The Luck O’ the Irish….. in Florence

The day dawned in Florence after a very emotional night at the gates of Santa Maria Novella Train Station. Having spoken to Carlo (click here for the first part of the story) for 10 hours or so, it was time to go sightseeing.

Florence is probably one of the places that I know the history inside and out. Even before I ever went there, I studied art history and renaissance art is very closely related to the history of the city. Anyway, I went a bit over the top and read more and more, so being in Florence had a special significance in my itinerary. Not only did I want to walk around, but I wanted to spend as much time at their local artist’s gallery. Local artist’s gallery? I mean the Uffizi Gallery, and by local artists, I mean Michelangelo, Rafaello, Ghirlandaio, Da Vinci, De Verrocchio, Massaccio and so on… not too bad for a local museum, right?

Even though I wanted to visit some paid touristic attraction, I had no money. I had those €35 for food, of which I spent €20 for breakfast with Carlo. The €15 I had was literally the last money that I had, so I what could I do? I had to skip the museum, which was going to break my heart. I had still three full days in Florence, so that first day, I decided to walk all the way up to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the panorama of the city. Incredible, I must say! The church of San Miniato Al Monte, which is close by, was free to enter, so I popped in for view. Very beautiful romanesque style building, but that’s beside the point. In summary, my day was full of getting familiar with the outside of places. I walked through the whole city and put my theoretical street knowledge into practice. I did not need a map to walk around! It seemed I did my homework correctly. After a very long two days, it was time to call it the day and rest. And worry about the lack of money the next day.

I woke up to a glorious breakfast at the hostel, which they offered for free only twice a week. Well, maybe that was my lucky day. I tried to decide what to do and as I was walking out, a group of tourists were gathered outside the hostel for a free walking tour. I decided to join for the first part, just to see what it was about. We waited 5, 10, 15 minutes and nothing… the guide didn’t turn up. The guy who was at the front desk approached us and said that the tour had been cancelled as the guide couldn’t make it. I was planning to go busking somewhere to get some money, when something clicked and I asked: “Can I take the tour?”. The hostel owner was a bit reluctant, so I asked around if they would be ok with me taking the tour, after all, in the worst case scenario, they wouldn’t need to give me any tips (free tour guides work on tips only).

So we set off! As most people who know me can confirm, I love talking, but as I put myself on the line, I had to try to be as coherent as I possibly could. I knew about the history of the place, but making it flow as we walked around is no joke! The beginning is terrifying, I have to say. No idea if that was going to work. So we started waking down towards the Duomo (Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore) and the Baptistery. Facts and things of interest start coming out of nowhere, thing I thought I had forgotten, but it was a cool experience. Did you know that one of the projects to build the Dome of the Duomo was to fill the entire church with mud as support? Well, now you know!

The group consisted of about 40 people. We lost a few souls along the way, but not many. We stopped a couple of times for ice cream in some hidden gems that I knew about, gift shops… but mostly, touring around and telling stories about the place, interesting facts, a few jokes, well, trying my best to keep everyone entertained. As I had my guitar with me, we sat down for lunch and I played it while I waited. I was so hungry, but couldn’t afford to eat with them. We walked around for another hour and the tour finished back at the hostel. The tour took the best part of 5 hours! I took my guitar case, opened up the outside pocket, explained the situation and asked only to give what they thought the tour was worth for them. My God, American tourists are very generous! I received about €90. A couple alone tipped me €20! And best of all, a subgroup of the tour invited me to go to the pub with them later that evening. It was great!

The next day, I had a whole bunch of friends! When I finally could afford to go into the Uffizi, a few of them joined me and offered to pay my ticket if I would give them a tour around the gallery. Well, I refused, but still wanted to show them around the place. They were so generous the day before, they could just have said no to the tour and left, but they gave me a chance. Needless to say, it was another great day! I got to see the best museum in the world (in my opinion), talked about it to people who were willing to listen to me and made new friends.

Is there a better way to travel? Now… off to Rome!

(Photos are from a more recent trip to Florence. I only turned to digital in 2008!)


The Money-less Tourist and Homeless Man: A Short Story

I have travelled, at this stage, to over 300 cities in 37 countries over the last nearly 14 years. During this time, I have gone though some really cool and sad stuff and I could have a blog dedicated to my travel stories only. Most of them are only relevant to me, things that have changed my way to see life in general. I am not going to go through some philosophical tangent and say what travel means to me etc, I am just going to share probably what is MY favourite travel story.

In 2004, just after New Years, I took a trip to Italy after the pub I worked as a stocktaker closed. Well, I had some money saved up, but not nearly enough to take a just over two week trip to Italy. I had enough money for, maybe, a six day trip? A week if I stretched my money a lot? But I had 16 days to do the trip, and 16 days is the time I was going to spend there.

This was a trip full of cool story, so I will save some for future posts. The itinerary was Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome, for 16 days. So I will get on with it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, budgeting is a big part of my travel plan, but this time, I threw that out of the window a bit. To make the story shorter, I will fast forward to my arrival in Florence, after Venice and Bologna. I had 9 days left in my trip and virtually no more money left. Due to some glitch to the booking in my hostel, I had no place to stay for the first night. I could either eat for the next 4 days or spend €35 for a last minute bed in a hostel nearby. Well, I can spend a long time awake, so I decided to walk around the city. It was still very early and I had 30 hours until 2pm the next day to check in to my hostel and take a nap.

I had a great day, but as night started, I had to decide what I was going to do, find a place to stay because, just like any other city in the world, Florence is really dodgy after 2am. The common and obvious thing to do is to head to the train station, and so I did.

As the station closes, I stayed just outside. Soon after I sat down and got into my sleeping bag (it was very cold!), I was approached by a homeless elderly man. I was a bit apprehensive, but just waited to see what was going to happen. I speak a little Italian, so I understood if he could sit beside me. I agreed, so he did.

After introductions, I found out his name was Carlo. He asked what languages I spoke, none of which were his fluent french and german, so we stuck to Italian… well, he did. Soon after he sat down, he started talking at the fastest pace I had ever heard italian being spoken. It was around 1am (time when the station closes) and I thought to myself: “As soon as the hostel opens its door at 6am, I am getting out of there”. Anyway, he started talking and, not to seem rude, I had to pay attention very closely to what he was saying to pick some random word and make sense of his story. Let’s say I understood, with luck, 40% of the words and maybe even less of his story.

This is his story (in short), for what I can remember. Carlo was born in Palermo, Sicily and fought in the second world war, on both the Axis and Allies’ side (Not sure if you know, but in 1943, Italy broke free from the Axis and declared war on Germany, that’s when I found this out!). After the war, he worked and got married in Rome. After his wife passed away, he had an “esaurimento nervoso”, which I had an idea what it meant, but I took it down and later confirmed it was a nervous breakdown. He couldn’t bare to go back to the house and started living in the streets. During the war, he was stationed in both Germany and France.

The sun came up, people started walking around and getting on with their daily routine and we were kicked out from the gate of the station, as it was about to open. I felt that he was not finished talking yet. At this stage, I had no idea what he was saying anymore, I was so tired, but I went on listening. I needed some coffee, so I invited him for colazione, which he readily accepted. We had a few coffees (yes, a few coffees) and ate a few things. We had been speaking for almost 10 hours. I told him some of my stories with my broken italian, but I only did, say, 15% of the talking.

As soon as breakfast was over, I mentioned that I was going to drop my bag in the hostel and walk around a little. I don’t know if my need for people to like me is pathological, but I invited him to come along. He refused… “non voglio perturbarti”, he said, if I recall correctly, so we said goodbye. I saw tears rolling down his eyes and I, naturally, started crying as well. He thanked me for listening and for the breakfast and gave what I describe as the “smelliest and warmest hug” I had ever received. I don’t think someone had been this grateful to me for just listening. And then he left.

I looked for him over the next three days, but with no luck… ah well, that’s how it was supposed to be… maybe.

I spent €20 of my €35 on breakfast and had to do something about it, but that’s a story for another time.

I sometimes wished I had started blogging or kept a diary back then, this story would have been so much richer in details. I will look for the paper photo I took and share with you, no digital photos back then!

Venezia – Italia

In 2007, after spending new year’s in Galway with some friends, I ended returning with one of them to Italy… I travelled around the country on a very tight budget, often having to sleep in train station and the streets. It was a cool (literally) experience. While in Venice, it was the first time I experienced temperatures of below -5C and, believe me, I was not prepared for that. Me and a New Zealander friend slept outside Venezia Santa Lucia. The two of us and two other homeless people. The four of us ended up chatting for the entire night, barely understanding each other! It was a new experience! I really enjoyed it, I must say! Almost froze to death, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

This is a photo I took the morning after this ordeal… what a beautiful sight!

Firenze – Italia

I know I’ve posted something about Italy in an old 2008 publication, but that was edited etc… I could go on and on about Florence, probably my favourite destination in the world. A small, well kept place, with history screaming at you in every corner… giving you the opportunity of walk through the same places as the greatest artists to ever walk the face of the Earth!

I love the Uffizi Gallery… it is a museum unlike any other. If you are visiting London or Paris, you rarely get to see art from the local artists… you get to see the odd Monet, Degas, Turner… but the highlights of the Louvre and the National Gallery are painting from the Italian Masters. In the Uffizi Gallery, you get to see a museum of local artists… Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Ghirlandaio, Giotto, Raffaello, Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Filippo Lippi……….. where else do you get to see such a concentration of brilliant art from local artists, in a museum that you can visit in a single day??? Nowhere! Except Florence!

Torino – Italia

View of Torino from Monte dei Cappuccini! What an amazing place! The largest building in the city, built to be Synagogue, the Mole Antonelliana, now hosts the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. It is the tallest museum in the world and definitely a must-see!

If you time your visit well, you may be one of the few (well, a few million is a few in my book!) people to ever catch a glimpse of the Shroud of Turin, on display once every 25 years.

This is a very brief description… reeeeeally brief, but Include Torino in your itinerary if visiting Italy! You won’t regret it!


Published at The University Observer

An artist’s haven and music lover’s treat, Tuscany is a region with culture to spare!

Tuscany is one of the few regions in Europe where one can see how the cities and towns have changed without losing touch with their roots. From picturesque villas to the modern construction, there is a careful balance between the ancient and modern.

The region’s focal point is the city of Florence. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and the Baptistery are quite possibly the two most famous sites in the city. Those who are not faint-hearted should take a walk to the top of the Dome, where the whole city can be seen, as the mountains form a breathtaking backdrop.

Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, an art academy which is home to Michaelanglo’s David, is conveniently close to the Duomo. A short walk towards the River Arno will take you to the main square, Piazza Della Signoria.

Within the square, visitors can find the Uffizi Gallery. If you are an art enthusiast, it is worth wandering around for a few hours to see the entire collection. Divided into two pavilions, a connecting hall offers sights of the world famous Ponte Vecchio which stretches across the Arno River and is host to a number of jewellery shops.

Outside the gallery, musicians and artists of all sorts provide high quality performances. On the other side of the river and a short walk from the bridge, the Palazzo Pitti, former residence to the Medici Family and Piazzale Michelangelo can be seen.

Despite the journey to reach them, visitors are rewarded with a panoramic view of Florence, with the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio dominating the horizon.

The nightlife in Florence can be expensive, but a short detour from the touristy streets will save you money. There is a large variety of pubs and nightclubs but some of these close very early, giving visitors a great option to stay in and interact with travellers in the hostel.

But there is more to Tuscany than just Florence. About one hour away by bus is San Gimignano, a very well conserved, medieval town, surrounded by its original walls and located on a hilltop. It is known for its towers and good white wine and is a great place for a day trip.

Regular buses from San Gimignano can bring visitors to the nearby city of Siena. Siena’s central square, the Piazza del Campo, is great for interacting with locals and fellow travellers to exchange experience and travelling tips. A quick trip to the Cathedral is highly recommended to see the impressive art works and mosaic floor.

Two other towns that are worth visiting are Pisa, to see the Leaning Tower and Lucca, where the Lucca Summer Festival is held, for some great concerts. For the towns, food or just an ice cream, Tuscany has it all!