It is 10:00 local time in Florence. It has been a long day and I am sitting in my exquisite second floor room in the Palazzo Tolomei, a light evening breeze wafting through the open window, through which I can see the illuminated monstrous and breathtaking cupola of the Duomo, about 200 yards away. The last few days have been full and intense, starting with a magical long walk in the warm spring sunshine around the Howth peninsular (Bog of Frogs walk) with Britta on our 16th wedding anniversary on Thursday and packing and making last minute preparations for my trip in the evening. Then on to Munich on Friday morning, arriving in the rain, which lasted all day and all night, before taking the morning train to Florence this morning (Saturday) for the proper start of my adventure
A note to myself: remember to check whether any public holidays co-incide with any future expeditions and plan accordingly. I didn’t even give a thought to ask that question this time and discovered yesterday, as I tried to book my ticket and make a seat reservation at the Deutsche Bahn office at Munich Hauptbahnhof, that not only was the train full to the last seat, but that any idea of actually reserving a seat for the seven and a half hour journey was quite out of the question. The act of booking the ticket – normally a matter of five minutes – was extended to a 45 minute consultation as my surprisingly helpful DB sales lady, her mothering instincts obviously moved by the look of horror on my face, as I contemplated spending 7,5 hours wedged into an overfilled corridor of a train heaving with german tourists and holiday makers decamping to Italy at the start of the midterm school break, made a sterling effort to make my trip as comfortable as possible. She managed somehow to reserve me two different seats for two stretches of the journey, both, of course at entirely different ends of the holiday length train (just walking from one end of the train to the other probably qualifies as a stage of my trail by itself), but given the luxury of having a seat at all, I am not complaining for one moment.
It is a long trip from Munich to Florence, but it does pass through some of the most spectacular landscape of any of the great european train journeys and is infinitely more pleasurable than the Air Dolomiti flight. From the pre-alpine undulations of the upper bavarian countryside, past the Chiemsee and into the Chiemgau Alps, over the border at Kufstein with the mountains rising ever more steeply as you pass into the Inn valley and through Tirolia and up to the Brenner Pass and into Italy and South Tirol, mountains, crags and crevasses as far as the eye can see, soaring up on both sides of the train, this trip is as good a tour through the German, Austrian and S. Tirolian landscapes as it is possible to conceive. And then on the italian side, the dramatic change in vegetation, vines in full leaf already, as warmth of the south side of the alps, manifests itself in a spring that is far further advanced than on the northern flank of the massif. The clouds lifted as soon as we arrived in Sterzing and for the rest of the day the sun shone down on us, as we wound our inexorable way to our destination on the Arno.
Alighting onto the large square in front of the central station in Florence, pack on back and already feeling far too warmly dressed for the temperature, the first thing I noticed was the presence – unconcealed and in a full show of strength – of a large contingent of heavily armed police with military back up. The police were mainly stationed inside the main hall, whilst the soldiers and a few armoured personel vehicles, maintained a visible presence at both the north and south entrances and in the forecourts. I tell myself that this significant militia presence was due to the large influx of refugees and the contigent challenges thrown up by this great challenge of our time (I didn’t actually see any), but it might just as easily have been for show to impress the large section of the population of the Peoples’ Republic of China, many of whom I was privileged to travel with on my train, who seem to be gathering in Florence to establish a colony. I am sure that the demonstration of the might and discipline of Italy’s finest will have disabused them of any notion of settling here permanently, but it did seem rather over the top.
I walked the 800 m from the station to the hotel crossing the recently (very successfully) renovated and bustling Mercato Centrale, soaking in the unique atmosphere of Florences narrow streets and magical piazzas, then spent the rest of the afternoon acclimatising, luxuriating in my splendid rooms in the old Palazzo Tolomei, in the Via Dei Ginori and chatting to the proprietress, a charming grande dame di Firenze, who gave me my tip for a good local restaurant for the evening. She advised me to pay a visit to the Cipolla Rossa Trattoria, in the Via de’ Conti, just behind the Basilica di san Lorenzo, assuring me that they cooked the best ribollita in town (a dish for which I have a particular weakness) as well as a gnocchi verde can tartufo, which she insisted was as close to heaven as it was possible to get in this world without committing a cardinal sin. She was spot on: they weren’t serving ribollita today (not even with my best begging look), but the gnocchi verde were on the menu and I ended up, well, getting as close to heaven as it is possible to get, without resorting to a cardinal sin. Great way to start the trip…may be I should wait until Monday before starting. Or Tuesday.