d discovered to be typical in Italy: groups of young people, standing on the sidewalk in dark coats, chatting amongst the Vespas, while drinking and smoking. The smell of marijuana was distinctly recognisable and the proprietors of the pubs never seem to mind that half the people are drinking beer they’d bought from the pub, but the other half seem to have brought their own booze. I made the mistake of asking Giuseppe’s friends (most of which were PhD students or had already completed their doctorates) what they thought of the fuss around the country’s high speed rail line, the TAV. Bologna and Pisa had been covered with #noTAV graffiti and Enrico had told me about huge demonstrations that had been held regularly. The boys descended into a noisy argument: “of course you’re pro-TAV, asshole” “what do you expect me to do, walk to Paris?” “it’s destructive, they’ll destroy the mountains” “it’s progress!” “take the regional train and read a fucking book” and so on. I apologised for even bringing it up, and had to congratulate them for being so passionate.
Giuseppe outside the restaurant and typical modern Italian wall art
We once again satiated my desire for gelato, and headed to a party held at the university. It was a strange cross between a house party and a school disco. It was held in the gymnasium of the university, and there were people at the door collecting donations to subsidize the cost of the music and the booze. The boys explained to me that if you don’t like the party, you don’t have to pay. They had two dancefloors, one with mostly English music and the other that seemed to be playing remixes of Italian television theme tunes all night. We bought a cup of terrible sangria for 1€ and headed to the dance floor. We danced for a while before Giuseppe and I excused ourselves to head home. I explained to him that a party like that would never be allowed in Australia. There was no formal security, it was on university property, there was alcohol being sold without a liquor license and the noise was going to continue into the early hours of the morning. I told him of the regularity of violence in Australia outside pubs and clubs and parties, and he was really shocked by how many fights I’d witnessed and that I had stories of friends being punched by a stranger for no legitimate reason. As we were discussing this, we walked through to Piazza dei Cavalieri onto the big party Giovanni had told me about earlier. People were just milling around in the square, drinking beer sold by gypsies for 1€ from shopping trollies filled with ice. Someone was playing bongo drums as people danced and chatted loudly.
The scene at Piazza dei Cavaleiri at night
It was tough getting up the next morning, after only a few hours sleep but I knew I could relax on the train to Torino. After saying farewell to Giuseppe, the Frecce Bianca took me through Tuscany towards Genoa. The train sped past snow capped mountains, some gutted by marble quarries. Through my window I saw olive groves, vineyards and small crumbling houses. I had an hour in Genoa and wandered down to the marina to watch fishermen repairing their nets and clean and scale their catches.
Tuscany from a train window, and fishermen in Genoa
I’d not yet confirmed my next couchsurfing host, and the person who’d offered to host me had suddenly vanished. Tired, sick, and unimpressed with Torino I marched to the Eurolines ticket office and changed my ticket to take me back to Lyon that night, instead of the next morning. It was International Women’s Day, and people everywhere were carrying branches of acacia. I lugged my little suitcase with me around Torino for a few hours, determined to see SOMETHING. My bus didn’t depart until 11:30 that night and I was cold and running out of money. I went to McDonalds, sat my exhausted self down and whiled away three hours in the warmth and anonymity of the restaurant. Dinner was at a pleasant, if overpriced, aperitivi bar and I savoured my glass of wine as I finished my book. I watched the people coming and going, all dressed up and ready for a night of partying.
Even the McFlurries were amazing – ain’t no oreos in Italy, this one was Bacio flavoured
The overnight coach was packed, and I sat with a guy named Brajan. He’s Serbian, living in Lyon to study. His English AND French are excellent, and I was reminded how far I have to go before I can speak French with any real fluency. He was young and confident, smoked incessantly and spoke at a volume much too loud for 3am on a crowded bus, but he was friendly and told me of his surprise when a trip to visit his uncle in Florence had become a reunion with his mother. We were stopped at the border and police and immigration officers came onto the bus to check passports and visas. They were very thorough, asking questions about our travels and what we were studying. Being 4:30, they were met by some very grumpy responses. By the time I got home it was 6am and the sky was only just showing hints of lightening. I collapsed into bed, completely exhausted but perfectly content with my adventure.
So much for the Schengen Zone