I had been in Florence two days before I was able to bask in front of the glory of the Duomo, and almost a week before I set foot in the Uffizi. I was a History of Art and Architecture graduate on virgin territory, and I was on a mission, so what went wrong?
A whole lot of LIFE as it turns out, a.k.a that scythe that cuts through everything when you’re making other plans. When the story left off I was in Verona where I had opted to stay for only one night as it was fairly small, and I had struggled to find cheap accommodation. This problem had persisted when I had attempted to book a hostel for Florence, irritated and pressed for time I booked a less than salubrious looking hostel in the city centre for just one night (as it was fully booked after this . . . as was everywhere else), under the assumption I would have time in the evening to book something for the following nights. I wasn’t sure at this point if Florence was just fully booked for the weekend or if Italy in general wasn’t particularly forthcoming with cheap accommodation.
Determined to do a quick loop of Verona during the day time, I forget my hostel woes, dropped my case at the station and headed off for a whistle-stop tour before my afternoon train. Sightseeing was successfully accomplished, minus one battery dead camera and some mosquito bites, I headed back to the train station. So far so good. But then: my train got delayed. Then it got delayed a bit more. Along with every southbound train out of Verona (including, I was amused to note, the Orient Express) my train was delayed for a full 3 hours – longer than the actual journey was supposed to take. So a 3 hour delay plus a few hours on the train meant I arrived in Florence after dark.
From experience I know that major train stations tend to be in unsavoury areas, and I have heard many a hostel tale about bags being stolen at stations – so I was less than happy. As a girl travelling alone I try my best to avoid arriving in unfamiliar places after dark. But there I was in Florence long after nightfall, at a train station that did not appear to be the central station (in fact it was the secondary out of town one, which was a pity, because my hostel was within easy walking distance of the other one – possibly its only good feature). I was panicking a bit at this point as it was after 9 with no apparent taxis or buses, and my hostel had strict check in hours up until 10pm. When I had called ahead from my delayed train to let them know I would be late, they said it was no problem, up until 10pm . . .
But then I did get a taxi, and arrived tired and slightly unnerved just before 10pm. What I then encountered might be described as The Worst Hostel I Have Ever Stayed In and perhaps The Worst Hostel In Florence. I’ve stayed in lots of hostels, so I don’t use this description lightly. This place was the pits. The furniture was flea market, but not in a good way – and so was the mish-mash of old blankets and bedding. My ageing iron bed was made up with an old, badly stained throw of indeterminate colour which may or may not have been better than the old sleeping bags on the other beds. The dorm I was in was a through room to bathroom as well as the 4 bed room next door which didn’t seem overwhelmingly reassuring to me either security or sleep wise. The guy running the place gave a perfunctory tour but didn’t offer any maps or information on the city or hostel, but I wasn’t terribly bothered by this at the time as I just wanted to decompress and book a room somewhere else for the next night.
10pm comes and goes. ‘Reception’ is locked up and the staff leave. I have no idea if this is common or not, but I haven’t encountered this before. The doorbell begins to ring. Then the phone in the (locked) office begins to ring. Then the doorbell again, then the phone. Lots uncomfortable looks exchanged between hostel strangers. Finally, standing awkwardly in front of the hostel intercom emblazoned with the note ‘Do NOT respond to the doorbell, guests will be let in by a member of staff’ I make the call to answer the intercom and let what it presumably a very upset new guest into the building. It’s maybe 11pm by this point and I’m feeling pretty strung out myself, but also full of empathy because I know very well that it could have been me ringing doorbells and phones to no response if the hand of fate had delayed me just a little more. The thought of this REALLY freaks me out by the way, I have no idea what I would do in an alien, booked up city late on a Friday night if my accommodation had disappeared/closed entry etc. I hope I am never in this situation.
Anyway. I checked the new guest in after guiltily asking to see his reservation and apologetically showed him around the hostel. By this point it was looking less like an actual hostel and a lot more like a load of second hand beds crammed into an old apartment. This place was astonishingly unprofessional. As all of the keys were locked up in the office and the new guy urgently needed to go and meet a friend I handed over my keys and he promised to leave them in a plant pot in the morning for me to pick up.
Excitement momentarily over I sat down with my laptop to finally start scouting out some hopefully better accommodation for the next night.
I was seriously tired by this point.
Then. The doorbell began to ring again. Then the phone, then the doorbell. So we let this person into the building as well – and yes, it’s another new guest. Incidentally both of these guys had emailed the hostel in advance to let them know that they would be arriving late, but I guess these messages had BOTH been ignored. This is uncaring and unprofessional almost beyond belief. Most hostels will still charge for the first night regardless of whether a guest turns up or not, but the money is the least important part of this. Ignoring emails and refusing to cater for the arrival time of your guests, especially when they warn you in advance is a bad and irresponsible way to run a business. Irresponsible behaviour like this could put young travellers after dark, on a budget, on unfamiliar ground, laden with luggage etc. in a very dangerous situation.
I was really, seriously, reaching-the-edge-of-my-limit-tired. But the night wasn’t over yet.
I was still trying to book a hostel. But everywhere that wasn’t an inconvenient amount of km out of the city, or reviewed as a flea infested basement with triple bunks, was fully booked up. Even some of the poorly rated hostels like the one I was currently in were completely full for the weekend.
Around this time a guy who I was sharing a room with started talking to me. I decided to give up on the hostel booking until the morning when I could approach it with a clear head. It turned out that my talkative roommate was a sculptor who was aiming to hit up Florence’s finest art, architecture and sculpture. Now, I’ve worked alongside sculptors in the past – and my roomie also showed me photographs of some gilding work he had done (I have also some experience of this which I blogged about) and I can happily talk about art and architecture for hours. The conversation was flowing despite a few creepy vibes from the guy, but I was unbelievably tired. The time was pushing 1.30am and I really needed to sleep so I made my apologies and said I must go to bed.
I wash, change, put on a jumper as the room is so cold,and turn out the light. The two girls also sharing our room have gone out to a bar. Despite being so exhausted from the trials of the day my mind needs a little longer to shut down, and also the cold is kind of distracting – not to mention the enduring mosquitos. I toss and turn a little bit.
* THREE GUESSES WHAT HAPPENED NEXT *
‘Angela, are you awake?’
Mistake caused by the mind fog of tiredness here I actually answered.
‘Angela, I have a question for you,
I would very much like
. . . . to kiss you?’
So! Yeah. A guy who I had only just met hit on me WHEN I WAS IN BED.
A rejection and an awkward conversation followed, coupled with some total disbelief on what had just happened. And I have to say I only managed to fall into a deep, but not particularly restful sleep after the two girls returned from the bar.
The escapades continued the next day, but I’ll pick up on that in my next post. Safe travels!
After a long trip down from Salzburg through the breathtaking Brenner Pass I arrived in Verona tired, grumpy, and all for catching an early night in my guesthouse (last minute hostels in Verona not forthcoming, it seems) but instead I decided to head out into the night – and I’m glad I did.
Resisting the temptation to enjoy having a room to myself for the night, not to mention the desire to completely empty and repack my case without worrying about annoying dorm mates – I stumbled out into the drizzle to discover Verona by night. This was my very first visit to Italy so I had two clear agendas for the evening. 1. Pizza 2. Gelato, both of which I highly expected to be THE BEST PIZZA AND ICE CREAM OF MY LIFE (I wasn’t disappointed). Verona was noticeably warmer than the previous places I had visited so I was already in a good mood, despite the persistent rain, as it felt like I had happily stumbled back into late summer temperatures . . . by British standards.
Slowly threading my way through increasingly busy streets I finally came to a large square lined with bustling restaurants and cafes, customers calmly sipping wine at a mass of outdoor tables under awnings. In the centre of the square rose Verona’s magnificent arena. This is a spectacular structure to behold at any time. It dates from around 30 AD and is the crown jewel of the towns multitude of Roman ruins. I have never been to Rome so this was my first encounter with an arena of this kind, and it was not merely the structure on this evening but roars of massive crowd from within which gave me goosebumps. It turns out this almost 2000 year old structure is still used as a venue for music concerts and is still capable of housing 15,000 people.
The atmosphere in the square that evening was electric as crowds queued up outside for a rock concert. For me, as a hapless tourist who had wondered in on this by accident, each roar from the crowd or sound system was a thrill. I think I definitely began to get a better understanding of what these arenas must have been like in their Roman heyday, the buzz and palpable excitement around them, and the focal point they provided for a town.
The next day I paid €6 to gain entry to the arena and I felt like I was walking into a natural structure. The walls were so solid and immovable that it was difficult to remember that this was something that had been built, rather than something which had been carved out of solid rock. I was left with a sense of awe that the Romans had been able to construct something as mammoth and everlasting as this, and I was in even greater awe that it could still be used more or less for its original purpose almost 2000 years later. Incredible.