“Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” Part Five
13 minute read
Previously in Part Four of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” – the definition of genius, feeling totally underwhelmed by the Uffizi, nipple tweaking and dance routines, catching random train under completely spontaneous circumstances, wandering, visiting the leaning tower, the leaning tower really does lean, wow it’s amazing just how much it leans, getting annoyed at leaning tower non-selfie selfies, annoying American tourists, returning to Florence, buying some spectacular new cologne (oooh lovely), going out for dinner, finding company, discussing the zombie apocalypse, the zombie apocalypse is important conversation, look the zombie apocalypse will happen, visiting the boar, having a moment
DAY FOUR – SATURDAY
It was my final day in Florence and my intention was to take in one last landmark from Hannibal. I’d already indulged in the spectacular sight of the Palazzo Vecchio from the outside, but now it was time to head inside to take a proper look around.
“All tickets are sold out for today sir.”
Those weren’t the words I was expecting to hear.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Do you not have anything at all? Just for one person? It’s just me.”
The man behind the ticket desk reasserted the position.
“We’re completely sold out.”
He could see the disappointment in my eyes.
“It is Saturday after all.” He added, in a way that made me feel quite stupid.
My persuasive smile faded.
“Well thank you very much for pointing out the bloody obvious and thank you a bunch for saying it with such a condescending tone you arrogant dick!” …is what I wanted to say, but what I actually said was “thank you very much.”
Stepping out of the Palazzo Vecchio I realised that I had totally shot myself in the foot by not pre-booking a ticket the day before. Maybe I had been naive, but up until today I’d been able to buy tickets and gain access to every attraction without any issues at all. But of course, the man was right; it was Saturday.
As I stood on the steps looking out over the Piazza della Signoria it was easy to see that the weekend really brought the tourists in. It was packed.
My plans had been completely scuppered and I now had to think on my feet. What was I going to do with my day? Wherever I go I’m going to struggle for tickets. Wherever I go I’m going to be surrounded by people. I needed a Plan B.
And then it came to me. On Thursday I’d indulged in all things touristy in Florence and on Friday I’d had an adventure out of the city and over to Pisa. So today, my final day, I live like a local; or as local as I can be for one day.
I started walking away from the centre of Florence and felt invigorated as the city began to disappear further and further behind me. But where was I supposed to go? I had no plan, no idea, no clue whatsoever; I was going to have to just wing it.
I found myself back at the river Arno and then decided to follow the river wall and to see where it would take me. I began heading east and just a short while later there was an opening in the wall which led me down a grassy embankment towards the river.
And it was here where I found a cosy piece of grass directly underneath an overhanging tree. I sat down and leant back against the trunk and looked out over the river. Canoeists passed by at a casual pace and further in the distance there were groups of rowers practicing their sculls racing. The sun shimmered across the rippling surface of the river, and then I closed my eyes and felt myself starting to drift off to sleep.
I have no idea if I actually fell asleep or not, but by the time I opened my eyes there were a group of ducks gathered about twenty feet away from me. About two thirds of them were paddling about while the remaining third stood in a line along the edge of the river, bathing in the water. Birds swooped down from above and landed on the embankment, and then they hopped down to the water to take small sips and to clean their feathers.
The scene was incredibly relaxing and it was hard to believe that I was just a few hundred meters away from the centre of Florence which was currently thronged with people.
I eventually dragged myself away from this serene little spot and made my way over to the park. I bought a double-espresso from a small cabin that was nestled in amongst the trees and then sat down at a small table to enjoy a much-appreciated caffeine break.
I sat sipping on a wonderfully rich espresso as I listened to the birds singing their beautiful songs. The late morning sun shone through bright autumn leaves which began to fall steadily from the trees like a light winter snow. It was a picture perfect scene and in this moment it felt like time had slowed down for me.
I really didn’t want to move.
The next couple of hours saw me continuing to wander streets that I’d not yet ventured down. I moved at an incredibly steady pace and tried to take everything in, to connect with the area, and to feel what the place was all about.
It was a really rewarding feeling to just walk in amongst the neighbourhoods with no real fixed agenda and to simply observe.
I eventually made my way back to the centre and sat at a table outside of a little pizzeria called Little David. Located about fifty metres away from the duomo, Little David promised ample opportunity for people watching, and so once again I decided to just sit back, observe, and to see what the afternoon would bring.
It’s amazing how so often we can let the world pass us by without ever really paying attention to the people that surround us. This is true at home, but it can be even more so when we’re away from home where it’s easy to just see other cultures as being so very different to our own. But the more you observe people in those other cultures; their words and their actions, their habits and their mannerisms; you will find that we’re really not all that different.
And as I sat outside Little David looking at the different nationalities that surrounded me, dressing differently and having different cultures to that of my own, it’s clear to see that we actually have so much in common, especially with our needs and desires.
We all want to love and to be loved. We want a place where we feel we belong, and something to belong to. We feel love, pain, and we are fearful of the very same things. We get so involved with our own lives and are so swept up in ourselves that we often stop to think that all of those around us are individuals too, just like us.
And the other people outside Little David will turn around and see me and to them I’m just another guy in the place; a man with a beard and wearing glasses, a man just sat drinking a beer, enjoying his own company. And they have their own lives, their own past, their own successes and failures, and they’ve had their very own heart-warming moments and their own heartbreaks too. I’m just a guy in the background to them, just as they are to me.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this and that there is so much more to the world than ourselves. The world and the people in it are bigger than you and I. Each and every person has a past, a present, and a future. It is not all about you. It is not all about me. It’s about every single one of us.
We all count.
An Italian couple were sat next to me and I had absolutely no idea what they were saying to each other. In the distance I could hear a violinist begin to play Hallelujah.
The Italian couple continued to speak and I continued to think about the song that the violinist was playing. For me, Hallelujah conjures up thoughts associated more prominently with Jeff Buckley rather than Leonard Cohen, and the violinist was playing it beautifully.
And then as I continued to hear the conversation that I couldn’t understand, I hear two things that I am familiar with. They both utter the word Hallelujah and then as the Italian guy rubs his grey beard, thinking, he then smiles, looks at his wife, points, and then says Jeff Buckley.
We are not so dissimilar.
There is so much to learn from travelling. We go places and we see things that are not as good as back at home and for that we must appreciate the things that we have. The flipside is that we also see things that are better than back at home and for that we must absolutely question our lives. If we don’t travel then it’s easy to become ignorant and to believe that what we have and what we believe is what everybody else should have and believe. And that’s where problems begin. We need to open our minds and our hearts and be willing to accept that we don’t have the right answers to everything and that we can use this realisation to become better, whether that’s as an entire nation, or culture, or purely as an individual.
In my humble opinion there are two main points associated with travel. The first is to achieve a sense of gratitude for the lives that we live and for the lives that we don’t have to live. The second is to be inspired to aspire. Travel can help motivate us to become more than we ever were and to be everything that we ever dreamed of being. The two go hand in hand; be grateful, and then use that gratitude to make life happen.
For example, and speaking as a man from England, we need to rethink our attitudes towards the elderly. We often gratify the young who have not yet lived, and we shun the elderly as though they’re dirty little secrets that are to be swept under the rug. Yet in Asia you will see that the elderly are revered and that the younger generations have to earn respect and their place in society.
I wrote an article on this subject not too long ago (check this article – The Young, The Old, and The Easy Tiger) where I choose my own conclusion, and that is to respect both. The young are the future, yet they need to respect the long lives of the elderly and to learn from them. Equally, the elderly need to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the young, because what’s the point in having lived and learnt if you’re not going to pass any of that on?
And with the Florentines, if a place leaves you wanting to look your best, to take a pride in your appearance, and to savour good food and drink and to enjoy long conversations without rushing or being distracted by thoughts of what you’re doing tomorrow or where you need to be next, how can that be anything but a good thing?
I was really beginning to fall in love with the slower pace of life where nothing felt rushed. Food and drink was being served steadily, and to ever become drunk and to act foolishly as a result of that (which sadly is something that is so often associated with us British) would feel so out of place here, and I loved that.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I will return to Florence one day, but there are two things that I will be sure of. The first is that I would avoid the summer months; October is just hot enough. And the second is that I would come during the week so as to avoid the big crowds of the weekend. I still need to see inside the Palazzo Vecchio, and I never got to see the statue of David either.
The afternoon was passing by and I decided to continue the theme of the day by wandering into a little bar so that I could have a beer and watch football.
The bar was small and ‘local’ enough to not feel like a tourist place, yet I was still within a stone’s throw of the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. I sat at the bar and steadily chugged a glass of beer while three older Italian guys stood by watching the football. The lady at the bar engaged me in casual conversation and we all made the occasional comment about the match.
One beer became two, and two became three; and then I suddenly felt it would be a good idea to make a return to the Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella. Only this time when I walked in I didn’t feel in the least bit intimidated and I actually felt quite at home there.
One of the ladies behind the counter recognised me from the day before and smiled, to which I responded with a friendly nod.
“Good afternoon sir, may I help you?”
I glanced down at the glass counter for a moment yet I knew exactly what I wanted to buy, and once again it was another nod to the movie Hannibal.
“Good afternoon. Yes I’m hoping that you can help me.” I looked up and then smiled at the lady. “Do you have any almond hand cream?”
I made my way back towards the hotel and dropped my bag off, and then I set off once again and ventured across the city to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The sun was beginning to set as I arrived and there were dozens and dozens of people sitting down on the steps to enjoy the view.
Continuing past the crowds I found myself a position to sit on the front wall, and then I bedded down and prepared my camera in readiness for the golden hour. The view was spectacular and I could see the duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, and the sun shimmering along the surface of the River Arno. I felt truly lucky to be here in this moment. It was divine.
As the sun began to melt into the horizon and the late afternoon succumbed to a beautiful orange haze, the spectacular roof of the duomo glowed vibrantly. It was a stunning view to witness from this distance. My muscles relaxed, my shoulders eased, and I took long and deep breaths as the sun gifted us with a deep and penetrating warmth.
As is often the case in special moments like this, I suddenly became aware that I needed to cherish every second of this experience. It was one of those rare moments in life where it felt as though it had been handed to me as a gift.
I was grateful to receive it, and I have never forgotten it.
That evening I returned to the restaurant where I’d met Mark and Alison the night before, and as I lifted a glass of red wine to my lips I could smell the almond hand cream that I’d bought that afternoon.
I thought back to the storm of that very first night and it felt like that happened a lifetime ago. I’d only been here four days yet it had felt like I’d experienced so much, and what had at first felt unfamiliar upon my arrival had now become the familiar.
I looked around me and took in the beauty of my surroundings and I knew how much I would miss this place. Florence had been every bit as majestic and alluring as I imagined it would be. I’d fallen for it.
After settling my bill I wandered steadily through the city before finding myself stood once again in front of the porcellino fountain. I focussed on the eyes of the boar while I cupped my hands underneath its mouth, and as the cool water filtered between my fingers I felt an overwhelming sense of calm wash over me.
Life had been pretty chaotic on the build up to this trip and some time had passed since I’d last had the chance for some real quality downtime without any company other than my own.
At times like this when I’ve had chance to cleanse myself of stress and distraction, I find the type of clarity that is almost impossible to find in the topsy-turvy nature of everyday life. We often find ourselves talking about detoxifying our bodies to cleanse it of impurities, but the same can be said for the mind. And just like when we throw bad foods and too much alcohol into our bodies and we suffer as a result of this through weight gain, disease, and the inability to perform at our highest levels, the mind can suffer in the same way if we treat it just as badly.
I have no idea how long I stood in front of the boar, but when I finally moved my hands away and rubbed its snout, I felt invigorated. I knew what I needed to do with my life, and I knew what I didn’t need to be doing.
Walking back towards the Piazza della Signoria I felt like a new man. Although I knew that I’d miss Florence I also felt raring to get home so that I could start work on implementing all the clarity that I’d managed to attain. My chest was out, my shoulders were back, and my head was held high.
As I stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio I was smiling, and then I looked up at the infamous window and balcony.
Bowels in or bowels out?
And for just one moment I imagined that I could see the face of Hannibal Lecter standing back in the shadows and looking down at me. At this point in the movie he was about to lose his freedom, but in so many ways I felt like I was about to gain mine.
Quid Pro Quo Clarice.
I took another look around me and then returned my gaze back towards the balcony. The imaginary face was now gone. I held one hand up and then whispered three words.
“Goodbye Dr Lecter.”
The sun streamed in through the blinds and across the white bed linens as I lay in bed the following morning. I needed to get up and pack my bags soon but I decided to treat myself to snooze for five more minutes.
Two minutes later I started to feel a bizarre rocking sensation through my entire body. Was I ill? Was I about to pass out?
But then I realised that it was the bed itself that was rocking and then I rolled over onto my back and sat up.
The blinds were swaying within the window frame and then I looked across the room and could see my clothes gently swinging backwards and forwards inside the open wardrobe. Was this what I thought it was?
It was the strangest of sensations which lasted for what felt like thirty or so seconds. And then it began to halt and then came to a complete stop.
After I’d showered and wandered back into the bedroom I heard a BBC news alert ping through on my phone. Sure enough it was confirmed that there’d been an earthquake measuring 6.6 near Norcia in Central Italy.
Thankfully at the time there were no reports of casualties, but there’s no doubt that it was the most surreal way to end my time in Florence.
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