“Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” Part One
12 minute read
It all began with a cannibalistic serial killer.
And yes, I really am that odd. Because for most people when they think of Florence, Italy; the first image that may come to mind is the vibrant roof of the Duomo that dominates the city’s skyline, or maybe it’s a romantic snapshot of sunset at the famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. But for me, it was all about those famous words that were spoken so calmly into the ear of one unfortunate man named Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi.
“So what’s it to be; bowels in or bowels out?”
Following one swift deep slash to his lower abdomen, Inspector Pazzi is pushed from the window of the Palazzo Vecchio, hands bound, with a noose around his neck. Following a violent jerk of the rope as it reaches its tension point, Pazzi’s intestines exit his body through the gaping wound and fall onto the cold hard ground below in one grotesquely bloody mess.
At this point in the story there may be a portion of readers who have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m talking about. Come on people, get with the programme. I’m talking about that man who is as cultured as he is cold-blooded; the one and only Dr Hannibal Lecter. In the movie Hannibal (sequel to the classic; The Silence of the Lambs), our favourite cannibal is at large in the city of Florence living a relatively free life, despite still occupying a place on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
The victim of the iconic gut-hollowing sequence, Rinaldo Pazzi, had encountered Dr Hannibal Lecter early on in the movie. Dr Lecter is found working as the curator of the Capponi Library under the pseudonym, Dr Fell, but Inspector Pazzi begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. As he begins to put the pieces together regarding Dr Fell’s true identity, he attempts to have him captured and handed over in return for one seriously massive reward.
Call it a finder’s fee.
Needless to say, he fails, and Inspector Pazzi is left swinging above the Piazza della Signoria with, indeed, his bowels out. This spells the end of Dr Lecter’s anonymity once and for all, and at this point he has no choice but to flee Florence, for good.
Looking back at the times I watched that movie, I always remember feeling slightly deflated each and every time that the Florence-based scenes were over. The imagery and the atmosphere created within those scenes were always compelling to me, and from its initial release in 2001, Florence became a must-see destination. In fact, I needed to visit Florence that badly that it only took me 15 years to finally get off my backside and to actually go there.
Better late than never I guess.
DAY ONE – Wednesday
It was a crisp Wednesday morning in late October 2016 and I was stood in my bedroom preparing my backpack. I wandered over to my bedroom window and looked out into a dark, foggy Derbyshire morning and felt the onset of winter fast approaching. Earlier in the month I’d visited Zipworld in Wales with friends (check this article – Zipworld Velocity in Bethesda, Wales) and the weather had been glorious. But there’s no doubt that within the space of just two or three weeks, the temperature had dropped, the bad weather was returning, and I was in desperate need to get away and have an adventure.
No matter how many times I go away I always have the same nerves kick in when I’m at home and packing. Images flash through my mind of falling ill, getting lost, or being robbed; and I even have silly thoughts about whether or not I’m even cut out for solo travel anymore.
Part of me tells me to just stay home, put my feet up, and to binge watch on episodes of Dexter instead; but thankfully my adventurous nature then tells me to man the fuck up and to just get on with it.
It’s that damn comfort zone that is forever sucking you in and trying to keep you there.
I stepped back from the window, finished my packing, threw the bag onto my back, and then left the room and switched the light off behind me.
Two hours later and I was stood at the check-in desk at the airport feeling like a different person entirely. I was now full of enthusiasm and excitement, and I couldn’t wait to get the trip under way.
The way in which my attitude had made a complete u-turn summed up exactly why we have to break outside of that lovely, squishy, and altogether appealing location that is otherwise known as the comfort zone. Because when you do, you then become the driver of your own life journey, but while ever you remain inside of it, you’re simply a passenger.
Now did you notice how I only referred to the airport as ‘the airport’ and that I didn’t actually give out the name of the specific place? Well that’s because I’m about to have a damn good moan and I don’t quite know where I stand in terms in speaking in a less-than-positive tone about an international travel hub.
The last thing I want is for the airport police to turn up on my doorstep unannounced and to drag me away and throw me into an airport jail cell. Either that or adopting an alternative form of punishment by sitting me down and forcing me to watch back-to-back episodes of Geordie Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashian’s, or whatever that other steaming pile of horse shit is that has something to do with Essex.
Personally, I’d opt for jail time.
Anyway, back to my rant.
I don’t know what it is about me, but whenever I go away I always seem to get singled out for interrogation and/or some form of public scrutiny. I still wake up in cold sweats with memories of being questioned at Detroit airport, and from having been given a very personal body search in Amsterdam. On that particular occasion I felt like the immigration officer had gotten to know me on a very intimate level, and without even buying me dinner first.
But this latest debacle takes place within my own country and before I even get anywhere near the departure lounge. In fact, I’d only just arrived at the airport and had just found my way to the check-in desk where a rather stern looking young lady greeted me.
In order to avoid damaging any of the loose straps on my backpack I always enclose it within a separate holdall. For anybody that’s not familiar with these, the holdall is essentially like a large sack that you can slip the backpack inside of, and then you zip it up, lock it, and the entire backpack is then protected for the duration of the flight. But while this gives the bag a certain lumpy and rather odd appearance, it’s still just a bag, and it really doesn’t appear to be in any way threatening.
I plopped my backpack-cum-holdall onto the conveyor belt beside the check-in desk attendant.
“What is that?”
“It’s a bag.” I responded.
“And what’s inside of it?” She asked.
Her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and then she sighed.
“Your bag is over-sized.”
I looked at the bag that had just been checked-in before mine and which was approximately three times the size of my measly 35 litre backpack.
“But what about that one?” I asked, pointing.
“Your bag is over-sized. Please take it to the over-sized bags desk.”
“You have a desk for over-sized bags?” I asked inquisitively, but she ignored my question.
“Please take it sir. Next!”
I looked over my shoulder at the family behind me, and the Daddy bear of the group looked back at me and just shrugged. His bag was also three times the size of mine.
Making my way to the over-sized bag desk (yes, there really is such a place), I found a very bored looking gentleman who seemed just as confused as I was. Looking down at my bag, he said…
“This is the over-sized bag desk, sir.”
“Yes, I know” I dropped my bag onto the conveyor next to him. “Apparently this bag falls within that category.”
We both stood looking at the small and misshapen bag, and I think both of us felt rather put out by the whole situation.
“Okay, well, what’s inside the bag?” He asked.
This felt like déjà vu.
“Another bag.” I responded. Again.
“Can you open it for me, please sir.”
I unzipped the holdall and pulled out the 35 litre backpack and stood it up.
“There she is.” I said proudly.
“And what is inside the backpack?”
“The usual things. Clothes, toiletries, book…”
But before I even got chance to answer he pointed at the side pocket.
“What’s in there?”
“I’m really not sure. I think maybe it’s…”
But he cut me off abruptly.
“Open it please.”
I opened up the side pocket and he started fishing through the contents. A tube of toothpaste and a comb fell to the floor, and then before I even got chance to pick them up he pointed to the other side pocket.
“And what’s in that one?”
“I’m really not sure about that one either. I think maybe it’s…”
“Open it please.”
Once again I obliged and opened the side pocket and stood back as he rifled his way through my personal effects. This really was starting to feel quite intrusive and rather unnecessary. I mean, what purpose did this serve if the only issue was that my bag was supposedly over-sized?
He then pointed to the main section of my bag.
“And what’s in there?”
I was starting to get a little annoyed but realised that if I were ever to make it to Florence then I had no choice but to go along with this farce. I took a deep breath.
“Well like I said before, the usual things. Clothes, toiletries…”
“Open it please.”
I unclipped the fasteners and then loosened the drawstring top, opening up the main compartment to reveal clothes, a toiletry bag, books, and a spare pair of shoes, all packed in perfect precision. And anybody reading this right now who knows about the complexities of packing light and making every inch of your bag count will understand how deflated I felt when he asked me to start unpacking everything.
“Is this absolutely necessary?” I asked through gritted teeth.
Pointing specifically at the toiletries bag he insisted that I take it out and open it. I complied, again, and then after fishing his annoying little hands through my dental floss, moisturiser, cotton buds, and a pot of hair wax, he then seemed to get bored and moved his attention to the main compartment of my backpack.
As he started dipping his hands inside my backpack, his expression changed completely. It seemed he’d found something that had aroused his suspicious mind and which had made this whole debacle seem justified. As he pulled his hand slowly from the backpack he held aloft a bright and shiny object in his hands. He had a look of disapproval on his face.
“What is this?” He asked.
I don’t know how this had happened, but in this moment he made me feel like I was a naughty little school boy that had just been caught doing something he shouldn’t have done. Was I about to get sent to the naughty corner? Was I going to get detention? My head hung as I responded.
“It’s my hip flask.”
“And what is in it?”
“Whisky.” I said quietly.
He didn’t say a word, instead he just looked at me in a way that reminded me of those times as a child when your parents would utter those few words that we all hated to hear. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.
He returned the hip-flask to my bag and then asked me to put everything away, and after returning everything to its rightful place, he took the bag from me and sent it on its way to the plane.
“Have a nice day sir.” He concluded.
And in that split second our interaction was over. Had I done something wrong? Did a hip flask full of whisky somehow taint my character? I walked away from the over-sized bag desk with my shoulders slumped from the weight of the experience that was now sitting heavily upon me.
And for the record, my bag was definitely not over-sized.
A slightly overcast sky awaited as the plane began its descent along the Italian coastline towards Pisa. My nerves began to kick in for a second time and were greeted by the excitement that already sat within my body. The two mixed together and began to party like it was 1999; one moment I was bouncing with excitement, the next I was sick with nerves.
Will my bag be there when I get to the airport? How do I get to Florence? How do I know when I’m there? How do I find the connecting bus or train? Where do I buy a ticket?
It’s always the same things that bother me wherever I go, but somehow these anxieties become tenfold when you travel alone. There is nobody else to share the responsibilities with and everything is upon you, and that is exactly why I always link travel with personal development. It forces you to step into the unknown and into a position where you have no choice but to rise to the challenge; to sink or swim if you may. There’s not even anybody there to cheer you on or to give you the push that you need. It’s all on you. It’s complete self-reliance.
Thankfully my bag was awaiting my arrival in Pisa airport, and I unzipped the holdall and removed my (not over-sized) backpack. I adjusted the straps, took a deep breath, and stepped out of the airport.
Looking around in confusion I had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to go. I then decided to take a little walk around to get my bearings, but despite spotting a couple of bus stops I still had no idea what I was supposed to do.
Returning to the arrivals lounge I took another deep breath and retraced my steps inside. I saw a small queue forming at a window which appeared to suggest that it sold bus and train tickets. Positioning myself within the queue I decided to stand there and listen, and by doing this I was able to pick up bits of information from the conversations that I overhead.
It appeared my options were either to get a bus direct from the airport to Florence, or to take the train which would also involve getting a shuttle bus as well as taking a short walk. Trains are always my preferred mode of transport as they usually offer a unique glimpse of the country, but it appeared that the direct bus would be the easiest option.
“Yes sir, may I help?”
I was suddenly distracted from my thoughts and realised that I was now at the front of the queue. Stepping forward I explained to the lady at the ticket desk that I wanted to get to Florence.
“Would you like to go by bus or by train?”
“Which would be easiest?” I asked.
She confirmed what I already suspected. “The bus.”
I responded without any hesitation. “Okay then, I’ll take the train.”
Hang on. I’d already decided that the direct bus would be the simplest option and the lady had confirmed this also, so why didn’t my brain respond to her question by saying I’d like to go by bus?
The answer to this question inspired me and felt like a congratulatory slap on the back.
I’d been given two options which were essentially an easy way, or a hard way. The easy way would have been straight-forward and quicker. But the hard way presented a challenge and also gave me my preferred mode of transport. In that moment when I had to make a decision without having any time to think, my gut reaction was to follow my heart and to take on the challenge.
I smiled a huge smile as I took my tickets from the lady.
I felt invigorated as I stepped outside of the airport for the second time. Making my way to one of the bus stops I studied the signage a little closer and worked out that it was the correct place to get the shuttle bus to the train station. Five minutes later and I was on my way, and another five minutes after that I arrived at another bus stop within a residential neighbourhood.
Everybody appeared to be getting off and they had travel bags and backpacks also, so this must be the correct place. Following my fellow passengers on foot I felt the reassuring sound of announcements being made over a tannoy system. It had to be a train station, and thankfully as I rounded the next corner, there it was. I’d made it.
The next challenge was to find out which platform I needed. This was crucial and I really couldn’t afford to make a mistake here. I had to get the correct train or risk turning up in a part of Italy where I wasn’t meant to be.
I walked slowly around the station platforms and through the underpasses, looking around me, taking it all in, and trying to slow everything down. I found some timetables but they were all written in Italian, but this didn’t stop me from identifying the platform numbers, train numbers, and I knew I needed to get to Firenze (Florence). After five minutes of studying my surroundings I made my way to what I believed to be the correct platform number.
I waited, and then I waited some more.
The arrival time of the train had passed and yet nothing had arrived, but I was convinced I’d got the correct platform. The electronic sign even said Firenze SMN (Florence Santa Maria Novella). A moment later and the sign cleared and a new destination appeared in its place. Had I fallen asleep and missed it? Had it been a ghost train?
While I stood contemplating how cool it would be to actually ride a ghost train, I then heard the tannoy system mention something to do with Firenze followed by a new platform number. I started to run along the platform, down the stairs, through the underpass, up another set of stairs, and then onto a new platform.
The platform was packed out and the electronic sign above my head read Firenze SMN. Surely I was in the right place now.
One minute later my faith was restored as a train approached and then slowly came to a stop. The number on the side of the train matched the one that was on my ticket. As the doors opened I stepped on board and took my seat with my heart still pounding.
A conductor took my ticket, stamped it, and then looked at me and smiled. To him it was probably just a friendly smile that he gave to everybody, but to me it was a smile that said, there you go my friend, you’ve made it.
This was it, the trip was now under way, and for the next hour I sat back and listened to my music and took in the magical views of the Tuscany countryside unfolding by sunset.
Florence! I am on my way.
Click here to read Part Two of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)”
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