Bundled on to a train with my stuff in the Italian summer heat, and I am on to my next destination, Florence. First, I am impressed by the trains and facilities in general, comfortable, regular, fast, and due to the size of the country, it feels like everywhere is connected. Florence is 2.5hrs away from Venice by train, and the unseasonal heat seems to be following me around.

I am at Florence station, and it feels like I have been thrust into some kind of hip 60s movie. The image below has audio attached to it. Click the speaker icon in the top left corner to hear it.

The picture isn’t mine, it was just the best I could find on google…..actually, it was far busier, but I wanted to highlight the architecture, because from the first step off the train, it was a running theme in Florence. I was tired, and went into the McDonalds attached to the station for a coffee to gather myself together and waste some time, as I was early, and my host wasn’t finishing work for another hour.

Not only was I trying to take in the architecture and fight my ongoing tiredness, but people were incredibly stylishly dressed, which just added another layer of visual confusion to absorb. It wasn’t until later that I also learned that it was Fashion week there, so the world’s fashion royalty were descending into Florence, and the station was the first catwalk runway for the visitors. Apparently the city is the home and birthplace of Gucci also, they have a museum there. I wish I had presence of mind to take more pics, but I was barely there at this point.

Google maps assure me that it’s about 15-20 mins to my friends apartment, so I strap on the headphones and wander out in the late afternoon heat to go there. It’s HOT. (Have I mentioned that?) Waves of heat wash over me, all I can do is sweat and walk.

It was a short distance, but it feels like a lot longer in the heat, and eventually I meet up with my friend, Andrea, back from work. He is a lovely guy (and I am not just saying that because he may read this). We used to share an apartment downtown in Montreal. He came here for a short time looking for a work in tourism, but found employment difficult due to the bilingual nature of the place, and went back to his homeland to find his future. We bonded (despite being very different people). He is, at least to me, an alpha male. Very fit, he is a boxer, and a pretty smart guy. Added to being…well…Italian…..(all of those cliches about being cool and sophisticated and, well, manly and stuff…) He cooks better, knows his wine, and of course attracts a fantastic class of females (I will stop before I burst into tears).

His life is pretty busy lately. He works for booking.com, and trains in the evening with a local team that competes in an annual ancient sport, Calico Storico. It’s kinda like Football meeting Rugby in a dark alleyway after having too much to drink and beating the crap out of each other…and it’s all legal.

This Barbaric Version of Soccer Is the Original Extreme Sport

When he isn’t training for the team, in the off season, he boxes. His schedule doesn’t leave much chance for chit-chat, so he is back from work and getting ready for training, so I take a moment to grab some sleep on the couch while he is out training. When he returns, we are off to a social meal with him and some work friends, and a visiting group from Tel Aviv on a business trip with booking.com. We go to a local recommended restaurant, and it’s the first time I get to really eat Italian food…and I mean, it feels like authentic, Italian cuisine. A lavish meal. I get the first small taste of that cultural approach to food, the unique relationship that Italians have to their meals, that it is more of a social experience than just a way to satisfy hunger. Dish after dish is paraded in front of us, a veritable delight of flavor and taste and texture. The meal is so extravagant that almost everyone on the table reaches their own limit by the time the main course is served. I wish I could find extra space in my already stuffed belly for the main course, but we all over-indulged with the starters, and a blissful food coma descends on the occupants. I feel bad that so much wonderful food is getting cleared away, but so satiated that I cannot compete.

Back to the apartment, and hopes of a full and satisfying sleep are high, but are foiled due to some hungry mosquitoes, and my search for sleep satisfaction is delayed yet again, with my legs developing some nice itchy bumps from my war wounds.

Next morning, my friend is off to work, and we agree to meet up for lunch, so I have the morning to myself. For the first time during the holiday, I strap on the running gear. I really wanted to go jogging in to Venice one morning, but it was really tough with the jetlag, so it isn’t until now that I have enough competence to be able to run.

It’s a fantastic way to introduce yourself to a city, with a run.

My pro-tips. Running gear for running in an unfamiliar location:

  1. A phone with Google directions and a roaming data plan or local SIM card.
  2. Good music.
  3. A watch with GPS (not entirely necessary, but the logic being that the phone deals with directions, the watch logs the run).
  4. Bluetooth headphones. Wireless all the way.

I set an endpoint for the run, Piazzale Michelangelo (Michelangelo Square), in order to get a great view of the city, and pipe turn by turn directions in to the headset. Then I can just run and have directions relayed to me while listening to music and not worry too much about getting lost….if I deviate from the run, google maps will just recalculate the directions periodically. If I were in an especially remote location, I wouldn’t feel as secure, but in a city such as this, I am confident I can just get out and run and let technology do the rest. It is a lovely liberating experience, and really allows me to soak up the city from a mobile perspective. And boy, what a city.

History literally smacks me in the eyeballs at every single turn. The building from the foundations up literally shout their history at me as I run past them. Every corner drips their years of use from the walls, and every new road is a revelation of form and shape and architecture. It makes me want to stop at every corner and take pictures, and I can hardly help myself to do that, but google maps redirects me, and I am happily stop-starting to my destination.

The final stretch to the square is a steep road with steps, and although I have only run a couple of miles, it finishes me off, until I am another sweaty mess looking out over the square, and the view is amazing.

The View from the Square

A couple of things that I love about Florence (and I love many things about Florence). The city is relatively small…the camera shot above pretty much covers the city center. The buildings are all built to around the same level, so its easy to get an overview of the place, and get your bearings quickly, because the landmarks really stick out.

From the square, I gather my thoughts, and make a slower return journey, trying to cover some landmarks and places that my friend recommended. Every new space deepens my admiration and affection for the area. The next thing I notice is how many little flags on little sticks are floating around. What I mean by that, is that in contrast to Venice, with the rumble and trundle of groups of wheeled luggage rolling past, the main thing with Florence is the tour groups. The tour guide always has a little flag on a stick at the front of the group for visibility to the group, and thats the thing I keep noticing, is the flag-tops floating over and through the crowds periodically, followed by a train of tourists. Tour groups are everywhere.

I pass some of the landmarks on my way back, the Uffizi Gallery (the second most famous gallery in the world, after the Louvre, containing the Statue of David), the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria…..the list goes on. My senses are bursting with experience.

After a brief lunch with my friend, he heads off for work, and I rest for an hour and then plan to head back out….however, all does not go to plan. My friend’s apartment is to the back of the building, and between his apartment and the street is a courtyard. Well, it turned out that the landlord locked the door to the courtyard after my friend left for work, and I only found out that the exit was locked after leaving the apartment….so, I am trapped in the rear courtyard…no keys to leave, and no keys to get back in the house. I am essentially locked in the back garden.

Stuck for two hours, my friend can’t leave his workplace early to let me out, so I make myself comfortable….take some pictures…try and find a place in the shade. One of the good things is that there are fruit trees in the back, so I help myself to a few home-grown delicacies whilst I wait…and my phone and iPad are connected to the apartments wifi (as long as I sit in a particular part of the courtyard) so I can amuse myself while I wait.

My friend eventually returns, and I am released from my exotic prison. I return to the center to explore some more. I look into some sports stores, looking for new running shoes. One place has a power cut, but it is still open, and I look through the gloom. A relatively surreal experience looking through a store in relative darkness, but still shopping.

I find my way to the exit….and then stumble, almost literally, into Hiro. Of all the people…in all the cities…..it’s the same guy I shared an airbnb with in Venice. How bizarre! Apparently he thought I was heading to another place, and vice versa, when in reality he just left Venice and got an earlier train to Florence…..even then, the chances of just bumping in to him in this new location were pretty outrageous….and yet, here we both were, reunited in the second Italian city. The layers of coincidence run pretty deep. Had I not been temporarily imprisoned in my friends courtyard, I would have resumed my exploration earlier, and likely would have missed Hiro….

Once we recover from the chance meeting, we head out for a meal and catch up, and our extended shared opportunity continues. I try to avoid eating as I assume I am doing something with my friend later, so just have a starter, and talk a little. After dinner, we part company, and I soak in some more of the city as darkness descends, taking a slow walk back, winding my way through the marketplace as they dismantle it.

Meeting up with my friend again after work and subsequent training, we head out in the warm evening air back in to the center to meet up with one of his friends for a late meal. He walks through the neighborhood where he was born, literally saying hi and hugging every third person he passes, including occupants of passing cars. Apparently everyone knows everyone around here.

The city is in full fashion week swing….restaurants have been turned into runways and nightclubs, people are dressed, and overdressed appropriately. Corporate promotions are everywhere. We end up finding a table and we literally don’t eat until almost midnight. By the end of the meal, I am beyond tired, and the haze of exhaustion has returned.

Wandering back to the apartment, and another night of running battles with the local blood-sucking wildlife that robs me of another good nights sleep. At least this time I am armed with an assortment of creams and sprays to reduce the itching and swelling.

My last morning has arrived, far too soon, another brief 48 hr trip to a new location is almost over. I pop back into the city center and have a lovely breakfast with Hiro, and this time, confirm that we are indeed headed to different locations (just in case we may bump in to each other in the next location accidentally). He is off to Rome that lunchtime, and I head out to an evening in Pisa, before flying out to London the next morning.

Back to the apartment for a brief lunchbreak with my friend, and I say a reluctant farewell, as he heads back out to work, and I gather my things together for another trip to the next destination, a mere 50 minutes away by train, Pisa.