“Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” Part Two
13 minute read
Previously in Part One of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” – An intro featuring a cannibal, being nervous, getting to the airport, meeting a stern check in lady, meeting an over-sized bag attendant (seriously), flying, arriving, being confused, no longer being confused, taking the hard option, ignoring the easy option, almost catching a ghost train, and then getting on a normal train.
DAY ONE – continued…
I’d read somewhere that the train journey from Pisa to Florence takes just over an hour, and so precisely one hour after I’d boarded the train I suddenly put myself on alert.
A few minutes later the train arrived at a new station and began to slow down. Looking through the window I could see a sign that read Firenze. This had to be the right station, didn’t it? But something inside me screamed out that this wasn’t right.
Call it a gut feeling.
I have no idea why I felt this way as I’d never been to Florence before, but my instincts told me to stay on board the train. Even if I turned out to be wrong, it’s no big deal is it? I could always get back on another train and come back. It’s only me that I’m taking care of after all.
But just as I sat back with one of those I’m-nervous-but-don’t-want-to-show-it smiles on my face, a sweet young Japanese girl appeared in front of me brandishing a map.
“Excuse me.” She said in a very timid voice.
“Hello.” I responded.
Smiling, she asked me a question. “Hello. Is this the station for Florence?”
Oh, what! Okay so just a moment ago I felt somewhat-nervous-but-not-showing-it as all I was doing was taking care of yours truly, but now I had a sweet young lady asking for my help and I had no idea what the correct answer was. This was too much responsibility for a young man, well, not so young man, to take!
I had to make a decision, I had to take charge of this situation, and what she really needed was to see some confidence. Pushing out my chest and deepening my voice, I then smiled and put up my hand in a STOP gesture and confidently declared, “NO.”
She seemed convinced by this confidently expressed two letter word, but her initial look of being impressed was suddenly replaced with an expression that silently asked, well where the hell do I need to go then?
I picked up on this confused vibe and before she even had chance to ask I’d already stated that the correct train station would be coming up next. She beamed me a huge smile, said thank you, and then sat down a couple of seats away from me.
Once I was happy that she couldn’t see my face, my expression changed from saying trust-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing, to what-the-hell-have-I-done-I’m-dragging-somebody-else-down-with-me. I was taking a huge gamble here, but to make things worse I wasn’t just gambling on my own stakes, because I’d now just doubled-down and was threatening to ruin the lady that had just backed me.
For the next five minutes I sat there feeling nervous and worrying that I’d done wrong by both of us. But each time the Japanese lady turned to face me for reassurance, I responded with the expression that required both lips to be pressed together, slightly pouted, while one eye closes. And then I gave a gentle nod of the head and a thumbs-up. It was an expression that said, trust me.
I tried to be cool. I tried to be like The Fonz.
And I have no idea if I succeeded.
Five minutes later the train started to slow down and we began to pull into another station. This was it, the moment of truth! This is the where I turn my cards over to see whether I’ve won the hand, or, well, whether I’ve ruined both my day and that of the young Japanese lady.
I pounced at the window looking for the station sign, waiting like a dog waits for his master to return home from work. And sure enough, there it appeared in big bold letters.
We’d made it!
As I left the train and made my way onto the platform, I stood for a moment while I pulled on my backpack and adjusted the straps. I looked up and saw the young lady appear in the doorway, her eyes scanning the crowd. And then she saw me, smiled, and gave me a big thumbs-up. I smiled back in her direction and held up my thumb, and then I turned and walked away, losing myself inside the bustling crowd of the Santa Maria Novella.
Despite somehow managing to exit the station on completely the wrong side and then walking in completely the opposite direction to where I needed to be going, I soon got myself re-orientated. And sure enough, fifteen minutes later I found myself walking along Via de’ Cerretani and then onto Piazza S. Giovanni where the unmistakable sight of Florence’s famed Duomo suddenly came into view.
And this really was one of those genuine jaw-dropping moments.
This incredible cathedral along with its imposing orange-bricked dome is something to behold, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. Its sheer size is staggering, but set amongst the surrounding buildings that were much smaller in comparison, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore looks like a giant walking in amongst a crowd of vertically-challenged people.
In fact it somehow reminded me of that moment in the movie Independence Day when the first alien craft appears through the clouds, leaving the residents of New York stood around looking bewildered while the vast city suddenly appears to look like nothing more than a toy landscape.
And being the nerd that I am, what really hit me was the realisation that the construction of this beautiful place began way back in the 13th century when there was no electricity, no computer software, and no industrial machinery like we have today; it’s a true feat. To the inquisitive mind of an architectural geek, Florence’s duomo is like engineering porn.
At the western end of the cathedral lies Giotto’s campanile; an incredible freestanding bell tower which stands at almost 85 metres tall. And speaking of being a geek, as I cast my eyes over this beautiful gothic monument, I couldn’t help but think of Ezio from the videogame Assassin’s Creed 2 diving off the very top and landing in a horse cart full of hay. Yes? No? Okay, so one half of my readers will currently be giving me a little nod of recognition whereas the other half will be rolling the eyes into the back of their heads and wondering what the hell I’m talking about. For the latter, well I’m not going to explain it to you as it’s your fault for not being as cool as me or my fellow Assassin’s Creed brethren.
On the short walk to my hotel I had a nagging feeling. Something was gnawing away at my mind. And it wasn’t until I’d checked in at the Hotel Colomba and was sat on the bed and resting my head against the headboard when it finally hit me.
I leaned forward and pulled the hip flask from my backpack, and then taking a sip of whisky I settled back once again. I was smiling as my eyes slowly scanned the room, taking in all the little details and then giving myself time to settle into the mindset that I was right here, right now, sat on a bed in a hotel room in Florence. I wasn’t at work, I wasn’t at home, I wasn’t with friends, and I wasn’t obliged to be doing anything other than being here. I was one hundred percent present and in the moment.
This feeling first came to me as I’d been stood opposite the duomo, leaning back against the metal railings outside the baptistery. I’d become so captivated by the beautiful architecture and my mind had been so completely focussed upon its finest details that thoughts of anything else had been completely drained from me.
Back at home I am often so distracted thinking about other things that I need to be doing and of events that are yet to even happen, and I often forget to appreciate what I have right there and then. We try to multi-task and we try to do too much, then stress creeps in, anxiety takes hold, and our minds turn to mush. It’s like a barrier comes up around us and blurs our view of the world.
It’s crazy when you think about it, because all we ever really have is the present, and every moment needs to be appreciated for exactly what it is. Action can only ever be taken in the moment; not in the future, not in the past, but right now, right here. When we’re able to focus purely on the moment, our breathing steadies, time slows down, the barrier around us drops, and all of the world’s most beautiful and intricate details find their way into our lives.
The evening had arrived and darkness had fallen, and walking through the streets of Florence I enjoyed the sound of my shoes clicking on the surface of the pavement. It appeared that there had been some light rainfall while I’d been getting ready for the evening and now the orange glow from the street lights reflected back up off the ground. The streets felt cosy and I wandered along slowly, taking in the atmosphere while also keeping an eye out for a good place to eat.
I looked down a narrow street to my right and spotted a beautifully lit outdoor restaurant and so I turned and headed towards it. The menu looked delightful, and before I knew it one of the members of staff had approached and then whisked me over to a small table in the centre of the restaurant.
One of my least favourite aspects of solo travel is eating alone in the evenings. During the day it isn’t as bad as it’s much less formal, but in the evening when most people are out with their families, with friends, or with their partners, it stings a little to be without company. And here I found myself, sat completely alone in the centre of a beautiful restaurant, feeling the eyes of everybody else upon me. Or maybe that was just a little self-consciousness creeping in.
But I didn’t let it bother me as I sat there with my legs crossed, my back straight, and trying my best to demonstrate a confident, really-don’t-care-what-anybody-thinks, posture. Whenever I travel anywhere with a backpack I normally tend to travel with casual clothes only, but for Florence I’d decided to up my game. My evenings in this beautiful city wouldn’t see any trainers, or shorts, or flip-flops; but instead they’d see me in a pair of nicely fitted jeans, tailored shirts, and a brand new pair of formal shoes. I was feeling good, and my choice of evening wear helped my self-conscious anxieties to slip away.
The waiter came to greet me and I ordered myself a fine Chianti, minus the fava beans (my first hat tip to Hannibal). And as I sat there sipping this beautiful wine, I looked around me and starting taking everything in; the food, the drinks, the smiles, the laughter, the people who were clearly in love, and the people who clearly were not. And then I spotted people within the larger groups who were sat with their heads down, looking at their phones, lost in another world and oblivious to all their dinner partners sat around them; and I realised that in this moment, those people were far more alone than I was.
When the waiter returned to ask for my order I decided to try something that I wouldn’t find so easily back home; dark truffle.
A short while later my dinner arrived. It was a tagliatelle dish, cooked to perfection with a creamy sauce and dark truffle shavings. As I put the first piece into my mouth I closed my eyes and sank back into my chair, savouring how incredible these velvety pieces of fungi tasted. I had to remind myself that I was out in public because I was on the brink of committing a When Harry Met Sally moment.
But then I realised that to make a loud and expressive orgasm-like moan when sat alone would be a little bit weird. When in company, well that could be laughed off and explained away, but when sat alone in public it could only really head one way; with a possible arrest, deportation, and a lifetime ban from ever visiting Italy again.
Throughout dinner I’d noticed a couple of flashes of light out of the corner of my eye and began to wonder if I was imagining it. But a short while later there was another flash followed by a loud and menacing crack that tore through the dark evening sky. The tarpaulin above me began to flutter and then before I knew it the heavens opened and rain began to fall heavily from the sky.
I’d not seen rain like this for a long time and it quickly became torrential. The waiters ran around, rolling the plastic coverings down the sides of the restaurant area to shield us from the rain, and the packed restaurant became more and more animated, cheering and clapping the waiters as they ran around outside gathering up items before they got ruined.
As lightening continued to shred the sky, the beautiful buildings of Florence were momentarily illuminated by the bright and dramatic flashes before disappearing into the darkness once more. It was like being in a movie and the thunder struck so deeply that I could feel it in my chest.
Flash, crack, flash, crack.
The rain became more violent and the cycle of thunder and lightning got more and more frequent, and there was an air of excitement and nervousness spreading throughout the restaurant. The adrenaline was beginning to pump and people were laughing nervously, but throughout the restaurant there was camaraderie flowing from table to table which wasn’t there before. It’s amazing how quickly people are drawn together when the right circumstances come along.
But no sooner had the intensity of the storm arrived that it then started to move away from us. The rain began to steady itself, the wind dropped, and the flashes of lightning and the rumbles of thunder became less frequent.
After finishing my espresso and paying my bill, I stepped to the doorway of the restaurant, opened my umbrella, and stepped out into the darkness once more.
Walking back to my hotel through the streets of Florence, I felt an inner contentment that was accompanied by the wine, the pasta, and a nice dose of caffeine.
Once again I found myself stood in front of the duomo, gazing at its vast beauty while the falling rain continued to tap, tap, tap on the top of my umbrella. The lightning tore through the sky at just the right moment, illuminating the cathedral walls and the bright orange dome.
I smiled and turned, and then I continued back towards my hotel.
I climbed into bed and my mind began to replay the events of what had been a truly memorable day. And as I pulled the bed sheets up around me and leaned over and switched off the light, I knew that this was going to be a good trip.
But four hours later, at 3am, I began to think differently.
I’d woken up feeling a little bit nauseas, but then as I ran my tongue over my dry lips I knew that something wasn’t right. My upper lip felt fine, but as I ran my tongue over my bottom lip I gasped heavily and sat up in a panic.
What the hell was going on!
Once again I ran my tongue over my bottom lip, hoping that I’d been half asleep and had dreamt it. But no, there it was, and what I can only describe as a marble-sized lump in my bottom lip!
I pounced out of bed and stumbled towards the bathroom, and then switching on the lights I rubbed my blurry eyes and waited for them to adjust to the light. I looked into the mirror and surely enough, there it was; a lip that was so swollen that it protruded from my face in such a way that it looked like Bubba Gump staring back at me.
My heart pounded and I began to panic. No, no, no, please don’t let me get ill on my very first night. I’ve had such a wonderful evening and I have so much to look forward to, please don’t let this happen to me. Please!
They were the prayers that were going around in my head.
But what had caused this? It had to be an allergic reaction, but what did I eat or drink today that was so different? My mind flittered back over the day and I was at a loss, but then it hit me. The truffle! It had to be the truffle. And after carrying out a quick Google search for truffle allergy symptoms, my suspicions were all but confirmed. After 39 allergy-free years (except for a touch of hayfever) I’d finally found something that my body hadn’t taken to.
I had thoughts of Will Smith in the movie Hitch when he has the allergic reaction to shellfish and his entire face swelled up. And then I had images of The Elephant Man coming to the front of my mind. And finally I got thinking of the movie Scanners where people’s heads would spontaneously combust.
Telling myself not to panic, I sat down on the step that led up to the bathroom and held my lip in my hand. It was huge. It was monstrous. I started to think I’d have to buy a bag and put it over my head so that I wouldn’t offend the Florentines with my offensively large lower lip. Or then again, maybe I could buy a bandana, fold it into a triangle, and then tie it around my face so that only my eyes showed. Yes, that’s it! I’d look like a really cool ninja. Or like an anarchist. Or like Ezio from Assassin’s Creed 2. I could live out my videogame fantasy after all, and maybe I could climb up the campanile and jump off and land into a big stack of hay.
Okay so maybe I got a little bit carried away, but it eased my panic for a moment if nothing else.
I held a flannel under the cold tap and then applied it to my lip, hoping the coolness would help the swelling subside. But fifteen minutes later it was still no better.
I couldn’t think what to do, but then out of nowhere I had an idea. I dropped the wet flannel to floor which made a loud plopping noise, and then I dashed over to my backpack. Searching frantically through my belongings I then breathed a sigh of relief as I felt the small blister packet in my hand.
I mentioned before that I occasionally get the odd bout of hayfever, and as if by some small miracle I’d left a packet of Clarityn in my bag. I popped two tablets into my mouth, swallowed them down with a big chug of water, and then I climbed into bed, switched out the light, and pleaded silently that the tablets would help the swelling go down.
What the hell would I be faced with come morning?
Click here to read Part Three of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)”
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