All Aboard for Anaheim, Asuza and Cucamonga… and Florence
K, for the sake of complete transparency, the header is a gag from a Daffy Duck cartoon involving trains (minus reference to Florence). What does that have to do with Florence? Nothing really. I just like Bugs Bunny and trains.
After spending the morning in Lucca, Steve drove Joanne and I to the station for our afternoon trip to Florence, or Firenze as its called in proper Italian. I’m still unconvinced that there wasn’t a model of car called the Firenze in the 70’s. No matter!
Our first encounter with the Italian rail system went smoothly. It went smoothly because Steve the Translator did all the work and arranged the tickets at the station. We had been lucky until this point. With Steve the Translator accompanying us there were no challenging language problems. Ever. Even his entire upper torso was fluently Italian; hands and arms waving, fingers pinching the air, head bobbing, all with utter authority. Now we were about to leave the comfort of my linguistic hero and strike out on our own. Jo and I headed out to the platform and with a wave Steve headed home. I was excited about this hour and a half trip because we were taking one of the “bullet trains” I’d been reading about since I was a teenager.
Trenitalia is the state run railway and part of the Eurail network and I’d acquired a Global Eurail pass for Jo and I in a game of chance… no wait. That was how I acquired my pod racer. I had to pay for the pass and cost about $900 CAD all in. It was a 16 day pass for the two of us and we had to be together for it to be valid, but it was painless travel for the most part. Europeans do rail right… mostly. Eastern Europe not so much, or at least not as consistently.
A couple of caveats. There can be ancillary costs. If you’re reserving seats ahead of time, there’s an extra cost and high speed rail require reservations in Europe. There are fees for sleeper cars on overnight trains. On the plus side, the Global pass is automatically 1st class travel, so you’re always comfortable. It’s pretty much hop on/hop off. The pass covers ferries and in some centers will cover regional rail. For instance in Germany the Eurail pass covers the S-Bahn or above ground municipal rail but it doesn’t cover the U-bahn, or subway system.
With a Global pass, you’re supposed to fill in information on the current trip itinerary in the pass folder and show the conductor when he passed through the car, which we did and the conductor checked the ticket and everything was tickety-boo. However… I couldn’t help but notice that we never saw a conductor for the rest of the trip, despite multiple stops and changing passengers. They’re pretty casual. There were other train trips we took in Italy where we never saw a conductor… at all. Ever. I like the “honor system” and all, but it strikes me as a curious business model. Maybe we’d get lucky and find a chocolate shop that followed the same business model. No matter, we were covered and we were on our way to Florence.
Riding the Rails
High speed rail was exceptionally smooth and as this was 1st class travel there were complimentary bags o swag. Biscotti, crackers, cheese and a bottle of water. As I don’t like pasta, I relied on these bags to sustain my life almost our entire time in Italy. The windows were huge and the view out the windows at times was incredible, just not on the line from Lucca to Florence. That’s not quite true. We passed a few beautiful mountain villages and the occasional small, knob like hills that always had a church at the top and often a town built around them which always drew my attention when we passed.
The closer you got to a major center, generally the more blighted the view as you were rolling through economically depressed areas on the way to the station, close to the center of old Florence which is always the way of things. You won’t see Amtrak Central in Beverly Hills. For brief moments, I’d catch glimpses of the dome of the Duomo in the distance through the morning haze. Come to think of it, even when we were pretty close it looked hazy. Perhaps it was more a smoggy than a morning haze. It didn’t matter, I was still very excited at the fact we were in Florence.
Follow the Cobblestone Road
We stepped onto the platform into a frantic press of Italians in a massive hurry, so we waded into the current and got carried along to the end of the platform and into the main station. We cut ourselves adrift to check my phone for directions to the Ponte Vecchio, which would be the furthest point in our travels in Florence. Oriented, we stepped out the door onto Via Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli. Yeah, that was the name of the street alright. Let’s agree to my not having to name any more streets. Okay? Thankfully, the blue line on the phone trumps all. Or so I thought. That would not always be the case, but in this instance it worked like a charm as we made our way down cobbled streets.
What struck me immediately was the aroma. Every city has it’s own smells, usually bad, but not in this case. There was an earthy tone which felt warm and familiar, but which I just couldn’t immediately place. Then it hit me. It was the smell of leather. Sure enough a block later and we hit a line of leather shops. Joanne immediately took command. This was her tactical scenario and I was just along for the ride.This particular street was closed off so the vendors had open air stalls lining the lane outside of their brick and mortar storefronts. Jo was browsing and I was suddenly hit with an intense, irrational desire to own a leather jacket.
Owning a leather jacket isn’t on my bucket list. It’s never really even been on my “slightly interested” list. Given my shape, I’d be rockin that medicine ball look, but for some reason… the smell of leather… the surroundings, owning a leather jacket became important in that moment. Joanne was on board and we hit a shop and engaged the proprietor.
Operation Haggle Jacket
He was good. I was in and out of five jackets in under two minutes. Seriously. I felt like Katy Perry in that Hot n Cold live performance where she goes through eight costume changes. They were nice jackets and he offered great patter but in the end, sanity returned and I decided a leather jacket wasn’t for me. The haggling was one sided. As my interest waned, he kept dropping his price. Joanne felt I needed something, so she bought me a pair of leather sandals which I love and I thank her for that. After Jo found a leather bag that could double as a backpack we were back on track for the Ponte Vecchio.
The walk to Ponte Vecchio was in no way boring. High end storefronts with the occasional trattoria lined the narrow streets. Occasionally, cathedrals and piazzas would offer a bit more open space, but overall the old city feels somewhat claustrophobic. Crowd density scaled up markedly the closer we got to Ponte Vecchio and for a moment I held out hope that maybe Bruno Mars was playing on the bridge and that was the reason for the crowds but apparently this was just the typical tourist crush. Within 20 minutes we arrived at our destination.
Has Anybody Seen the Bridge?
Ponte Vecchio. Sounds so sophisticated, elegant and erudite, doesn’t it? In English it means “Old Bridge.” It spans the river Arno and it’s covered in shops. Small wonder Joanne didn’t mind leaving the leather market.
The bridge was built during roman times and was first mentioned in documents in 996. Twice it was destroyed by flood and rebuilt (the last time in 1345). Apparently the shops have always been there. I have no idea how it’s zoned by the municipality.
According to Wikipedia, the concept of bankruptcy was created here: “when a money-changer could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the ‘banco’) was physically broken (‘rotto’) by soldiers, and this practice was called ‘bancorotto’ Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything.” After a half hour of Joanne browsing, I figured I’d better find a way to lure her out or I would be bancorotto. I told her there was a Winners at the Duomo and we headed for the most famed landmark in Florence. You may have seen a drawing of it in Hannibal Lecter’s cell in “Silence of the Lambs.”
Red, White and Green. The Duomo
I kept looking for the Duomo but it never came into view until we passed the last corner and it exploded into view. As always, I’m impressed at how such huge scale structures could be built with such limited, archaic technology. However, like most federal government infrastructure projects of the time, it took 150 years to complete and the decorous exterior took a further 400 years and was finished in 1887. Huh. I’m somewhat less than impressed now that I’ve discovered this fact.
There are essentially four sections, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Baptistry of San Giovanni. We only visited the interior of the cathedral proper, because the price was affordable. Free is very affordable. It’s the only thing that was free at the Duomo. You can do the entire site (cupola included) for 45 euro. While that would have been nice, we’d be risking bancorotto to try to do everything on this trip so we opted for economy.
The white and green marble draws the eye and the intricacy of the carvings and statues keep your eye wandering. The interior of the cathedral itself was pretty much the same as the cathedral in Lucca, except bigger. The murals and stained glass were gorgeous but by now it was getting late and time for supper so we left to stalk the piazza for food. I should mention that English was easy to find in Florence as tourist traffic is high so shopkeepers are multi-lingual, at least in our experience.
We found a trattoria and I don’t remember what I ordered, but I shall choose this moment to voice my primary complaint about Italy as a whole. There are NO ICE CUBES. ANYWHERE. You’ll have an easier time finding Papal yoga pants than you will finding a cold drink. Occasionally, you’ll find a vending machine with bottled water, but that’s just blind luck. The fellow serving us was charming and when I asked for ice he went to a freezer and pulled out one of those Baggie like ice cube moulds that makes ice cubes the size of a little finger cut off at the first joint. My, how he struggled with that cellophane! I was completely dumbfounded. After a couple of minutes he managed to extricate a single cube which he dropped in my drink and sent me on my way.
I like cold water so this was the greatest irritant to me in Italy. After we finished our meal, we had an uneventful train ride back to Lucca. The next morning, we’d be off for Rome, then Pompeii.
If you’d like more information on the city and its attractions, check out “Hannibal Lector’s Florence.” and yes, that’s a real thing.
Previously on TTWTH: Lucca Both Ways Before Crossing the Cobblestone Part II