If I was the type of person who believed in horoscopes, I would probably feel pretty validated by my own personality. Born in September, I am a Virgo, which apparently means I am an exacting, meticulous, and precise person who likes to plan things out and carefully examine the minutia of all my plans. And honestly, that does describe me fairly well. I am not a very impulsive person, I think things through for a long time; I don’t jump blindly into commitments, it tends to take me a long time to prepare for going on a trip or starting a new job. All of which made the events of the past few days such a surprise to me.
I’ve been living in Verona about a month and a half without traveling much outside of town, and I have been hoping to visit Florence and Venice before I leave. Unfortunately, I was being very slow about planning a trip. Neither city is very far, easily reachable in a couple hours by train, but I just hadn’t applied my Virgo mind to fine-tuning a jaunt over to these two cities and making sure everything was planned out.
After all, when I go on a trip I enjoy planning out the intricate details of the journey. I’m not a person who will regiment their day or anything like that, but I feel better having noted down train times and numbers, arranging ahead of time for where I’m going to stay, what I’m going to bring, how I’m going to move around, and so on. I’m leaving for Amsterdam on Monday, and while I already have my train and plane tickets printed out, I’m sure I’m going to write down information about my hostel, how to get there from the airport, what to bring, and what clothes to wear. It’s just the kind of traveler I am. That said, last Tuesday I decided to act very (or, you know, somewhat) spontaneously.
I had been looking at prices for train tickets to Florence for a couple of days, and for some reason I decided at around midnight on Tuesday to go online and check ticket prices again. Luckily, Trenitalia, the company that runs most of the trains in Italy, happened to be selling very cheap tickets to Florence that very night. While I had been finding prices of around 90 to 100 euros, I found tickets for a two-day trip that would cost me just over 60 euros. Even at this point, I was little unsure about what to do. I wanted to go see Florence, I didn’t have much to do this week, and I thought everything might be lining itself up perfectly. Obviously, I had to find a hostel before I could leave. After a quick Google search, I found a hostel in the center of town, not too expensive, and before I knew what happened I had booked a room for a night.
Wow. I was in shock with myself. Having just paid for a deposit on a room, I realized I kind of had to buy the train tickets now. No backing out. (…so this is what risk takers feel like!) I quickly bought my train ticket and started packing up my backpack. In twelve hours, I would be on a train to Florence.
The next morning Francesca, my wonderful host, drove me to the train station and me and my backpack got ourselves on a train, first to Bologna and then to Florence. For the middle of the day on a Wednesday, the trains were both packed. I expected to have more room, but by the time each train left, every seat around me had been filled. Luckily, unlike with an airplane, this was not a very uncomfortable situation. Both trains I was on had plenty of leg room, and I was only in an actual train for a little over two hours in total.
I enjoy riding in trains a lot, and perhaps the highlight of my trip was a small family seated across the aisle on my first train to Bologna. A husband and wife with their young son, maybe eight or nine years old, were playing some version of Pokemon Uno, but what was great was hearing them continuously switch between English and Italian without a problem. Growing up bilingual, I like the idea of raising children to know more than one language, and it was encouraging to see another family like mine. The son was able to talk in unaccented Italian and English and seemed to randomly switch between languages, which must have been what my brother and I were like when we were young as well. All in all, it was nice to see.
I arrived in Florence at around three in the afternoon and I stepped out of the train station into the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella, a church right next to the station. As I started walking towards my hostel, it was hard not to be struck by the general beauty of the city. Living in Verona, I constantly contrast the city with Morris and Moorhead and Minneapolis, and usually feel like I’m living in a much more historic and beautiful city (no offense Minnesota). Walking around Florence made me feel the same way about Verona. The amount of art simply lining the streets, existing in buildings, is simply amazing. The city really evokes the Renaissance in an unbelievable way. The feeling was only reinforced when I saw the Duomo for the first time.
To reach my hostel from the train station, I had to walk directly by the Duomo, or as it’s more properly called, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Leaving the station, you can see the peak of the Duomo over the skyline, so it doesn’t sneak up on you, but seeing the architecture, the beauty, and the artistry of it still blew me away. I had seen pictures and videos of it throughout various history classes and documentaries, but it’s impossible to communicate the majesty of such a building through representations. You really have to see it. The color, the artwork, and immensity of it. It really is a sight to behold. After staring at it awestruck for a few minutes, I finally managed to get on my way and reach my hostel.
Dun dun duhhhhn. Finally drama strikes! I arrive to the hostel, try to check in, and am politely asked for my passport, apparently a vital piece of identification for non residents hoping to stay in a hostel. Well, shit. Not only did I not know I needed such a piece of identification, I had actually specifically taken my passport out of my backpack for this trip. (…this is why you plan, David, this is why you don’t act impulsively…). So, I’m standing in the middle of Florence, with no idea how I’m going to find somewhere to sleep for the night, and the very real prospect of sleeping in a train station sneaking up on me.
Luckily, we live in the 21st century, and not the 16th century, and computers and fax machines are real things, not just crazy dreams Michelangelo has when he’s drank too much wine. I called up Francesca and asked her if she could scan or fax my identification information to the hostel. Luckily she was still in Verona and promised me that she would send it on its way in a couple of hours. God bless that woman. Apparently, this was a good enough guarantee for the man at the check in desk, who when I suggested that I would come back in a couple hours to check in seemed so bothered by the thought that he decided to give me keys to the hostel and room and send me on my way. First hurdle, overcome.
Now, armed with a map and a growing sense of pride in my wild adventurous side, I walked out of the hostel and into the Florentine afternoon. The first place I decided to visit was the furthest from the center of town, il Palazzo Pitti, so I thought it would be a good destination for my first day, considering that most of the day was already gone. Unfortunately, I only looked at the actual map part of the map (confusing, I know) and not the blurbs on the back which would have informed me that this was a “massive museum monstrosity” and that one should “have a heart to heart with your poor feet” before heading over. I think it was better not to know.
The palace itself was beautiful, there were two or three different art shows going on when I got there, and my ticket gave me entrance to two of them. One of my favorite parts of Italian “museums” is that they are often in very old artistic palaces, which leads to odd moments of walking through a room enjoying the art and casually looking up, only to realize that the mural on the ceiling and walls is as beautiful, if not more, than the actual art hung on the walls. I had a lot of those moments. The Pitti palace was an old home of the Medici, so I was able to see the throne room, bed rooms, and even a bathroom used by the family, along with the amazing detail of the artistry around the room.
I wont spend too much more time talking about the specific art, mostly because I’m unqualified to say anything other than, “Wow, I really like that” or “Hmm, the detail is very interesting on this one,” but also because I really didn’t think of myself as a fan of art until very recently (I should emphasize that I am really only talking about visual art, I’ve always liked music and literature). For some reason, partly through this trip, perhaps partly through growing up a bit, I’ve found a much better appreciation for art. Seeing these masterpieces up close and in person is completely different from seeing their representations. The detail and size and color is amazing (see, that’s really all I can say about them). As if it needs to be said, if you’re in Florence, check out the art.
Connected to the Palace, which took me over two hours to walk around in, are gigantic gardens which I subsequently decided to explore. Had I read my map, I would have known what I was in for. It took me about thirty minutes to walk from the entrance all the way to the other side of the gardens, where there was a beautiful fountain, and for some reason I then decided to take some smaller paths that were somehow all uphill to the other section of the property.
At the top of the hill was a fountain to Neptune that I sadly looked at for about a minute after damning my legs and feet and dragging myself back down a different series of paths and out the palace. All in all, a great place to visit, but I felt destroyed at the end. The palace was stuffy and it was about 36 degrees (97 to you yankees) with the sun beating down outside. Obviously, being the smart person I am, I left my water bottle at the hostel and started having serious doubts about my ability to make it back to the center of town without literally exhausting the liquids in my body.
After resting for about an hour at the hostel, I got up and headed out to find something to eat. Usually, I don’t mind traveling alone, it makes it easier to randomly do what you want and go where you feel when there isn’t a second or third person along with their “opinions” and “ideas,” but it does make it harder to enjoy yourself after a long day of traveling.
The hostel I was at didn’t have much of a communal area, and I didn’t see anyone else from the hostel until late that night, so I left alone and walked around looking for a place to eat. The map I had recommended a couple of places, but after reading through a few more of their suggestions I grew a bit more skeptical of their advice, as I’ll discuss more in a bit. Regardless, I found a nice Trattoria about a ten minute walk from my hostel and enjoyed some deliciously homemade pasta and polenta, before taking a long walk around town and up and down the Arno river, which divides the city in two.
I got back to my room at about eleven or so, I’m not really the type of person to go bar hopping by myself and settled in to read a bit from the book I had brought, 54 by Wu Ming. It’s a great novel, written by a group of five Italian authors, and I was really getting into it when my roommate came back. I hadn’t met him up to this point, but as he walked in I introduced himself and we got to talking a bit about traveling. He seemed like a really nice guy, and my god had he been everywhere.
He was currently on an Italian trip going from Roma to Pisa to Florence to Milan to Venezia, before he was headed off somewhere to work at some kind of job. I didn’t get much information about what he did, but he clearly made a good amount of money for the trips he was taking, but the funniest part about him was his complete dislike for almost everywhere he had been. He named probably between twenty and thirty different European cities, but emphasized that he really only like Paris, London, Barcelona, and now Florence.
Everything else was just average, nothing to get excited about, as he repeated over and over. He was an Asian guy, originally from Chicago who spoke fluent Spanish, but it was unclear where he lived now or what he was doing. Right before he went to sleep he got a call offering him a job in downtown Detroit, which he gently declined, before laughing and comparing Detroit to Florence. Admittedly quite a difference. But he was really nice, and apart from an uncomfortable second where he got really racist about African-Americans (I decided midnight in a hostel in Florence wasn’t the right time to work on breaking down his racial stereotypes), he was a great roommate. Definitely a good first experience sleeping in a hostel.
I’m not really sure how this happened, but I ended up writing over five thousand words about a day and a half trip, so to keep this under control I’ve split it into two parts. Half up today, half up tomorrow.