Italian adventures – part one

Well it’s been a funny old couple of years hasn’t it? There’s been very little of excitement or humour to write about anywhere, much less than to grace the pages of your favourite grumpy blog. However, I have actually managed to leave the house for the first time in a couple of years, and as a consequence this one is very much about ‘What we did on our holidays’. Here we go, starting with the process of getting out…

We left the dogs (without saying goodbye) at 6:30 in the morning just as it was getting light. Our taxi driver told us that we didn’t need to wear masks, so we kept them on. Then he told us about some of the problems in the NHS because his mate’s wife works on one of the wards. Although to be fair he didn’t really know what the problems were, or what challenges she faces, but it’s nice to know he has an opinion anyway. A fairly inauspicious start for Mrs, E, who was on her two-week break from nursing.

Onto the 7 o’clock train to Stratford – fully masked up – some of our fellow travellers less so, and at Ipswich a large man who looked like he say look like he’d say ‘rugger’ rather than ‘rugby’ sat next to Mrs E, and a prematurely bald businessman sat next to me. They both helpfully wore their masks around their necks which says exactly what needs to be said about Ipswich folk.

From Stratford to London City airport, which was practically empty but for five British Airways flights out to Europe. Some touristy types like us looking both excited and nervous and some business types that might have been nervous too, but they cunningly disguised their concerns by talking loudly on their Bluetooth headsets, often about what a tough week they were having (it was Tuesday morning, 11:30 and they were just about to get on a plane so ‘tough’ may have been the wrong word). Onto BA3279, where we broke our fast with a roll that had enjoyed a very brief encounter with some sliding egg and avocado. We were sitting next to each other with no one else around until some twit decided to relocate next to us and relax by pulling his mask down and start snoring away. You could almost see those little crown shaped droplets spraying out of his nose as he spluttered away, waking only to press the flight attendant button so that he could demand some coffee.

Flight all over and fun ensues when the flight attendant asks people not to stand up, which is a clear cue for some people to stand up, which is itself a cue for the attendant to say “Look, I can see you, please sit down”, and so on. Then the same exchange follows when certain rows are asked to stay sat down while others disembark, and so on.

I had tried to learn a few words of Italian, on the understanding that if I used an effective accent, I might be taken for a native. So I tried ‘good afternoon’ and ‘thank you’ at passport control, which seem to get a bit of a sarcastic raised eyebrow return (a look I was to get used to). I even threw in a ‘Prego’ after the guard said “Grazie’. I’m not entirely sure when to use ‘Prego’ – I think it roughly translates to the French ‘de rien’, ie ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘it’s nothing’, but it’s a bit softer than that – it feels more like something that you just said to close an exchange. It saves a lot of time too, because it avoids being caught in that “thank you” cycle at the end of every conversation that you have at home.

Blinking into the sunshine outside the airport, we negotiated the tram ticket machine successfully and shelled out €1.50 on tickets to Firenze, then hoiked our bags on wheels across half a mile of cobbles to the hotel.

Our hotel, we learnt, was the oldest one in Florence, and, we were later to find, had not only a history dating back to the 13th century but a plumbing system to match. To our room on the almost top floor then, dump the bags, make an immediate cup of tea (because we are English and by 3 pm will suffer withdrawal symptoms if we don’t), and then out, out, down to the river, promenade along the bank, look at the cocktail options at the cafés and saying to each other that we could do that if we wanted to (because we could) but just carrying on walking anyway because there’s so much to see in a new city, and wandering around because around every corner, it would appear, is something to make you gasp. I envy anyone arriving in Florence for the first time because you do a lot of gasping. One minute you’re on the banks of the Arno, looking out at the bridges, all lit up by the sun behind you (gasp), then you turn around and see the Ponte Vecchio (gasp) with all the shuttered windows facing facing you and the second storey looking suitably precarious on top. The second storey was built for the Medici family (as was quite a bit of the city) so that Cosimo I could travel across the river without getting wet in the rain. He also decreed that the butcher shops, which he had dominated the bridge from the mid 15 century should be banned, because he objected to the smell. This ban is still enforced, which is the reason why it’s now dominated by jewellery shops, which are much easier on the nose and eye. Anyway, gasp.

Some bridges, inc a rain free Medici walkway

We spent the first night enjoying the sounds of the city settling down for the night, which unfortunately involved some serious drum and bass action from the nightclub a couple of blocks away, interspersed with the couple in the flat opposite shouting at each other, possibly about whose turn it was to complain about the music. By the second night, the club managed to ramp up their hours and as our friends at M/A/R/R/S would say, pump up the volume as well. So we trooped down to reception in the morning all prepared to have a row, and were told it was, of course, no problem to change the room for an internal one, and yes, it is a problem living in the city, and yes it was inconsiderate of them to play music that loudly, and yes they had had several complaints, and no we weren’t making a fuss, and yes we would very much like to show you the room. So we packed up all our stuff, went to the new room, unpacked everything, opened the bathroom door to find the smell of rotting sewage flooding out, contacted reception, got a visit from a maintenance man who shook his head and said he’d try to find the switch for the pump and would be back in ‘due minuti’, waited for half an hour, phoned reception again, had a visit from the duty manager who tried her very own sniff test in the bathroom and exited gagging noisily, rapidly taking us to another room, where we all nervously sniffed the air, took us back to our room so that we could re-pack, got someone to help us carry the bags, and finally landed us in the room which we could call home for the next four nights. They also gave us a bottle of Prosecco which we necked almost immediately. Which was nice.

All of the days in Florence followed pretty much the same pattern. We woke up early, got some exercise, in order to justify breakfast, got out of the hotel soon after nine, headed for something cultural by foot, spent the day doing just that, with maybe a break for coffee, then found somewhere that wasn’t too touristy in the evening to eat. So we were tourists, and in Florence there doesn’t seem to be any shame in that. There’s so much to see that we could’ve just spent another week or two doing touristy things, but being there for a chunk of time allowed us to at least do justice to the things that we did visit.

Mrs E is a big fan of the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ follow-up ‘Hannibal’, and encouraged me to join her on a pre-visit screening, so I could familiarise myself with the film locations. This meant that day one of the visit was spent climbing to the top of the 95 meter tall Torre di Arnolfo, which sits offset to the Palazzo Vecchio, and has some seriously good views over the city. It also has the window where Hannibal throws Inspector Pazzi onto the Piazza della Signoria after first disembowelling him. I think that’s right anyway. The viewer gets to watch Anthony Hopkins ask “bowels in, or bowels out?”, then say “out, I think”, before the cut away to the drop. Mrs E likes this sort of thing, she calls it light entertainment.

Anyway, six days in Florence fairly flowed by. Exercise for me was running, either out along the river to the end of the Parco delle Cascine (gasp) or up into the hills overlooking the city (2x gasp). Both routes were stunning and times were pleasantly slow, not least as I was forever stopping to take pictures:

For Mrs E, who took the opportunity to pack not only her yoga mat, but also her yoga mat cleaner, iPad, and her Benderball©, it was recordings of pilates, yoga and kettlebell exercises (improvised with an actual kettle) and goodness knows what else.

Filling up on hotel breakfast is a skill that we’ve developed a fair bit on previous trips. Always eat eggs if they are offered, drink more coffee than you’d normally need, and if there is anything portable (fruit and pastries are good), make sure they make their way into Mrs E’s handbag so that we don’t need lunch. After 3 to 4 days of this, we were slipping into an easy routine such that within a few minutes of sitting down, I had an Americano and a mushroom and cheese omelette in front of me, and Mrs E had her cappuccino and eggs (bolle per sei minuti) in front of her. (There was a danger that we were turning into regulars at the hotel in the same way as ‘the major’ and ‘the ladies’ did at Fawlty Towers. We may have escaped just-in-time.)

And then, post-breakfast, we went exploring. The Uffizi on the first day – astonishing pictures on the walls and even better ones on the ceilings. Botticelli to remind us where we were, Caravaggio’s Medusa, to give us sleepless nights, and more religious iconography than you can shake a stick at.

Then the Palazzo Vecchio, with its astonishingly huge rooms, yet more frescoes, and an exhibition on Dante thrown in for good measure.

Over the river to the Pitti Palace, home of the Medici clan – huge ballrooms, stunning views of the gardens, more astonishing ceilings and priceless artwork.

Back to the Loggia to wonder at a few amazing statues – we thought it was impressive by day but then we saw it by night and it blew us away:

After a couple of gallery days, we crossed the river again, and wandered up to the Piazza Michelangelo – amazing looking down on the city, then further up the monastery of San Pietro which had even better views:

and the most ornate and complicated cemetery that you’ll ever see. Crumbling mausoleums, gravestones built like wedding cakes, some plots still cared for after 100 years:

It’s an amazing and beautiful place to be buried. You manage to feel very alone, in amongst thousands of bodies altogether at close quarters. On the way back down the hill, I told Mrs E about the plot of ‘Lincoln in the Bardot’, which is about the afterworld/underworld of graveyards, and, amongst other things, makes you want to choose your neighbours very carefully when you get buried yourself.

I had a run the following morning up to the same place but went a bit further, hoping to turn around when the hill stopped, but after 25 minutes it was still going, so I turned around anyway, for probably the best mid run view I’ve ever had. I stopped briefly again on the way back down at the Piazza Michelangelo, and for the first time noticed that the huge bronze statue next to the viewing point is a copy of Michelangelo’s David:

There’s another one at the Loggia outside the Palazzo Vecchio, but it’s dwarfed by the other statues, and by Neptune on the other side. The original marble sculpture, which Michelangelo sculpted from a spare piece of marble in the cathedral workshop yard, is in the Accademia gallery, which is devoted mostly to sculpture. Inevitably most people are there to see the nine ton, 17 foot statue of David, and once you turn the corner in the gallery and see it at the end of the corridor you can’t but ignore all the other astonishing pieces that are nearer to you. I was expecting a similar experience the one you get in places like the Louvre, with a limited time allowed in front of it, but people were just able to mill for as long as they wanted to, alternating between gazing up and marvelling, and relentlessly taking selfies:

We took the train out to Siena as we’ve been told it was ‘like Florence but smaller and better’, and it was indeed smaller, but not necessarily better for that. The cathedral was amazing both inside and out – the outside reminded us of an elaborate wedding cake and the inside of the Cat in the Hat movie – it was by far the stripiest thing we saw all week:

Siena’s civic museum had its fair share of amazing art and frescoes but after a day we were keen to get back to Florence, where we knew that just wandering around would end up with another jawdropping church or square that we’d not yet discovered. I’ll admit to being slightly distracted as we toured the incredible mediaeval relics in the museum, as I was trying to also follow what was going on in the Leeds-Norwich game. This was a ‘must-win’ game for Norwich, which they rather predictably ‘did-lose’. With Norwich one nil down early on in the game my mood nicely reflected quite a bit of the mediaeval portraits of purgatory, and I may well have let myself down when Kenny McLean equalised in the 91st minute. Normal post-match mode was restored shortly afterwards though, as Leeds sealed the victory in the 96th minute.

We spent the last day in Florence at the Basilica di Santa Croce – a little way out of the centre, and very much the place to be buried if you’re anyone from round here. So there are memorials or graves for Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Marconi…and many many more:

The Basilica di Santa Croce, as Mrs E was keen to point out, was used for the opera scene in Hannibal, where Anthony Hopkins goes a bit creepy with Chief Inspector Pazzi’s missus.

Anyway, a gasp around every corner is how we will remember Florence…and that was only the first part of the holiday…

Stay tuned for part two

Spot the happy cyclist

How can you spot a happy cyclist? goes the old joke. Count the number of flies on his teeth,  goes the old answer.

And this particular cyclist is currently scratching off a large number of flies from his teeth (not to mention hair, shirt and legs) after a pleasantly challenging two and a half days in the saddle with the lovely Mrs E.

An emotional start to the journey as we waved goodbye to jr emu#1, to start his new life in the quiet, reserved city of Newcastle, where almost nothing is likely to lead him astray from his studies, and then we set off on what would prove to be a fairly ambitious plan to cycle from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

There are some things that by now I should have learnt about planning cycling trips. You need to build in a bit more contingency, for example, to your journey than if you go by car, as if you get a problem or go in the wrong direction, it can take you ages to recover. You need to look at the weather forecast a bit more carefully and a bit more skeptically than you might otherwise do, as you kind of need to know which way the wind is blowing. And, particularly if you decide that the ideal vehicle for your journey is a single speed bike, you ought to have a quick look at the terrain. These were all very useful planning tips that we completely ignored and may well ignore again, as was our first mistake when leaving Newcastle.

Mistake number one: When asking for directions, never ask a car driver.

Specifically, never ask a Newcastle car driver the way to Tynemouth. They’re likely to tell you to take the coast road, which is about as unfriendly a start to the journey as you can imagine. I’ve spent a bit of time in the last few weeks thinking about where I want to live for the rest of my life and I’m afraid the coast road to Tynemouth, which appears to be the busiest and most industrial road in the northeast,  isn’t going to feature anywhere near the top ten. But, after that inauspicious start, we turned left when we got to the sea and started pedalling North.

The coast and castles cyclepath is part of the SUSTRANS network of bike routes around the country, and basically takes you through terrain that by turn is not suitable for mountain bikes, road bikes, children or anyone with any sense of sanity running in their family. But the bits are kind of stitched together in a ‘we haven’t got any money so we’ll see if we can link together some tarmac, footpath, A roads and sheep fields with neat little blue stickers’ style. And if you can put up with that, it’s just great fun.

Heading up from Tynemouth, we got as far as Newbiggin by the sea, found our B&B, and headed into town to see just how wild a Friday night in Newbiggin could be. Relatively tame, it would turn out, a few kids on skateboards and a bit of aimless adolescence by what is apparently Britain’s  longest promenade, but that was about it. Even the curry house (‘can we get a table for 8?’ ‘No, you’ll have to wait until 9, we’re really busy on Fridays’), seemed really quiet, with about a dozen people in with their heads together, in the sort of hushed reverence that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a curry house on a Friday night. 

Had an interesting conversation the next morning with a couple of Australians, who’d been in Newbiggin for 3 days, apparently to recapture the husband’s roots.

 ‘It was pretty easy’ he told us. ‘There’s two family names in Newbiggin, and one of them’s mine’.

 I asked if he’d been able to trace any relatives in the churchyard headstones.

‘No mate, the sea’s worn away the writing, and that’s just the one’s that haven’t sunk’.

Wasn’t really sure what he meant by this, so we biked up to the graveyard by the church overlooking the sea, and sure enough, there were loads of headstones with only a few inches of granite above the grass. And those that you could see looked as if they’d been wiped clean. Now, if I was a tad more pretentious, I could make some profound statement about the analogy of life and remembrance. Fortunately, that’s not going to happen here.

So onto the big day, which I’d rather optimistically calculated at 70 miles, and which turned out to be the sharp side of 80.  We pretty much hugged the coastline, seeing a few castles on the way, hitting some fabulous country around Amble, Boulmer, Embleton, Seahouses and Bamburgh, where we ate about half our body weight in panhagerty pie, while fielding questions about what we were doing.

Kindly waitress:  ‘Are you doing this for charity or for pleasure?’

Mrs E: ‘Neither’

Past Holy Island, and on towards Berwick on Tweed, (incorporating a fairly hairy spell on the A1), where I had to break the news to Mrs E that we were booked in to a hotel about 10 miles further north. And it was getting dark. And we didn’t have any lights. And she’d had the pleasure of #1 chastising her all the way up to Newcastle for not bringing a reflective bib or lights, as a payback for all the times we’d nagged him. Oh, and we had to go across the border into Scotland onto something spookily called Lamburton moor.

A couple of things you need for context here. All of the glasses in the Emu household are filled to exactly 50% of their capacity. Mine are half full, and as I look at them, my hat is on the side of my head, and I have fond memories of drinking them to this point, and enthusiastic expectations of drinks to come. Mrs E’s drinks, however, are very much half empty. Worse than that, they’re also in a chipped and cracked glass, with someone else’s lipstick on the rim, and occasionally a fag end in the bottom. Which is a bit of a shame, as the chivvying along that I try at times like these tends to get pushed back at me with a certain amount of interest added.

After we’d had the inevitable discussion about which parts of my wife’s anatomy hurt the most (in reverse order, the top five were: back, knees, wrists, bottom and bottom), we then had a hearty chat about how her bike wasn’t really up to the job. She described it on one of the hills as like ‘pedalling a dressing table uphill’. Now, Mrs E and I have few secrets, but we did both have a life before we met, and it may well be that she has some experience of pedalling dressing tables. I know for sure that when moving house she once went up Gas Hill in Norwich on a sofa being pulled by a mini van, so she may well have worked her way out of motorised soft furnishings and into self propelled bedroom furniture, so I tried not to argue. Or indeed, to point out that I was doing the whole exercise with one gear. I think I offered to swap bikes at one point, but for some reason this didn’t seem to be perceived as much of an olive branch.

But with the light fading, we started what would end up being about a 6 mile descent into Eyemouth, and even Mrs E cheered up at the prospect of a pretty fab hotel and a seemingly unlimited supply of 7.5% cider.

Day three, and we were keen to try out both a new concept and a new word. We’d invented the word ‘Companyful’ the day before on one of those stretches where we had the path to ourselves, it was wide enough to cycle side by side, and to was comfortable to ride, and enjoy each other’s company . Perhaps a little twee, but I think it’ll catch on. Try a companyful  ride yourself some time. So we were looking for as much of that as we could, but unfortunately the fates were against us. You know those pictures of God controlling the winds that you see sometimes in religious drawings, where this great omnipotent being puffs out his cheeks and breathes a gale all over the world? Well, He was at it again, and although occasionally He may have looked back on an eternity of cigar and pipe smoking and run out of puff, it was only for an instant, and He was at it again almost straight away.

Well, at least we got a few sympathetic looks from fellow cyclists as we were on our way. These were, inevitably, the ones travelling at 30mph in the opposite direction without having to pedal. Particularly in Northumberland, people really went out of their way to say hello, and in a fairly peculiar way – typically their face breaks into a grin, then they jerk their head to the side and then across as a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, this not only acts as a friendly hello, but also looks like the early onset of Parkinson’s disease or some sort of stroke. Thinking about it, I’m worried now that it wasn’t a greeting at all, in which case there’s a real worry for the southern bound ramblers and cyclists of Northumberland.

As a result, we spent pretty much 60 miles in single file to Edinburgh, but stretches like the drop into the cove before Torness or the railway path near Tranent made it all pretty much worthwhile. If you take the train along this route (the coastal bike path crosses the train track half a dozen or so times, so it’s pretty much the same), you’ll blink and miss some of this stuff, but it’s  a fabulous coastline, with deep blue seas, cliff tops and coves, and only a couple of enormous power stations and cement factories to get in the way of the view.

Passing through Cockenzie, we found ourselves in the middle of the reenactment of the battle of Prestonpans, which was taking place in the rather odd setting of the field next to the power station. Knowing nothing about the battle, I assumed it was one of those contests involving knocking back the sassenach invaders, so I looked it  up, and, surprise, surprise, that’s pretty much what it was. But everyone seemed to be having a whale of a time, if you judge people’s happiness by randomly firing muskets and sitting on horses in Jacobean costume looking rather miserable, but for all I know, it may well have been the party that they’d been waiting to go to all year.

And so, after miles and miles into a bloody awful headwind, we hit Edinburgh, and, weaving our way through a million tourists, onto a train that neatly deposited us back in Newcastle an hour and half later. A bit demoralising when you think it had taken us two and a half days to go as far as a train goes in 90 minutes, but as far as I could see from the train ride, the driver had very few hills to contend with. Oh, and he had the wind behind him all the way.