Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Trials of the Traveler’s. . .

Part 1

The third year that I lived in Italy my best friend and I decided to take a trip. We had been in Italy long enough that we figured our Italian was good enough to strike out on our own. We planned a 4 day trip to Pisa, Florence, Venice and then back to Vicenza.

We boarded the train at 5:15 am on Wednesday morning, two semi-zombies too tired to be really excited yet. As the train started on its southward journey, it was quiet at that time, but with each stop, more and more people boarded the train. Italian trains other than the locale (pronounced low-call-e) have compartments that you sit in as opposed to open seating. Each compartment will hold about 8 people comfortably and it was always fun to see who your compartment mates would be.

In Padua 4 women joined us in the compartment. I believe they were sisters and a mother and were going to Rome. We spoke a little bit with them, telling them about our trip and what we hoped to see. Conversation lagged a little bit and they talked quietly amongst themselves, casting curious glances at us. Finally, the one who seemed to be the youngest of the group asked us if we watched Dynasty and Dallas! They were fans of the shows and wanted us to give them the scoops! Unfortunately we didn’t know a thing, but we chatted good-naturedly for awhile longer until the train got to Bologna, where we changed trains for Florence (to Italians it is Firenza) and finally to Livorno, Italy, about 30 miles west of Pisa.

Livorno, Italy

It was mid March, and the weather in Vicenza was pretty mild. Where we lived in Italy was pretty temperate as a whole, although our first Christmas there we got
a small amount of snow, which hadn’t happened for about 10 years. There were a few palm trees there which were funny to see the snow on. So when we left Vicenza, the weather had been clear and balmy. When we got off the train in Pisa, close to 300 miles southwest of Vicenza it was cold and blustery and raining! No, we hadn’t thought to bring umbrellas, we were lucky to have jackets.

We were planning to stay at Camp Darby, which was supposedly right outside of Livorno. It was actually about 20 miles. You had to have a car to get there. We had no car.
So we ended up staying in Livorno after schlepping around for 2 hours in the cold, blustery rain. We wanted to see Livorno as it was on the Mediterranean Sea and pretty historical. We found a small hotel and collapsed there. But the room was cold—in Italy, depending on where you lived, heat was only allowed for so many hours per day. For instance in Vicenza, the city we lived in, we were allowed heat for 12 hours a day, at a temperature of 60 degrees between October 15 and March 1. Since Livorno was farther south, we knew it was futile to even ask.

We went out to grab a sandwich for dinner and then went back to the hotel room and buried ourselves under blankets and shivered the night away. But, just like in fairy tales, the next morning was perfect; sunshine and blue skies. We checked out of the hotel and found a little cafĂ© and had breakfast, and then still carrying our bags around with us, we caught a bus to the Mediterranean Sea, which was a lovely blue. We walked along the sea wall and watched the tiniest little waves that either of us had ever seen sweep ashore. I took a whole role of film just trying to catch a good one and never succeeded. And it didn’t smell like the ocean either. I finally went down some steps and actually tasted the water (dumb I know) and it didn’t taste like an ocean either, not salty at all. But still we loved it, and enjoyed the time immensely.

We took a bus to the train station and caught a train to Pisa. About half way or so there we saw Camp Darby. If we had only been paying attention on the trip past it to Livorno, we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble, that’s for sure!

We were so excited when we got to Pisa! The leaning tower was beckoning to us and we could hardly wait. We caught a bus headed in the right direction, (again schlepping our bags with us) and rode around the city. At one point we could actually see the tower off to the west of us and knew that as the bus looped around, we would be there soon.

The tower was bigger than we expected and it really, really leaned. If you go up and stand on the side where it leans towards you and look straight up, it is difficult to not feel a slight sense of vertigo, since the tower seems to be leaning drastically from that angle. We didn’t climb the roughly 1,100 step to the top as we did have our bags, but it was an awesome experience just to be there.

We had some good fortune about mid afternoon. We met an American girl, K, who was a college student in Florence. Her mother was visiting her and they were enjoying Pisa that day as we were. The day was turning out to be spectacular, with the bluest sky imaginable, sunny and warm. As we chatted with her, she asked where we were heading next and we told her to Florence. She told us she knew somewhere we could stay, so on the afternoon locale train, we left Pisa behind us and headed to Florence, the city of flowers.

We got our first real view of Florence as the locale train snaked through the hills above Florence from the west. The view was spectacular. It was early evening and the sun was behind us, casting a rosy glow on the city, and the river Arno in the distance with its bridges was an alluring sight. Farther to the east mountains ringed the city, green and verdant, with red-tiled buildings everywhere we looked.

At the train station we followed our guide and went out to the bus stops, to catch the number 7 bus to the Piazza SS Annunziata where the Hotel Panorama Michelangelo was located. What was wonderful about this location is that it was across the square from the Accedemia Galleria, where the original statue of David was located.

It was around 6 in the evening and space on the busses was at a premium. Carrying the large duffle bags we had with us made it even more difficult, but we all managed to squeeze onto the right bus. It wasn’t too far our friend told us, so everyone stick together she said which was easier said than done.

The Italian transportation system cannot be beat, whether you are on a train or a bus. The price is right and people actually use it, daily. Italians are not shy about using it either, remaining good-natured amidst all the jostling and maneuvering that it takes to get on the bus, find a place to stand, then actually get to the door when it’s time for your stop. Which I wasn’t quick enough to do.

My 3 friends made it off and before I could get to the door, it folded itself closed and the bus jumped forward. I remember looking at my best friends face as the bus pulled away. Her face paled as sheer panic washed over it. I couldn’t even have told you the name of the hotel at that point, or the piazza where it was located, and we hadn’t made any kind of contingency plans for something like this.

I smiled and waved and started thinking, Ok you have to remember where this bus goes next so you can follow the route back!

An older Italian gentleman watched what happened and immediately started pushing me towards the exit door.

“Dal senso lasci la donna passare,” he said, telling them to let me get to the door.

“Scusilo che sono spiacente,” I said as I made my way to the exit door, apologizing to everyone I bumped into with either myself or the bag.

As the bus prepared to make its next stop, the man was furiously giving me directions. “Vada diritto per 2 blocchi quindi giri a sinestra,” he told me, indicating with his hand to go straight back along the street, then turn left 2 blocks from where the bus was now.

“Grazie, mille grazie,” I told him as I made it out the door. In true Italian fashion, the bus passengers started cheering and waving and pointing down the street. I waved back and gave them my biggest smile as I headed off down the street.

When I got to the place where I needed to turn left, K was coming down the street in my direction to meet me. Even though I felt pretty confident about finding my way back, I was relieved to see her. We walked back the rest of the way chatting and laughing about how my friend had gotten so panicked about the whole thing.

We met up with the others and after lots of hugs made our way around the corner to the piazza and the very welcome site of our hotel. Nothing ever looked more inviting.

But our adventure in Florence was only beginning!

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