Monday, June 20, 2011

Rome to Florence

Still May 17, 2011:
Laura and Marianne negotiated a fixed price for the taxi ride to Termini--smart idea so we aren't driven all over creation when it is actually a 16 mile drive between points. That being said, after squeezing us and our luggage plus carry-ons into a very small taxi, the driver proceeded to cart us all over Rome. We couldn't move a muscle, as this Fiat van was beyond tiny. The vehicles we'd seen so far in Rome were all compact, as they have to be able to navigate the narrow streets. We zipped through the congested city traffic, and we noticed many Smart Cars, Fiats, motorcycles and scooters.

Sharon, Marianne and Laura were shoulder to shoulder in the back seat of this miniature vehicle, while I was seated in the front with a suitcase lodged between the driver and me. He had to reach around my large piece of luggage in order to shift the gears of this manual transmission. We began to wonder how much longer this ride to Termini could possibly last, and the driver seemed to be taking us past every historic site in Rome. He probably thought he was doing us a big favor, but this was really close quarters. Laura finally asked him how much further we had to go, and he deposited us at Stazione Termini a few minutes later.

We got our bearings in the station and located the agents from whom we would purchase our train tickets to Florence. We went through the process, showed our passports and paid 63 Euro each by credit card, but they couldn't yet tell us from which track it would be departing. Laura, Marianne and Sharon purchased a McDonald's lunch because there didn't seem to be any other choices available. I had eaten such a big breakfast before we landed in Rome, I wasn't ready to eat again. Perhaps I was just too excited about actually being in Italy to recognize a sense of hunger.

I stood off to the side while I was waiting for the girls to purchase their McDonald's lunches, and a woman approached me, jabbering in Italian. I just shrugged my shoulders in the international signal for "I have no clue what you are saying." She walked on and jabbered to someone else. Another woman came up to me a couple of minutes later and did the same thing, eliciting the identical response from me. I don't know what their stories were, but we were warned about pick pockets, distractions, etc. so I was on guard.

We read on the huge board that the train to Firenze (Florence) would be at Track 1E. We rolled our collection of luggage and carried our other bags all the way to Track 1E, only to discover no train. We asked two different railway employees and finally received a response that we should be at Track #2. How could we possibly know this? The board indicated that Track #2 was for the train to Venezia (Venice). We didn't really understand the confusion, but we were finally headed for the correct train, along with many other people who were anxious to board. While we struggled with my 66 pound suitcase, a nice man offered to assist in boosting my elephantine luggage onto the train. I'll bet he was sorry he had generously volunteered if he had to seek medical attention for a hernia repair.

We were finally settled into our pre-assigned seats on the train. Our transportation was Trenitalia, and this was a high speed, clean, modern train which took us on a 1 1/2 hour pleasant ride to Florence. The system seems very organized once you actually find your train and track, and your ticket indicates which car you are in, along with your seat number. We were all very quiet once the train began to advance along the track. I assume everyone was somewhat exhausted, but we could finally take a deep breath and relax during this ride--until we would once again be forced to maneuver our luggage.

All was peaceful until the conductor arrived to see our tickets. Laura's ticket had absolutely vanished. She frantically searched her handbag, her carry-on--even her McDonald's bag. The ticket was nowhere to be found. Did she drop it when we were juggling luggage? Calmly, Marianne left her seat to assist in the search. The conductor, very annoyed, said to Marianne, "YOU talk to her!" Marianne looked through every possible nook and cranny. We reasoned that she must have had her ticket when she boarded because she readily found the seat number that matched her ticket. It had to be here somewhere! Suddenly, all was well once again as Laura reached into the pocket of the seat in front of her, where she had placed the ticket for safe keeping. "This is what I always do on Amtrak," she said. It's so easy to become disoriented on insufficient sleep and being deposited into the center of a foreign land! Eventually, the conductor with the stern expression returned to see if there was still an issue with Laura's ticket. He grinned from ear to ear to learn that the elusive item had been located.

As the train sped along the Italian countryside, the scenery was of green, rolling hills, houses with orangish colored roofs, boxy structures like one often sees on House Hunters International, vineyards planted on what appeared to be fairly dusty soil, mountains in the distance, and several herds of sheep. I placed a call to Fred to let him know that we were all fine and were on our way to Florence. The time difference is six hours so I have to calculate New York time in order to avoid calling Fred or Mom in the middle of the night. Our phone connection was great until we began gliding in and out of tunnels, so we concluded our call.

Arriving in Firenze Santa Maria and Novella at Piazza della Stazione in central Florence, we all pushed and pulled our luggage to exit the train station. Our hotel, The Waldorf Suite Firenze, is supposed to be located directly across the street. We saw some retail stores, but no hotel. We walked back to the front of the station, where we asked two uniformed policemen or train station officials--whatever they were--and they were simply very little help. We didn't know if it was due to the language barrier or that they truly don't know or actually don't care. Maybe we were just too tired to absorb what they were saying, as their command of English was limited. We hauled all of our belongings back across the street once again and inquired with a scarf vendor on the corner. He pointed in a direction on the opposite side of the station, but communication was sketchy at best. Another person we asked said, "Go to the other side and ask the people." Oh boy.

Here we go again--back across the street, through the bustling station, steering and pulling our now very cumbersome appendages to exit on the other side of the building. Did we see our hotel from this new vantage point? No. Nothing. Nada. We saw some small hotels, but not ours. We walked a short distance to the right and came upon an encouraging sight--a post office! This was fantastic! The post office knows everything! We have hit pay dirt. We watched Laura's luggage while she entered the post office, armed with the folder containing the reservation which shows the address of our hotel. Marianne took the opportunity to sit on a step to rest her weary bones. Laura exited the post office looking exasperated, as the young, snotty male postal clerk had responded, "This is a post office--not an information center." Very helpful indeed.

We walked across the street and to the left and almost marched right past our hotel entrance, as it is small and rather inconspicuous. We entered the front door and came face to face with a daunting set of marble steps. There was no bellman or anyone to assist us with our paraphernalia. We went through the check-in process and asked if we would be able to split our room costs on separate credit cards at the end of our stay, and were delighted to receive an affirmative response.

The elevator was tiny, so we ascended to Floor 3 in pairs. We discovered that our suites were generously spacious, but there was one minor issue. There was only one queen size bed in each entire suite, which is okay, but with two large rooms within each suite, we shouldn't really have to share a bed. The two rooms within each suite had separate bathrooms, closets, flat screen tvs, safes, etc., but one room had a bed and the other a sofa. I opted to sleep on the sofa so Sharon and I could take advantage of the privacy offered by the two separate rooms which were joined by our own private entry way.

Marianne and Laura's suite had the same layout, but they had a balcony because Laura trends toward claustrophobia. I wondered how she was feeling during our seemingly never ending taxi ride in Rome. Although Sharon and I didn't have a balcony, we had a fascinating view of the street and piazza below. I found myself opening my window (yes, wide open fresh air--no screens) and watching the persistent activity of the tiny autos, motorcycles/scooters, and pedestrian traffic.

What we have discovered so far on our first day in Florence:
  • The hotel does not supply Kleenex or other tissues in the rooms other than toilet paper
  • We were warned to bring our own washcloths, as they are not supplied. This is true.
  • My shower has a curved door with a very narrow opening. If you are larger than size 8 or 10, I'm not sure how you'd even enter.
  • Each restroom has a bidet. We're uncertain as to how to use them, but if we were inclined to do so, I guess we'd figure it out.
  • In order to activate the electricity in our room, we must place our door key in a slot that is located in our entryway. The key remains in the slot while you are in the room. We found this out the hard way, after calling the front desk to tell them our room had no electricity. Sharon said, "I feel like I've been asleep for twenty years and I just woke up and I don't know how anything works!"
  • The only English-speaking television station we are able to view is CNN.
  • Laura and Marianne, although they used a converter for the electrical service in their room, experienced an overheating curling iron. They were afraid it was going to fry.
  • Sharon's cell phone carrier had given her a converter for her cell phone, but it was the wrong type. She was able to borrow one from the front desk upon leaving a 10 Euro deposit.

We all crashed in our respective rooms for a much needed rest and made plans to meet in the lobby at 6:00 pm to locate a restaurant for our first dinner in Italy.

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