It was trickier than I thought to get from the start of the alps to Florence. I had the choice between a 12 hour bus from Lyon at midnight and crossing through the mountains or a 6 hour bus from Nice at four in the morning and passing along the coast. Of course there is always the train, but that option was out of my price range. Since the ride from Nice was sooner and would give me more time in Italy, I opted for that one.
It was surprisingly easy to find a rideshare from Grenoble to Nice. Like any good riseshare, multiple continents were represented. The driver was from France but of the other two passengers, one was from Morocco and the other from Russia. It’s always nice to make international friends.
So we arrived at France’s Mediterranean coast. Wow- what a place! Of course the natural beauty of the sea beaches is stunning- a collage of white pebbles lined with palm trees at the edge of the crystal clear blue water. The city was attractive as well with plenty of southern-European architecture to admire and impressive statues and fountains. But it didn’t take me long to notice that culture was somehow lacking in this city of tourism and vacation rentals. There was again consumerism at every turn and shopping everywhere I looked. Coming from a family home on the countryside where every meal was an excuse to sit and chat for hours and there wasn’t a place to shop for quite a drive, it hit me pretty hard.
Luckily I met Sarmad- a Syrian guy living in Nice to complete his PhD in music. I’d been in contact with him through the Couch Surfing network where I was looking for a local friend with a place to rest a bit before the 4am bus. He also ended up hosting Maria, the Russian girl from the rideshare, when her local friend bailed. Anyway. we hit it off- sharing beers while chatting openly about the strange consumer culture facade that Nice seems to don. After a few beers and some problem solving to get Maria’s luggage to Sarmad’s place via bike, we cooked and enjoyed a great meal in the wonderful courtyard at his place. Sitting there in the company of these two who could’ve just as easily been strangers I thought about how great traveling can be.
After over sleeping it was an intense scramble to make it to the early morning bus. It hadn’t been the cheapest route, but going through Nice had definitely been the best option. I even felt that way before the incredible bus ride. Unfortunately I was half awake for most of it, but we basically drove the whole French Riviera with the Mediterranean becoming more and more visible in the cool colors of the sunrise.
On my first passing I spent very little time in Florence. Just enough to find the train station and buy a ticket, call my hostess and let her know I was coming, freshen up at the McDonalds across the street, buy a bottle of wine so as to not show up empty handed and make it back to get the train on time. I was eager to see my old friend- the brave Silvia Baldi.
Just now in writing this I’m realizing how similar of a story it is to how I came to know Marine. Silvia was living and working in San Francisco and became very close with some of my friends there (yes Bryan again, but he knew her through the great Jess Bazzoli I believe). Anyway, turns out that if you hang out with old friends enough, their new friends become your new friends. It wasn’t hard with Silvia- we hit it off no problem. And again, I told her that Italy was on my to-see list and if it’d be alright I just might visit her there. Well it was more than alright- she met me at the Pistoia train station, 5 or so stops outside of Florence in the Tuscan countryside.
The house of big Frank (Silvia’s father)- what an incredible place. Like a most perfect oasis in the hot, dry Tuscan heat of late July. I thought it was a mirage at first, especially when Silvia showed me the room they had for me and it’s view of real, true Italy. Then all of a sudden it was lunch time and Silvia had whipped up some spectacular zucchini pasta (‘oh, it’s nothing’), but of course the table wouldn’t be complete without cheese and salami for the bread and a leg of prosciutto to go with the melon and sliced tomatoes with basil in vinegar and of course a bottle of wine or two (you pretty much have to have at least 3 glasses of wine, otherwise the after lunch nap won’t quite be up to snuff).
I didn’t stand a chance- I had fallen in love with Italy by about the time Francone poured me my first early-afternoon glass of wine. He held his glass up, looked at me and gave a ‘viva’, sipped it, then looked back at me, nodded, and gave a ‘bravo’- I guess the wine I brought would do.
I would really like to just go day by day, meal by meal telling you everything that I had the pleasure of experiencing during that time in the Tuscan countryside, but I’m afraid that would take quite a long time and I’m not sure I have the poetic ability. I guess you’ll have to settle for a summary. I basically spent the days relaxing among some of the greatest people I’ve met, eating some of the greatest food I’ve tasted, in one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. Of course there were a few more memorable highlights:
Silvia and her boyfriend Lorenzo help put on a giant, weekly dinner in the street- complete with food, beverage, music, dancing, old people, young people, etc. I was lucky to be a part of the whole thing- from set up to take down- such a very awesome experience.
Then I got an education in what real pizza is, along with why you need an after dinner liquor and sometimes espresso. The whole time the communication with Lorenzo was though the good-old, rewarding, language struggle- it was mostly his hesitant English with my random word of Italian here and there and lots of Silvia’s help.
And of course a tour of Florence with an art-history educated guide. The tour was nice and of course it’s always fun to see world-renowned art and architecture, but what I really enjoyed was being among all those Americans on family vacations in Florence. They were doing it their way- with a strict tour planned, souvenirs to buy, pictures to take and all the stress to feel (it was transparent), and I was doing it my way- strolling those hot, cobble-stone streets with a great friend.
I also got to see a bit of the refreshingly untouristic Pistoia (the nearest town to the Baldi chateau) with Emanuela, Silvia’s sister. She showed me the crazy old seals of all the medieval families in the area. When I was there the community was gearing up for their annual medieval games so there was a big, half-built arena in the main square. Emanuela also showed me where to find the best internet- from cyber cafe to back alley wifi.
Before long it was time to leave Tuscany. When I first got there I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. By the time I left I knew any amount of time wouldn’t be enough, thus putting it at a tie with Little Brittany for the most-eager-to-come-back-to-and-stay-for-a-serious-amount-of-time award. I had a choice upon leaving though. The Baldis were on their way south to enjoy their summer home on the coast of the Mediterranean and I was invited. But I had a flight from Rome to Prague in just a few days, and even that wouldn’t be enough time in the eternal city. But not being so much of a big-city guy, I opted for more time with the Baldis, and boy was I glad at that.
Silvia and I left Pistoia to spend a nice evening in Arezzo where her brother Idalgo lives and works. After he got off work that night we embarked on the ~8 hour drive to Puglia- the heal of the boot of Italy. We arrived in the little beach town of Mancaversa early the next morning, watching the sun rise over the Adriatic Sea as we drove. I had just enough time to take in the beauty of this new place I felt so incredibly lucky to be visiting before passing out for yet another few hour Italian nap.
Once again time was far too short. I had two days of swimming, snorkeling, getting sunburned, eating, drinking, napping and playing Italian card games on the Mediterranean coast- in a speedo just about the whole time. We popped champagne for my birthday and every meal seemed impossibly more delicious than the last. I was again so very well taken care of by the family- like I myself was a Baldi. But once again it was time to move on. Silvia and I spent an awesome evening in Lecce, just on the cusp of a thunder storm before I got on the overnight bus headed for Rome. It was tough to say goodbye, especially with such great people convincing me to stay in such an amazing place. All I could tell them was that I would certainly be back.
It was a miserable bus ride to Rome, especially once the bus finally filled up, but it was definitely the most convenient way to go from so far south. Despite getting there very early, the wonderful Annina was at the station to meet me. I got to know Annina when Pol and I were in Helsinki. She was a friend of a friend, but yet again we hit it off. Since her family lived for years in Rome and she went to school there, she knew the place very well. She even had an amazing 9th floor flat, complete with roof terrace, that she kindly opened to me.
The morning I arrived we got the typical croissant and espresso breakfast and then headed out straight away to see some Roman sites. Annina knew that such an early hour would be the perfect time to see the Vatican. She was right. There was no line at all and they didn’t seem to even give a thought to my cut-offs and sandals. They scanned my bag with everything I’ve been carrying, but didn’t find anything they didn’t like. So into St. Peter’s Basilica we went. To be honest to me it was pretty much just like any other church, just a lot bigger. There were some things inside that were maybe a bit more impressive, but the biggest impact was from all the people (nuns especially) seeming to have finally made their pilgrimage and were happy to tears about it.
We saw a few other sights before the afternoon nap: the Pantheon which is absolutely incredible with it’s size and shape; Trevi fountain which is a spectacular site, just down the street from Annina’s and already packed with tourists; and my personal favorite: Sant’Ignazio Church. Sant’Ignacio’s was so awesome because first of all there were maybe zero tourists in there- I couldn’t tell if the other people were just in there to pray or not. Also, I loved how on the outside the church looks average at best, but on the inside it exhibits stunning frescoes by Andrea Pozzo- one of the first to use perspective and truly make the painting seem three dimensional. Standing in the church you’d swear it has a massive dome which only exists in painting. You’d also swear that there were legs and arms and pieces of peoples wardrobe hanging down. There aren’t.
The rest of my short time in Rome was a good balance of seeing the sites while still staying true to the Italian culture. We had a great night walk along the Tiber River, making it to the Spanish steps and the Vittoriano (also knows as Mussolini’s birthday cake) before sitting with beers to enjoy the Pantheon at night. Then the next day we hit the Colosseum, walked along the Roman Forum and through Piazza Navona before heading up Gianicolo (the biggest hill on the edge of the city) to enjoy a picnic and get a view of it all from the top. To keep up with the culture we threw in a few naps, some amazing meals, and a few drinks in the local hot spots.
And again, all too soon, it was time to move on. Italy was everything I’d hoped and so much more, but I had to get back to the east to meet up with some California travel buddies and hopefully spend some time out of the Schengen. The flight was from Rome to Prague, on my birthday.
To the Baldis- of course you know that any and all of you have some great connections in California. You are absolutely welcome anytime. But I know that to truly show my appreciation for everything you did for me I should say that I will be back to your wonderful part of the world as soon as I can. I miss it already and am so very happy that the connections I have there are with such incredible people. Francone- you’re a legend!
Annina- I’m so happy it worked out that we were in Rome at the same time- it would’ve been so much different without a local friend. Thank you so much for everything. Come visit someday- maybe in California or maybe just wherever Pol and I build our planned awesomeness. You’re more than welcome.
Thanks for reading.