Travel is part of the story – Firenze (Florence), it’s been around a long, long time

For a writer, a place takes on a whole new meaning as we subconsciously look for locations in which parts of our stories will play out.  Of course, at the time, we have no idea what those parts of stories will be, but notes, mentally and physically, are taken for future reference.

And, unlike the usual tourist, we always see it differently.  I know I do.

Apologies now if I have misspelled any street, piazza or any other names.

The first time we arrived in Florence was by train, from Innsbruck in Austria.  We had been booked into the Hotel Brunelleschi, based on the fact it was built over part of a 12th-century monastery, it was conveniently located, and was a luxury hotel.

We took a taxi, not knowing how far it was, and found it tucked away in a street, via Sant’elisabetta, not far from Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo.  The taxi barely fitted through the streets.  First impressions, it was very old, second impression, the room we were given was amazing, with a view over the main street, and wafting up from a food shop below, the aroma of newly baked waffles.  We had to have one.

Words cannot describe how amazing it was to wake up that first morning and look out at the bright sunshine and blue sky.  We were in for a hot day, but that wasn’t going to deter the tourist in us.  Of course, after we had a great breakfast.  I particularly liked the crispy bacon.

The first place on the list to visit was the Piazza del Duomo, where the cathedral is located, and the Porta del Paradiso.  We went into the church, and also did a side trip down into the crypt.  We did not climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s cupola.  We tried the pizza, and hearing that the gelato was very expensive in the main part of the city, ventured further afield and found a gelato vendor that was inexpensive.  As the day was very hot it was a welcome relief.

The Ponte Vecchio, the bridge that crosses the Arno.  We walked to the bridge, taking in the views up and down the river before crossing to the other side, then back towards the Piazza Santa Croce.  On our most recent visit there was a football competition, Calcio Fiorentino, in progress that had taken over the whole Piazza, and during the day there was a parade where all the teams and others dressed in the historic clothing dating back to the 15th century.

The Galleria dell’Accademia was also high on the list of places to visit, and we left the hotel early as we had heard the queues are long to get in.  They were right.  We were at the end of a very, very long queue stretching back to Via delgi Alfani.  We were in the queue for about an hour and a half and it didn’t seem to move very quickly.

Then some people passing by said that we could go to the Museo Di San Marco, and purchase tickets to enter the gallery at a particular time.  We had also read or heard something similar, and, taking a risk we left the queue and went in search.  We found it at the Piazza San Marco, purchased tickets for 13:30 and had time to have lunch before turning up at the entrance for our timeslot, and sure enough, with others who had also purchased tickets, we went in.

Just out of curiosity I went back to the queue to see when the people in front of us were, and they still had an hour before gaining admission.

We saw everything that was recommended, including the famous statue of David, though I had a lot of trouble taking a photo when people kept walking in front.

The Piazza Della Signoria has a large number of statues, including another of David, the Marzocco, the symbol of Florence, Il Perseo, the fountain of Neptune, Poseidon, Perseus with the head of Medusa, and a hall of statues adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio.

Florence is old, the roads are cobbled and narrow, and there are many trails one can follow and discover something new at the end of every twist and turn.

I have to go back, other than the fact I need a new wallet and belt made from Italian leather.  My wife loves the purses and handbags, also leather, though the scarves have only recently been added to her list of most wanted items.  I want to simply soak up the atmosphere, relax, eat the pasta and drink the endless supply of Moretti’s.

 

Travel is part of the story – Rome, hotter than hell, but a writer’s paradise

We visited Rome in August

It was hot.

It was verrrry hot.

We flew into Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino airport after a rather bumpy flight from London.  Unlike most other airports the plane parked at a satellite terminal and after we disembarked we had to catch a train to the main terminal.

The most notable memory of this airport was my daughter’s discovery of a salami shop.

We had booked a transfer to take us to the hotel the Roma Corso Trieste Mercure in Via Gradisca from the airport.  It was a white air-conditioned van and so far we had avoided the heat.

One of the rooms had a faulty air conditioning an absolute must as the rooms were very hot without it and necessitated a room change which was done quickly and efficiently.

The hotel was in the suburbs and without a car we were dependent on public transport.  According to the reception staff, there was a bus stop nearby, and a longer walk to the tram or light railway.  The bus seemed to be the best option as it would take us to the central terminal near the railway station, where all tour buses also operated from, and particularly the open top buses that went to all the major tourist attractions.

That first day basically was given over to traveling, arriving by plane and settling into the hotel, thus we didn’t get to feel the force of the heat.  That came the next day.

After a walk around the hotel precinct to get our bearings and see what shops and restaurants were available, on returning to the hotel we were faced with the limited choices of room service or to go out for dinner.

My daughter and l go for a long walk up Via Nomentana to find several shops and a restaurant.  We went into the restaurant and sat down.   We waited for 10 minutes and got no service nor did anyone come and ask us if we wanted to order food so instead we left somewhat disappointed and go next door to what seems to be the Italian version of a delicatessen and order sandwiches and beer.   I bought a half dozen cans of Moretti beer two of which I drank on the way home.

It was still very hot even at eight at night and the sandwiches are delicious.  It just might be by that time we were starving and anything would have tasted great.

The next morning we are up and ready to chance the weather and some history.  Breakfast at the hotel is limited but very good.

We were going to use public transport and I’d studied up on the Internet.

Traveling on the bus required pre-purchase of tickets which could be bought in certain shops and locally when exploring the area near the hotel, l found a tobacconist.

Next, we needed to understand how to use the tickets. There was no one on the bus who could help so when l tried to scan the tickets and it failed, l gave up.  We had the same issue each day and in the end, the tickets never got used.

The trip to central Rome by bus took about 15 minutes.  In the morning it was reasonably cool and showed us a little of suburban Rome.  We also saw the trams but we would not be able to use them because our hotel not on a direct route.

That first full day we decided to go and see the Vatican.

Not understanding buses and which one we needed to get to the Vatican, we took a taxi.

Wow.  It was the metaphorical equivalent of driving over the edge of a cliff with a daredevil.  It was quite literally terrifying.

Or maybe we just didn’t know that this was probably the way people drove in Rome.

Shaken but delivered in one piece we found ourselves in the square opposite St Peters Basilica.

The square is impressive, with the statues atop a circular colonnaded walkway.  The church is incredible, and took a few hours to take in and to top off the day we did a tour of the Vatican museum which took the rest of the afternoon.

Then it was back to the delicatessen for more sandwiches and beer, and an interesting discussion with several elderly Italian ladies, of which I did not understand one word.

The second full day we decided to use one of the open top bus tours and eventually decided on the hop on hop off tour simply because the bus was at the central transport terminal for trains and buses and it was getting hotter.

Our first stop was the Colosseum.  There were other monuments nearby, such as the Arch of Constantine, but as the heat factor increased we joined the queue to go into the Colosseum and gladly welcomed the shade once we got inside.

The queue was long and the wait equally so, but it was worth the wait.  It would be more interesting if they could restore part of it to its former glory so we could get a sense of the place as it once was.  But alas that may never happen, but even so, it is still magnificent as a ruin.

Outside in the heat, it was off to the ruins which were a longish walk from the Colosseum, taking Via Sacra, not far from the Arch of Constantine.  This day in the walkway there were a number of illegal vendors, selling knockoff goods such as handbags and watches, and who, at the first sight of the police, packed up their wares in a blanket and ran.

Included in these ruins were The Roman Forum, or just a few columns remaining, the Palatine Hill, Imperial Fori, including the Forum of Augustus, the Forum of Caesar, and more specifically the Forum of Trajan.  It was, unfortunately very hot and dusty in the ruins the day we visited.

We walked all the way to the Foro Romano and the Septimus Severo Arch at the other end of the ruins, past the Temple of Caesar.  I found it very difficult to picture what it was like when the buildings were intact, so I bought a guide to the ruins which showed the buildings as ruins and an overlay of how they would have looked.  The buildings, then, would be as amazing as the Colosseum, and it would have been interesting to have lived back then, though perhaps not as a Christian.

I lost count of the number of bottles of water we bought, but the word ‘frizzante’ was ringing in my ears by the end of the day.  Fortunately, water did not cost a lot to buy.

At the end of the day, we caught the hop on hop off bus at the Colosseum and decided not to get off and see any more monuments but observe them from the bus.  The only one I remember seeing was Circo Massimo.  Perhaps if we’d know it was going to be twice as hot on the bus, yes, there was no air-conditioning; we may have chosen another form of transport to get back to the hotel.

The third and last day in Rome we decided to go to the Trevi Fountain, see the pantheon and walk up the Spanish Steps.  We spent most of the morning in the cool of a café watching the tourists at the fountain.  By the time we reached the top of the Spanish Steps, we were finished.

 

Have you ever tried writing on a bus?

It’s amazing how quickly you discover the imperfections of road makers.

As odd as that sounds, a recent trip on a bus, actually earlier today, in fact, got me thinking about just how bad some of our roads really are.

As any writer will tell you, that half an hour or so on the trip to work or home, is just waiting for a few lines to be written, on your phone, or on your tablet.  I venture to suggest a laptop computer just might be a little difficult, and prone to stray eyes from the people sitting or standing near you.

And the tightness of the space available to you.  I know, I’ve tried.

But, if you’re not in the mood to research, I did a little of that too, by the way, the desire to write is tempered by the movement of the bus and your ability to type coherent words on a small keyboard in a very large, rocking, metal thing.

I have to say I have a large streak of jealousy for those people who can hammer out large texts to their friends while riding the bus, and in the most awkward of conditions, using both thumbs, and carrying 26 bags of groceries and dry cleaning, as well as having a full on political discussion with the person sitting/standing next to them.

Even when the bus hits a pothole, does a sudden lurch that sents the unsuspecting sprawling.

With my interactive word completer turned on, it is astonishing what words finish up in my small attempt at writing as my fingers fail to find the right letters, and creates what only could be described as the ramblings of a madman.

Perhaps I might have better luck tomorrow.

 

 

Travel is part of the story – Paris, there are so many stories that could be told

We have been to Paris a number of times over the years.

The first was at the end of a whirlwind bus tour, seven countries in seven days or something like that.  It was a relief to get to Paris and stay two nights if only to catch our breath.

I remember three events from that tour, the visit to the Eiffel Tower, the tour of the night lights, not that we were able to take much in from the inside of the bus, and the farewell dinner in one of the tour guides specially selected restaurants.  The food and atmosphere were incredible.  It was also notable for introducing us to a crepe restaurant in Montmartre, another of the tour guide’s favorite places.

On that trip to Paris, we also spent an afternoon exploring the Palace of Versailles.

The next time we visited Paris we flew in from London.  OK, it was a short flight, but it took all day.  From the hotel to the airport, the wait at the airport, departure, flying through time zones, arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport, now there’s an experience, and waiting for a transfer that never arrived, but that’s another story.

I can’t remember where we stayed the first time, it was somewhere out in the suburbs, but the second time we stayed at the Hilton near both the Eiffel Tower and the Australian Embassy, notable only because the concierge was dating an Australian girl working in the Embassy.  That was our ticket for special treatment, which at times you need to get around in Paris.

It was the year before 2000 and the Eiffel Tower was covered in lights, and every hour or so it looked like a bubbling bottle of champagne.  It was the first time we went to Level 3 of the Tower, and it was well worth it.  The previous tour only included Level 2.  This time we were acquainted with the fries available on the second level, and down below under the tower.

This time we acquainted ourselves with the Metro, the underground railway system, to navigate our way around to the various tourist spots, such as Notre Dame de Paris, The Louvre, Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and Les Invalides, and, of course, the trip to the crepe restaurant.

We also went to the Louvre for the express purpose of seeing the Mona Lisa, and I came away slightly disappointed.  I had thought it to be a much larger painting.  We then went to see the statue of Venus de Milo and spent some time trying to get a photo of it without stray visitors walking in front of us.  Aside from that, we spent the rest of the day looking at the vast number of paintings, and Egyptian artifacts in the Museum.

We also visited the Opera House which was architecturally magnificent.

The third time we visited Paris we took our daughter, who was on her first international holiday.  This time we stayed in a quaint Parisian hotel called Hotel Claude Bernard Saint Germain, (43 Rue Des Ecoles, Paris, 75005, France),  recommended to us by a relation who’d stayed there the year before.  It was small, and the elevator could only fit two people or one person and a suitcase.  Our rooms were on the 4th floor, so climbing the stairs with luggage was out of the question.

It included breakfast and wifi, and it was quite reasonable for the four days we stayed there.

It was close to everything you could want, down the hill to the railway station, and a square where on some days there was a market, and for those days when we were hungry after a day’s exploring, a baguette shop where rolls and salad were very inexpensive and very delicious.

To our daughter we appeared to be experienced travelers, going on the Metro, visiting the Louvre, going, yes once again, to the crepe restaurant and the Basilica at Montmartre, Notre Dame, and this time by boat to the Eiffel Tower.  We were going to do a boat rode on the Seine the last time but ran out of time.

We have some magnificent photos of the Tower from the boat.

Lunch on one of the days was at a restaurant not far from the Arc de Triomphe, where our daughter had a bucket of mussels.  I was not as daring and had a hamburger and fries.  Then we went to the center of the Arch and watched the traffic.

Our first time in Paris the bus driver got into the roundabout just to show us the dangers of driving in an unpredictable situation where drivers seem to take huge risks to get out at their exit.  Needless to say, we survived that experience, though we did make a number of circuits.

The next time we visited Paris we brought the two eldest grandchildren.   We took the Eurostar train from St Pancras station direct to Disneyland, then took the free bus from the station to the hotel.  The train station was directly outside Disneyland.

We stayed at the Dream Castle Hotel, rather than Disneyland itself as it was a cheaper option and we had a family room that was quite large and breakfast was included every morning.  Then it was a matter of getting the free bus to Disneyland.

We spent three days, time which seem to pass far too quickly, and we didn’t get to see everything.  They did, however, find the time to buy two princess dresses, and then spent the rest of the time playing dress-ups whenever they could.

In Paris, we stayed at the Crown Plaza at Republique Square and took the children to the Eiffel Tower where the fries, and the carousel at the bottom of the tower, seemed to be more memorable than the tower itself.  The day we visited the third level was closed.  The day was cold and windy so that probably accounted for the less than memorable visit.

We travelled on the Metro where it was pointed out to me that the trains actually ran on rubber tires, something I had not noticed before.  It was a first for both children to travel on a double-decker train.

When we went to the Louvre where, when we took the girls to the Mona Lisa, one said, “and we walked all this way to see this small painting”.  It quickly became obvious their idea of paintings were the much larger ones hanging in other galleries.  We took them to the Arc de Triomphe, the Disney shop, which I’m still wondering why after spending a small fortune at Disneyland itself, the Opera House, where one of the children thought she saw the ghost and refused to travel in one of the elevators, and lastly Notre Dame.

Sadly, I don’t think they were all that interested in architecture, but at the Opera House, they did actually get to see some ballet stars from the Russian Bolshoi ballet company practicing.  As we were leaving the next day we could not go and see a performance.

All in all, traveling with children and experiencing Paris through their eyes made it a more memorable experience.

Is it me, or are the queues getting longer?

It seems that we spend nearly as much time waiting as some of us do sleeping.  In fact, I’ve been known to be sleeping while waiting.

What is it in this era of mechanization and computerization that we still have to wait.  Is it the human element that is still holding us back?

But, hang on, isn’t it the human element that creates the mechanization and computerization?  Perhaps we are building in redundancy so that we are not replaced by the very things we are creating to make our lives easier?

We don’t have robots who can perform the same tasks as a GP doctor because we still need the human factor, and since one size does not fit all, no consultation can ever be fit into a specific time frame so there will always be waiting especially as the day wears on.

We cannot automate phone call answering except for the part where you are put in a queue and told your call is important and then you sit there listening to some awful music, seemingly forgotten

There will always be hundreds of calls in a queue for the most important services. or when you need an answer in a hurry, because only a few people are available to answer the phone.  Robots will not be able to answer calls either, because once again, only a real person can respond to the randomness of callers questions.

Artificial intelligence only works in science fiction.

Then there is the time we spend waiting at traffic lights, and then, even when the lights are with us, in traffic jams.  We are still stumped by trying to find an all-conquering answer to moving masses of people, either by the roads or by public transport.

The latter is all too frequently suffering delays and congestion due to the number of services needed and decaying networks and infrastructure, all of which is only going to get worse, with, of course, longer delays and more waiting.

Maybe the answer is to work from home but sadly the internet, that so-called answer to all our off-site networking, is not going to cope, and in fact, in this country, our latest update is a retrograde step on speed and availability, ie more waiting and less work.

Waiting, it seems, we are stuck with it whether we like it or not.  Good thing then our lives are longer.  But, if we delve into the mystery of longer lives now against what they were back when there was less waiting, maybe we still have the same amount of life, and the fact we’re living longer is negated by all the waiting.

I’m sure we didn’t have to wait very long for anything a hundred years ago.

Just saying.

Travel is part of the story; once you’re inside the airport, you are on your own

Don’t you just love airports?  They’re all the same, they just live in different countries.

The cabbie, limousine driver, minibus, bus or relative drops you off at Departures, a long thin strip of concrete where inevitably there are a hundred other vehicles vying for space available for only 20, which sometimes leaves toy to walk quite a distance to where you want to be.

Which inevitably is always a mile in the other direction of the Departures board location for your flight.  And there are 5,000 other passengers, and trolleys, all in a hurry to get to their airline counter to check in, moving at various speeds, and you always get stuck behind the slow one, or the family stretched wide with four trolleys and 13 children.

Only to find when you get to the airline check-in counter 700 people have beaten you to it and the line is a mile long.  Yes, you guessed it, the flight is overbooked and someone is going to get bumped.

Or it just seems that way.

Alas, you’ve only been in the airport for 5 minutes and already you’ve got a stress headache and high blood pressure, and there’s still 3 hours before the plane leaves, and anything and everything can go wrong a dozen times before them.

Oh, did I just hear someone say the left the passports at home, think the other had brought them.

 

We manage to arrive early at the airport.  Rather than wait three hours for our flight we decide to try and get on an earlier departure.  This will depend on our ticket type and whether there are seats available, preferably together.

We line up in the service queue, which by its very description means you have a long wait as service is mostly between difficult to impossible depending on the request.  We wait for twenty minutes.  There’s a long queue behind us.  Our request is taken care of quickly and efficiently making it almost seamless, certainly painless.  I’m sure our request was one of the very few easy ones the staff will get.

Today it seems it is our lucky day.  The transfer to an earlier flight is free and there are two seats available together.  All we have to do is alert the pickup driver at our destination we are going to be an hour earlier.  Done.

Checking in bags is usually the bane of the travelers’ existence.  No matter which airport in whatever country you are departing from the only difference is the length of the queue; from incredibly long with a half hour wait to the head of the line to up to an hour.  Our queue is 15 to 20 minutes.

One assumes this is why intending passengers are asked to go to the airport two hours ahead of their fight.  There are times of the day where the queues are horrendous, and that not only applies to Heathrow.

And if you are late, just panic.

And if your bags are overweight be prepared to have your credit card hammered.  Especially if you’re flying Air France from Venice to Paris.

Now it’s time to relax.  There is an hour before we have to be at the gate so just enough time to get coffee and a donut.

And be horrified at what shops charge for simple items like sandwiches.  I think $10 is very expensive.  But if you’re hungry and forgot to eat before getting to the airport then be prepared to pay more than you usually would for the same fare.

It’s also time to observe our fellow passengers, and there is always one who has a last minute dash for a plane that is just about to leave, passengers with panic-stricken looks.  We all know what happens if you miss the flight even as you’re downing that last cocktail in the airline lounge while thinking, yes they’ll hold the flight for me!

Apparently not, these days, because airlines want to keep their ‘on time’ record.

Even so, there’s still three more calls for the missing passengers and then nothing.  If they missed the plane then their problems are just beginning.  It’s the same feeling you have when your name is called out before the flight starts loading.  Only once have we been called up and given an upgrade, and once in the US to be told we could take another flight because our flight was overbooked.  Business class was greatly appreciated and was worth the extra hour we had to wait.

The next bottleneck is the scanners and sometimes the queue here is very long and moving slowly because the scanners are set to pick up belts and shoes so people are scattered everywhere getting redressed and putting shoes on.   But that’s not the only hazard at this point, there is always someone picked to be scanned for explosives, and we must have a sign on us that says ‘pick me’.

But that not all, my wife has an artificial knee and that adds to the delays and confusion while she is independently scanned.

That being navigated, there’s the little matter of finding the departure gate, and that sometimes can be a long, long, long, long way from the scanning center, and the airline lounges.

In  Heathrow, London, there are signs to say how long it will take, and some are up to 30 minutes.

In Hong Kong there are so many gates, you could almost take a taxi to get to the gate, and I know I’ve walked a long way.

In Singapore, you know you are in the last available gate and the end of the building by the number of travellators you have to take, ofter somewhere between 10 and 20.  There, sometimes it’s not worth venturing too far from the plane because it can take 20 minutes to get to the terminal proper, and 20 minutes back, a little short of the time available before re-boarding.

Today it’s not so bad.

We have half an hour, the walk is only a short distance, and I’m looking forward to watching thew furtive passengers who want to get on the plane first, and who assiduously igno=re the gate instructions of end rows first.

I don’t think airlines will ever stamp that out.

 

Location, location, location

And, no, I’m not talking about the television show.

I imagine when considering making a film, a group of people sit around a table and look at the places where a story can be told.  Quite often the story has the locations, and for those seeking to make the film, they have a head start.

Provided there is enough money in the budget to do so.

As a writer, I use travel to find new locations for my stories, but unlike the movie makers, I don’t have any place in mind before I go.

So it that a chicken and egg thing?

When away, I’m always typing little notes into my smartphone in an app called Somnote.  It’s very handy and even allows you to write larger pieces as well.  It’s where most of my blog posts originate because the ideas for these often come out of left field.

And while I’m out., sometimes at very inconvenient moments.

But I digress…again…

I like old world hotels, probably not for their aesthetic value, but because it gives me an idea of what it was like in the past.

And maybe a ghost or two as well, just to liven up things at night.

Dining rooms, particular that of one at Raffles in Singapore, are just dripping with atmosphere, and the time we went, I was waiting for the ghost of the last big cat to come and visit us.

Other than that my imagination ran wild that day.

Other hotels such as one in Lucerne Switzerland, and Kamloops in Canada, were a number of buildings cobbled together with a myriad of passageways and small sets of stairs where presumably the joins of the buildings were.

It was not the first time I was looking for secret passageways.

And small lifts, one that holds two people or one person and two suitcases, are another highlight and are ripe for use in storytelling.  These sorts of elevators exist in smaller hotels, and one in particular, we found in Paris.

It was only four floors, but having to walk instead of us=ing the elevator, was only useful for those who love exercise.

Elevators, old or new are always are a thing of interest, from a writers point of view, such as one in the Paris Opera house, where my granddaughters believed there was a ghost, and looking at it, they may have been right.

They would not get in it.

Another elevator, and perhaps there are a lot more like it, was in an old building in Brisbane, where the stairs wrapped around the elevator shaft and you could see the elevator going up and down,  I guess before they updated it, the old elevator had sides you could look out (and those on the stairs look ib).

Excellent inspiration for all manner of plotlines and that’s just using an elevator.

Try this for size, outrunning the elevator to the top.  Not so hard as old elevators were not the fastest means of getting to your floor.

If you want a fast elevator, go to the empire state building and head to the lookout.  THose elevators are fast.

Love the ones with the iron foldable doors that require you to do a few months pumping iron, just so you can open and close that heavy and sometimes miscreant door.

And just to get your imagination jumping, think about the walkways at some of London underground railways.   If you know what I’m talking about, how many chase scenes can you write just from one walk?