Greetings from Florence, where we have dragged ourselves away from our sunny and leafy hillside campsite to get some food, catch up on e-mails and, er, oh yes, see some of the sights. We're not quite in Room With A View mode yet. Gayle wants to take me to some offices (Uffizi in Italian - I'm learning fast) later to look at the painting by some local geezers, although why she thinks I want to look at some 13th century painting and decorating I'm not quite sure. One of the reasons I'm here is to escape offices...........
So where did it all go wrong? There we were in Granada, on schedule to visit Valencia, Tarragona, Girona, Cadaqués and Barcelona before taking the boat to Genova. So far so very good. We had lovely weather, and liked each place except for touristy Barcelona. Much taken by Valencia, which felt green and spacious and pleasant to walk around. We also found the little cinema showing films subtitled in Spanish and managed to catch The Last King of Scotland, The Queen and Woody Allen's Scoop, all with references to Blighty that were probably lost on the locals. And it seems sometimes you just can't translate Woody Allen. It was here we also discovered FresCo's - a chain of vegetarian eat-all-you-can buffet restaurants brimming with fresh salads, pasta and fruit and all the espresso coffee you can guzzle.
Tarragona has a selection of Roman remains and a very quiet beach at this time of year. I have to confess that although the ruins are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, they are slightly disappointing to the ruin-weary international traveller. Girona features an outsized cathedral and well-preserved medieval streets and city walls, and one of the best travel bookshops we've ever seen - to compete with a Catalan one in Barcelona. And we will have happy memories of Cadaqués and its rocky coastline and tiny coves. All in all, we felt rather spoilt and flabby after our three weeks in Spain.
So, we took an overnight ferry with a thousand Italian teenagers to Genova - our seats were on level 9 - it felt like a floating and out of season hotel (the casino was shut and the swimming pool dry) but there was some excitement in the Piano Bar (no pianist) as Valencia versus Inter Milan turned into a punch-up. Some of the Italian truck drivers started to look a bit rowdy, but calmed down when Dukes Of Hazard came on afterwards. There were only a handful of us in the Rossini suite, riding the 18 hour journey out in the cheap seats. We talked to an old Italian man who spoke Spanish, and chatted a while. The next morning Enrico invited us to stay at his house in Monza, near Milan. We accepted. He seemed a charming and witty man. It was only later when I chatted with him on deck that I discovered he was a naturist and had just spent 3 weeks at a nudist colony in Spain. I broke it gently to Gayle, and she took it well. He seemed a kind and helpful man, and we decided to still go with him.
It was raining in Genova. Enrico, as economical as us, was happy to walk and we straggled along to the train station. We arrived in Monza at about 8pm, tired and hungry. But there was a problem. The bus ticket office was closed and Enrico only had one ticket. You can't buy them on the bus. What to do? We walked to the bus stop and Enrico engaged in conversation with everyone gathered there. The last bus was at 9pm. Everyone said to get on without a ticket. So we did. Enrico validated his ticket in the machine on the bus. No-one else bothered. It was then that we realised no-one else had a ticket either.
The house was cold and dusty, very dusty and the kitchen smelt of wood smoke, it breathed wood smoke. Enrico pointed to bunk beds next to the kitchen table and asked us if we'd be happy sleeping there. Too polite to say no, we said yes. We could hardly touch anything for dust, and slept fitfully. Gayle had developed a cough on the boat and gave it a thorough run out in the night. I dreamt of barking seals. It was with relief to see Enrico fully-clothed in the morning - we had not been sure what his home habits were. I went for a wash and sat in the bath under the shower because there was no shower curtain. Enrico appeared in the bathroom twice to check if I needed a razor or shampoo. Is this what is meant when one is advised not to speak to strangers? Watch out or you too could find yourself at a disadvantage whilst bathing in said stranger's bathroom.......... Afterwards Gayle laughed merrily about this.
Enrico fed us and showed us the sights of Monza and Milan. We walked miles and Gayle was suffering by the end of the day. The highlight might have been seeing the Italian crown on display in Monza's cathedral. Fairly small and unassuming, gold and some chunky stones, it features in the story of Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of Italy, in Milan's cathedral. Without waiting for the crown to be placed on his head, he took it up and put it on himself. We admired the fairy-cake church façades and colourful frescoes inside, we marvelled at Monza's park - the largest walled park in Europe, and laughed as Enrico explained that there is always something under restoration in Italy. In fact that day, he took us to three buildings covered in scaffolding. The joke has since continued. Everywhere we go in Italy there is scaffolding, scaffolding.
Venice was a delight to visit. Just to wander around not dodging traffic was a relief, but combined with the labyrinth of streets, bridges and canals, and the hushed voices of everyone as they looked around, made it a real pleasure. We revelled in the luxury of our hotel, and amazed ourselves at finding it at the end of the day. We laughed at the scaffolding, cried at the menu prices, and enjoyed the modern art in the Guggenheim collection. Gayle coughed day and night. We met up with Gayle's old friend Vikki and her husband, Steve. Gayle and Vikki had been here 20 years earlier. Vikki wondered if we were going to visit any other places in Italy. And then we found an abandoned guidebook to Italy. We said goodbye to Vikki and Steve, and then goodbye to Venice. And hello to Florence.........
Time to check out the painting and decorating.