The journey began without any fanfare but soon the cracks started to show after I landed in Bangkok.
The flight to Rome was delayed due to technical glitches. Not a slight delay but an 8-hour delay that warranted a layover in Bangkok! So, there I was, marching around the vast airport that was bustling with action in the middle of the night, looking for that elusive man in a white coat who'd show us to the hotel. Walking around with a 20kg backpack and weaving through the crowd was no fun. Didn't help that no one could tell me exactly where the man in white coat was to be found. After walking around for a good few miles, my patience was wearing thin.
As it turned out, the man in white coat was a flustered chap in a white shirt. Overwhelmed by too many questioning looks and weary faces, all he could say was 'you wait here', pointing vaguely to a corner nearby. So, a bunch of us stood there waiting like sheep to be herded to the pen. Satisfied that he had gathered enough of a broody bunch, he led us (like a mother hen) to the immigration to further 'processing'.
The thing about airports, if you haven't already noticed, is the vast abyss of gates and counters that you have to walk endlessly through to get to where you should be. Unlike trekking where you have an idea of how far or where to go, distances in airports are never charted nor made known and passengers simply walk for miles and miles with many distractions, namely shops, to soothe their nerves. I always treat this as a good workout and hurry along, undistracted. What I've learned is never to carry Boston bags without shoulder straps, no matter how stylish they make you look. The key here is comfort and efficiency.
The truth is… the layover was quite a delight. Lovely big bed and a nice breakfast thrown in... typical Asian hospitality. Finally, after a good sleep and I was ready to catch the next morning's 8am flight. Alas, the flight was rescheduled to 10am. The gate number had been changed too. Now, everyone trekked to yet another corner of the airport. More waiting ensued. 2 hours of waiting is hardly considered long but waiting for 2 hours to board a plane seems miserably dreary. With no one to talk to, I watched a group of Italian men fall over themselves trying to impress the ladies in waiting. Finally, time to board.
The best thing so far was my good window seat. The one next to me was empty…just what I needed for a 10-hour journey. I watched Elektra and A series of unfortunate events on the plane and was enamored with Elektra's kickass body... those lean muscles and high kicks. The highlight was however, the most mesmerising view below. While the plane was flying over Athens and the Caspian sea, the view of rugged snow capped mountains, lakes and vegetation was just mindblowing. Then we flew over the clear blue seas of Greece, followed by the rolling hills and manicured farms of Italy. I was glued to this goggle box for a long while.
Landing was perfect. Then began another round of transportation madness. I grabbed a ticket to Florence at the train station. The man who issued the ticket said you must catch that train, pointing to one that was about to leave. No time to ask questions or get a map. I got up the train just in time. But where to change the next train? Didn't help that the tickets were all in Italian. So I asked the couple nearby but they couldn’t speak English. After comparing tickets, we concluded 'si si together!'. So we were all heading towards Roma, the central station.
Roma Station is a huge one with about 30 platforms. My train to Florence was about to leave in 15 minutes from platform 6. I was at no. 24. So I ran with my backpack and luggage to look for no. 6. The confusing signages misled me several times. I finally caught the train just as it was about to leave. Thank god! The journey to Florence was eye candy. Miles and miles of rolling hills and huge brick mansions amidst manicured farms. The sky was grey though, with intermittent rain and huge streaks of lightning.
I found Hotel Tina, which I booked through the Internet, quite easily. The entrance is on the 2nd level behind some small alley but the inside was nice and cosy. By the time I settled in, it was already 7pm! I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, with gelato in one hand and bruschetta in a bag. There were lots of tourists every where. I looked forward to escaping to the countryside early next morning.
Back in my room, I couldn't get the lights to work. So, I sat by the old wooden window and read my book, the ceiling fan whirling quietly above. Reading Arundhati Roy's stories about India, or Kerela to be exact, I couldn't help but imagine I was a character out of Somerset Maugham's stories written in the Raffles Hotel of long ago. As the room darkened, I ran downstairs to get the lady to check the lights. They came on miraculously! I swore I tried it a dozen times. I went to bed and woke up at 6.30am. Just nice for coffee and then a bus or train ride to Lucca for my next destination, and adventure.
Lucca… here I come!
The 90-minute train journey to Lucca was uneventful. Looking outside, the sun was blazing at 10am. All I could see were old buildings and small farms, some rather unkempt. I must have dozed off a little, due to lack of sleep the night before. The lady sitting across must be an artist of some sort. She was making beautiful sketches in her little note pad. I pretended to look afar but most of the time, I was stealing glances at her drawings.
I found out from Francesco that the entire group was made up of all girls from Australia, USA and NZ. I had to go for a walk while the cleaning lady prepared the place. The first place I went to was the Internet cafe to send out some urgent emails. After a while, the owner told me they were closing for lunch. As it turned out, the internet cafe wasn't the only one that closed for siesta. Most shops in Lucca close for a good few hours for lunch break and resume business again at 4pm.
At the station, I had to heave my heavy bags up the steps. They don't build escalators in these old towns. A short cab ride took me to the Intrepid apartments. Ding Dong, ding dong.... oops no one was answering. I must be too early. As I turned to walk away, I heard our tour leader Francesco calling my name, TING! How did he know I wonder? Well, it's not everyday you'd find a Chinese girl wandering around in an old Italian town called Lucca.
Lucca is a rather 'has been' kind of place. Tourists shun these old towns for the more glitzy ones in Rome and Pisa. Not me, I love places with character and heritage. I like this little walled city with quaint nooks and crannies. Wild flowers grew profusely, and beautifully too, alongside the insanely gorgeous roses and pertunias.
A day in Florence
A short train ride brought us to Florence, the ‘Athens of Italy’. Of course, the first thing that hit us was the crowd! Francesco took us on quick tour around the city to appreciate the enchanting ‘outdoor museum’ that Florence is best known for.
We took a little walk around the farm to take in the view. Then it was time to jump into the pool. Why the fascination with the pool, you wonder? Firstly, it’s not easy to find a pool in Tuscany. There are no public pools, and the beach is quite a distance away. So you’ll find people sun tanning by the riverside. Anyway, how often do you get to swim in a pool that provides a stunning view from the hilltop? Finally, cool water on our hot skins.
Lunch was simple fresh food served by the winery. Fresh carrot/celery sticks dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, bread (in Tuscany, their bread is always unsalted) and boiled white beans followed by sweet bread baked with raisins, a typical Tuscany dessert. All very simple but lovely.