Crossroads Tour: Florence to Genoa – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marks the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence (and a few other cities) and Istanbul in May 2011.

I’m not sure where I took the wrong turn, but I use my error as an opportunity to shoot the goldsmiths’ shops while their windows are still encased in their medieval-style wooden doors and shutters, including what appears to be a Chinese lock on one of the Florentine doors.

The vendors are setting up in the logias and a few yards beyond them. I slow my pace to take in the fragrance wafting from a flower vendor’s wares. I stop for a lovely but brief breakfast at the Riviori, in the shadow of the Bargello Museum, and watch with amusement as a sparrow hops around the marble floor below my pink linen draped table. Cappuccino and cresta finished, I head over to the Duomo to get my bearings back. My muscles are already lamenting the lack of protein at breakfast.

Apparently I can’t get there from here. Every turn takes me further off course and I have no sense of where I am, which baffles me completely. The first time I was here I couldn’t get lost if I tried, this trip I am nothing but lost.  I finally make sense of my map and despite all odds, I arrive at the train station an hour early.

I scan the interior of the train station for a gelato stand but end up with a soft serve and a McMuffin. Fast food is bad no matter what country you’re in. So far the only breakfast protein I’ve found has been wrapped in thick slices of focaccia. I go to the platform where my train is supposed to arrive, but after awhile, discover that the gate has changed. I make a mad dash for a train that is boarding, thankful that I didn’t get here early just to miss it for lack of double checking the schedule…

Travel from Firenze to Pisa is uneventful. I choose a seat near the schematic showing the stations so I can keep track of the stops, which isn’t a problem since Pisa is at the end of this line. An older American gentleman sits down across from me and we make small talk as I try to write postcards, and he focuses on taking video with his camera phone. I must say that the European train system puts US transit to shame, and makes Seattle’s bus and train station feel like someone’s back yard homework project. We have a lot to learn.

The Pisa train station reminds me of the international concourse at SeaTac. The first thing I encounter is a group of Haitian men whose heated argument is quickly clearing the concourse. I feel my bags being jostled every time I move, and swing them in front of me so they don’t get rifled through. Panic sets in as I realize that 12 minutes is not enough time to make my connection on my return trip. I go to the customer service desk to resolve tickets that do not match my printed itinerary, and am told that my return trip is a direct train to Firenze, bypassing Pisa altogether. I’m thrilled with the prospect of not having to come this way again.

I had booked a First Class seat from Pisa to Genova. It’s one of six comfy stuffed chairs in a glassed-in cabin that I share with an older gentleman, and a young couple with their toddler. The toddler is fascinated with my netbook and mouse and starts screaming when his parents pull him away. I wrap up my log about 10 minutes later when it becomes obvious that the netbook is going to remain problematic, and resort to pen and paper for the duration of the trip.

Travel tip: Check the reader boards at train stations continuously just like you would at an airport. Book travel by train in First Class if you are with a group, or if you plan to sleep. A First Class cabin would be fun with friends, but not so much with strangers. Economy seating, without the confines of the cubicles, gives you a wider choice of people to interact with and you can move to a different seat if you need to.

Pisa’s landscape is a lot different from Firenze, and I don’t recognize most of the trees and plants. Many homes have backyard gardens large enough to sustain their families. Even the modern buildings are built in the traditional Italian style, with stucco walls and red tile roofs. The mountains are short but rugged, and I can see old stone buildings or maybe fortress walls along the tops of some of them. I can’t tell if the white patches are snow or wildflowers. Freight cars are round-topped and look like large gypsy wagons. Red poppies grow wild. We pass several stone quarries, and large blocks of white marble are lined up along side of the railroad tracks.

We reach La Spezia, the halfway point between Pisa and Genova. I catch glimpses of the sea between long expanses of tunnel. Further up the coast, the houses and mansions take on the water colored stucco that was prevalent in Venice. There are date palms, and the beaches have turned from brown sand to rugged rock and breakwaters. It is incredibly beautiful and I am now really glad I chose this route.

The view of La Spezia from the train

We speed through one final tunnel and at last arrive in Genova, which more resembles Florence than I expected it to. The train station is beautiful, with its rococo ceiling and stained glass windows. After finding an English speaking travel guide who points me in the right direction, I depart the station and walk through a downtown shopping district with wide sidewalks covered with logias like those that surround San Marco Piazza in Venezia, but with the addition of neon signs suspended from the vaulting.

I look for my lodging – the Ducale Genova B&B. I find the street almost by accident but I cannot find the building. I should have looked for a name and a doorbell rather than trying to rely on the building numbers (which are a complete scramble) and I end up walking past the unmarked green door countless times. I try to call Maria, my concierge, but my phone card fails. It’s now 5:30 and I’m two hours late. I’ve asked 10 people where this address is, only to be waved off. Finally, on my last pass, I find a note with my name on it, taped to an unmarked green door at the base of a building with matching green shutters. Maria has given me her cell phone number, which I call using pocket change instead of the calling card. We agree to meet at 7 PM.

My feet are rebelling and I can barely walk. Dinner is a piece of cheese focaccia from the bakery to the left of the Green Door, and a delightful caffe violetta from Bar Pacini to the right, who advertises themselves as ‘L’Arte dell Expresso’. It tastes like a liquid candied violets. I could be in trouble if I stayed here longer than a day. The row of shops in this block includes three pastry shops, two espresso shops, and a Chinese restaurant.

While I am waiting for Marie, a young East Indian man takes a seat near me and offers me a cigarette. I am wary, but he is very nice and we have a lengthy albeit very broken-language chat. He’s lived in Italy for ten years, he has a wife and two children, and cleans houses for a living. He says he speaks Italian well, but English not so well. When I tell him I’m from the US, he says: “America. Beautiful country. Hollywood.” After another 15 minutes of chatter that I mostly cannot understand, he shakes my hand and leaves. I think I know now why Italians don’t understand me when I try to speak their language.

My watch clicks over to 7 PM, the church bell peals 30 times and metal doors start rolling down over shop fronts. Marie shows up, and I wave to get her attention. She is looking for a woman with luggage. “Nope, that would not be me” I reply. 

She unlocks the heavy green door and swings it open open. It closes on it’s own as we start up the stairs. This building was a convent in the 14th century, and Maria demonstrates the acoustics by flicking on a light switch, which we can hear as it clicks on on the bottom floor. Mother Superior could always hear the front door.

I look over the railing. “Oh My WORD!”  There’s a Marble Man standing in a grotto in the courtyard. Marie says I was clever to not pack a lot of stuff, since my room is at the top of the building. Every floor elicits another “Oh MY” and she starts to giggle.

Travel tip: Never pack more than you need, and NEVER pack more than you are willing to carry up several flights of stairs.

She apologizes that the rustic Chinese Room I wanted is already occupied but she hopes to at least show it to me tomorrow. She shows me to the Luna Room.

This room is three times the size of the one I’m staying in in Firenze and includes a working kitchen, decorated with mirrors and handmade blue tiles. The bathroom — complete with the mosaic ship from the photo on their website — is the size of the main room and includes a full size bathtub, a rarity among European B&Bs. The view is of the courtyard where the Marble Man stands, bordered by four 14th century towers. It’s not the splashy view indicated on their website, but it’s more quiet and sublime. I could easily take up residence here.

The lack of WIFI presents a problem with planning my day tomorrow. The web pages I saved to my netbook are corrupted, and I really wish I had printed this stuff out. A search through this room hasn’t yielded a guidebook yet, so I will look for one tomorrow. Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a nice, hot bath…

Travel tip:  The Ducale Genova B&B is set in a medieval tower similar to the Palazzo Ducale across the street. It is part of a historic building dating back to 1400 and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage registry. Maria, who owns and manages this property, does not accept credit cards, so verify the total due with her as she will require cash in local currency upon your arrival.

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