Stunning architecture and sense-smacking cuisine. There is more to Italy than that, but it was those two items that dominated my short stay in that beautiful country.
It’s pronounced “Firenze”
One of the realisations I had during my months of Interrailing was that the English names for places in Europe are often quite different to the original names. So after leaving the luscious greenery of Interlaken, Switzerland I headed for Firenze, not “Florence”, Italy. Using my indispensable Lonely Planet book I had pin-pointed a convenient, affordable campsite within reach of the city centre. However, even as I stepped off the train, I had yet to decide how to reach it. By foot, taxi or local bus.
One of my greatest irrational fears is being on a bus, missing my stop, and not knowing that I’ve missed it. I feel like it’s harder to get lost if you’re walking because if you’re walking you can go at your own speed, stop, check where you are, backtrack if necessary. But if you’re on a bus and you miss your stop, you could end up totally disoriented.
Saying that, a taxi would’ve been pricey and walking would have been exhausting. I also had no idea where to even get the bus. So I took the most affirmative action that came to mind; I lingered. I hovered around the train station, pondering my options. It was then that I noticed two guys, older than me, with large backpacks and tanned skins. Fellow nomads, clearly. I approached them and said “Hi”. To my fortune it turned out they were pondering the same ponder as me. As a Commonwealth team (for Canadian they were) we found the bus stop, where there came a bus, and from there reached the campsite.
I used Florence as my base from which to explore Italy. However, before scooting off to see leaning towers and colossal fighting arenas (more on them later) of course I had to absorb the beauty at my doorstep. Aside from how cheap it was, the other big advantage of the campsite was how close it was to the city. It was on the edge of the city centre, atop a mighty hill. If the frequent bus service wasn’t enough to label the place “convenient” then the ability to walk into town with a modicum of effort certainly was.
Boboli Gardens in Florence
The streets were thin, tight and tall. At times it felt like I was walking through a tunnel or shuffling behind a bookcase. I used the minimally detailed map in my Lonely Planet to find my way. This didn’t always work in my favour. My first goal was Florence’s Cathedral, the Duomo, famous for whatever the guide-book said. I followed my feet as together we trod the yellowed streets, only vaguely sure of the way. Thinking our target could be round any bend didn’t stop its appearance from around one particular corner from being surprising. The mammoth structure seemed to leap out from behind the alley twist, blowing my eyes wide.
Florence Cathedral and Baptistery
I must have wandered around the courtyard in front of that building for close to an hour, my head ever tilted back, mouth agape like a child catching snow-flakes. I couldn’t believe the level of intricate detail covering every facet of that titanic beast. This was my first encounter with Italian architecture on this trip, and thankfully it was not to be the last. There was plenty more immensity waiting for me.
Santa Croce Church in Florence
Over the course of my European trek I stayed at a number of campsites and I think I was pretty lucky that all of them turned out to be really nice. This one was no exception. The view alone was worth the price – looking out over the majestic city below. PCs set up for Skyping and web-chatting (remember MSN Messenger?) were readily available in the main building, with a fridge full of cheaply priced beer nearby.
The FIFA World Cup was in full swing by the time I hit Italy and some matches were being shown on giant screens in public spots around the city. One night me and the two Canadians went to watch one. The thing I remember of that night was how toasty the evening was. The sun had fully set a while before we’d arrived at the public square and yet the concrete was like a warm bear hugging my bum. This wasn’t the only evidence of that summer’s infernal heat. The campsite had a little convenience store where one could buy milk, detergent, bug spray and other necessities. One sweltering afternoon I bought a small jar of Nutella (priorities, am I right?) and walked back to my tent. Not more than five minutes had passed before I opened the jar to find the creamy nut-chocolate inside bubbling gently.
One last little anecdotal snap-shot so you have an idea of the kind of stalwart adventurer-type I was. After a long day of stomping around somewhere (Rome, I think) I decided to take the next day to relax and soothe my achy feet. So I spent a large part of the day at the campsite. I’d picked up a copy of The DaVinci Code from some small shop and I managed to read the whole thing on that day; splayed out by my tent, shirt off, trousers rolled up. The sun had been flaming down mercilessly all day, but I was smart; I’d laid under a tree. Oh yes, tree shadow protection.
The problem with the sun is that it moves. And the problem with me is that I’m prone to naps. So imagine my surprise when I woke up to find my tree shadow protection shrunk and part of my nakedness revealed to the lofty yellow blister-cannon. By pure scientific chance the sun had moved to as to leave exactly half of my body in the shade while the rest roasted. I was split, right down the centre. Pasty pale white on the left, burnt bright red on the right.
I looked like a Polish flag turned on it’s side.
Have you visited Florence, Italy? How well did you navigate those streets?
My time in Italy was a bit short, but it certainly wasn’t short on sights. Plenty more a’comin’!