Archive for April, 2005

A repeated adventure, with a twist

Wednesday, April 13th, 2005

When Katie and I honeymooned in Italy, we took a tip from a good friend, Aaron Tristler, about heading to an area along the Mediterranean coast in Liguria called Cinque Terre, or Five Lands. If you’ve ever seen pictures or video of Italy’s coast where there’s a rough, rocky coastline with houses clinging to their sides (such as are featured in Under the Tuscan Sun, for example), just asking to fall into the ocean, then you’ve probably seen Positano, which is on the Amalfi Coast, just south of Pompeii. Cinque Terre is has very much the same look about it, but it turns out to be not one, but five distinct little hill-towns connected by hiking trails and rail lines.

Nearly two years ago, we boarded a train from Florence and went to Pisa, our first stop on our journey. We had heard that there was nothing to see in Pisa except for The Tower (this fact was confirmed by a rental car agent just the other day when a pair of English-speaking tourists were renting a car to go to Pisa and other places; I was more curious why they would rent a car to go to Pisa in the first place: it’s just 1 hour away by train!), so we decided to “do” Pisa on the way to Cinque Terre, since we had to change trains there, anyway.

Cinque Terre was amazing, and we vowed to return to the picturesque little communities when, not if, we came back to Italy. We came back to Italy, and so we had to return to Cinque Terre.

My sister (Jessica), brother-in-law (Wayne), and my 10-month-old nephew (Joshua) were visiting for the week, and we decided to repeat our initial excursion from Florence. “You can’t go to Italy without seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa”, so we decided to do that, again, too. Just a quick day-trip. Easy out, easy in. Take the train the whole way… it couldn’t be easier.


Joshua yearns for Tuscan grassland

With Joshua in-tow, we borded the train to Pisa and had a nice ride playing with him, talking, and watching the Tuscan countryside rush past. We had all sorts of romantic visions of what each building might be, and then joked about how a small town-looking area with city walls might actually be a penitentiary.

Pisa is largely an uninteresting town for tourists. There’s only one spot where anyone wants to be, and that’s the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles, which contains Pisa’a immense Baptistry, Duomo, and, of course, The Tower. The tower really is leaning quite a bit. Apparently, it was an engineering cock-up from the very beginning. I’m a Software Engineer, and even I know that building a 60m tower, you can’t hold it up with a 3m foundation floating in sand. Apparently, in 1173, this was not considered common knowledge.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

On neither visit have I elected to climb the tower. One guide says that it’s €15 per person, but I haven’t even looked. I perfer to be dwarfed by the tower and surrounding buildings. The field itself is very beautiful: something that I miss about Florence is greenery. There is virtually no grass and no trees in the city. Sure, you can go out to the Piazzala Michaelangelo (which has quite a view of the city) and see trees, but it’s hard to find a tree that you can sit under and feel the grass between your fingers. The lawn in the Campo dei Miracoli, on the other hand, is kept as well as a golf-course, and has a strict “keep of the grass” directive, which many tourists ignore and walk across the field, anyway.

Unfortunately, it takes about 20 minutes to walk from the train station to the Camop dei Miracoli, and there’s about 20 minutes of excitement there (gotta get a picture of you holding up the tower, for instance), so it’s a one-hour trip for a few photo-ops. Walking through the streets of Pisa, which are filled mostly with tourists walking from the station to The Tower, I noticed a few people who were most likely local Pisa residents. They seemed to be completely ignoring the presence of the masses of people wandering through their streets. I wonder if they dislike all those people doing nothing but walking from the train station to the Campo and back again. I suppose if they don’t own a consession stand or souvenir store, then you have no reason to enjoy the constant stream of foreigners stumbling through your streets.

Cinque Terre

After another train change in La Spezia, we were on the last 10-minute leg of our journey to Cinque Terre. Shortly after leaving La Spezia, the train ducks into a tunnel that ploughs directly through the mountains on the coast. Occationally, the rails pass very close to the surface of the mountains, and the track peeks out and gives passengers a great view of the sea. Unfortunately, I was only quick enough to snap a picture of the tunnel wall with a bit of water on the left as we re-entered the dark tunnel.

The first town on an east-to-west traversal of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore. Even the view of the sea from the train platform is gorgeous. Both this trip and that of two-years-past included very little of Riomaggiore, which is too bad. I’ll have to go back, because there is much more to see than the area around the train station and the beginning of the inter-town hiking trail. I suppose a day in each town would be a nice way to spend a vacation, but we didn’t have the time. Instead, we sat down at a restaurant overlooking the sea and relaxed for a bit.

Every meal should be in a place like this

We started looking at the menu when my phone rang. I had to attend a conference call for work, so I sat on this fantastically beautiful terrace on the phone. The group ordered, among other things, octopus carpaccio, which I was forced to finish when nobody else wanted to eat more than a single piece. It was at this point that I started getting sick. I could feel that morning… the slightly stiff and sore neck; the tickle in the back of your throat; the occational sneeze. I was hoping that it would get better, but my sickness turned out to be the backdrop upon which the rest of the day’s events would unfold.

We elected to walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola because Katie and I knew that the walk was beautiful, short, and easy to navigate in spite of Joshua’s presence. In fact, we had Joshua in a relatively easy-to-carry backback, so the hiking would only have been limited by our ability to navigate the trails with an extra 50 pounds of equipment and baby on our backs. This trail, however, had a boardwalk and everything: you can take a stroller along this trail without a problem.

This is the last good picture that my camera took. Take a good look, because it might be the last useful thing that it ever did.
Just after this picture, I asked a gentleman on the boardwalk to take our picture. I handed the camera to him and said “just press” and indicated the button on the camera that you press to take a picture. No sooner than he lifted the camera up to his face to look at the LCD display did he drop it. From about mouth-level. I watched in horror as the camera bounced off of the ground, regurgitating the battery it had swallowed before we left the house, spliting open along the factory-sealed seam, and careening toward the edge of the boardwalk, where I was sure that it would fall into the ocean that had, moments prior to its demise, been the focus of it’s attention.

I grabbed the camera before it could go any further and surveyed the damage. The attempted murderer was apologizing profusely for the assault on the camera even before it hit the ground. I was too polite in saying that it was okay, and, after snapping the case back together and feeding the battery back into the camera, I was able to turn it off and back on again; the lens moved in and out and the LCD worked, so I was pretty happy. He took camera back, took the picture of us, and we verified that it had been taken. The camera looked like it was okay, despite having been broken nearly in half. It turns out that the camera has lost its ability to focus properly at all zoom levels except when zoomed all the way out. Therefore, the remainder of the pictures from this trip, as well as others with my sister and brother-in-law, are coming from their camera. I appreciate the fact that they were willing to let me go through the trouble of copying every single one of their digital images from their camera to my computer before they put them on theirs.

Make-out point

Broken camera in hand, we resumed our stroll from Riomaggiore to Manarola, which includes a trip through the Via dell’Amore. Although I think it’s a pretty area, there’s not a bit of amorous graffitti in the tunnel. I actually find that the little garden distracts from the dramatic beauty of the cliffs themselves. Then again, I suppose the Via dell’Amore is not the place to have images of tossing one’s amore over the railing.

As we rounded a corner where a conveniently-placed Bar sits along the boardwalk, Manarola comes quickly into view, looking a lot like one of our sand castles that has been half-consumed by the waves. The houses of the town peek out from behind the rocks as if they are hiding from something. We didn’t stop in Manarola, because the trail had been closed between it and Corniglia due to rock slides — yikes!. In fact, we decided to skip Corniglia altogether and visit the next town west – Vernazza. Katie and I had never been there, and we had read and seen pictures of a castle defiantly standing on a promontory at the head of the town harbor. The train stops at each town, and you arrive at the train station for Manarola before the actual town when hiking in the direction we were. We hopped the train and were off to Vernazza.

Houses in Manarola along the high cliffs

Vernazza is, in a word, verra-nice’uh. As we emerged into the town square, I motioned to the area in general and asked my sister, “couldn’t you just spend the rest of your life on these eight blocks?”, to which she replied, “I think it would get a little boring.” Stupid Americans. What do they know?

Vernazza offers, to me, what each and every town in the Cinque Terre offers: a small town where it’s possible to know and be friends with everybody, a very slow pace of life where you can enjoy each and every day in relaxed contentment, and, of course, spectacular views of the hills, cliffs, and sea. The Cinque Terre are a scant two hour train ride from several major cities (Florence, for one) and, from my cursory study of a map on the train, maybe 3 or 4 hours from Monaco. I have a small fetish for tiny countries. I’ve already been to one of the two countries wholly contained by Italy, and I hope I have time before I leave Italy this time to visit San Marino.

What more could you want?

We whiled away the afternoon playing with Joshua around the castle and taking in the beauty that surrounds and permeates the whole area. When we arrived in La Spezia that morninig, we had consulted the train schedule and decided that an 18:46 train would be an ideal departure time. I’m not sure what time it was at this point — I turned off my phone at the end of the conference call and I had no other timepieces — but we were content to spend as much time as we wanted in this paradise on the cliffs.

As the sun went down, we returned to the train and took it to our last stop in the Cinque TerreMonterosso. One the five towns, I think this one has the longest stretch of beach-front property, which is all completely open. There’s a “new town” near the train station and an “old town” which is maybe 1km way to the east. We headed for the old town to see some sights and eat dinner. Food shortly trumped sightseeing so we sat down at a restaurant just behind the beach for what turned out to be a marathon meal. The food was excellent in spite of my being so sick that I was almost ready to lie down on the beach and die.

Our waitress picked up Joshua and played with him for a while, and then ran off with him to show the rest of the staff. When she didn’t come back for a few minutes, we figured that, between Joshua and the meal, we could just stand up and call it even. Fortunately, she returned with Joshua, who seemed oblivious to the entire episode.

We returned to the train station well after dark and began out next adventure: trying to get home. Apparently, the 18:46 train would have been a brilliant idea had we followed through. Unfortunately, we didn’t, and so, at around 22:25, we found ourselves on the platform at Monterosso, trying to figure everything out. This included buying a ticket, as the biglietteria was closed for the evening. There appeared to be a machine opposite the closed ticket office that dispensed tickets if you knew enough about the process to get one. In spite of my lack of Italian language prowess, I do know a lot about computers and this one, though primitive with only a double-line LCD display, had definately crashed.

Train Tunnel at Vernazza

Katie suggested that we simply get on the train and figure it out later. I, having been brainwashed by my mother about how I’ll be sent to a gulag if I ever hop a train with no ticket, decided to check out the area around the station to see if anyone had any information about how to get tickets when the office was closed and the macine biglietti was hosed. My search yielded niente, as everything was closed this time of night. There was a woman on the platform, waiting for a train to Genoa, who I asked for help. She sheparded me to the machine inside, and then frowned. I guess she also understood that the machine was muerte.

So, we hopped the train.

For maybe my second time ever on an Italian train — particularly a regional (i.e. local) train like the one we were on, a ticket-taker walked through the door at the back of the car. He asked us for our tickets, and, while Katie was contemplating giving him her Cinque Terre-only ticket (which she had apparently never validated), I told him that the ticket machine at Monterosso was not working. He frowned and said, “no ticket?”. “Si, no ticket” :( He asked where were going, and we indicated that we were going to Pisa, via La Spezia, and on to Florence. He shrugged and continued walking through the car.

I thought we were home free. I figured he was thinking “they’re just stupid tourists, and it’s really not worth my time to go through the process of selling them a ticket. It’s only five more minutes on the train, anyway.” I was wrong. He returned with a ticket book, and started flipping through it, apparently looking for the instructions, since he looked like he had no idea what he was doing. He sold us tickets all the way to Pisa, which was nice, because we were likely to have the same problem in La Spezia. He asked again where we were going. “A Firenze”. He wrinkled his brow and grimaced. Then, he checked his watch and frowned. “I dunno,” he said, which wasn’t encouraging. Just then, his buddy walked through the door, wearing the same conductor’s outfit and one quickly informed the other of our situation. The newcomer glanced at his watch and also frowned. With the double-frown, I was starting to get worried.

Joshua in Vernazza from Above

Joshua in Vernazza from Below

It became evident that it was going to be a close-call at Pisa. It would be a stretch to catch the last train of the night. At La Spezia, we waited anxiously for our connecting train, and then relaxed once aboard. It takes about an hour to get from La Spezia to Pisa, and it appears that about fifteen minutes of that time is spent pulling around a curve that is within spitting distance of the train station in Pisa. The entire car stood up and piled into the space between the compartments, waiting for the doors to open. And waiting. And waiting. We must have waited for a good ten minutes just standing there.

When we got off the train, I assumed that our chances of catching the last train to Florence for the evening would be nil. So, I asked the two nice looking old ladies in front of me as we disembarked where the bus station was. They considered the question for a moment, and then decided that they should simply show me. I started off after them when Katie shrieked at the top of her lungs to come back. I bid grazie and arrivederci to the ladies and went back up the stairs to the platform. Katie was hunched over the schedule with Wayne and Jessica huddled around her. “We’ve got a train, and we don’t even have to switch platforms! It should be here right now!” In the world of trains, if it’s not here right now, it’s already gone. The clocks on the walls were two minutes faster than my cell phone’s clock, but I think Trenitalia runs by their own clocks instead of my cell phone.

I trotted down the platform and asked someone who was wandering around on the tracks wearing a highly reflective service uniform if he knew where the train for binario tre was. He muttered something in Italian that I didn’t understand, and came over to us to look at the schedule. “Aah… solo festa,” he said, and I nearly fell over: Sundays only. Well, I suppose it’s technically “festival days and Sundays”, but trust me, today was no festival day. If we made it home that night, I would have promised to hold the biggest festa Florence had ever seen.

All of us in Monterosso, con sunset

We were stranded in Pisa.

We decided to ask the taxis how much it would cost to take a cab to Florence. It sounds completely foolish, but we figured that, if a double room costs €60 and the train costs €15 for all four of us, that our breaking point would be around €135. Each cab said the same thing (which was, in itself, encouraging) that the ride would be somewhere in the €140 range, but that they wouldn’t do a flat rate — only metered. We figured that they were probably underbidding the price a little, so we abandoned the idea of taking a cab. A women in line for taxis was adament about us going to the hostel where she and her two travel mates were headed. She even wrote down the name and telephone number for us, in case we wanted to try. Honestly, we were more interested in a place to stay as close to the train station as possible.

After some debate, we decided that the best thing for il bambino was to get a room in Pisa and just call it a night. Katie and I were determined to get back to Florence, especially when we found out that there was only one room at the pensione we found near the train station that had availability (we had called from the train and they had two rooms available). After taking care of Wayne and Jessica, we proceeded to determine the location of the bus station. Guidebook maps seem to indicate that the bus station is, in fact, directly in front of the train station. When we looked at the signs on our way out, it looked like all the busses were local busses — those that did short, intracity routes and returned to the same spot.

Since we were there, we asked the guy at the desk in the pensione. He seemed to know less about the bus situation than we did, and directed us around the corner, which was away from the train station. I was skeptical, but I knew from the (in service!) ticket machine at Pisa that there was a bus to Florence leaving at 00:46… we just needed to find out where to wait.

As we came within a block of the place indicated by the hotel attendant, I heard the unmistakable sound of bus brakes and a large diesel engine. I jogged up ahead and around two corners to find the source of the noise. Sure enough, right where he had indicated, there was a Lazzi bus parked on the side of the road. I was elated! It was even there about 25 minutes early, which would be nice, ’cause we could get onto the bus and just relax… no sitting on a concrete bench in the middle of the night waiting for the damned bus!

Unfortunately, this was not the bus to Florence. So, I asked the driver “dové la autobus a Firenze?” He waved his arms and said a lot, and the only work I understood from all of that was stazione: the train station. I told him that I was confused, and he simplified it for me: “bus at train station” (in English), and then motioned towards the station. I replied that I knew where the station was, but I didn’t know where to catch the bus to Florence. He motioned for me to get on his bus. Katie appeared out of nowhere, as if the potential for success was so great that it had whisked her off her feet and deposited her next to me as a witness to my triumph: this bus driver was going to take me either to the place where I will catch the bus to Florence, or he will be so enraged by my stupidity that he will actually drive me all the way to Florence just to make me shut up.

He drove the three blocks to the train station and opened the door where we had started: right next to a sign that said “Linea Verde”, the green line through Pisa. I rolled my eyes and got off the bus. I turned to the driver and said, “Qui?”, and indicated the place on the cement where I was standing. “Qui!”, said the driver. Just to make absolutely sure that we were seeing eye-to-eye, I asked, “La bus a Firenze — qui?”. He replied a conclusive, “Si”. Contented, we decided to find a place to sit. We still had twenty minutes or so left until the bus came, so we had to amuse ourselves in that time. I decided to re-read all the signs that we had looked at before, just in case I was missing something glaringly obvious like “Intercity Bus Stop” somewhere.

Just then, a well-dressed man approached Katie and asked her if she needed to get to Florence. She replied that she did, and he offered her a ride in his car. I overheard some of this, and came back to where the two of them were talking. He said that he would take us for €50, which actually sounded like a pretty good deal. I let Katie make the call. “We don’t have that much money,” she said. I had almost double that amount in my pocket, so she must have decided against hitching a ride at some point. He looked at the two of us, and quickly became very apologetic, half bowing as he backed away, saying “I’m sorry, no problem, si? I’m sorry.”.

I turned to Katie and said “were you just propositioned?”. “I think so,”, she laughed incredulously.

Since I was sick, I had been drinking a lot and needed to locate some facilities, pronto. A lengthy survey of the train station yielded neither restrooms nor an alley dark enough for a substitute. We returned to the alleged bus stop, and noticed that there was a pizzaria that was apparently open. And it was hopping! I guess when you’re the only place in town that’s open past midnight, everybody drops by.

We bought a bottle of water, mostly to be polite, and took care of business. I asked one of the cooks if he spoke English. I was determined to get to the bottom of this whole bus situation, and at this point, I was settling for nothing other than an English conversation that I could actually understand. He frowned and shook his head. I pointed to another cook and asked “Lui parla inglese?”: does he speak English? He shook his head and I proceeded to point to another person behind the bar and ask again. He called to his co-worker to come over and talk to me. He spoke a little English, but it was good enough for me. I said very simply that I was going to Florence, there was a 00:46 bus and I wanted to be on it. I only needed to know where it stopped. Fortunately, he completely understood (or feigned complete comprehension) and said that the bus comes “just outside”, indicating the area directly outside the pizzaria.

Once again contented with an explanation, we went outside to take a look. Standing in the middle of the street, with one bus parked away in a corner of the circle (don’t ask me how that works, I just know this this bus was definately parked in a corner of the circle) where the busses stop, and a nearly empty piazza all around us, we decided to stand in the middle of the circle along the grass — ready for action. My cell phone said it was 00:43, so Trenitalia must think it’s about time to be leaving for Florence by now.

Just then, a bus came flying through the streets of Pisa, tearing across the intersection just in front of the train station, and into the circular drive where we were standing. It came to an abrupt halt, and we could already hear the driver animatedly ushering his friend off the bus out onto the sidewalk. The two of them lit up cigarettes, exchanged a few words, and then the driver stalked off through a door in the side of the train station. We walked up and asked the two people standing outside the door to the bus, “a Firenze?” We were greeted with a very friendly, “Si! Si! Thees-a bus going-a to Florence!”.

Fantastico. Now all we had to do was figure out how to buy a ticket. The machine inside the station only sells train tickets, though it has the complete bus schedule available, and you can even buy a train ticket that includes complex transfers, including busses. An oversight in customer use-case planning resulted in the unfortunate inability to purchase only a bus ticket. And, if there had been anything resembling a ticket office anywhere near the train station in Pisa, I would have already found it and violently assulted any ticket machine that refused to give me a ticket for whatever reason.

To avoid a lengthy destruction of public property trial, I asked the friendly gentlemen in front of the bus where I could buy a ticket for this particular bus. They exchanged a look, looked at the train station entrance, consulted their watches, and then nodded at each other: “In la bus”, and indicated that we should buy our ticket from the driver once we were on the bus.

The driver emerged from the train station and exchanged a few animated words with his buddies outside the bus. He looked around at the small collection of people waiting on the curb and said “okay-ee! ever-body to Firenze!” and climbed in. We all piled in and sat down on the bus, which appeared more cavernous than it should due to the dearth of passengers at this late hour.

The driver was very friendly and spoke a tiny bit of English, which he enjoyed using. He verified that we were, in fact, going to Florence, and specifically to Santa Maria Novella – the main train station in Florence. The tickets were the same price as the train ticket would have been: €5 each. After processing each passenger in such a way and expelling a gentleman who appeared to have no verifiable address, he checked his Trenitalia-synchronized watch, closed the door, and we were on our way.

After a gentle turn around the circle at the bus stop, he accelerated quite a bit onto the abandoned street which runs approximately east from the station. He turned on the radio which was playing quite outdated American pop songs and cranked up the volume. As soon as we were headed straight on that road, he really put the hammer down. I didn’t know these intercity busses could accelerate this fast, or even sustain the speeds that we reached in the streets of Pisa. I checked: no seat belts. There was an “oh, shit bar” on the seat in front of me. I grabbed it tight with my left hand and thought to myself oh, shit!. I grabbed Katie’s leg and held on tight with my right hand. She seemed comforted by my gesture, until I admitted that it was mostly to prevent me from flying through the window when, not if, we hit a parked car.

Southeasterly view from Monterosso’s beach

Not knowing where we were going was part of the problem. The other part was that were travelling at — by my estimation — a significant fraction of the speed of sound. I expected our sonic boom to be setting off car alarms behind us for blocks and blocks. The center line of the road shimmied back and forth as we went around blind corners, taking the most efficient path for the enormous yacht we were all in. We came so close to cars parked on the side of the road that I felt like we were going to take off their side-view mirrors, bumpers, or even more along with us to Florence.

I was hoping to sleep on the bus — a nice, relaxing ride with a few bumps. I used to take a 45-minute bus ride to school and back every day for 6 years on a yellow school bus with crappy rubber seats. I figured that catching an hour of sleep on this ride was going to be cake. I was wrong. There was no way that any sane person could sleep on this trip — especially anyone that had decided that the best place to sit was in the first normal seat on the bus — the rumble seat was taken by the driver’s buddy, who appeared poised to leap directly out through the windshield at the first sign of danger. Then, the driver began to sing at the top of his lungs.

It was in semi-English, because he only knew the words to the chorus of the song he was singing — the verses were too complicated so he would just hum along with them and yell out the occasional unmistakable word. His voice was hoarse from all the cigarettes, singing, and verbal antics exchanged with his amico in the front seat.

Finally, we left Pisa and emerged onto a roundabout for getting onto the “Fi-Pi-Li” — the Firenze-Pisa-Livorno highway connector. We careened around the roundabout and were slingshot onto the highway where the driver performed a harrowing merge and went into the left lane without missing a beat. After passing a car, we went back over to the right lane for a while. Whenever we would approach a car from behind, the driver would pull within no more than 10cm of their back bumper, hover there for 1km or so, and then lurch into the left lane to go around them. And it goes without saying that, after passing, he would cut off the driver in the other lane mercilessly, as if to punish him for not driving faster. At least we’ll get there quickly, I thought.

Soon, we took an exit for a town I had never heard of. At one in the morning, this town was completely dead. It was the Italian equivalent of Terre Haute, Indiana, and we were again racing through narrow streets. We approached a traffic light — probably the only one in the entire town — which was red. He made a soft right-hand turn through it without slowing down a bit, taking up the entire width of the road with the bus. “Eets okay-ee!” he yelled, anticipating our protestations, which were of course frozen in the backs of our throats.

We pulled into what had to be the bus station, but looked like a parking lot for a drugstore, and the bus screeched to a halt. “Okay-ee! Eets Firenza!” the driver bellowed and laughed uproariously as he and his comrade stepped off the bus to smoke. As the bus sat there, heaving oddly up and down, we slowly felt our blood pressure and heart rates returning to normal. We watched the driver and his friend discuss some inconsequential topic, the driver waving his hands like a maniac and talking so loud that we could hear him very clearly through the glass windows. His friend was much more subdued but played along and chuckled at nearly everything he said. We decided that the driver was motivated by his desire to stand at the bus stations and smoke cigarettes with his friend. We concluded that he was driving so fast so he could enjoy as long of a break as possible, which made sense in our minds. That, and the fact that he was probably mainlining espresso whenever he got the chance.

We left the ‘Haute and resumed our journey towards Florence. Having relaxed quite a bit, Katie and I attempted to discuss objectively the situation we were in. I suggested taking a short video of us driving through a town to show just how crazy the trip was. She said, “nah, nobody’d believe that we hadn’t doctored the video. You know, sped it up. Besides, we don’t get any sound, and his singing is half the fun!”. She was right and I knew it: this was going to be another one of those experiences that I will never believe that I actually had, and there is no record of it ever happening, save for my and Katie’s memories.

In another town, we slowed down in an unlikely place and made what appeared to be an unscheduled stop. The driver’s friend stood up and got off the bus. We were stopped near a corner and there was a tabacci on it. Oh, he’s getting cigarettes, I thought. Instead, the driver closed the door and drove off. Puzzled, we looked behind us, and saw our now ex-passenger was going into a door next to the tabacci, which we assumed was his home. Wow, curb-side service! I decided that we should try to get the same treatment. After all, Santa Croce isn’t that far from the train station by bus.

At our penultimate stop, the driver re-verified everyone’s destinations. “Firenze — Santa Maria Novella, si?”. “Si,” I responded, “but Santa Croce é un po piú bene”, which apparently sounded like Greek to him. He wrinkled his brow, came back to our seat, and said “I’m sorry, I want to understand,” and looked hopefully at the guy behind us. He was the one who had told us that this was the right bus and that we could buy tickets on the bus, too. He appeared to be in a position to help us again. They exchanged a few words, and I only understood the driver asking him, “dové”, and his response: “In centro” — in the city center. Things were looking promising for our ride directly to our front door.

Having never driven in Florence, I’m always amazed whenever I come into the city by auto at how the city center jumps out at you from nowhere. Much of non-historic Florence is, to me, virtually indistinguishable from any other non-historic part. I try to identify where I am to orient myself, but just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, an unmistakable landmark jumps out at me from a place where it shouldn’t be. This hadn’t happened yet when our friend behind us got out at another unscheduled stop in what ended up being the north side of Florence. Uh, oh, I thought. There goes our navigator.

We pulled into Santa Maria Novella station right on time: 02:45. The bus stopped and the driver got up and stretched, facing the back of the bus. There were only three of us left: Katie and me, and another guy who had spent the entire ride on his cell phone at the back of the bus. The driver bid us all a buona notte and we all got out. Male, I thought. No door-to-door service.

We went to the taxi stand where most cabbies were literally asleep at their wheels. We had to give the first one in line a rather loud and uncourtious buona sera to wake him up. “Quanto costa a Sante Croce?” — how much to Santa Croce. Our Italian is so poor, but I like to think that our attempt is appreciated, and hey, we get the point across. He grunted, frowned, and said in a heavy Italian accent, “meeneemum charg-ay ees eight ay-uro”. Eight euro to go ten blocks? Forget that. We’re walking.

Katie didn’t protest. It was cold, and we were walking corpses, but we’d be damned before we were going to pay more for the cab ride home from the bus station than we paid for the whole trip from Pisa!

It seemed to get colder as we walked. We approached our front door at about 03:00. Home sweet home. “At least it’ll feel nice and toasty inside compared to our walk home,” I said. “Not if you left the windows open all day and night,” Katie replied. Which, of course, I had.