Day-1:Getting Ready for Prato

Wednesday, Sep 14th

Florence, the Arno. We're too used to travelling with Ramblers, who organize most of the trips for us. Trips like this, where we're supposed to organize ourselves for two weeks come as something of a surprise.

We're too used to travelling with Ramblers, who organize most of the trips for us. Trips like this, where we're supposed to organize ourselves for two weeks come as something of a surprise.

No matter: this'll be great. We'll be away for about 12 days; Lyn has to attend a conference on days 8 and 9 so we need to be in Prato those days; we considered staying in Sienna, Florence or a dozen other "should see" locations but eventually opted for staying the whole time in Prato and sortying out from there. Purchased our train tickets from Rome to Prato over the 'net before we left, to avoid having to test of my rudimentary Italian under pressure within the first hour of being there.

Crisis 1 and we're not even out of town!

Dean offered to drive us to the airport in exchange for use of Lyn's car while we were away, so I went to pick him up from work last night, absentmindedly tossing the travel folder now containing my driver's license, passport, tickets, credit cards etc on the front passenger seat. He dropped me off at the house but I left the folder in the car. We sat up biting our nails waiting for Dean to return from doing a few chores downtown with the folder sitting on the front seat of the car...and Dean's cell phone not working. He got back to our place at 1:30am and...yes, I got lucky.

We're sitting in the Air Canada Executive lounge at Vancouver Airport, waiting for the 8:20am flight. Lyn's been dying to show me this place: free coffee, muffins and of course internet access. Sadly, the beer isn't on sale yet so we miss out on our traditional celebratory drink before we leave. A fire has been slowly destroying the nearby Burns Bog Conservation area, and we can smell the fire at the airport.

Day 1: Reporting from Prato…

Thursday, Sep 15

It is an age of miracles. Yesterday morning, we were having breakfast on the far edge of the American continent; later that same day [Vancouver time] we were sipping a capuccino in Tuscany on the other side of the world.

Countryside from the train

After our adrenalin-stoking experience with the travel folder in the car, the trip to Tuscany was uneventful. Flew in over the Swiss Alps, cruising into Rome at about 7:40pm local time. The only immigration official yawned and waved us through dismissively, a marked contrast to the tense, armed, and often hostile greeting one gets on entering the US these days. Took the airport train to Rome's Termini station; arrived at 10:30am, two hours before our booked train for Florence. Emboldened by success, I braved the Italian conversation thing and negotiated a change to our reservation without giving rise to any diplomatic incidents; we purchase a couple of buffalino sandwiches and were soon aboard the 11:30am Eurostar flying silently (geez, these trains are great) through the Italian countryside in our assigned seats. At times, the train was running parallel with a major highway and we were easily passing the fastest cars so we must have been travelling at at least 150kmh. We changed trains at Firenze (Italian for Florence) to the Lucca train and 24 minutes later we're disgorged onto Prato's Porta Serraglio station. We trundle our bags along the ancient streets, cross the piazza in front of the splendid white and green marbled Duomo, and ten minutes later…well it should be here…

Lyn and Borgo Al Cornio

Our great fear: will the B&B, to which we have committed ourselves as a base for the whole two weeks, be some flea-ridden hole on the docks of Prato? For a moment it looked faintly possible but we were looking at the wrong side of the street. Borgo Al Cornio was behind us: modern, newly decorated; we were in luck.

A quick shower and a change and we're back out ready to explore. The streets and buildings of this old city look and feel much as they might have five hundred years ago: the sidewalks and streets are paved with stone and narrow; we wander past one historic landmark after another. A constant stream of crazed scooters, buses, cars and bicycles rocketing through here serve as an abrupt reminder that while we may not be in Kansas, we ain't in Camelot either.

After a meal and a beer (I know, we should be tasting the Chianti but it was 30°C!) we're ready for the only thing left to solve on our first day: jet-lag.

Day 2: Prato: The bike ride

Friday, Sep 16

Bike rides

Slept reasonably well, although the adjacent Via Convenovole, which would be a back lane at home, is a main thoroughfare here. The stone pavement/narrow streets combo acts like a soundbox, so that at 2am, three guys leaving a bar around the corner and carrying on a political argument, might as well have been standing in our room. And the church bells at 7am? [By the second night here, we'd figured out that closing the 3 layers of window shutters and turning on the air conditioning muffles everything but the garbage trucks.]

What to do in Tuscany? Cycle the hills? Explore ancient ruins? visit Florence? Tour the vineyards? We decide against "frantic" as we have plenty of time, we take a day to get our feet on the ground. Prato looks like an interesting city. We'd been told that they have recently constructed 35Km of bike paths around Prato, and there are plans to add another 30Km soon, so we decide to rent bikes and explore on wheels.

Duomo again

After breakfast, we find an 'info' booth and they give us directions that seem vague, perhaps because they're primarily geared to direct people towards cultural spots. We spend an hour on one fruitless search. But it's all new so we stop in at a grocery, a bakery, and a cheese shop, to pick up lunch (total €3) and head for the second bike rental place marked on our map. We find ourselves on the old city wall, looking down on the very picturesque Bisenzio River…and what is surely a bike path! We have lunch in a small park, stand up and almost fall into the bike rental place.

This was a great idea. It is suggested that we head for Parc Galcetti (a conservation area?) and we cycle off along the banks, through blissfully peaceful scenery.

Bike routes

After a pleasant half an hour's riding along the river, we follow the signs west and have a couple of kilometers beside (not on) major trunk roads with heavy traffic. Then the path takes a sudden turn over a bridge, through some burbs, and into Parc Galcetti. Now there are only a few runners and walkers on a path to keep us company through pine woodland for about twenty minutes; there's a 500m peak to our left and we note, for later interest, that a hiker strides off towards it. We start to climb, and because we have no gears on these bikes, we're not going far; the track takes us for another couple of kilometers up an old cattle road between stone walls, and suddenly we're into an ancient looking village up a valley.

And so it went for another couple of hours. We came back into Prato and decided to follow a second bike trail along the other side of the Bisenzio river. As we cross the river there are a couple of people fishing below us and they're having to keep moving along the bank because half a dozen river otter are showing a keen interest in whatever they're about to catch.

A contour map of the area shows Prato (and Florence) on a plain flanked to the north and west by mountainous country. Plain and river are on our left as we wheel along but on our right is the slope of a ridge that must go up to about 1000m; about one third of it is cultivated olive groves and vineyards. The Bisenzio and other rivers come out of the hills and disgorge onto this flat plain, creating problems with flood control. There was a devastating flood in 1966 that did major damage to many of the monuments (and works of art) in Florence. In response,

Heading back

, the Bisenzio was (belatedly) heavily controlled by wiers. As we cycle towards the upper valley, we pass a section with a bit of a lake, what could be a bird sanctuary with white herons, all within the banks of the river below us. At one point we come upon a group of people admiring an intriguing sculpture of a naked green (bronzed?) figure clinging to what looks to be a tree trunk (commemorating the flood presumably). And further along still we hear what sounds like a trumpet coming from above us: yes, there's some guy practising somewhere up in the groves!

Eventually, we head back. We've worked off some of the energy we built up from 20 hours of travelling but we're unused to bikes and feeling a bit saddle sore. We cycle past the rental store on the other bank, take a quick spin through the burbs, passing, on the other side of the river, the old stone wall of the original town. Below there are people fishing about every 50m of river.

It was the most idyllic day, but we're still jet-lagged. A gelato, a couple of glasses of wine, dinner and we're ready for bed.

Day 3: Poggio a Caino

Saturday, Sep 17th

A constant and challenging sidebar to our daily activities is the art of conversation: people speak English here as much as people speak Italian in our neighbourhood (not much!). It's not that we expect English to be spoken but we're just not used to such a large gap between what we want to communicate and what we can.

This in turn requires remedies:

"Ah oui, un peu"

We discover that charades, which thanks to our homestay students, we have become fluent in, is our best language. A stylish hand motion to convey "seahorse" or a baring of one's bottom to portray "baboon" conveys in an instant what can take hours using words, although there can be misunderstandings.

View from the terrace

Entrance to the Medici Villa

Yesterday, our bike rental person informed us of the annual Medici festival at Poggia a Caiano (although the hand gestures for the name of the town presented some challenges for us). Understanding that it started at 6pm, we initially planned to take a trip to Florence during the day, but on the way out the door our very friendly innkeeper that the festival was all day, so we decided to head over there right away.


Vaulted ceiling

Now here's a learning experience. We get on the bus, but can't convince the bus driver to accept our money because (apparently) he was ending his shift. The second bus driver then appeared but was on his cellphone…and didn't in fact end the call until we were almost there. He showed no interest in our presence so we got off thinking that local buses must be free. Turns out that you are supposed to buy your ticket from the local tabaceri, and get it stamped by the machine at the back of the bus when you get on! We had unwittingly won the gamble of whether or not an inspector gets on.

Medici Villa grounds—...

...and surrounding countryside

It appears that while the festival is nominally on all day the main action doesn't begin until 4pm, but we can get a tour of the Medicis main house right away. We pay, are required to join the group, but the guide speaks in rapid Italian (with insufficiently precise hand gestures to make the charades thing work..). So picked up the main thread from a booklet that we picked up. More here.

Villa: The stables and crafts

After the tour, we had lunch and read in a local park until the official opening at 4pm, and had just begun doing a round of the lost arts—such as bow-making, mask-making and carpet weaving —that was going on at the stables, when the thunderstorm hit. A thunderstorm is supposed to end, after a brief downpour, but this one is still going at 9pm next day.

Owls waiting for the show

It did the festival in. By the time that we had ducked into a pizzeria and finished a very large glass of excellent Chianti and two delicious mini-pizzas, every stall was cleared of goods and everyone had headed home. So we dutifully bought our billets at the Tabaceri and headed home, where Lyn ended off the day with a bratwurst from the German stall at the festival in the piazza just around the corner, and we both had a very good beer.

Day 4: A Look at Lucca

Sunday, Sep 18th

We left expecting hot weather throughout our stay and packed accordingly. The first few days lived up to those expectations with temperatures floating between 25 and 30. Today (after last night's "five minute" thunderstorm) we woke to blustering winds, light rain and temperatures around 15. Brrr!

Lucca Wall

So we took off for Lucca. It's an hour from here by the trains that run hourly from Florence to Viareggio on the coast, and it's mentioned in all the guide books as a place to visit so we did, narrowly escaping a €25 fine on the train for not stamping our tickets in the machine before the train left(and how were we supposed to know that?). [Here's one for you IQ Test buffs: trains leave Prato for Florence at 10:06am, 10:40am, 11:09am, and 11:19am. When will the next train to Florence leave Prato?!]

First delightful discovery is that the old wall, that runs 4.2km around the city can be walked...or cycled, or driven! When we climbed the short flight of stairs to the top, we discovered that it is wide enough to have opened a two lane highway on it. It's huge!

Another Lucca Church

Lucca Streets

And interesting. Cyclists, joggers, walkers, the occasional police car and everything passed us, as we stretched our legs out and got great views into the gardens close to us and the city beyond.

Eventually, we descended into the city and began a closer look at the monuments, churches and so on that make up the core of the city. Just a staggering amount But it was a bit of a downer. First we ran into major tourist hordes: the city was thick with them…er…us. But the worst was all the tacky stalls in the piazzas. I mean, you're looking at these thousand year old churches with their six hundred year old paintings...why are people outside selling such profane goods: everything from African masks to Indian rugs—and that was the best of it!

Piazza DelMercato

We also decided that there's only so much cultcha that one can absorb at a time. We haven't yet formed any background to attach any of these things to and it is becoming a blurr. So we headed back into town, had dinner and are about to retire. Hope the damn weather returns to normal soon!

Day 5: Ah Siena!

Monday, Sep 19th


Weather still grey: we decide against renting bikes for a two day bike ride through the Chianti region (Florence->Sienna) we'd take a nice warm train to Sienna.

Palazza Pubblico
and (on left) Torre del Mange '>

Sienna:from the Torre del Mangia

Train rides are fascinating. Those typically Tuscan views, of olive groved hillsides, vineyards, farms, old mansions and hilltop turrets, drift steadily past the window…except that these idyllic views are punctuated in real life by the occasional tire factory and scrap metal yard. Surprisingly, I don't feel that disappointed. I think it's because while signs of modern life seem inevitable the serene beauty of the countryside doesn't seem to be under assault. Unlike the blighted landscapes of North America where wealth and industry seem to rank ten and everything else barely counts at all, everyone here—rich and poor—clearly agree that there must be a balance between modern utility and old values.

The Duomo

The trains themselves are a treat. We leave Prato and settle into clean, comfortable no-smoking seats; change in Firenze for Sienna, and again find it easy to get seats, but the carriage fills quickly. A gaggle of very American (Houston by the sound of it) ground-crew people from some airline spread out into the few remaining seats and some have to move down the train. It is difficult not to hear their conversation on the one and half hour trip to Sienna as they discuss their benefit plans with scarcely a glance out the window; they seem nice enough: at the same time familiar with travel and yet uncomfortable in foreign lands.

We've had no temptation to glom onto English-speaking people; we keep to ourselves and thankfully this seems to be the tacit understanding, as we all glide smoothly past one another.

Lyn at the top

In Sienna, we emerge from the train and find ourselves outside the city walls with the town up a hill in front of us. Based on our experience in Prato, we guess the center of town can't be far away and march off, leaving everyone else to wait for the bus. But they win: it is about thirty minutes before we find our way to the Palazzi in the middle of its immense piazza. There isn't much of a line to climb the tower so we wait the half hour until the next group is allowed in and climb the 400 steps to the top. Brilliant views over the town and surrounding countryside.

Did the Duomo thingy, and then for dessert, managed a whole hour in the San Domenico church—described by our barn-size gothic structure and they're not kidding—and the "chapel" dedicated to St. Catherine, a sort of church within a church.more here

Ah yes, food. Made it back into Prato, where it is a little more convenient to throw back a monstrous calzole and guzzle half a litre of wine in a little alley-eating place because it is only a 2 minute stagger home, and here we are. Plan on another bike ride tomorrow: Firenze to Fiesole?

Day 6: Fiesole

Tuesday, Sep 20th


Fiesole Florence

Fiesole Skel

Fiesole is not much more than a village, perched on one of the several hilltops overlooking the city of Firenze (Florence). We were interested in looking around there...well, because it must be famous for some good reason. It was here that one of the lesser Medici scions built yet another of the Medici villas to hang about in. Part of the truth is that neither of us is really ready for the Florence thing, and Fiesole was a tentative sortie in that direction.

Yet we also wanted to get back to the countryside. We've spent the last two days in Lucca and Sienna getting drenched in culture, so it's about time for a walk in the woods. We toyed with the idea of hiking from Firenze's train station but abandoned that when we found it was 25K! Opted for the bus out and maybe hike back.

The bus connection was no problem: there was one waiting for us right outside Firenze station and it took us right into the middle of Fiesole (cost: €1). Total travel: not much more than an hour.


...Etruscan wall beyond

Yet Fiesoleprovided more than we'd expected. 50 meters from the bus stop was a large excavation of an early Roman ampitheater (c. 100BC) complete with an Etruscan wall (c 400BC), and an excellent museum with artefacts from Etruscan, Roman and times.

Squeezed that in before lunch but managed to also locate some local hiking trails. They were easy to find: followed a narrow road out of along the side of the hill overlooking Florence; it quickly became a path that led into a local conservation area, where we rambled for a couple of hours. We had fabulous views out over Florence and the countryside beyond but the exercise and clean air were the major attractions. We stumbled here on a quarry that had provided some of the stone for Firenze's carvings, and the point where Leonardo attempted flight for the first time. (Note that since Leonardo is not credited with the first flight we wondered whether a "volunteer" made the first attempt over the edge of this sharp drop and whether his grave is also close by).

Fiesole lunch


Heard lots of birds along thistrail but as elsewhere in this trip, have seen no birds other than sparrows and seagulls.

Ended up in another small village a couple of kilometers away and hiked back into Fiesole where we completed our visit with a look around the monastery of S. Francesco, and tried to get into the Medici villa, to no avail: it is closed unless you have an appointment: we didn't. And even the Brigham Young university group that did had a hard time convincing the staff over the intercom that they did indeed have an appointment.

Lyn on our walk

Quarry that provided the stone for Florence's sculptures

So took the bus back into town,and having an hour or so to spare, decided to hop off the bus in Firenze and see where that would take us. As it happened we found ourselves right in front of the Duomo. It's quite stunning. We didn't go in but we did find that there was no line-up to get to the top of the tower, so we climbed the 414 steps and took great shots over Firenze.

Back into town, where a hunt for a new restaurant for dinner took us suddenly along the bank of the river, just as it was getting dark, and just as the city lights failed, and we were plunged into almost total darkness. Escaping unscathed, except for the joggers--men and women--who almost ran into us in the gloom--we reached two conclusions: (1) everywhere in Prato, even the darkest and most sinister looking places, are safe (2) Because it is safe, it doesn't mean there aren't rats.

Day 7: Florence I and II

Wednesday, Sep 21st

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River Arno

Bruce asks us what our navigational strategy is? Gosh, that sounds like a sophisticated, sensible thing to have and I wish we could claim we did! Lyn and I were chatting today about our expectations for the trip: I suppose both of us were initially afraid that since we hadn't planned or read much, we'd end up with one of those holidays where we'd spend half our time trying to figure out what to do and how to get there (wished we'd read more and planned more).

Yet so far it's been perfect, and we've done exactly what we would have wanted to do. We wanted to see, or more accurately, experience Tuscany, and for both of us that meant more than standing around in museum line-ups. I think the reason we enjoy our hiking trips so much is that we get to experience the country in a more dimensional sense: walking—or cycling through the countryside as well as the usual focus on town-stuff (which is often where one stays) seems to do that. We prefer side street bars and restaurants rather than to twee, trendy places; buses and trains are more fun than the secluded space of a rented car. I dunno, this trip seems to be working out perfectly.

Ponte Vecchio from Ufizzi

We pick our destinations the night before based on what we feel like seeing next and everything seems so easy to get to. Towns like Lucca and Sienna offer the safety of definite attractions but in the end it is as much the fun of getting there and having lunch in the park and just winging it.

View from Ufizzi

Lyn was due back at 5pm today for the beginning of her Monash thingy, so we were toying with the idea of doing laundry and generally kicking back, as we have been out for all six days so far. But we had breakfast and said what the heck and headed into Florence to "do" a few more of the sights there.

Lyn at Vivoli's

We're gettingthis trip down to a regular commute. Pick up lunch at a pasticceri on the way to the train station (a couple of the ladies are getting to know us); get the tickets and the train, and pick out galleries on the 24 minute ride. Neither of us wants to do the overload thing: we're just interested in one or two choice destination a beer or a cappuccino...or a gelato or all of the above! Then home.

Florence Dumo

Today we wanted to check out the possibility of getting into the Ufizzi gallery and surenuff, the lineup was about 2 hours (that was the official estimate but it looked like 4 hours to me). So we bought reservations for Sunday at 11pm, which allows us to skip the line-up for €3. Then we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, navigating a sidewalk filled with black dudes selling groovy shades, and headed over to the Palazzo Pitti. Here again, we spent a couple of hours, and then wandered over to look at the Masaccio murals in the Cappella Brancacci of Santa Maria della Carmine.

Us on Ponte VecchioLandJP

Then raced 'home' so that Lyn could get to to her convention walkabout.

I think I mentioned that I'm reading a book on the Medicis, and that, together with the osmosis of commentary drifting in from other areas is giving me a much better feel for the background and that helps to make sense of the art and history that we're seeing. It in turn is connected to the tourism industry and thus to the 'everyday'. Tourism also connects to the modern engines of the wine and olive industries. But what is also attractive is just the regular way of life here that flows around these two primary pillars. It is amazing to see so little sign of crime or even threat of it. Sure there are police around so there must be skullduggery somewhere but there is no evident sign of threat to purse or person. My theory is that if a kid could choose to grow up anywhere in the world, nobody would choose anywhere but Italy. Kids seem to be treasured here by the community (rather than just their own parents).

It's not at all difficult to imagine buying a couple of bicycles, renting a quiet villa somewhere and retiring here.

Day 8: Divided

Thursday, Sep 22nd

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…only in a strictly symbolic sense of course: Lynda, ensconced now in her symposium and me doing…laundry.

My thoughts drifted to things alimentary today and then I read Susan's question about limonatta (no, . people here don't seem to recognize it Susan). Food is an important dimension of life in Tuscany. We begin every day (it is a B&B) with a sweet roll and café latté (coffee served in one pot, the hot milk in another). We both pass on the sweet roll (I don't know why they keep serving them) and Lynda heads for the nectarines. But we drink the coffee until the pots run dry and then squeeze them just to be sure. Once on the streets, we've been taking Lyn's lead: stopping in on nearby stores for rolls/buns/what have you, tomatoes, and making a picnic lunch. I almost broke my jaw on one of the roll selections but on the whole it has been successful. Sometimes we cheat and buy one of the delicious ready-made sandwiches...especially if they have any.

Dinner has been a smorgasbord of efforts. We tried a couple of recommended restaurants and were ho-hum pleased, but then (following the fabulous smell) found a pizzeria/restaurant down an alley (blue lantern and everything) quite close to us, and have been back there many times. Tonight: salad and spinach gnocchi for Lyn, penne siciliano (con sarde) for me, vini rosso (mezzo litre) for the two of us and cappuccino to finish off. We're operating on trust as the coquetrice who serves us just shows us a total that we're supposed to pay rather than an itemized bill, but after a long day in the sun and a carafe of wine, who cares about such details?

Last night, following our different paths, Lynda had a catered meal at the reception and I had a pizza slice and a beer at one place, a tasty tuna something or other at another followed by a cappuccino and an ice cream at a third place; it's not a repast you'd plan but one that I look back on without too much regret.

Tonight we had a glass of local wine in some piazza or other served by the Bar Macaibo, then returned to our blue lantern place. And you wonder why my late night typings make no sense?

We had a look into the Prato church today that contains the Virgin Mary's girdle (belt that is, not its later development).

Lyn, as noted, is embroiled now in her symposium. We met some of the other attendees last night: a motley mix of academics and normal people (from Australia and normal places). Looks like only about 10-30 people max in each of the sessions, and according to Lyn, surprisingly relevant to her interests so she's enjoying it. Apparently Monash chose Prato as its centre in Italy because it is becoming an intellectual centre of sorts, perhaps attempting to recreate the Medicean heritage of Florence.

From The Bike ride

I know that you're all dying to find out how the laundry went. Well once I'd separated the dark colors from the light ones and handwashed the light ones,and…but I won't. There was a slight misunderstanding at the lavandria when my spoken Italian fell short of the desired standard, but I put a stop to the marriage just in time.

Borrowed a bicycle from our friendly innkeeper and headed out with no plan as usual. Some concern about appearances today: given that everything else was in the laundry, I had only the muscle shirt (no sleeves) that Lyn bought me in some moment of madness at MEC; the bike didn't help: a sort of half Harley-hog, half kiddie-cycle. I spent the day raising eyebrows as I passed. Made my way out around the city walls this time spurning the bike path and following traffic, just like the locals. Found out early that clearly anyone on a bicycle has lost their desire to continue living. Learned as I went how to pay careful respect to passing buses and cars and show equal disregard for pedestrians.

Galcetti Hike

Circled the walls and then headed up into the hills above Prato.

At a more or less arbitrary point in the outer burbs, the road leaves the horizontal at a simple angle, and proceeds now in a straight line directly up the steep slope, in much the same way that a plane takes off: no concern here for the effete strategy of zig-zags. A kilometer like this, and then it levelled off to a kinder rate of climb, although narrower. I was forced to throw myself into a hedge to avoid a BMW whizzing down from the estates above; as it passed I had a glimpse of woman whose elegance was only slightly compromised by an index finger absently inserted up her nose. She didn't appear to see me.

Passed several olive groves and estates, but gave up at about 1,000 ft up as I hadn't brought lunch or water. Resolve to try again tomorrow and attempt the ridge (I was only about half way up).


Friday, Sep 23rd<



Bit of a hiccup in our un-schedule there, as Lynda's conference rudely introduced planning and timetable into our hitherto randomized hours. For the second day in a row, Lyn got up, dressed in a suit, and headed off to Monash U. (a two story building indistinguishable from the surrounding fashion boutiques and ristorantes except for the Monash U flag waving from the second floor).

Galcetti shrine

So for the second day in a row, I mounted the aforesaid Harley/kiddie bike (although now dressed in a less butch short-sleeved shirt) and this time, accompanied by one of the other abandoned husbands, headed out to conquer the small peak in Parc Galcetti that we'd seen on our first ride. We made it to the top, bushwhacking our way up through the sparse weeds between the pine trees, until we eventually stumbled across the well-marked track provided, coincidentally, for the very purpose that we were engaged in. Joe, not in quite as good a shape as he'd have liked, needed the occasional extra pause in the heat. From the top, the views of the valley and of the surrounding hillsides were great for the naked eye but there was quite a bit of haze so the photos might be disappointing.

Several interest points though:

Day 10:Pistoia

Saturday, Sep 24th

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When I eventually collected Lyn from the conference, we found that we (a) hadn't wangled our way into the Pisa tour organized by the university, nor (b) had managed to get the university to find us accommodation in Rome for the night before our departure. Needed to settle (b) right away because it looked as though prices for available rooms were climbing well above €120 as we neared the date, and we were being forced into that corner because we couldn't trust that the earliest train out of Prato on Tuesday would get us to Rome Fuminico in time for check-in. I asked our friendly innkeeper to make what I thought would be a two minute call to book the room, and what took him 20 minutes would have taken me an hour, but we got it done.

Had dinner that evening with a group from the conference, but the only outstanding feature of that part of the evening was the excellent house wine.

Pistoia Sant' Andrea

So, with a day to spare today, we took off or Pistoia—about half an hour from here by train. Roamed around a buncha churches but only a whole lotta 11th century buildings and most of the sculptures by Pisano (do you think we've been doing too much of this?).

We'd noticed on several of our train rides that there seemed to be quite a few travelling groups wearing one or another kind of characteristic hat—older folks, so we took them for variants of the Shriners. A group of them wandered into one of the churches we were looking around in, but lost in the quiet and relics we now paid them no attention. Then suddenly, the whole church was filled with the gentle sound of the most ethereal choir. It was them! They sang for only a few minutes...then stopped...and wandered out again. We realized that there must be some sort of choir competition that they were gathering for but it was quite a treat for those few minutes! The famous Pisano pulpit, with its red marble supporting pillars was quite impressive. Unfortunately have not been able to find a single color image of it.

Pistoia Duomo

The town is best known for its ironworks and Lyn marvelled at what we saw. I must be a complete philistine in this regard as it all looked to me like the stuff at yer Home Depot so I'll have to get her to tell that part of the trip in subsequent editing. So we headed back to the train station early.

On the train ride back I pointed out to Lyn a tree farm that I'd noticed on the way there. It was the most amazing place: not unexpectedly, it had rows of trees, but of every conceivable variety, from small shrubs to ornate pines; and must have been a couple of kilometers long, although not more than 100m in width.

We acquired (from somewhere) at least one impression that Romanos—gypsies—were a common sight in Italy and because of their complex belief systems, it was just as well to make sure you still had your wallet if you did. We saw occasional signs of what we took to be Romanos and yet each was rather a sorry character and it seems sad. In Pistoia, as we left, a swarthy looking old women at the entrance of the station was hurling blood-curdling invective at a group of youths who appear to have insulted her. Her curses must have been particularly meaningful to the spirit world because two of the carved ghouls above the entranceway actually covered their ears. And a couple of days later, on the Prato station, a man with no arms appeared on the platform. He was clearly drunk and he too was complaining loudly to nobody in particular. And yet had managed somehow to keep a cigarette in his mouth. As if to press the point, when the next train (fortunately not ours) came in, he stomped into a no-smoking carriage still complaining and still smoking.

As the end of the trip looms, our ways (Lyn's and mine) are beginning to diverge: Lyn begins to feel she's hardly shopped at all. There were the little signs at the beginning of the trip: I navigated our way from B&B to station (eg) using street names but Lyn could retrace the route using the shops that we passed. In recent days, there has been a constant tugging of my arm as we pass a shoe store or a vendor stall selling underwear (don't ask). Finally this afternoon, we agreed to split up and meet again later—she agreeing reluctantly to only four hours of shopping…and then returning glumly to my side 20 minutes later when she realized that all the stores were now closed for the day (Saturday). I may be on my own for the Ufizzi galley tomorrow!

Days (...daze?) 11-13

Wednesday, Sep 28th


Good grief, we're back home! Events conspired to keep me away from the keyboard over the last few days of our trip, so I'll have to capture the last three (and meaningful days) as a single entry.

Friday, Sept 24

Forgot to mention that Friday evening, Lyn got us on a tour of the Fra (Filippo) Lippi frescoes at the Prato Duomo church. The frescoes are being restored, and to that end they've boarded off the choir section of the church and erected a 3 storey scaffold. Not to miss an opportunity, they are charging tourists €8 to get a close-up to all three levels of the fresco. Unfortunately, the scaffold was not designed with same awe of sacred circumstances as the frescoes, and it produces a thunderous clattering and banging as twelve of us ascend it, that certainly put an end to any quiet contemplation on the other side of the temporary dividing wall.

Our guide described the work and the Fra…apparently unaware of at least one description of Fra Lippi as "A liar, a drunkard, a lecher and a fraud …his superiors were profoundly relieved when he left the convent, abandoned his orders and was seized by pirates…". This isn't to question his religious or artistic merits but the fuller picture seems more interesting.

Sunday, Sept 25

We'd reserved entry to the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence several days ago for 11am today, so made our way there at our usual leisurely pace, booking our Eurostar tickets for tomorrow on the way, and even got a bit of early shopping in.

Hillside Village

When we arrived at the Ufizzi the line-up for hoi polloi was again at least 2 hours long, and as we whizzed into the gallery via the reservations line in a few minutes, we gained a brief glimpse of the benefits of royal privilege. Without what we'd already learned and read in the last week about the Medicis, the bewildering sequence of paintings that we saw in the next two hours would have been like picking up a large glossy book on the renaissance, riffing the pages, and trying to make sense of what you were looking at. Even with our head start, we were both burned out after a couple of hours and needed a quick gelato at Vivoli's…world famous for its ice cream and about to become equally famous for its surly service.

From here, Lyn needed to get on with the serious business of shopping, and in exchange for numerous concessions on her part, like Lyn being willing to go shopping with me when I…here, wait a minute! Anyway I managed to keep up withher as she plundered one shop after another looking for gifts but my legs finally gave in: I can hike for about 12 hours straight but an hour's shopping does me in. So I headed back to Prato on my own and Lyn stayed on for another couple of hours. Unfortunately, my usual internet store was closed and an attempt to use a second one foundered because I forgot that internet cafes in Italy require you to present identifying documents, which I didn't have on me. So went back to the hotel, managed to get packed, and forced myself to put my feet up with a glass of wine, and settle in to my third book in as many days.

Monday, Sep 26th

Piazza St. Pietro—1

Piazza St. Pietro again

We left nothing to chance by showing up for an earlier train for the two minute ride from Prato Porta Seraglio to Prato Centrale to catch the Eurostar; thank heavens we did because the train we did catch was 20 minutes late. The Eurostar train really is a breeze—two hours of flying almost silently through the most blissfully peaceful countryside…like astro-travelling with assigned seats.

St Peter's Basilica

Inside the Basilica

Eased into Rome Termini around noon and made it from there to the Hotel Cavour (walking our own bags) in five minutes. Great location but who hasn't secretly wondered whether the hotel that you booked blindly on the internet at the cheapest rate isn't a crack house wedged between two brothels? To our alarm, we arrive at the address to find that the Cavour was one of several hotels in the same seedy looking building. We went in. To our relief, the actual hotel lobby was respectable and if they'd lost our reservation that seemed normal based on my experience of Rome. We did get a room, and while the wallpaper and carpet were distinctly period whorehouse ancienne, the new/modern bed and bathroom fittings contrasted nicely with it. Those Italian designers, I don't know how they think up this stuff!

In spite of the 30C heat, we were not about to end our pell-mell holiday on a whimp-out and set off immediately to see S. Pietros (which I hadn't seen but Lyn was anxious that I should). We navigated the metro like old pros, joined the throng of tourists obviously headed in the same direction along the streets, adjusting as we went to Rome driving. Elsewhere in the world, drivers make at least some attempt to avoid pedestrians, but drivers in Rome may in fact be aiming for them and probably don't come from this planet.

Michelangelo's Pieta

A Pope's Tomb

St Peter's really is quite stunning. By this time, we've seen our fair share of churches in Italy (not to mention cathedrals in England) ranging from the astounding to the merely awe-inspiring but St. Peter's is on a plane of its own. It isn't much smaller than an indoor football stadium. Marble alone makes cathedrals constructed of mere stone look shabby by comparison but this is not just marble, but marble of every color. Then there are the windows; then there are the chapels and tombs, each a massive work of art. Michelangelo's Pieta is almost lost in the middle of this, a small shrine off to one side of the entrance doors. However, the fact that it is now behind plexiglass gives the game away.



From here, we zipped over to the Coliseum. Both of us had seen it from the outside but neither of us had been in so we joined the 30 minute line up and went in. Dinner and then bed.

Tuesday,Sept 27

Out of the hotel by 8:30am, haul our bags up the street and into Termini; croissant and cappucino for breakfast; catch the 9:22am to Fuminico (train departures are given to the nearest minute but actual departure times are to the nearest 15 minutes)

It was here, at the Air Canada check-in, that we experienced the longest check-in of my life: 50 minutes. I travelled to Australia 4 days after Sep 11th and the check-in time then was less. I appreciate Lynda for keeping me from eating one of my bags.

Otherwise largely uneventful trip back. Cab driver who drove us home from the airport filled us in on all the latest sports developments but apologized for being uncertain about who won the election in Japan. Hey, 9 out of 10 isn't bad.

What a great trip! We really had a good time in Tuscany. The only half-considered goal that we didn't realize was to do a two day bike trip out of Florence through the Chianti countryside. I think we'll do this next time and also make sure that we go to San Gimignano and Azzuro. We now also realize that the Cinqueterre hikes that we had hoped to do would also have been possible if we'd understood the trains better. Next time too!