Searching for locations: Florence, Italy

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 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.

But, in reality, I want to simply soak up the atmosphere, relax, eat the pasta and drink the endless supply of Moretti’s.

Searching for Locations: Venice, Italy

Venice is definitely a city to explore.  It has an incredible number of canals and walkways, and each time we would start our exploration at St Marks square when it’s not underwater

Everyone I have spoken to about exploring Venice has told me how easy it is to get lost.  It has not happened to me, but with the infinite number of ways you can go, I guess it is possible.

We started our exploration of Venice in St Marks square, where, on one side there was the Museo di Palazzo Ducale and, next door, the Basilica di San Marco.  Early morning and/or at high tide, water can be seen bubbling up from under the square, partially flooding it.  I have seen this happen several times.  Each morning as we walked from the hotel (the time we stayed in the Savoia and Jolanda) we passed the Bridge of Sighs.

Around the other three sides of the square are archways and shops.  We have bought both confectionary and souvenirs from some of these stores, albeit relatively expensive.  Prices are cheaper in stores that are away from the square and we found some of these when we walked from St Marks square to the Railway station, through many walkways, and crossing many bridges, and passing through a number of small piazzas.

That day, after the trek, we caught the waterbus back to San Marco, and then went on the tour of the Museo di Palazzo Du which included the dungeons and the Bridge of Sighs from the inside.  It took a few hours, longer than I’d anticipated because there was so much to see.

The next day, we caught the waterbus from San Marco to the Ponte di Rialto bridge.  Just upstream from the wharf there was a very large passenger ship, and I noticed there were a number of passengers from the ship on the waterbus, one of whom spoke to us about visiting Venice.  I didn’t realize we looked like professional tourists who knew where we were going.

After a pleasant conversation, and taking in the views up and down the Grand Canal, we disembarked and headed for the bridge, looking at the shops, mostly selling upmarket and expensive gifts, and eventually crossing to the other side where there was a lot of small market type stalls selling souvenirs as well as clothes, and most importantly, it being a hot day, cold Limonata.  This was my first taste of Limonata and I was hooked.

Continuing on from there was a wide street at the end and a number of restaurants where we had lunch.  We had a map of Venice and I was going to plot a course back to the hotel, taking what would be a large circular route that would come out at the Accademia Bridge, and further on to the Terminal Fusina Venezia where there was another church to explore, the Santa Maria del Rosario.

This is a photo of the Hilton Hotel from the other side of the canal.

It was useful knowledge for the second time we visited Venice because the waterbus from the Hilton hotel made its first stop, before San Marco, there.  We also discovered on that second visit a number of restaurants on the way from the terminal and church to the Accademia Bridge.

This is looking back towards San Marco from the Accademia Bridge:

And this, looking towards the docks:

Items to note:

Restaurants off the beaten track were much cheaper and the food a lot different to that in the middle of the tourist areas.

There are a lot of churches, big and small, tucked away in interesting spots where there are small piazza’s.  You can look in all of them, though some asked for a small fee.

Souvenirs, coffee, and confectionary are very expensive in St Marks square.

What do you call time away from what you usually do?

And, do you truly ever have any time ‘off’?

Of course, in our minds, this time off has any one of a large number of different descriptions, like Annual Leave, Vacation, Holiday, Leave.

We want to believe this is a time when we can rest and relax.

Can we do this at home?

No.

Can we do this when we are away?

Maybe.

It depends on where ‘away’ is.

A holiday shack, or cabin?  Chances are it is deep in the woods, or on the shore of a lake, or river, or beside the sea somewhere in another state, or just far enough away that home is no longer home.

Except, you have all the comforts of home?  Then it really isn’t a holiday as such, just a decamping to another location.

So, do we go for the ‘real’ holiday, out of the country and far away, far enough away that we might not be reminded of our usual life?

Maybe that will do the trick.

If we don’t deliberately take our cell phones, just in case the boss calls, or there is a problem.  And that’s the point, some of us cannot find a cutoff point.

Those long days at the office, the decisions, the deadlines, the endless pressure of having to achieve the impossible are supposed to all melt away when you walk out the door.

Does it?  Can it?  Will it?

Let’s just say you have made the effort, you’ve switched off, and that pesky phone.

As anyone will tell  you, it’s often wise to travel the next day if at all possible, because you need some time to decompress before tackling what sometimes can be an arduous getting to the final destination, especially if it is at a peak holiday period, or on planes where anything and everything can go wrong very quickly.

Been there done that.

But, this time, we traveled the next day, nothing went wrong, and all is fine.

Except …

As a writer and having spent the last few months finishing off my last novel, I was looking forward to some downtime.  The editor has the final draft, and I’m happy.

Then, as it always does, the best-laid plans of mice and men …

It all comes unstuck.

Inspiration often comes out of left field; something happens, a piece in a newspaper, an item on TV, or just lying down staring at the ceiling, when ‘bang’  it hits you.

The start of a story, a theme that you can run with.

Damn.

I’ve been away for four days now and written seven chapters and the words will not stop.

If only …

Hey, what a great title for the story…

Sorry, got to get back to work!

Life’s little experiences seem to have disappeared

I’m on a riverboat, sailing slowly down the Nile, ahead of us the Pyramids, a sight, I’m told, to behold despite the ravages of time.

There are others, a curious bunch of people, drawn from all over the globe, and from different classes, in a time when that seemed to matter.

Of course, it’s 1935.

And it’s all in my head.  Something I’d seen somewhere, or read perhaps, and now that I come to think of it, it was an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Even now, nearly a hundred years later, it may have been possible to replicate it, only a world war, British Empire aspirations and later abandonment, and civil rife made it difficult but not impossible.

COVID 19 did that.

For someone who likes to travel the world, looking for locations, and inspiration, for my stories, the current travel ban has made life far more unbearable than just having to remain locked up for fear of catching it.

It’s the same as sitting at an outside cafe overlooking the main piazza in San Gimignano, having a pizza, an authentic pizza, and a bottle of Moretti.

Or like wandering the narrow cobbled streets of Florence, staying in what was once a 12th-century monastery, having wild boar pasta, and just a short distance away, a gelato.

Or wandering around similarly narrow and cobbled laneways in Montmartre, stopping at a corner crepe restaurant, where the crepes are to die for.

Taking that away is like taking away a hand, or a leg.

How long will it be before the world returns to normal, or will it?

In my conspiracy theory mind it seems to me there is more going on than just a virus spreading, it has overtones of world domination, or worse, watching the destruction of the world economy, and capitalism for want of a better word, at the same pace that climate change is changing the planet.

Neither occurrence is new, it’s happened time and time again over many millennia, it’s just we don’t seem to learn from it.   Well, maybe not in my lifetime.  Let’s hope generations to come do.

Searching for locations: Siena, Italy

The Piazza del Campo is one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe.

It is shaped like a shell.

This is where the Palazzo Publico and the Torre del Mangia are.

At 102 meters (334 feet), the bell tower is the city’s second tallest structure.

When it was built in 1848 it was the exact same height of the Duomo to show that the state and church had equal amounts of power.

Around the edges of the Piazza are a lot of restaurants, where you can sit in the shade, have a plate of pasta and sip on a cold limonata.

Searching for locations: San Gimignano, Italy

We have visited this town on a hill, famous for its fourteen towers, twice.  The first time we stayed in a hotel overlooking the main piazza, and the second time, for a day visit, and return to a little restaurant tucked away off the main piazza for its home cooking.

No cars are allowed inside the town and parking is provided outside the town walls.  You can drive up to the hotel to deliver your baggage, but the car must return to the carpark overnight.

This is one of the fourteen towers

I didn’t attempt to climb to the tower, which you can do in some of them, just getting up the church steps was enough for me.  Inside the building was, if I remember correctly, a museum.

Looking up the piazza towards some battlements, and when you reach the top and turn left, there is a small restaurant on the right-hand side of the laneway that had the best wild boar pasta.

Another of the fourteen towers, and through the arch, down a lane to the gated fence that surrounds the town.  The fortifications are quite formidable and there are several places along the fence where you can stand and look down the hill at the oncoming enemy (if there was one).

Part of the main piazza which is quite large, and on the right, the wishing well where my wish for a cooler day was not granted.

Officially, the Piazza della Cisterna is the most beautiful square of the town, San Gimignano.  The well was built in 1273 and enlarged in 1346 by Podestà Guccio dei Malavolti.

And not to be outdone by any other the other old towns, there is an old church, one of several.  It is the Collegiate Church or the Duomo di San Gimignano, a monument of Romanesque architecture built around 1000 and enlarged over time.

Next door is the Museum of Sacred Art.

And I guess it’s rather odd to see television aerials on top of houses that are quite literally about a thousand years old.  I wonder what they did back then for entertainment?

Searching for locations: Arezzo, Italy

There’s nothing like being a few days early or a few days late for a major festival.

We have the dubious honor of being able to both without thinking. I guess this is why you should try to plan your holiday around events, if possible.

We love Italy.

We’ve been a number of times, but the last visit was the best. Of course, it was not without a lot of hiccups just getting there, but in the end, later than we expected, actually about five minutes before they closed Florence airport, we made it.

So, little did we know there was such a thing as Calcio Fiorentino an early form of football and rugby that originated in 16th-century Italy and thought to have started in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. But we were in Florence, at the right time, and even got to see the procession through the streets of Florence.

You can read more about the game and rules at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcio_Fiorentino

We were not so lucky in Siena where we were about a week early for the Palio di Siena which was to take place on 2nd July.

Nor were we in Arezzo at the right time for the Saracen Joust which was held on the penultimate Saturday in June. It is held at the Piazza Grande in the heart of Arezzo and is one of the most beautiful piazzas in Tuscany.

The Piazza Della Liberta and the Town Hall tower

The Piazza Grande, also known as Piazza Vasari, is said to be situated on the site of the ancient Roman Forum.  Here, it is being set up for the coming Joust.

A different view of Arezzo Cathedral | Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Donato

Searching for locations: From Zhengzhou to Suzhou by train, and the Snowy Sea Hotel, Suzhou, China

For the first time on this trip, we encounter problems with Chinese officialdom at the railway station, though we were warned that this might occur.

We had a major problem with the security staff when they pulled everyone over with aerosols and confiscated them. We lost styling mousse, others lost hair spray, and the men, their shaving cream.  But, to her credit, the tour guide did warn us they were stricter here, but her suggestion to be angry they were taking our stuff was probably not the right thing to do.

As with previous train bookings, the Chinese method of placing people in seats didn’t quite manage to keep couples traveling together, together on the train.  It was an odd peculiarity which few of the passengers understood, nor did they conform, swapping seat allocations.

This train ride did not seem the same as the last two and I don’t think we had the same type of high-speed train type that we had for the last two.  The carriages were different, there was only one toilet per carriage, and I don’t think we were going as fast.

But aside from that, we had 753 kilometers to travel with six stops before ours, two of which were very large cities, and then our stop, about four and a half hours later.  With two minutes this time, to get the baggage off the team managed it in 40 seconds, a new record.

After slight disorientation getting off the train, we locate our guide, easily ground by looking for the Trip-A-Deal flag.  From there it’s a matter of getting into our respective groups and finding the bus.

As usual, the trip to the hotel was a long one, but we were traveling through a much brighter, and well lit, city.

As for our guide, we have him from now until the end of the tour.  There are no more train rides, we will be taking the bus from city to city until we reach Shanghai.  Good thing then that the bus is brand new, with that new car smell.  Only issue, no USB charging point.

The Snowy Sea hotel.  

It is finally a joy to get a room that is nothing short of great.  It has a bathroom and thus privacy.

Everyone had to go find a supermarket to purchase replacements for the confiscated items.  Luckily there was a huge supermarket just up from the hotel that had everything but the kitchen sink.

But, unlike where we live, the carpark is more of a scooter park!

It is also a small microcosm of Chinese life for the new more capitalistic oriented Chinese.

The next morning we get some idea of the scope of high-density living, though here, the buildings are not 30 stories tall, but still just as impressive.

These look like the medium density houses, but to the right of these are much larger buildings

The remarkable thing about this is those buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.

Airports, one reason why you need valium

Our airport experiences are all without incident, although from time to time the sight of police or soldiers patrolling with guns can be disconcerting.

We have also experienced the odd problem in London at Heathrow, firstly trying to get help from the designated help staff and then to find the check-in desk of an airline apparently no one available knew existed. They were not very good ‘help’ staff.

The fact we couldn’t find the airline counter left us cursing the travel agent. It existed in name, we found it in the phone book and on the internet, but …

The phone rang out – ugh!

The internet site could not be used to check in or manage the booking on the same day as the flight!

Double ugh!

Until a little footwork found the agents desk and the misunderstanding was sorted out.

By the way, the airline itself was a pleasure to fly on, the staff was very helpful and most of all we arrived just before the airport closed. It was odd to discover that some airports closed, particularly Florence. It was the second time we were the last people out and having to turn off the lights. And, because I booked the transfer to the hotel myself, he was there waiting for us!

Holiday over, the joys of visiting relatives we hadn’t seen for a long time, and an unusual but wonderful New Year’s Eve and a wedding two days later, only a flight stands between us and getting home. After days, sometimes weeks, it is that moment we all look forward to; sleeping on our own beds, making our own food and getting to the gym to work off those extra kilos put on by delicious hotel food or local fare where calorie counting is not part of the dining experience.

Of course getting to the airport from the hotel can be an experience in itself whether by taxi, perhaps the taxi driver from hell who knows only two speeds fast and stop and is also, unfortunately, color blind. Or whether you have arranged for a transfer only to discover it’s not coming because the company went out of business or you changed hotels and someone forgot to tell them. Or the travel agent made a mistake or forgot to confirm the booking. Oh yes, it happens.

We have a hire car and will be returning it t the same place. Let’s hope the signage at the airport makes it easy to find the rental place. In London we had a hell of a time trying to find it; good thing we were hours earlier than we should be. In Chicago, the car rental depot was miles from the airport.

And just because the sign says ‘rental returns’ for the lane you’re in it doesn’t necessarily follow it’s the right lane. Then as you miss the exit, and get stuck on the one-way road system, all of a sudden you have left the airport and you’re heading back to the city.

If you’re running late …

But if everything goes to plan you can get to the airport with time to spare.

Searching for locations: Sydney to Beijing, China – Every flight is different

Sydney to Beijing – Qantas A330-200
Boarding 11:45, everyone on board by 12:02, for a 12:10 departure. Pushing back 12:12 Take off 12:27

Lunch
Airline food is getting better but the fact they serve it up to you in a metal tray with a thick aluminum lid does nothing for the quality of the food inside.  I get what the chef is trying to do but often there is too little of one thing and too much of another and what you finish up with is slop in a tray.  Sometimes it’s edible sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes the meat is tender and other times it’s like boot leather.  As it is today. I think it’s pork, I should have had the chicken.  Or perhaps it was chicken.  I hate it when you can’t tell what it is that you’re eating. But, the drinks were good.

Rest or Sleep, maybe
It’s going to take 11 hours and 20 minutes from Sydney to Beijing, a long time to sit in a plane with nothing much to do other than crosswords, read a book or newspaper or magazine, listen to music on your own device, or the in-flight entertainment, watch a movie again by the in-flight entertainment – if it works – or try to get some sleep. I started with the crosswords but got bored quickly. I fiddled with the in-flight entertainment, looked at the movies and tv shows but none really interested me, not then at least, so I set it to the flight path. Not exactly stellar entertainment, but it’s always interesting to know where the plane is. Or is it? If we crash, what good would it do me to know it’s somewhere over the ocean, not far from Manila, or somewhere else.  It’s not as if I could phone someone up, on the way down, to let them know where we are. But, just after dinner, we still haven’t left Australia

However, by the time I’ve finished fiddling with and dismissing all of the entertainment alternatives, it’s back to the flight path and now we are…

Somewhere approaching the Sulu Sea, which I’ve never heard of before, so it looks like I’ll have to study up on my geography when I get home.

OK, Manila looks like somewhere I’ve heard of, so we have to be flying over the Philippines.  Not far left of that is Vietnam.  Neither of those places is on my travel bucket list, so I’ll just look from up here and be satisfied with that.

Working, or not
Chronic boredom is setting in by the time we are just past halfway to our destination. We are over 6 hours into the flight and there no possible way I’m going to get any sleep. I brought my Galaxy Tab loaded with a few of my novel outlines, and planning for missing chapters, thinking I might get a little thinking time in.  Plane rides, I find, are excellent for getting an opportunity to write virtually unhindered by outside interruptions, if, of course, you discount the number of times people brush past, knocking your seat, the person in front lowering the seat into your face, or people around you continually asking you to turn off your light because they’re trying to sleep. Sorry, I say, but you can suffer my pain with me.  It’s one of the joys of flying with over two hundred others in a claustrophobic environment.  Besides, aren’t the lights supposed to be slanted so only I get the rays of light?  Except, I guess when the fixed light doesn’t line up with where the airline has fixed the seat (usually so they can squash more people in).So, sorry, not sorry, take it up with the airline.

Back to work, and I put in some quality time on a part of the story that had been eluding me for a while.  I knew what I wanted to write, but not how I was going to approach it, so that blissfully quiet and intense time worked in my favor, something that would not have happened back hope. I won’t bore you with the synopsis, just suffice to say it’s finally down on paper, digitally that is, and it’s a huge step forward towards finishing it. There is, of course, the end play, the reading of the will but not before there’s a few thrusts and parry’s by some of the players, but all in all the objective was to showcase a group of people with their strengths and weaknesses pushing their characters in various directions, some at odds with what is expected of them. But enough of that.   A quick check of our position shows we’re still over water but closer to our destination, so much so, we might start the pre-landing rituals, starting with food.

Dinner
7:00 – Dinner is served, well, the lights go on and a lot of tired people try to shake the sleep, and sleeplessness, out of their systems. Then flight attendants that are far too cheerful, and must have beamed in from somewhere else, serve another interesting concoction that says what’s in it but you can’t really be sure of the ingredients.  It comes and it goes.

9:10 – We begin our descent into Beijing, you know, that moment when the engines almost stop and there’s a sickening lurch and the plane heads downward. 9:56 – We touch down on the runway, in the dark and apparently it has been raining though from inside the plane you’d never know. 10:10 – the plane arrives at the gate,  the usual few minutes to open the door, and, being closer to the front of the plane this time, it doesn’t take that long before the queue is moving.

Early or late, it doesn’t matter.  After clearing customs and immigration, we have to go in search of our tour guide, waiting for us somewhere outside the arrivals terminal.