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Day 5: Florence

Well, today was a bonus, and a beautiful one at that. We prepared our itinerary back in England and so knew what towns we'd be visiting and how we'd be getting to them. And then we arrived in Bologna and jumbled everything up. You see, we were going to follow the approach that we took last year of trying out a new place every day. I think we ended up visiting 15 towns in 14 days back then and we had set ourselves a similar agenda for this visit to Emilia Romagna. But a fortnight before coming here I went to Trieste with my Dad for a long weekend and sandwiched in, I think, 10 different places in our few days, and so Clare and I wondered whether, given the proximity of the towns on our to-do list and the temptingly low same-region train fares, we should squash more than one town per day into this holiday. And so the day that should've been Modena became Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma, granting us two bonus places. We'd done something similar the day before, heading to Ferrara in the afternoon after having spent the morning in Bologna. Now, Ferrara was going to be its own day out, meaning that we'd gained a spare day, and a pot-luck check of train prices gave a surprising result - we were going to head outside the region to the town considered to be the most beautiful in Italy.

Radio has wanted to go to Florence for years and, having accepted my claims that I could find us a train to one its peripheral stations for 11.50€ plus a further 1.50€ to get a local train into the main station, spent the days leading up to the big day eagerly looking forward to the adventure. I have a slightly different way of thinking and was determined to get value for money by adding in more destinations. "You see, going to Pisa would normally cost us a fortune because it's in Tuscany so the train fares are high for crossing the regional border. But since we're going to Florence and that's in Tuscany, then Pisa becomes dead affordable. And so does Siena. And Lucce." And so I spent time trying to convince Radio that we could do a repeat of our Modena-Reggio Emilia-Parma day by spending a couple of hours in various places and then jumping aboard a train, whilst she tried to convey that Florence really couldn't be done justice in less than a day. She won the argument and so a day trip to Florence - and only Florence - was agreed and I set about memorising the time of the only train that we would be able to catch at that one-off low price.

The day started as every other one has, with me boiling next to the radioactive Radio and having to switch on the aircon at about 5am, the powering-on of which did a reasonable job of dampening somewhat the roar of the fridge. I have a theory on why the damned thing wasn't working on our first few days - I bet some previous occupant got so irritated at the sound of a Grand Prix ten feet from their bed that they broke it. I'm typing this blog now perhaps somewhat pointlessly, because the laptop's about to get hurled at that fridge if it doesn't shut up soon.

By the time the alarm went off and Radio awoke I was already awake because of the heat in the room and that stupid fridge so catching up on some work. We got showered and headed off for breakfast along the customary route, Radio a bit concerned that we might not have time to make it to our train, which was scheduled to leave at 08:39. I, on the other hand, had every confidence that we'd be fine because I was under no illusion that breakfast would be what it has been on the previous days. Sure enough, there was little to hold our attention and so we came, we saw, we left, the grand total of ten minutes spent on site eating our stale bread, pastry (which was fine, in fairness) and drinking our orange juice from a throwaway child's-sized beaker. Back to the appartment, books packed, money added to the purse and we were on the road with plenty of time to spare. Easy.

And then things became confusing.

I ordered the tickets as we have done every other but this time we were expected to reserve a seat. No problem. A schematic of a carriage appears and you have to indicate the seats you would like, which I duly did. One button away from confirming and paying Radio noted that one of the reservations was in carriage four and the other in five. We would've had one ticket but been in separate carriages - I bet that would've been fun for Radio (who is multilingual but not in Italian) to explain to the ticket inspector: "The machine put me and my handsome better half in separate carriages and the ticket's in his lovely hand."

We tried again. Same result. There's an option to pick "sit next to another passenger" so we had go with that. "What carriage is the other person in? What seat?" WE DON'T KNOW BECAUSE WE HAVEN'T GOT THE OTHER PERSON'S TICKET YET, IDIOT. Suddenly the relaxed start to the day was taut. The train was due within minutes, we were still ticketless and there was too long a queue for us to purchase a pair of tickets from the staff behind the desks. So I said to Radio that we'd have to gamble, purchasing one ticket and accepting whatever seat it generated, then making a separate transaction for a second ticket and entering the seat details from the first, keeping our fingers crossed that we would fluke upon a designation that had another seat nearby rather than in a separate carriage.

Our luck was in - we were in the same carriage and sitting opposite each other. So what was that nonsense about it putting the two people purchasing the same ticket in different carriages in the first place? Who knows. This being Wimbledon fortnight, I'd be happy to be topical and give whoever scripted that ticketing program a backhand.

The train was duly late to cater for all the stragglers and we tracked down our seats, which, to our surprise, were in six-seated booths. What we noticed whilst tracking down ours was a plethora of empty seats ... indeed, we were the only two people in our six-person carriage. See?

Could it be that we had a four-seat booth to ourselves after the ticket machine had tried to put us in separate carriages?


No - we had a flipping six-booth one!


And yet we'd been fighting with that machine for ten minutes because it insisted on putting us in separate carriages!

Mind you, my misanthropy was quelled somewhat by a most unexpectedly pleasant journey, as we travelled with the beautifully wooded Appenine mountain range accompanying us. We ended up at Firenze Rifredi ahead of schedule, caught the next train to the main station Firenze Santa Maria Novella and promptly arrived in reputedly Italy's most beautiful city. We picked up a map for 2.50€ (since our pop-out Florence map was back at home because we weren't expecting to come here) and had a look at what to do. That was actually a very easy decision to make - the tourist masses went straight on or right, so we headed to the left.

It didn't take long to see our first monument. The Fortressa da Basso is massive. It also cost money to enter so we didn't venture inside and instead decided that we'd make a point of seeing everything else on the map. And so we did, heading straight off to a Russian church on the Giovanni Milton street. (I love the unusual look of that name. He's the author of Paradise Lost in case you haven't made the link.)


A trip to a park or two followed, in which we pleased to find some ducks and turtles.

And we were on our own too. We weren't expecting to be for much longer, since it was time to leave the periphery and head within the ring road and enter the traditionally touristy areas, starting with the Piazza della Libertà, the northernmost point of the historic city. It was beautiful, the triumphal arch standing tall and proud. Even better - there were no tourists!


We'd been in Florence for about an hour and a half at this point under the sweltering heat and so decided to refresh ourselves. The first pint on a hot day is always the best. With the aid of our new map we set out a battle plan, coming to the realisation that Florence had so much to see that though we could probably squeeze in everything within the main city without straining ourselves, there was a large area to explore on the south of the Arno.

I shan't bore with details about what we saw. We marched and visited everything on the map, a task made easier by the fact that we couldn't gain access to quite a few of the sights, my favourite such example being an attempt to walk into the Orto Botanico only to see a handwritten sign across the entrance announcing "NO ENTER. NO TOURIST." I had to laugh - whoever wrote that likes tourists even less than I do!

Lunch was merited when we finally took it. I'm not a pizza person but after several days of bolognese and lasagna I fancied a change and came up a winner. The Vulcano was extremely spicy but beautiful, and Radio declared her Quattro Formaggi to be the finest such pizza she'd ever had. Crucially there was a cheap beer on offer, a 66cl bottle of Moretti for 3.50€. The friendly waiter chap thought me rather more classy than I am and accompanied the bottle with a glass. In the event this was handy, since he clearly thought that the half litre of wine that we'd ordered was for Radio only and so brought just a single beaker with it. I therefore made use of the pint glass, just not with the material he thought I would.

One excellent meal later and half a map still to follow, off we trekked. Again, I'll spare details (since the photos tell the story better) except to say that we hit on a beautiful square with the Duomo backing on to it.

The narrow streets are dominated by what appears to be a rocketship launching in the background. Florence is a magesterial city anyway, but one thing dominates the skyline - the Duomo:


We turned a corner having walked around the edge of the town after lunch and bumped into a church ...


... and a round building, which I'm assuming is the baptistry:


Those are just two of the elements in this single square:


It makes for an impressive whole:


Yes, we were among the tourists, but it was a price worth paying. And so was visiting Florence, which is full of beautiful sites.

We immediately moved away from the main tourist route and tracked down a Russian church on "Giovanni Milton" street:


Instead of heading east into the city we moved westward into a park in which was something reminiscent of our Victorian bandstands:


I think that this structure in the park was a cafe but I suspect it might once have been a colossal greenhouse:


Having visited the non-tourist areas it was time to see the conventional sights. We entered via the north-west and quickly came across the Roman gate ...


... which featured some intricately crafted statues on its top:


Behind the Roman gate was a second, though less spectacular:


There are, of course, many beautiful churches. Ignore the six-pointed star on this one - it's not a synagogue ...


... but this is. It's big!


Palazzi too abound.:


The Arno flows through Florence. Here';s Radio at riverside:


Having seen everything that we'd set out to view we were in a bit of a quandary. As there was only one train in the morning at the irresistibly low price, so there was only one going home and we had a couple of hours to kill in sweltering heat. The solution soon presented itself when we found a bar. Radio wanted water and as usual I was happy with a pint. Having confirmed that there was draft beer on offer I requested a large Bulldog. The proprietor confirmed with me that I meant large, which I corroborated - if you don't specify large in Italy you end up with a 20cl.

He brought our drinks over. There was a pleasant surprise for me:


That's a large drink. A welcome bonus on our bonus day.

We spent time in the shadier part of the pub, Radio quickly needing a top-up and me resisting the temptation to ask for one more for me too. The TV was playing hits from the 70s and 80s, Radio asking me to confirm whether the singers were men or women. I grew up in the 80s so don't find 80s-looking women unattractive as she does. I can't say the same about the 70s though. How come people wanted to look so much older than they were back then? Anyway, the pint empty and clock running down, I settled the bill. Ouch. My extra-large beer was going to set me back 13€. I was glad I hadn't ordered a second one after all!

You know the dispute between me and Radio earlier? The one where I wanted to travel all around Tuscany today whilst Radio was adamant that Florence would need at least a day? She was right - we'll be heading back on Friday using another of the days that our sandwiching approach has freed up to see the bits that we weren't able to fit in today. No more king-size beers for me though.

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