May 5, 2011
I set out on the path I took yesterday which led me straight to the train station. Today however, is a different day and inexplicably, I find myself on the Ponte Veccio, the next bridge over…
I’m not sure where I took the wrong turn, but I take the opportunity to take some photos of the goldsmiths’ shops while their windows are still encased in their medieval-esque wooden doors and shutters, including what appears to be a Chinese lock on one of the Florentine doors. The vendors are setting up in the logias and a few yards beyond them, I slow my pace to take in the fragrant blooms offered by a flower vendor. I stop for a lovely but brief breakfast at the Riviori, in the shadow of the Bargello Museum, and watch with amusement as a sparrow hops around the marble floor below my pink linen draped table. Cappuccino and cresta finished, I decide to head over to the Duomo to get my bearings back. My muscles are already lamenting the lack of protein at breakfast.
Apparently I can’t get there from here. Every turn takes me further off course and I have no sense of where I am, which baffles me completely. The first time I was here I couldn’t get lost if I tried, this trip I am nothing but lost. I finally make sense of my map and despite all odds, manage to arrive at the train station an hour early.
I scan the interior of the train station for a gelato stand but end up with a soft serve and a McMuffin. Fast food is bad no matter what country you are in. The Italians do not seem to eat protein early in the day and so far the only breakfast protein I’ve found has been wrapped in thick slices of focaccia. I go to the platform where my train is supposed to arrive, but after awhile, discover that the gate has changed. I make a mad dash for a train that is boarding, thankful that I didn’t get here early just to miss it for lack of double checking the schedule…
Travel from Firenze to Pisa is uneventful. I choose a seat near the schematic showing the stations so I wouldn’t stress out from not knowing the order of the stops. But that’s not a problem since Pisa is the end of the line. An older American gentleman sits down across from me and we make idle chit-chat as I try to write postcards, and he focuses on taking video with his camera phone.
The Pisa train station reminds me of the international concourse at SeaTac. The first thing I encounter is a group of Haitian men in an argument that is quickly clearing the concourse. I feel my bags being jostled every time I move, and swing them in front of me so they don’t get rifled through. Panic sets in as I realize that 12 minutes is not enough time to make my connection when I return. I stop by the customer service desk to resolve tickets that do not match my printed itinerary, and find that my return is a direct train from La Spezia to Firenze, with no connection in Pisa. Cool! I am happy in the knowledge that I will not have to pass through to this haven for the seedier side of humanity on my return trip.
I must say that the European train system puts US transit to shame, and makes Seattle’s bus and train station feel like someone’s back yard homework project. We have a lot to learn.
I find my seat in First Class, one of six comfy stuffed chairs in a glassed-in cabin, shared with an older gentleman and a young couple with their toddler. A toddler who quickly becomes fascinated with my netbook and mouse and starts screaming when his parents pull him away. I wrap up my document about 10 minutes later when it becomes obvious that working on my netbook is going to remain a problem, and resort to pen and paper for the duration of the trip.
Pisa’s landscape is quite different from Firenze, and I don’t recognize most of the trees and plants. Many homes have backyard gardens large enough to sustain their families. Even the modern buildings are built in the traditional Italian style, with stucco walls and red tile roofs. The mountains are short but rugged, and there appears to be old stone buildings or fortress walls on the top of some of them. Some of them are blanketed in white which may have been wildflowers. Freight cars are round-topped and look like large gypsy wagons. Red poppies grow wild. We pass several stone quarries, and large blocks of white marble line the side of the railroad tracks.
We reach La Spezia, the halfway point between Pisa and Genova. I catch glimpses of the sea between long expanses of tunnel. Further up the coast, the houses and mansions take on the water colored stucco so prevalent in Venice. There are date palms, and the beaches have turned from brown sand to rugged rock and breakwaters. It is incredibly beautiful and I am now really glad I chose this route.
We speed through one final tunnel and at last arrive in Genova, which more resembles Florence than I expected it to. The train station is beautiful, with its rococo ceiling and stained glass windows. After a few mis-starts and finally finding an English speaking travel agent to point me in the right direction, I set out to find tonight’s lodging.
I walk through a downtown shopping core that looks like Florence, with wide sidewalks covered with logias reminiscent of those that surround San Marco Piazza in Venice, except that these have neon signs suspended from the vaulting. I remind myself to stop and look up from time to time, reminding myself that this is as much about the journey as it is the destination.
I find the street almost by accident after Google directions fail. But I cannot find the building. I should have looked for a name and a doorbell rather than trying to rely on the building numbers (which are a complete scramble) and I end up walking past the unmarked and unobtrusive green door countless times. I try to call Maria, my concierge, but my phone card fails. It’s now 5:30 and I’m two hours late. I’ve asked at least 10 people where this address is, only to be waved off in the general direction of the street. Finally, on my last pass, I find a note taped to the door with Maria’s cell phone number. I make another call using pocket change instead of the calling card, and get right through. We agree to meet at 7 PM.
My feet are rebelling and I can barely walk. Dinner is a piece of cheese focaccia from the bakery to the left of the Green Door, and a delightful caffe violetta from Bar Pacini to the right, who advertises themselves as ‘L’Arte dell Expresso’. It tastes like a liquid candied violets. I could be in trouble if I stayed here longer than a day. The row of shops in this block includes three pastry shops, two espresso shops, and a Chinese restaurant.
While I am waiting for Marie, a young East Indian man takes a seat near me and offers me a cigarette. Uh-oh, here we go. But he is very nice and we have a lengthy albeit very broken-language chat. He’s lived in Italy for ten years cleaning houses, has a wife and two children, says he speaks Italian well, but English not so well. He asked me where I was from, and when I said the US, he said “America. Beautiful country. Hollywood.” More chatter, much of which I couldn’t understand, and after another fifteen minutes, he shook my hand and left. The conversation illustrated why Italians don’t understand me when I try to speak their language.
I’m so tired that I don’t even have the energy to find a decent dinner. I’m getting cold and starting to feel sorry for myself. My watch clicks over to 7 PM, the church bell peals 30 times and metal doors start rolling down over shop fronts. Marie shows up, and I wave to get her attention as she is looking for a woman with luggage. “Nope, that would not be me” I reply.
This building was a convent in the 14th century, and Maria demonstrates the acoustics by flicking on a light switch, which we can hear as it clicks on at the bottom floor. Mother Superior could always hear the front door.
She swings open the heavy green door and closes it behind me as I start to gasp. “Oh My WORD!” There’s a Marble Man standing in a grotto in the courtyard, and the customary but much more narrow wrought iron gate.
She says I’m clever not packing so much stuff as my room is at the top of the building. Every floor elicits another “Oh MY” and she starts to giggle. She apologizes that the rustic Chinese room I wanted is already occupied but she hopes to at least show it to me tomorrow. She shows me to the room I think is called Luna. I spend my first half hour there, just taking pictures.
This room is three times the size of the one I’m staying in in Firenze and includes a working kitchen, decorated with mirrors and handmade blue tiles. The bathroom — complete with the mosaic ship from the photo on their website — is the size of the main room and includes a full size bathtub, a rarity among European B&Bs.
The view from this room is the courtyard where the Marble Man lives, formed by four 14th century towers. Not the splashy view indicated on their website, but one which is much more quiet and sublime. I could easily take up residence here.
The lack of WIFI presents a problem with planning my day tomorrow. The web pages I saved to my netbook are corrupted, and I really wish I had printed this stuff out. A cursory look through this room hasn’t yielded a guidebook yet, so I plan to look for one tomorrow. Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a nice, hot bath…