My friend Val and I were talking about taking an international trip together during her break from school. What would be my itinerary, she asked, if I could go anywhere?
In the past two years I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would no longer be traveling internationally. It's too expensive, it's too hard, and with iffy health it's not something to be taken lightly. However, my health has improved greatly in that time, and going with another friend is always cost-effective and just too much fun to ignore.
My favorite place, I believe, outside my homes of Oakland and Coronado is Italy, or rather, Tuscany and north of that. I have been twice to Florence, but frankly all I remember are little swatches of shopping and museums. I took tours both times, and I distinctly remember being placed in the middle of the piazza by the tour bus, never being able to find my way back. If I could go back, unescorted and - hey! maybe even by rental car so we could have the most freedom! - I will have died and gone to pasta heaven!
Since this was back in May 2005, we didn't have much time for travel that would begin at the end of June. After several email and a couple of visits, we nailed down our itinerary to Florence, Siena, Ravenna, possibly Venice, Padua, Verona and Mantua, with Bologna another possibility. After we got the serious Italy map out, we made Siena a day-tour from Florence, cut out Venice entirely, and streamlined our journey to these hotel stops:
Florence (aka Firenze): 5 nights
Ravenna: 2 nights
Vescovana (south of Padua): 1 night
Mantua: 1 night
Firenze airport for last night: 1 night
We worked with a Triple A travel agent in Los Angeles, a "brother" who had been to Italy several times and had sensible recommendations. He set us up with the Firenze hotels (coming and going), the rental car, and the airline tickets. We were ready to roll!
Okay, we all know what happens with dream vacations, or dream anything: reality finally sets in. Reality, unfortunately, hit us immediately. Our flight from Frankfurt to Firenze was delayed 5 hours due to rainstorms over Firenze. When we finally got up in the air, they announced halfway through the short flight that the storms would prevent us from landing in Firenze. Instead, we landed in Bologna, one of the smallest airports I have ever seen. Without any further pronouncements on where to go, we managed to file, like ants, into a bus at the curb for the 2-hour drive from Bologna Airport to Firenze Airport.
When we arrived at Firenze Airport at 7:30 pm instead of 2:45 pm, we discovered that the Baspi Bus, the prepaid transport to our hotel in Firenze, was nowhere to be found. I used my new Euro coins to call on the pay phone, but no one answered at the tour office. It was, after all, pretty late by then. We stood in a long queue for the taxi, and the driver got us safely to the delightful Hotel Adler Cavalieri, a 3-star hotel near the train station and a 20-minute walk to the Duomo, etc. We marveled at the air conditioning in the room, the huuuuge shower stall in the rather nice bathroom, and, sodden with jetlag, took the desk clerk's suggestion of a late dinner at a real Italian restaurant right down the block.
I say "real," because only one person in the restaurant (I believe the owner) spoke any English at all. This was our first experience with an Italian menu (without subtitles!), and we spent a good 20 minutes reading it over and over, looking for clues in Italian words. Val had her phrase book, but that was slow going. And we were hungry.
The owner took pity on us, approached us and was very friendly, explaining in limited English what it was we were ordering. We still felt like we were gambling, but we would often find that to be so on this trip. You may not get exactly what you ordered, but it will be a delicious meal. That turned out to be the lovely truth every day we were in Italy. Buon appetito!