First, we flew to London and took the train up to Norwich to attend a wedding. We had about 30 minutes in the hotel to get ready, and Grant decided to turn on the TV. Lo and behold, the major headline darting across the screen on CNN was ‘Volcanic Ash – Risks of UK Flight Cancellation Sunday through Tuesday.’ EFFFFFFFFFFFF.
We were due to fly from London to Ljubljana the next day to meet my sister and her boyfriend in Ljubljana. Just part of a 5-day trip I’d meticulously planned for months. We were torn…do we stay the night and go to the wedding reception as planned and hope it works out, or do we race back to London and hop on the only flight left to Italy that night? Neither of us wanted to make the call, but we decided not to take our chances and we booked ourselves on a last-minute flight to Florence.
We booked the flight on BA, but discovered upon arriving at Gatwick that it was actually Air Meridiana (anyone?) that would take us there. The flight left on time, the plane half-empty, and we were quite disheartened to discover that it was a SOBER flight…and we really needed a drink. We arrived at the tiny airport at 11:30 at night, and were a bit bummed to see that nothing was open (no tourism/hotel info) and we just had to hop in a taxi and get dropped off in centre to find a hotel.
After one false start lugging our suitcases up 5 flights of stairs to find an angry fat man grunt that he had no spare rooms, we gave up and coughed up EUR 150 (ironically, the equivalent of what we were paying for 5 days worth of accommodation on the rest of the trip) to stay at the Sofitel. Whatever. The room was huge, the bed comfortable, and the location central. We scarfed down some pasta at a very expensive restaurant (nothing else was opened at midnight on a Sunday night), the kind of place where designer-clad patrons excuse themselves between courses to rack lines in the toilet.
We woke up the next morning and tuned into CNN hoping that our forsaken flight to Ljubljana was indeed cancelled. It wasn’t, so we wouldn’t be getting a refund. Accepting our fate, we were determined to make the best of Florence in the short time we had there (about six hours). The weather was gorgeous, 25 degrees and sunny, with very few clouds in the sky. Without a map or a guidebook, we wandered around, admiring the calm and collected beauty of the city. We happened across a piazza, where Grant noticed a crowd of people gathered around a basilica (church). Our curiosity beckoned us closer and we found that it was not a queue to get in, but a film set. The scene was a little person dressed in a sleeping gown (think: Dickens’ Scrooge) and cap being chased by a gaggle of angry nuns. Classic!
Film set in Florence
We wandered around for another couple of hours before hunger got the best of us, and then we bickered for 30 minutes about where we should eat. Being the research fanatic that I am, and absolutely despising wasting a meal opportunity on something sub-par, we probably walked further and longer than we had to before settling on some okay-priced pizza and tourist-priced beer. Then we wandered into the Piazza della Signoria and its impressive collection of statues.
Piazza della Signoria, Florence
We grabbed a sandwich from a nearby alley hole-in-the-wall joint that had a queue of locals (must be good) and enjoyed a glass of wine before heading to the station to grab our (very expensive) train to Venice.
It was everything we imagined it to be. A spectacular city that is crumbling under the weight of tourism…the revenue from which it is kept afloat. The island has a population of about 50,000; only a very small fraction of those habitants are actually Venetian. We discovered, unfortunately, that the highly recommended (and cheap) hotel (Hotel Helvetia) I’d booked was actually on the island of Lido. Now, on a map, Lido looks quite close to the mainland, but because you can’t really walk it (especially with wheeled luggage) through the choking throng of tourists, you have to take a 40 minute ride *around* the entire island on a Vaporetto (water bus). This made Grant very, VERY, grumpy. I, too, was disappointed, but I had done all the research so I kept it to myself and made it quite clear I wasn’t going to tolerate his complaining. In addition to the TIME it took to get to Lido, THE COST, my god. EUR 6.50 for a one-way trip! We opted for the EUR 18 36-hour pass, but I wonder if you bought a one-way and didn’t validate it, if batting your eye-lashes at the inspector would suffice.
By the time we got to Hotel Helvetia, consulted my research compendium, and hopped back on the Vaporetto for another 40 minute trip, it was about 9:30pm when we got back to the mainland. We exited at the Rialto bridge and made our way into the San Polo area to wind our way through alleyways to find a local restaurant raved about on chowhound.com. Addresses won’t do you much good, but we knew the place we were after was in the ‘1911’ region…these four-digit numbers are (often) clearly marked on the corners of ‘streets’. We followed the numbers…where 1200 can turn to 2200 if you turn the wrong way, and ended up in an empty square. None of the corners branching off the square continued from 1900, s0 we retraced our steps and started again. We did that twice more, the same route, baffled at the disappearance of the 1900 numbers. Not even the iPhone could help. Finally, after nearly giving up, we realised that construction was hiding one of the alleys off the square…the 1900s! 1999, 1976, 1955, and down it went…Grant excitedly counting each number as we ambled closer to the destination – 1911. After a confusing series of sharp twists and turns down alleyways no wider than one of us at times, we found it. AND IT WAS CLOSED.
I guess the one thing I forgot to note down in my research was opening and closing times. Blurgh. But all was not lost, we went back to a promising looking pizza/pasta joint that we’d passed three or four times en route and after ordering our food, discovered it was actually in our guidebook as a recommended place anyways. nom nom nom.
Algae-tinted canals, Venice
The next morning, we went back to the main station in Venice to meet my sister and Jeremy, who had just come off the 5 hour bus ride from Ljubljana that Grant and I were also supposed to be on. After Vaporetto-ing our way back to the hotel, and back to the mainland, we meandered (got lost a zillion times) back to Rialto and went to Al Merca, which The Independent calls ‘an obligatory midday stop for any self-respecting Rialto regular.’ I had a Spritz, a local neon-orange aperitif (Aperol & soda) and we felt a wave of accomplishment for reaching one of the ‘local haunts’ I had written down & finding it was actually true to form and we didn’t feel like tourists. We spent the rest of the day perched in various piazzas (avoiding San Marco), soaking up the sun and taking hundreds of photos.
So, taking the train around Italy is surprisingly cheap if you take the regional trains…it was EUR 8 to get from Venice to Verona…about 90 minutes. We stayed at B&B Filmonica in the centre of Verona, only a few minutes walk from the Arena, the second oldest coliseum outside of Rome. After the chaos of Venice, Verona was a welcome respite. It was quite easy to get out of the crowds, which were diminutive in comparison. We wanted to scope out an osteria that I’d written down, so we mapped our route along the river that runs through the city…our destination, Osteria al Carro Armato, wasn’t open yet, so we grabbed a pizza at a nearby place and made plans to return later that night. We saw a man walking a giant dog that looked like a panda.
Then, we continued along the river and Grant peed alongside it. He can’t hold it you see, he’s only got one kidney. That sounded a bit Muffy Mouse.
Anyways, we avoided the Juliet stuff, because it’s fictional anyways and none of cared much to rub her golden breast. We decided to walk around some more, stopping for drinks along the way, of course. I vowed to avoid beer as much as possible on this trip, but let’s face it, a warm glass of red wine on a hot day just isn’t the same. Why, though, was German beer on tap everywhere? I don’t think we came across one place that had Italian beer on tap!
…more to come