Naples

Pizza! Music! Vibrance! Passion! Creativity! The ocean! What more could you want….?! 

OK so I was getting more and more fraught with worry about going to Naples, especially as it was to be my last stop before leaving Italy and I didn’t want anything to spoil my amazing experience here so far. I’d heard lots about pickpockets, muggings and murders (!) but not just via word of mouth, it came straight from those who it had happened to. To make matters worse, the hostel in Rome gave us the unfortunate news that the two girls who had shared our dorm room and gone on to Naples the day before had been involved in an attempted mugging by a couple of guys on scooters. Fortunately they didn’t lose their belongings, but what is perhaps even worse, is that one of them got dragged to the ground and hurt her arms and legs quite badly. I can only imagine how frightening something like that can be, and how extra vulnerable and distrusting one would become after such an event. I felt awful for her. I too had my handbag snatched one evening when I lived in Bristol, again by a gang who followed me in a car…. it took me years to feel ok about walking in the dark alone again, even if it was still early evening. It’s a horrible thing to happen, makes you feel like you are susceptible to the worst possible things that can possibly happen in life and it turns everything on it’s head making you feel that you no longer have control over your own your own life or can do anything independently because you fear the worse. I hope she recovers well and can enjoy the rest of her travels and it doesn’t ruin her experience of Italy.

However…..! Despite the chaotic, noisy and manic reception I was greeted with as I came out of the train station (where for a brief moment I confirmed in my head I was nuts for coming here) I turned into the main road where my bed & breakfast is located and passed by a side street on my left which was totally the most typical Napoleon street you could ever imagine – just like you see in the movies! Except there it was in real life! I could not believe the scene it literally took my breath away. The sun was perfectly over the street casting a golden glow and I wish wish WISH I had the nerve to stop and take out my camera and capture it right there and then. But I didn’t. I still had The Fear. I had all my luggage with me and felt like an obvious newcomer, a tourist – someone worth mugging! So I told myself I would return later and sneak some photos. Well, I tried this several times but it never quite had the same impact and I feel my photos unfortunately reflect this. But the memory of the scene hitting me with full whack in the face, and in the heart, will remain forever, and for that I am grateful. It is those moments in life, when travelling, with loved-ones etc, that sometimes can never be captured in a frame anyway. They are the ones worth storing in our busy fuddled brains, to pull up whenever we need to be cheered up, reminded of the great things, people and places we’ve been lucky enough to encounter in our short, wonderful lives. They are life’s gifts.

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The street in Naples that blew my mind… it was just like in the movies! 

So my impression of Naples was quickly improving. Sounds of samba music, the constant beeps from scooters and cars on the busy roads, the amount of what appeared to be local people rather than hoards of other tourists all seemed to make me feel like I had somehow found another place that could be considered ‘home’. It was gritty, chaotic, colourful, confusing and hot. But it was alive and brilliant and intriguing, all the ingredients that make discovering a new area liberating and exciting – and also provide more opportunities to learn more about oneself and others.

My bed and breakfast accommodation was slightly indulgent, which I felt was justified as I had a long journey to India ahead. It was a peaceful haven in amongst the chaos, right on Piazza Nicola Amore, fairly close to the train station and not too far from the port. The port was somewhere I was anxious to get to – I was in desperate need of seeing the sea! So after checking in I attempted to find food (there are a few vegan options in Naples, thankfully) and walk to the port to see the sea and smell the fresh sea air.

The food conundrum was simple. One of the oldest and best pizzerias in Naples, which had also come highly recommended by some other travellers, was just a short 4 minute walk from where I was staying. Seeing as it offers a vegan pizza (there are only two topping options, the marinara is vegan) and also featured in Eat Pray Love, it went without saying that a visit was in order. One thing I wasn’t prepared for though, even at 3pm on a Monday afternoon, was queuing for 1.5hrs…. and this was spent standing outside in the street in a crowd, often moving out of the way for impatient but skilfully driven scooters hooting their way through.  I was hungry when I arrived. Starving by the time my number was called. As it is a sit-wherever-seats-become-available kind of place, I had to hijack the table of a couple who had been glued to each other’s faces in the queue outside, thereby no doubt ruining their romantic experience. But she wished me a good afternoon when she left with a friendly wave, so I guess they knew the score and maybe even…. ewwwwwww felt sorry for me dining alone! Oh god. Apparently it is considered as odd here in Italy, a sorry scene even, to be dining as a woman alone. Oh well. Am used to it now! But visiting the pizzeria was an experience, one that had to be done before I left Naples and I’d done it within a few hours of arriving. Happy days.

From here I needed to walk a bit, walk off the lump of dough sitting in my happy but heavy belly and so I attempted to walk to the port. It was getting on a bit and despite feeling a little bit better about the town I was still going to heed the advice of not walking around after dark, so time was limited. I spent most of the following hour trying to reach the sea…. the whole area seemed to be big busy roads and dead ends leading to massive cruise ships so I couldn’t get to the sea!  Defeated, I went back to the B&B, happy that the next day I would be meeting up with one of the girls from my Rome dorm for a day trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The weather forecast was not great but it would be better navigating the rather confusing and complex journey by public transport to the sights with a friend rather than alone.

Unfortunately, she messaged the next morning to say she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t face the long journey (she’d opted for the cheapest but therefore longest train from Rome to Naples, which would have taken about 3 hours!) and therefore wouldn’t be joining me. Which was such a shame, poor thing, as she had already been to Naples once and missed out on going to Pompeii then too. It was her dream to go, she had told me.  But this also left me with a difficult situation as it was by then too late to join a tour in order to still see the two sights, and I did not feel confident about going alone on public transport. Again, the bad stories were plaguing my mind and keeping me locked in the safe and secure B&B bedroom, away from any potential risks and hazards!

I took a moment to breathe. To accept and acknowledge that I only had one whole day in Naples, which was also to be my last day in Italy, and I really didn’t want to let it go to waste. I was almost glad in a way that Pompeii and Vesuvius were off the menu as I had really wanted to see more of Naples and now the opportunity had presented itself. So I (mentally) pulled on my Big Girls Pants and got a grip on myself and started looking at local walking tours or some kind of guided tour and found a golden nugget. A tour of old Naples and the port, with a guide and a car – and it was affordable and didn’t start until 13:30 so I had plenty of time to book, confirm and get ready! It also meant I could be back in time for dinner somewhere before dark. Everything was working out fine. It was all going to be ok.

And so I met the guide at a nearby hotel and we got in a Mercedes to pick up a couple who would also be joining the tour from their very posh hotel in the port area. It was nice it being a small group with just the three of us and the guide (and driver). Made it more intimate and personal plus we had more choice over where we wanted to go. The guide was excellent too. A lovely local lady of similar age to me, who had had a similar recent burning desire inside to change her life up recently which led her back to her home town after some years away. She was very knowledgable about the area, the history and had lots of interesting quirky facts and it made for quite an entertaining experience, especially as the couple (from America and Australia) were both in the travel business and seemed to ask very interesting questions that brought even more intrigue to the town and it’s culture. But the best bit was getting up close to the sea, and then driving up the hill to get an amazing view of the town and bay. Blue sky and blue sea stretched for miles. Open space, nature, fresh air. It was a beautiful day and we marked the end of the tour with some vegan gelatos by the ocean. Perfect.

That evening I went in search of some vegan food, and was met with typical European time issues…. the first place was due to close at 7pm, and when I got there at 6:30pm it was already closed… the second place was meant to open at 6:30pm but when I got there 10 mins later they were still opening up and told me the kitchen would be open about half an hour later…. but by then I was in the thick of the back streets, meandering with Googlemaps as my guide as this was definitely the kind of place you could get lost and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the environment. It seemed very much a locals place, tiny little bars and shops peeping out of the darkened small streets and they seemed a little bit interested in me walking about as well. So a quick review of the situation and finding somewhere else on HappyCow to try, I found myself walking along a route we had done on the tour earlier that day, which was nice as it was familiar to me (which is always reassuring in a new place where you’re not entirely sure where you’re going) and even more of a bonus, it led me to one of those amazing pedestrianised streets where everyone is walking, shopping, eating, drinking, chatting – the place to be. I love it when this kind of thing happens!

Here I found Shanti Art & Music Bar, which looked amazing but was very busy so I earmarked it as somewhere to come and chill out for a few hours the next day whilst waiting for the train back to Rome in the afternoon, and walked a few doors down a side street to Tandem, which not only offered vegan options but also had outside seats available. Bonus! The guys there took good care of me and served up some delicious food and I even opted for a non-alcoholic beer. Which is a new experience for me! Tasted good – in fact it tasted even better knowing there would be no repercussions from drinking it!

It was dark by the time I had to make my way back and I have to say sticking to the main busier streets and roads is the way to go. Feeling familiar with the route also helps, so maybe after a few days of getting to know the area, marking out territories that need to be avoided, if only because of how you feel when you’re in them, certainly helps you enjoy the town and feel confident with being out and about. Same goes for any town/city really. The other great thing is the city is cheap. Everything was way cheaper than say Florence or Siena, even Rome.

The next day was my final day in Italy (boooooooo) and I had a bit of a wait in Naples before boarding the train to Rome airport so I did what I planned to do, sit in Shanti Art & Musik bar eating a bit of brunch and chilling out as much as possible. It was the perfect location as it was very quiet, and the place was decorated with lots of India-inspired hippie cushions, throws, bunting and art, getting me in the mood for my upcoming trip to India and getting in the mindset for finding peace and spirituality!

Namaste!

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Leaving Naples, passing Mount Vesuvius (don’t worry, I will be back to climb you, for sure!) on the way to Rome airport…. goodbye Italy, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Will be back to see more of the South another time. Until then xxx

Rome

Ancient ruins, weary feet, thunderstorms, meeting super human beings, beautiful fountains and gin

I arrived safely in Rome, and in style, thanks to my Italiarail Pass which upgraded my seats free of charge to Premier. Woohoo! Whilst this might seem like an unnecessary treat for a backpacker, it is really rather handy as there is more luggage space in these carriages and you can even fit cases behind the seats, therefore they are always near you, which is so reassuring when you want to sit back, relax and enjoy the view and not be worrying about your stuff going off with strangers. It meant I also got free water, coffee and snacks. Not bad eh. The trains are very easy to navigate, even if you have to change at stations. Although watch out/listen out for last minute changes to platforms, I’ve been almost caught out twice already.

As for Rome…. I arrived with some trepdiation. A busy city, known for pickpocketing, sprawled out over several Kms so not quite as easy to walk around as Florence and Siena were.  I didn’t fancy the local public transport and so braced myself for some severe walking, especially as I only had one full day there to squeeze everything in.

I was welcomed at the hostel by a couple of super friendly and knowledgeable young guys from the Philippines and offloaded my stuff into the 4-bed female dorm, finding myself once again in the top bunk. I was getting a little negative in my head as I realised there was only one bathroom between appx 12 people and a small kitchen, which was handy, but wasn’t quite offering the space to relax and chill out that I felt I really needed. I needn’t have worried though as it worked out to be a very cosy and super friendly place where it was much easier to get chatting to the others than in a larger hostel, or hotel.

I was feeling a little displaced and uncertain about what to do with myself and didn’t really feel like hanging around on my bunk so forced myself out into the streets with my trusty GoogleMaps, HappyCow app and an old fashioned map. Not wanting to venture too far as it was already late in the day, and it would seem no-one liked walking around Rome after dark, I opted for the nearest place to eat listed on HappyCow which turned out to be a pretty good idea as their vegan menu was pretty extensive! Took me a while to decide what to have, but in the end went with two arancini balls (yum) and a tumeric and lemon risotto with seitan pieces (which really didn’t look very appetising, but was actually very tasty) and a small Peroni. Well, when in Rome 😉

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Mmmmm arancini!

 

Eating by myself had really become quite a chore by then but the people at the tables next to me provided some light entertainment (not that they realised) thanks to their loud Southern American drawl, and an older couple who were sat ahead of me spent the entire time barely speaking, with her flicking her finger on the table repeatedly and staring into space… awkward. Was pretty relieved to be dining solo compared to all that.

After dinner, despite wanting to crawl into a ball and hide, I forced myself out back on the streets away from the hostel and headed into ‘town’. A storm was coming (think it was following me from Siena!) and heavy rain had been forecasted which some local entrepreneurs had swooped on the potential to make more money and adorned every street corner selling umbrellas. Passing Palazzo della Republica, the fountain and then many, many shops, I came across a sign for ‘Hollywood Icons’ and experienced a wonderful sensation that I had done the right thing by forcing myself to go out as this was a photography exhibition that I had wanted to see but had missed in London last year! I sat on the steps of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni wondering if I should go in or keep walking and then decided it was fate, and that if I didn’t go in now I would probably forget about it and miss the show again. Plus, it was a Saturday night in Rome – what could be more fitting than visiting an exhibition! And also a great thing to do when you are alone….. And it was marvellous. Lots of famous, classic photographs of course, but also lots of information about the stills photographers who worked in Hollywood from around the 1920s – 50s,  who were largely responsible for making the Hollywood stars the famous icons that they became. Everything was so glamorous and stylish, it was just great.

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When I came out of the exhibition however, darkness had descended, it was raining and a full on thunder and lightning storm had started. It was a short walk back to the hostel, maybe 15 minutes or so, with only one spookily quiet road to walk down (I fastened my pace even more so) and only a slight need in my heart to grab my camera from the hostel and head back out to some iconic landmarks to capture the lightning. This soon dissipated as my shoes and socks became soaked through (and the rest of me) and returning to the hostel found a couple of the other girls winding down and ready for bed. Any adventures for the day were surely over.

The next day was the only full day I would have in Rome, so I was up bright and early and ready to go. Well, that wasn’t the plan at all as I was fancying a lie-in with the duvet over my head but the two girls who’d had an early night were up and about, ready for their next journey to Naples, and I found myself picking up their positive energy and wanting to get out there and see the world too. So up I was, ready to leave the building by a surprisingly early 9am. Still not early enough for a trip to Vatican City though. Apparently you need to be there and queuing by 8am. Not gonna happen. Although in hindsight I wish I had made the effort to go as it truly does look astounding.

However I settled for the Colessuem, Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Ponte Fabricio, Ponte Sant’Angelo, the beautiful long alleyways filled with cute little shops and lined with flowers and plants, Piazza Navona and Piazza di Spagna before heading back. Quite a filled day! So what did I think, how did it go?

Well it was both pretty awesome and weird to be walking down the road and suddenly there are some ancient ruins popping up out of the ground. And I became acutely aware of how little I knew about what it all was and thinking a guided tour would probably be a good idea. The way I’d walked meant I’d arrived at the ticket office for Palatine Hill and seeing only a small queue was thinking about getting a ticket there, except I didn’t know if it would include the colosseum as well and instead of finding out I just walked off heading in the direction of the colosseum where I found the entire area packed heavily with queues for all kinds of different versions of tickets. Feeling quite flummoxed I figured it might be easier to just walk back to the first office and hope the queues are still quite short, but instead of returning the way I’d come, I decided to head up a pathway that looked like it would be a shortcut.

Wrong.

Up and up and around we went, bumbling over paths made of huge, gappy cobblestones (tip: don’t come here with pushchairs, wheelie cases and the like, it will be impossible) climbing further up rather than along, I soon realised I was on the ticket-less route of Palatine Hill, often peeking a glimpse of those lucky ones on the inside who would be able to enjoy the best views and close-ups of the ruins. However, us weak paupers stuck on the outside were treated to some beautiful music played on what looked like an upside down wok by a lovely, smiley man just as we got to the end of the road and had an opportunity to sit down and catch our breath in the Convent of S. Bonaventura at Palatine before descending back down the way we’d come. A bit of a detour, enough to make me rethink bothering to get a ticket to go inside. Do I regret this? A little. But not loads. I’m not sure if ruins look better on the inside or pretty much the same. I’d image as the interiors are also ruins it isn’t that much more impactful than seeing them from the outside. The only difference is perhaps the colosseum and similar amphitheatre style buildings what with their scope and layout making for an impressive sight.

The fountains (especially the Trevi) were gorgeous as were the little alleyways and the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo. What I realised I liked about the city, after not knowing how I felt about it, was the amount of history on every corner, every road, the architecture, sculptures, the passion and love that the city obviously has in abundance. But I wasn’t so keen on the noise, the amount of people EVERYWHERE and the obvious issue with homelessness that I hadn’t noticed in the previous towns. It also took quite a lot of walking to get around all these attractions and I still missed a few; particularly somewhere to get up high and view the city from above would have been nice.

The downside to the day was losing my glasses, either through carelessness (which I doubt) or from pickpocketing (highly likely). So most of the early evening was spent in the local opticians getting my eyes checked and fitted for some cool new glasses. An expense and inconvenience I hadn’t banked on, but it could have been much, much worse and was easily rectified. I expect the pickpocket was pretty surprised to find it was a glasses case, complete with prescription glasses,  rather than a purse filled with money and bank cards after the swifty swipe. Annoying, but like I said, could have been worse.

But what ended up making my time in Rome ultra-special wasn’t the landmarks – or the pickpocketing – but the people back at the hostel. The staff and fellow room-mates were just lovely, open and friendly and brought about a wonderful ending to an eventful day. I hung out with two in particular that evening, Saori, a girl from Japan who’d been travelling around a large chunk of Europe over 3 weeks, and a boy from Argentina who’d lived in Australia and was staying in Rome whilst organising his residency. Both were warm and kind with funny stories and a playful nature that saw us cracking open a small bottle of Gin (thanks Lolo) getting the guitar out and enjoying an evening of music (thanks, again, Lolo!). We even had to sneak out for more beers, but soon after crashed. It was very late. But it was the most social I’ve been since I’ve left home, and these two felt like instant friends which really made the trip so much more sparkly and magical.

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La famiglia (L-R Lolo, Saori, Anna and me)

The next morning I had a train to catch to Naples, a town I had come to dread as I’d heard so many bad things about it (it’s poor and you’ll get robbed for sure) even Lolo was winding me up saying there had been three murders (thanks yet again Lolo :D) So it was with fear and dread I left my new friends in Rome and boarded the train for my last stop in Italy.

Siena

Medieval brick buildings, winding alleyways, gelato, chilling out, vegan food in the supermarket(!), making new friends, a room with a view, thunderstorms and some hot sunshine

In essence the above pretty much sums up my time in beautiful Siena! It was a time to relax, enjoy three nights in my own room (with an amazing view!) centrally located by the Duomo and a few hundred years from Piazza del Campo and all the cafes, restaurants, bars, shops you could ever need and everything within the central was within a 10-15 mins walk. Apart from the train station. And this is the most important thing I could possibly share with you, if you ever plan to visit Siena by train:  avoid the hassle of trying to navigate the buses or facing a VERY long UPHILL walk into town by jumping in a a taxi. Will cost you around 7 Euros. Wish I had done it. And I didn’t even have to face the main hill into town as there are about 10 escalators from the shopping mall to get you up the majority of the hill but it’s still a good 15-20 walk over cobble streets with wheelie luggage/backpacks…..

Anyway, after the long slog and arriving sweaty and knackered, I quickly fell in love with Siena. It’s a peaceful town where there isn’t so much to do that you’re rushing to fit everything in. It’s all within walkable distance and lots of beautiful side streets to explore. That said, I left wishing I could stay longer as I had by then settled into the Italian way of life and learned to slow down, be present and enjoy things. For instance, instead of heading off into the countryside to enjoy an expensive wine tasting tour (although I’m sure they are fantastic) find a place in central Siena where you can get expert guidance and taste the wines all in the company of the locals, for around a very affordable 12 euros, I believe. I fancied doing this but in the end didn’t work with my plans but it sounds lovely and was recommended which is always a good thing.

In fact my plans were so loose my daily schedule worked itself out for me.  It seemed to go like this.. I woke when my body was ready, did a little yoga to unravel and straighten out the sleepy joints and knots, had a milky coffee and edited photos, caught up on the blog (well, nearly!) had some lunch (homemade sandwiches) before heading out with the camera later in the afternoon when the sun was hot but lower, so the colours would be clear and bold, then eating a bit later in the evening with perhaps a little time taking some night time shots too. It felt so safe there and I only had to roll out the front door of the beautiful period building I was staying in (Airb&b) to find something enchanting to shoot.

Siena was, however, way rowdier at night than I expected, which was a surprise. I didn’t know quite what to think as it sounded to me like an Italian version of a bunch of drunken Brits abroad! Quite funny really.  You can see the difference in Siena by Day and by Night in the following short videos (had to record it!) I took from my bedroom window:

This also caused me a bit of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as, up until I heard all the fun going on out there, I had been quite content to stay in, cook up some gnocchi and drink some just-about-drinkable white wine. Luckily on the second day I got chatting to one of the other guests staying in the Air&b who suggested we go out for some dinner that evening which made a nice change from dining alone.

Turns out she is also a keen yoga practitioner and interested in doing the Yoga Teacher Training Course in India as well, plus she’s been to India a few times and got me all excited about heading there soon with her stories, tips and advice. Always nice to meet kindred spirits. There were actually three of us sharing the apartment and we were all like-minded, which worked wonderfully. We all left on Saturday; Pamela, who I went to dinner with (from London but has an Australian accent from living there for some years) headed for the Tuscany hills at a singing workshop (lucky lady!) and Nicky, from the Netherlands, decided to extend her stay for another week’s worth of Italian lessons at a local college (also a lucky lady!). It was sad to say goodbye as these were the first two I had really spent any time with, but, as with travelling, comes the time to part ways and continue our journeys.

Aside from making lovely new friends I had a slight issue with finding vegan food out and around town, especially as the only two vegan restaurants in town seem to no longer exist. So for those of you interested in getting fed as a vegan in Siena, go to Conrad City at Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. It’s cheaper than the central supermarkets and has a good stock of vegan cheeses, chilled burgers/falafels, breads, biscuits etc. Particularly good if you have access to a kitchen/cooking facilities!

The other thing I rather liked was a major thunder and lightning storm on our last night! I decided to get back out of bed and try to photograph it (with that window view, of course!) and was glad I did. Not sure the photos do it justice, but was amazing to watch the sky light up all the houses in a purply-pinky-blue hue. I tried to time a long exposure with the next flash of lightening. Wasn’t too difficult as the storm was very close, if not over us, and lightening was coming fast and regularly.

By the way, the storm seemed to follow me to Rome as the next day I arrived there and by evening the same thing happened; a major thunder and lightning storm for much of the night. Unfortunately I got caught out in it when heading back to the hostel, and didn’t fancy going back out to photograph it. Nah. From the comfort of the bedroom maybe, but not out in the very wet streets!

So if you ever have the chance to go, I totally recommend it. If you want an easy-going, chilled time in Italy, with great food and drink options, some culture and a town that has history and beauty popping up in literally all of its streets and alleyways, you can’t go wrong in Siena. I think 3-4 nights is good, for extra time such as a day/afternoon at a pool or tip into the countryside, I’d recommend 5 days. But if you prefer to whizz around all the sights and move on, 1-2 nights would be plenty.

So, until next time lovely Siena….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pisa

Leaving Florence was hard to do, but the journey must continue… to Siena, via Pisa.

This was the day of circumnavigating trains and tickets and lugging the luggage! An important note: the steps to get up on the trains themselves are steep (at least that’s what I experienced on the regional trains so far), so travelling with heavy cases is quite a task. But they give plenty of time at each stop and sometimes other travellers help too. Also on the regional trains there aren’t luggage racks, only overhead storage, so if travelling on a busy train (Florence to Pisa was, and this was at 10:30 on a weekday) finding somewhere to stuff your main case without being in the way was also an issue, unless you’re fine with an aisle seat. I wanted a window seat so I could take photos and vids, but I managed ok. You also need to validate printed tickets at the platform before boarding, which I did, but then noticed (luckily) that the platform had changed! But this wasn’t a problem when the train inspector checked my ticket, so I don’t think it matters which platform you validate the ticket at.

However I did order my breakfast at the station’s cafe, in Italian(!), and it was my first proper experience of being in one of their typical busy espresso-style cafes, which was pretty cool. In case you’re wondering, I had focaccia vegana. Yum.

Arriving in Pisa I left my main luggage, and the camera/laptop bag, with the left luggage facility. For both bags it cost 10 Euros, a bit more than I was expecting, but at least I could then walk the 20mins to the leaning tower of Pisa with just my handbag and camera. It was very hot there, hottest I’ve experienced on this journey so far and it wasn’t too busy at the tower. Seeing it was a bit unreal, and yes, there were lots of people doing the obligatory ‘leaning’ on the tower or ‘pinching’ the tower between their fingers poses for pictures! There was also a couple who had just married having their pictures taken which was cute, although when I stopped to photograph them, I got flanked by a number of others who also decided to do the same! This tends to happen quite a bit. I find a nice quiet spot with a good view and next thing I know, I’ve got people practically hanging off my shoulder trying to capture the same shot – or worse, standing right in front of me! I’ll do a separate post on this, with funny photos to prove it, but for now, here are some of the day.

 

I quite liked the town of Pisa, it was more charming than I thought it would be but was also happy to just spend an hour or two there before heading onwards to Siena. Popped into the only vegan eatery on my way back to the train station (Come Koala Vegan) and had a delicious, refreshing, freshly-made fruit smoothie from the lovely man who runs it. I would have taken some snacks or a wrap with me for later, as Siena doesn’t seem to cater for vegans too well, but I had no room to carry it and also still had my breakfast focaccia in my bag, going soggy.

The downside to Pisa was the beautiful horses stood in the scorching sun, attached to carriages waiting for customers to cart off around the town. A few people went up to pet them and I could see they too felt sorry for the poor, beautiful creatures. Please, please don’t do anything that involves animals carting you around, or have your pictures taken with tigers that have been drugged so you can sit safely with them and all the other touristy things like this. Its just totally unnecessary and these lovely animals have a crappy life just for their ‘owner’s to make a buck or two.

Aside from that, Pisa was good, worth a day trip from Florence or en route (have heard nearby Lucca is rather stunning too) but I was happy to be on my way to Siena.

Selfie-photobomb!
Selfie-photobomb!

 

 

Florence (part two)

Day two of Florence consisted of switching from a private room to a 4-bed (actually became a 5-bed – eep!) female dorm, eyeballing Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and watching some opera plus meeting a few kindred spirits over dinner at the bar area of a cool arty cafe which kinda felt like I was in ‘Cheers’.

So…. the switch from private room to dorm wasn’t too bad except it meant I had to check out by 10:30 and couldn’t check in again until 14:30. Luggage issue was easily rectified – large rucksack went in the left luggage room at the hostel and reception kindly locked away my camera/laptop bag so I could walk breezily into town without worrying about someone nicking me shizzles or carrying the load like a donkey. Especially as I was going to a timed entry to see Michelangelo’s famous and beautiful ‘David‘ at 14:30.  I’d left it very late to book (just the day before) so that was the only choice. The good thing was, I barely queued to collect the reserved ticket, and then walked straight into the gallery. Unlike the throngs of people waiting in Unreserved Ticket queue, in the blazing sun, barely moving an inch. So yes, book your tickets in advance and skip the queues! This was the only ticket I bought, I’m not too mad about galleries and museums and cathedrals and all that. A bit naughty seeing as I do love art and culture but… I prefer to people watch and learn titbits as I go along and soak up the culture as it comes, not rush from place to place without really taking it all in, just so I can tick it off the list. Although I would have gone to the Uffizi Gallery if I had been more organised and booked ahead!

Yes, I know you all know him, but here is MY David, the version I captured 😀

 

And some more artwork that took my fancy in the gallery:

 

I’ll spare you the boring bit; heading back to the hostel, checking in to the dorm… feeling bit at a lose end as someone was sleeping in their bed so I couldn’t really organise myself properly….. so will skip on to heading back out to find that cute arty cafe for supper. The one I walked right passed the night before. That one.

It’s called Libreria Brac and is located a short walk from the popular Ponte Vecchio. I finally found it and seated myself at the bar to enjoy a massive portion of potato, tomato and oregano salad and got to know my fellow diners also seated at the bar. Felt a bit like “Cheers”! A couple from Southern California (he was here to give a presentation about the ozone and promote vegetarianism) and a mother and daughter from India (daughter is now a lawyer in New York and mother is visiting her from Kerala) which made for really interesting conversations and much nicer than dining alone. After mentioning I am heading to India from Italy the mother very sweetly gave me her phone numbers saying I must visit Kerala and to contact her if I need anything and/or would like to meet up – how cute and kind is that?!

Libreria Brac

From there I had to leave the comfortable setting and new friends and rush off to see some opera at the nearby auditorium, a converted church. It was a tribute to The Three Tenors/Pavarotti and here again, I made two new (Australian) friends in the queue who also invited me to sit with them inside which made the experience even more enjoyable. I managed a sneaky video of some comedy moments before noticing many others getting asked to not record the performance. Oops! I was lucky 😉 And then the finale was so good my two new friends jumped out of their seats to cheer and whoop and clap and then it came… the tears that I’d thought would come from watching opera (well it IS emotional!). Had I not been watching it with these two lovelies and witnessing their own joy and emotional response to the opera those tears may not have come. But music is such a special thing, something that has been close to my heart since my first ever memory as a baby, and it will always move me like nothing else can. So to see these two respond so joyously and emphatically tipped me over haha! And I’m very glad it did. I wanted to be moved. And I wanted to feel that others were too. And they were.

Here’s some pics and the cheeky vid I got before it become obvious videos are not allowed…. I caught a funny bit.

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And this marked the end of my stay in Florence as I had an early-ish train outta there the next morning to Pisa. But what a great end to seeing Florence! ❤

Florence (part one)

Free city walking tour, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Michelangelo and Procellino

I stayed for 3 nights in Florence and didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t too enthralled with the central areas (so touristy – I thought London was bad!) but it was easy enough to become familiar with (and Google Maps showing you where you are is a total godsend) everyone was friendly, the vibe was chilled out with a tinge of excitement in the air but it also seemed very safe and I didn’t have any issues walking around with my camera and phone on full display, even later in the evenings. I kept my wits about me though; walked confidently and put on a slight ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ face whilst still being open and friendly. It probably helps that it is so busy and things stay open late so you’re never really alone. I also really liked my hostel, spending two nights in a private room and then a third in a 4-bed female dorm, which had been converted into a 5-bed female dorm when I checked in, which actually was fine as the other girls were very lovely and respectful.

So, what did I do? What did I see?

(Day 1)

On the first day I decided to join a free walking tour of the city. Figured I might meet some people, get my bearings of the city and also learn a bit about the history and culture of Florence. I joined a VERY large group of people by Santa Maria Novella Church (aka Basilica di Santa Maria Novella) at 11am where we were split into two more manageable sized groups and were led away by the very informative tour guide, Daniele on the ‘Renaissance’ tour. We were shown where Carlo Collodi, the writer of Pinnochio lived, Michelangelo’s house, Da Vinci’s house and a maker in Piazza di Santa Croce that shows how far under water Florence had been (about 7ft!) in the 1966 flood. There were people from all over the world on the tour and one girl in particular received a special chorus from the group wishing her a happy birthday, which was fun and rather lovely.

After that, I was famished and set out to find Veg & Veg, the place I couldn’t find the night before. I found the food market but circled several times without success. But sheer determination and complete stubborness (and a helpful guide on trip advisor) won the day and finally located it on the first floor. A very tasty burger was consumed very quickly.

Come the evening and a walk to Ponte Vecchio beckoned followed by a ‘trek’ up to Piazza Michelangelo. Luckily I arrived just as the clouds started to thin out allowing the the sun cast a glowing orange over the city’s rooftops and affording a quick photo opportunity. It’s an interesting place, a little touristy but not too bad at this time of day. People were sat on steps just chilling and admiring the view, there was some live music and a beautiful melody from a pianist formed a nice soundtrack to the elegance of the views.

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After this I went in search of Braclibreria di arte contemporanea, a very cool artist’s book shop/cafe/restaurant that serves vegan food and was recommended on HappyCow, but somehow I walked right passed the turning and continued following Google Maps to some unknown point in the centre of Piazza della Signoria, where there was nothing for me to eat! Oops! Not always good to rely on GoogleMaps, better to follow your instincts sometimes! However this did lead to into the path of some more live music, a little jazzy brass band where I stopped to listen for a moment or two. I then stumbled across Il Porcellino, a bronze fountain boar who is believed to provide good luck if you put a coin in his mouth and a return to Florence if you stroke his snout. I didn’t do either (too many people!) but was good to find him anyway.

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Still hungry and getting a little tired from all the walking, I decided to head back towards the hostel and eat at a local place I’ve wanted to try as it was recommended for vegan options; Trattoria Enzo & Piero. It’s a 2 minute walk from the hostel so I knew I could roll back with a full tummy straight into bed without worrying about finding my way back! A very warm and helpful service welcomed me in, with good English from the staff and delicious food. I had a very comforting bowl of vegetable and bread soup (and ate the side basket of bread too!) followed by a scrumptious grape tart (generous size) washed down with a glass of Chianti Classico. Was a very nice treat after a day filled with walking, walking, walking…. and there will be more walking tomorrow so I needed to replenish the energy levels!

And here again, I got chatting to one of the restaurant members as I was leaving. Turns out he is the grandson of one of the founders – so nice it has been kept in the family. And again, I was invited out for a drink when he finishes…. Am wondering, is it cos I is dining alone?!

And in case you’re wondering, no I didn’t go back for the drink. But am now wishing I had, as am sure it was very innocent and would have been nice finding out about life for the local, but again, full belly, needed sleep!

 

Arriving in Florence

So after being upgraded to business class with CityJet upon check-in (yay!) I was demoted back to standard class at the gate. Hmmpff. Although it was a tiny plane and didn’t really have a separate business/first class area anyway – plus we still got free snacks and drinks too (yay!). I avoided the alcohol, although I was very tempted, as I was nursing a very slight hangover from celebrating my impending travels the night before. And being vegan proved quite handy inflight as when I couldn’t eat the snacks they offered, the lovely hostess went ‘out back’ and brought back a selection for me to help myself too. Result!

So after a bumpy (the drawback of small planes hey) but comfortable flight I arrived early on a Sunday evening to a rather wet Florence – but the rain had stopped, the setting sun was breaking through casting a little welcome glow on this very pretty city. Found my hostel easily (Ostello Archi Rossi), 5 mins from the train station and located on a lovely road with limited traffic, lots of little bars, shops, delis, cafes and feels really chilled as people sit outside restaurants and bars people-watching and enjoying life. As they do so well in Italy!

After checking out the HappyCow app I was determined to get my first meal in Italy from a proper vegan restaurant (there are only two vegan-only to choose from plus a burger/salad place) but after walking to the first choice, Il Vegano (Via San Gallo) to find they were closed for their holidays until the 12th (the day I leave – noooooo!) and knowing the other nearby restaurant Le Fate (Via San Zanobi) doesn’t open on Wednesdays I had to think quick… so I opted for Veg & Veg in Centrale Market which wasn’t too far a walk away. Except I couldn’t find it. HappyCow was pointing me to a spot on the map where only large trattorias were lined up one after another. And after being identified as ‘lost’ by one of their touts, who to be honest was so friendly and helpful, and I was so hungry by then, I decided to just go in and stuff my face with a large pile of spaghetti pomodoro e basilico and glass of fine Chianti. E squizito!

Dining alone may seem a bit weird at first and it was hard not to keep checking my phone for something to do, as I didn’t have anything to read, and I haven’t quite mastered sitting and people-watching, or at least, it was hard to do where I was sat as I was basically looking at other diners. Which was disconcerting for all parties involved. But it was fine and I’ll get used to it anyway. Then to top off the night’s events, upon leaving, the lovely restaurant tout invited me back later to join him for a glass of wine at a nearby bar. Hmm. Ok. Sweet but not sure about that….
I didn’t go, in case you’re wondering. Maybe if I was a bit younger or hadn’t just arrived or, or, or…. well I just wanted my bed to be honest. I had a bulging spaghetti belly and needed to sleep it off!
Back at the hostel I took a machine-made tea with lemon to my private room thinking it would make a nice nightcap, but it just tasted like black tea with a handful of melted lemon sherberts. Very sweet, not a bedtime drink. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to sleep until 1am in the end. Might as well have gone out for that drink with that restaurant guy…!

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Teeny plane
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The road my hostel is on (it’s a wet early Sunday evening, not much happening yet!)
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Terrace at the hostel
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First meal, spaghetti pomodoro e basilico