What next after Rome? The three of us had been travelling together for several weeks, and had different ideas about what we wanted to do next: Andrew fancied a bit of sunbathing, David wanted to catch up with a girl friend, and I wanted to see Florence and Pisa. We decided to go our separate ways for the day, and to meet up in Genoa that evening.
I boarded the night train from Rome to Florence, but planned to deliberately overshot and remain on board until Milan, so that I could get some sleep before back-tracking from Milan to Florence to arrive at a reasonable hour.
One of the decisions I’d made after our shake-down trip to Loch Ness was to ditch my heavy quilted sleeping bag and instead to carry a lightweight plastic orange survival bag. This was big enough that I could climb inside fully clothed along with my rucksack. It was warm and weather-proof, and the only downside had been that it crinkled loudly in the night when I moved, and I had to be careful to leave a low-point at one of the corners to allow for condensation inside the bag.
This was all very well outside in the weather, but aboard the train it was easiest to lay it flat and then roll up like a sausage on the seat. This had the triple benefit of easy ingress and egress, quieter sleeping, and I could leave my boots on while simultaneously avoiding the wrath of the ticket inspector who was always checking that any seats used as foot-rests were suitably protected by plastic.
The upshot was that I had a comfortable and undisturbed sleep on the train to the satellite station Milano Lambrate where I disembarked in the early hours of the morning, with the intention of boarding the next train back to Bologna. Strangely, none of the timetabled trains turned up, so I breakfasted on a tin of ravioli from my backpack, and hopped on a local to try my luck at Milan’s Central Station.
I had a few hours to kill at Centrale, but that was no great shame because the building is an imposing stone edifice adorned with statues and fountains, backed by a Victorian-style glass-and-ironwork platform complex. I had a good look around, and then, with about an hour to spare, I lay down and closed my eyes for a few seconds… to be woken by the train arriving at the platform.
Hurrying aboard, I found myself sharing my compartment with a silent nun, and with a friendly Italian gentleman. Notwithstanding the limited overlap between his English and my Italian (precisely none), we contrived to have a very enjoyable conversation that saw us to Bologna, where he disembarked.
Florence / Firenze (Italy)
Arriving in Florence a couple of hours later than I had intended, I hurried straight to the Duomo, where I was blown away by this splendid multicoloured pink-white-green confection of a cathedral.
My only problem was that I had great difficulty fitting any but the smallest fragments of it into my camera’s viewfinder. I noted in my diary that this was a general problem in the narrow and winding streets of Florence, a problem which went away when the battery in my camera died.
I found a camera shop, and I suppose the proprietor knew he could charge whatever he wanted, because the price was double what I had expected. There’s nothing worse than being a photographer without a working camera! The transaction cleaned me out of today’s budget and half of tomorrow’s, leaving me with only 1500 lire (68p) for food. I began to wonder whether I would ever make it to Paris before my cash ran out.
Still, here I was in Florence, it was a beautiful day, and I could surely subsist on water from the drinking fountains that we had discovered to be plentiful in Italy. The temperature rose, and as I ambled southward, I discovered that Florence didn’t have any water fountains. I got thirstier and hotter, resolved to buy a refreshing drink with my remaining money, and found that all the shops had closed for the daily siesta.
“South” mumbled my dehydrated brain, as I stumbled along the streets of shuttered shops, until I reached the river. “North” said my subconscious, and I swayed approximately in that direction, keeping the merciless sun at my back, passing the Duomo once again before almost literally crashing into a cold drinks stall. A half-litre can of cola set me back exactly 1500 lire…
After drinking the cola and eating half of a stale loaf of bread and some frankfurters from my backpack, I slowly returned to sanity, sitting in the town square with pigeons pecking around my boots.
Then I sat in bemused wonder as a high-speed police chase began in the square around me. Shoppers dived into doorways and civilian cars bounced onto walkways, as two police Alfa Giulietas roared around the square, four-wheel-drifting on the corners, and disappeared up a side-street. The civilian cars slowly backed out of shop doorways and down from the kerb, and then scattered again in panic as the police cars came screaming back out, this time in high-speed reverse. I stared, mouth agape, as a police van and a third Giulieta entered the fray, people running for cover. The vehicles screeched off in separate directions, leaving the square in utter chaos, including a gesticulating general in a staff car. The sirens faded, but as pedestrians and drivers began to untangle themselves, there was another screech of tyres and one of the Giuliettas came back, re-entering the square at high speed.
A hitherto unnoticed uniformed traffic policeman had clearly had enough. He stepped out in front of the speeding car, brandishing a red stick. The police car locked up, shedding rubber, and came to rest in a cloud of smoke with the front bumper actually touching the unshaken policeman’s legs.
Not completely certain that I was not hallucinating, I quietly got up and left.
What with my late arrival in Florence and recovering from heat stress, I didn’t board the train to Pisa until 17:00. The train promptly broke down. By the time I arrived in Pisa, I was running short on time if I was to meet up with the others today, so I rushed out of the station and followed tourist signs until – somewhat winded – I reached the famous leaning tower, clear across on the far side of town.
I did enjoy my brief look around, but soon I had to hustle back. I attempted a sprint, but with the weight of my rucksack it was more a sort of a lope, and I made it to the station platform three minutes late.
Soaked in sweat, I made my way to the gabinetto to get changed (gabinetti are squat toilets, cheaper than a sit-upon toilette) but then realised that I had left my other pair of trousers in Rome and that all the t-shirts in my backpack were dirty. Pulling on the least blackened shirt and a pair of shorts, I headed back out onto the platform and onto the rear of a waiting train. To my dismay, it seemed to be comprised entirely of sleeper cars, for which my Interrail ticket was not valid. I squeezed my way from car to car down endless corridors until, just as the brakes were released, I jumped across the gap to a second-class smoking carriage to Genoa.
We all met up more or less as planned, for a discussion about budgets over a tin of chicken and rice. We were concerned about the financial viability of continuing our trip all the way to the ticket’s validity at the end of the month. Realising that we were geographically several days ahead of our plan, we decided to finish a few days early while maintaining our itinerary, thus in one master-stroke increasing our daily spend to an astounding seven pounds each per day. The show would go on!