Monday, 27th October 2003

 

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At 5:45am our talking alarm clock screamed "cock-a-doodle-do". It was a little bit scary being woken up by a digitised cockerel crowing down our ears at full volume but it had the desired effect as it certainly ripped me from my sleep.

We had over three hours before our flight was scheduled to leave, so we had plenty of time. It however went very quickly.

The Meridien hotel had a walkway that took you directly into the North Terminal, and this was extremely convenient. We had checked in our luggage, gone through security and were enjoying a good breakfast in the departure lounge by 8:00am. Julie popped the second of her diazepam pills hoping for some respite from her shaking hands. None came.

Up popped Gate 45 as our place to be, so Julie popped another 10mg, desperate for some numbness! From the departure gate she then had to endure a bus ride along the tarmac in the company of three wisecracking Yorkshire men joking about the air worthiness of the plane. She tried to laugh along with them but when we stepped off the bus, and had to walk towards the plane, it almost proved too much for her. I walked one step behind, with my arm gently rested on her shoulders. I felt as if I were shepherding her onto the steps, but to her credit, despite being near paralytic with fear, she did not spin on her heels and make a run for it! At the bottom of the steps she took a huge deep breath, and took those steps in her stride. Another mountain climbed.

Once we were in our seat, and after a half hour delay, we were bracing ourselves for take off, but for the first time in aviation history Julie had to do it unaided by the distraction of a Gameboy or a Walkman! The cabin crew had sternly ordered her to switch them off. In fact it was uncharacteristically abrupt for BA, (Air France you'd expect, but not the overly polite British!) To be fair though, within a minute, one of the stewardesses returned with a far softer manner as she had obviously noticed that Julie was shitting herself. Yet despite the more sympathetic approach she still couldn't turn a blind eye. Rules are rules. This really unnerved Julie as it was such an obvious bad omen; but to be fair, she didn't panic, she didn't hit the stewardess, nor did she hurl obscenities at her.

We took off smoothly, and Julie was "enjoying" the view from her window seat. The check-in stewardess had suggested that Julie should try a window seat, and look out of it as much as possible. I'm not too sure whether it was sound advice or that she was just being sadistically cruel! The skies were very clear today, and very busy. At one point we saw a plane pass beneath us, and it was near enough for me to recognise it as a Lufanthsa plane. Surely that's far too close! The highlight of our window seat though was flying over the Alps. It was beautiful! The highest peaks were breaking through like islands in a sea of cloud.

Unable to listen to music or play her gameboy Julie needed some other distraction and found a new use for those foam earplugs, using them as a squidgy stress toy! They were receiving quite a battering. She stretched them, squashed them, rubbed them rapidly. I'm sure she almost started a fire with them! Her ordeal was almost over as we broke through the clouds and were flying over the water down the Italian coast towards Pisa. The view was fantastic. In the distance we could see the island of Elba as we swung inland. But by now Julie couldn't care less if she saw a purple hippopotamus, in a banana yellow swimsuit, doing the backstroke, from out of her window seat!

We landed without a hitch, and Julie breathed a huge sigh of relief, but no vomit, so she is improving! She also managed to cling onto her dignity by not trying to have sex with the tarmac. It was now her turn to have a skip in her step. Let the holiday begin!

The terminal was surprisingly small in comparison to Gatwick, but it was still confusing enough to not find the train station. There were no signs at all. I walked up to an information desk and in my best Italian said, "Gwale stazione?" followed immediately, due to an acute lack of confidence, by "Where's the station?" in my best Queen's English!

I later realised that I was right to doubt what I had said because I had actually asked the question "What station?" What fool more like it! I should really have concentrated more on those Italian Language tapes! I should have said "Dove e la stazione" but it's all well and good being clever and cocky in the safety of your home when the tape is telling you that you're doing well, but when it came to putting it into practice I bottled it.

Anyway the lady answered in perfect English, and pointed to the one and only exit! I felt even more stupido!

It was embarrassingly easy to find the train platform as it was quite literally a step away from the exit/entrance.

We noticed from the timetable that we had just missed a train by some 15 minutes, so we had an hour to waste before the next train was due to leave.

Two beers, a sandwich, and some more pointing and grunting in awful Italian later we returned to the platform.

It wasn't obvious if the train at the platform was going to Florence, and the crowd gathered around the timetable, scratching their heads looked like they were asking themselves the same question.

We decided to walk along the platform to try to find out, and luckily a pilot walked past who confirmed it was a train to Firenze. Or at least I think he did! We hopped on board and settled down, crossing fingers that we were on the right train. When it left the station at the right time we felt a little more confident, and when we saw the snow capped Garfagnana hills in the distance to our left we sat back and relaxed knowing we were going in the right direction at the very least.

Our hearts dropped however as there appeared to be a problem when the ticket collector looked at our rail tickets! He sat down next to us, shaking his head, grasping for the words in English. It would be just my luck if all he could say was "What Station?" But he managed to explain that we had forgotten to validate the ticket at the platform and had to pay a 5Euro fine. I remember seeing the small yellow box called a "bigeltori" wondering if I should shove my ticket in it. Now we know! At least we were on the right train. It was a strange feeling being relieved to pay a fine!

Once we passed Empoli the countryside become much more picturesque as we followed the path of the river past very quaint hillside villages. We arrived at Santa Maria Novelle station bang on time at 14:48. The station seemed larger than Pisa airport terminal, yet we headed for the exit without having to ask anyone!

On the map our hotel wasn't too far away, so I decided we could walk. Cobbled roads and uneven pavements made it a slow process, and a road block due to building works completely threw my sense of direction into a toddler tantrum.

Tired, emotional and unable to find my pop-up map I had to sit down on the kerb and calm down a bit!

Thankfully I found another map and we weren't far away at all. Within a few minutes we had found Hotel Albergotto on Via Tournabuoni. Hooray!

Our hotel was directly opposite the Palazzo Strozzi, a huge imposing building, said to be the largest Palazzo in Florence. (apart for the Pitti Palace.) So I guess that makes it the second biggest? It hosts many expositions, and we saw that Carravagio had just left town. (Damn, missed him again as we did in Rome!)

The hotel was above a Gucci shop,(a designer darling's paradise); but its major claim to fame is that famous author George Eliot once stayed here in 1860 when she visited, researching for her book 'Romola'.

In it she remarks how little she imagined that Florence had changed since the 15th century, and I guess it hasn't changed much since her visit either!

Her real name was Mary Ann Evans, or Anna Maria as it said on the plaque outside.

Her name sounded beautiful in Italian, but she was far from being an English Rose. In fact I read that even one of her best friends, Henry James, once described her as "deliciously hideous". Apparently he meant it as a compliment?!?

Reception was up a flight of stairs so we buzzed for a porter to carry our luggage up all those steps. At the first floor he said "you take elevator". We did as instructed despite Julie's fear of elevators, and despite this open caged antique being undoubtedly the same one used by the "magnificently ugly" Miss Evans in 1860!

It was so incredibly tiny; the two of us only just squeezed in. Fortunately we only went up one floor, but Julie couldn't wait to leave the cage. When we came to a halt she couldn't open the door. Try as she might she couldn't slide the door open. Panic was just about creeping in. I told her to move to one side, a la Superman, thinking that some muscle was required, but I couldn't shift the door either! We started to giggle nervously as we were planning on screaming for Help! One last attempt in sliding the door open failed, and in a huff of resignation I pushed the door, only for it to swing open quite easily! Talk about dumb and dumber!

We fell into the reception area laughing at our own stupidity. The staff must have thought we were roaring drunk but they were very pleasant and welcoming. We were shown to our room which was very nice, but we didn't waste any time before heading straight back out again and off to find the Duomo.

Our first glimpse was shockingly disappointing. We came up Via Roma from Piazza della Republica and we first saw the dirty walls of the Baptistry. It was filthy dirty and looked almost neglected. We weren't too sure what to think. Is this it ?

Our eyes then fell on the cathedral and the tower and our spirits were instantly lifted. The Campanile was absolutely exquisite, and the red tiled Cupola was breathtaking.

Its size was immense and it must have been such an incredible feat of engineering to have built such a dome in the 15th century!

Built by Filippo Brunelleschi; there was a story that someone had suggested the cunning plan of building a hill with earth and coins, pop a dome on the top and then leave it to the greedy people of Florence to dig out the dirt in search of the "filthy money"!

I think the idea was laughed out of town, but whichever method they used they managed to complete it, and it certainly was a monumental achievment!

We did give the Baptistry a second chance and found the brass doors to be interesting.

(The original doors are at the Museo dell'Opera di S. Maria del Fiore - the Cathedral's Museum)

But I couldn't turn my back on the Duomo for too long without wanting to turn around and gaze at it again.

The baptistry, in comparison, seemed to be the arse end of the attraction, and it could have done with a good wipe!

Apparently the ceiling frescoes of the Baptistry, an interpretation of Dante's inferno, are worth seeing, but we didn't bother going inside. Choosing instead to just stand there for a while and marvel at the beauty of the Duomo.

Both the dome and tower were open to climb up but we decided to leave that exertion for another day. We'll just look today!

We left the Duomo down Via del Studio, practically walking backwards as I couldn't stop looking at the dome. Along this narrow street we found an interesting grocery store called Pegna. It stocked everything from household bleach to gourmet food and wine, from rat poison to an array of cured meat and smelly cheeses. (Although the poison, on a plate on the shop floor, was probably for the benefit of little furry animals and not the customers!) We only bought a bottle of cheap Pinot Grigio and a packet crisps but definitely plan a return visit to stock up on some real quality (read expensive) olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Chianti.

From here we walked past Chiesa di Dante, a small dark medieval church where Dante married. We decided not to enter because it felt as if we wouldn't fit through the door! It was that small!

We carried on down to Via Dante Agliheri. Located on this road was Casa di Dante, the reputed home of Senior Agliheri. Despite being well versed in all seven of his deadly sins; lust, pride, sloth, envy, gluttony, greed and anger; we didn't make the effort of paying homage to the Italian "Shakespeare". Mainly because we couldn't find the bloody house!

There was one house covered in scaffolding, perhaps it was that one? We weren't too disturbed at missing the museum as we headed for Piazza Signoria, but the curse struck again.

We were very disappointed when we strolled down Via dei Calzaiuoli, past all the shops and gelateria , and entered the wide open space of the Piazza Signoria, to find the impressive Palazzo Vecchio covered by scaffolding.

The entire turret was wrapped in a green mesh.

What a huge blow!

It looked like what I would imagine to be a Leonardo Da Vinci prototype for a space rocket launch pad! All counter-balance and pulleys.

Dave, (the copy of Michelangelo's David) stood shrouded in a scaffold shell, preparing for take off!

Nevermind. It's a good reason to return. As with everywhere else we've visited, there's always something we missed, or was hidden from view.

The square still had plenty of other attractions to occupy my camera.

Julie waited patiently as I snapped away at the Neptune fountain, and several of the statues displayed in the Loggia.

The most powerful of the statues without a doubt were the writhing figures of Giambologna's "The Rape of the Sabine Women". It was an incredible piece of work.

 

As we left the piazza we stopped by a small shop selling a plethora of paninis. We were spoilt for choice, but finally decided to share a spinach and mozzarella.

It was delicious but only left us wanting more! So a little further down Via Por Santa Maria we stopped again, this time at a shop that sold slices of every imaginable flavour of pizza!

Julie chose an odd mix of potato with sausage and I had more traditional funghi. They weren't exactly delicious but taste was secondary to filling our stomachs. We had hardly eaten much all day so we were ravenous!

At the end of this street was the world famous Ponte Vecchio, yet we hardly noticed that we had stepped onto a bridge! It was full of shoppers like any other street, lined on both sides with expensive jewellers.

I hurried Julie across before she could see anything that caught her fancy!

"Move on, nothing to see here!"

We were running out of gas by now, and decided to head back to the hotel. We crossed the river Arno over Santa Maria bridge and saw the Ponte Vecchio in all its glory. It certainly is a fact that it looks better from a distance! By chance, divine intervention or that the other's were crap and deserved to be bombed, the Ponte Vecchio was the only one of Florence's many bridges to have survived the madness of the Second World War. Thankfully.

As we walked up Via Tournabuoni for the first time we were surprised on how narrow it was! I had pictured the city's major shopping street to be a wide tree lined boulevard with posh shops and pavement cafes, but I was thinking far too French! Gucci, Prada, Bvlgari, Armani, Salvatore Feregamo all fell unobtrusively, almost by design, into this narrow medieval street. We browsed the window of Louis Vitton and saw an attractive small bag that we thought our daughter, Hannah, would adore. The price tag was slightly obscured, but after cricking our necks we almost fell over in shock! Eight Hundred Euros!! Perhaps we'll find something else a little less expensive instead, like a fridge magnet!

By 5pm we were back in our hotel room, cracking open our Pinot Grigio, thumbing through lists of restaurants to try later this evening. I had short-listed three choices for tonight, and we decided on Ristorante Beccofino, the one where the "young and trendy Florentines frequent." That sounded just like our scene, all young and trendy! So to make sure we looked bright eyed and bushy tailed for the "in crowd" we decided to have a nap. Just forty winks.

The alarm woke me up 7:30pm but the screaming banshee/cockerel failed to wake Julie from her diazepam induced coma. I fidgeted for a bit, contemplating a discreet shake or whispering sweet "wake up! wake up!" down her ear; but she lay there, beautiful, with the naked serenity of a gently snoring renaissance painting. How could I disturb her?

A while later we both woke up at the same time, discussed how hungry we were, but decided that bed was far more comfortable than our need for food! We rolled over and slipped back into our comas.

Buona Notte Firenze!

Tuesday 28th October >>

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