Planes, trains and automobiles and the law of karma
Going to Europe has always been my dream. Unfortunately, getting there is another story. First, I paid US$1000 for the plane fare on economy. That alone almost made me cry. Then, I realized that I paid so much money to torture myself by going on a 19.5-hour journey. This does not include my 1-hour journey to the airport and the 3 hours of waiting in snake-like lines when I got there.
But since I desperately wanted to visit Europe, I grit my teeth and bore the suffering.
Rey wanted me to go to the airport early. My flight was at 7:50 but he wanted to leave Quezon City at 3:30. After having lunch with Panjee, we went to the Shang Plaza. Since I didn't feel like malling, Rey and Panjee left me at Hairbytes, where I had my eyebrows waxed and my hair cut. I really didn't have much time for blowdrying but Dang, the senior stylist didn't want me to leave the parlor with wet hair. So, to lessen the drying time, 2 people were working on my hair! I knew would never experience this in Europe so I made myself forget about the time and enjoyed the pampering.
We left the parlor at exactly 3:30 and arrived at the airport at 4:30. Security lines at the entrance weren't bad, so going in was a breeze. From the entrance, I walked to Lufthansa's own security line where they checked if I had the necessary documentation. The guy at the counter asked me if I already booked my hotel accommodations. When I said yes, he said he wanted to see the vouchers. So I opened my locked backpack and fished out my travel envelope. The ass didn't even look through it! He said it was too thick. After stuffing my documents back in my packpack, I lined up again to have my bags weighed. After that, there was another line for checking-in.
Throughout the whole procedure, a pretty 40ish morena was behind me. She kept on accidentally bumping my luggage with her trolley. Since I didn't want to waste energy arguing with her, I just cheerfully told her that she obviously didn't have any talent with her trolley. She smiled and repeatedly apologized. I smiled back.
After checking-in, I paid for my airport tax then proceeded to Immigrations. The lines were a bit long. I patiently stood there and decided to be zen about the people who kept cutting the lines because their flights were about to depart. Of course, I had the urge to tell them that they should have left their houses earlier but I was feeling generous and just imagined that they did leave their house early but were delayed for some reason.
To reward myself for being nice, I paid P400 get in the Sampaguita Lounge. I was immediately served pancit canton (tasted like pancit carton) and chicken barbecue without the stick (surprisingly yummy but a challenge to eat with the plastic fork, I missed the stick.) I also took advantage of the buffet and feasted on their sandwiches and nutrilicious mango juice.
After enjoying my meal, I decided to have the P300-20-minute back massage. It was expensive but it was worth the price. I felt the knots on my shoulders loosen and the massage lady was able to make me relax.
After my massage, I went to the boarding gate and got on the plane where I was seated next to the pretty 40ish morena. Buti na lang di ko siya inaway! We chatted and I found out that she was an OFW in Belgium for 4 years before she got married to a Belgian 16 years ago. They have a beautiful 12-year old daughter. She went home last month because her father passed away. As we talked, I realized that marrying rich wasn't all that easy. Aside from having to learn a foreign language, she also had to be nice to her in-laws and her husband's daughter who all thought that she was just marrying for money and didn't have qualms saying it to her face. And of course, she had to teach her husband proper hygiene. For a time it got so bad (the family's treatment, not the hygiene) that when she got pregnant, she decided to give birth in Manila. It's a good thing that everything's fine with her now and that after 16 years of being faithful to her husband, she was finally accepted by his family.
As usual, after our chat, I immediately fell asleep. I only woke up at around 10 pm when they started serving sandwiches, which wasn't bad at all. But when I thought that I'd be having sandwiches for dinner for the next 18 days, I must admit that I got a little depressed. So, I tried to cure my depression by sleeping.
I was mildly irritated when I was awakened by the sound of carts being dragged on the aisles at around 1 am. The irritation vanished when I got my tray of Chicken Curry with Steamed Rice. Sarap! I couldn’t help but jiggle my butt with glee.
After the meal, I brushed my teeth and happily went back to sleep. I woke up hungry at around 9:30 am Philippine time. It was only 3:30 am at our destinations so I assumed that they didn't have any plans of serving food. So, I asked the stewardess for some snacks. I was thinking that she'd give me biscuits, but she gave me a steaming cup of instant seafood noodles. It felt good to my growling stomach. (While eating the noodles, I realized that they gave out menus while I was asleep. The cup of noodles was listed in the menu as optional.)
A few hours later, they served breakfast, which consisted of a roll, a strip of bacon, scrambled eggs, a small hash brown and some beans. It was okay. It would have been excellent if they served more bacon instead of their clean-tasting beans (I prefer the pork and beans that came in a can even if there’s only one piece of pork in the can.)
We arrived in Frankfurt a few hours later at around 5:45. Leaving the plane took 20 minutes as there was a security check at the gate.
The airport in Frankfurt was huge. It was so huge that it made me think of 1-kilometer sprints. I was mistaken. It was actually a 2-kilometer sprint. The walk to the Connecting Flights Area wasn't too bad. Unfortunately, the line I was in was held up by a Chinese man who was being refused entry. I decided to change lines. It was moving at a reasonable pace until the officer decided to help the officer who was being harassed by the Chinese man. Seeing that I was running out of time, I asked everyone in front of me if I could go ahead as I had to be at the boarding gate in 20 minutes. They all agreed and I got to be first in line. It only took me 3 minutes to get my passport stamped. I had 17 minutes left!
I followed the directions to my boarding gate and had to line up again to have myself and my hand-carry baggage checked for weapons. That took another 10 minutes as the person in front of me almost needed to strip to his underwear before he was allowed to pass through. And so, I had 7 left minutes to reach my boarding gate, which was on the other end of the airport. I had to walk really fast and when I got to the elevators, there was a line of people. Dozens of us decided to take the stairs. Little did we know that it was 4 flights down. It's a good thing I had a small handcarry trolley bag which can be worn as a backpack. People with the usual trolley bags had a more difficult time going down. Some actually dragged their bags down the stairs.
Reaching Terminal A, I gave a sigh of relief, then realized that there was about a 20-meter distance between gates. I had to reach gate 21 (which was roughly 400 meters away) in 3 minutes. Some of the other passengers started running. I didn't as I was comforted by the fact that there were 2 middle-aged women behind me who were taking the same flight. (If ever we get there too late, there'll be 3 of us who'll miss our flight!) By that time, I was already tired so I just walked a little bit faster than the 2, who were already huffing and puffing. I made it to the boarding gate 10 minutes before the scheduled flight (we're required to be there at least 15 minutes before departure.) There was a short line of people who looked liked they went through a marathon. I joined them. When I got inside the plane, I just had enough time to use the washroom and make a quick call to Rey.
The flight from Frankfurt to Rome was a short and uneventful one. The only memorable thing about it was that they gave out a salami sandwich, which I saved for lunch.
We arrived in Rome at 9:30 but the luggages were released 30 minutes later. After getting my luggage, I walked to the Customs Area. They didn't seem interested in checking my luggage so I literally walked through them. I was surprised when I found myself at the airport lobby. I asked a handsome policeman (siempre, magtatanong ka na rin lang, mamili ka na ng cutie) where the train to Rome was and he directed me to Terminal C. I was in Terminal A! Accepting that it was my fate to walk, I headed to Terminal C which wasn't too far away. On my way there, an Andy-Garcia-look-alike winked at me. Feeling pretty tuloy ako! Ayan tuloy, I missed the escalators and had to ask a Pinoy hanging around the area. Big mistake, he tried to convince me to hire his car for 40 Euros. Mas madali daw. I pity the ignorant Pinay who would take his offer. I walked back a few meters and saw the escalators. I took it and followed the crowd to the train station. I went to the ticket booth and paid my fare: 9.50 Euros.
A fellow Pinay sat beside me at the train. She was so nice and so helpful as she even helped me drag my luggage off the train. She also offered to bring me to the ticketing booth where I can get my ticket to Florence. Unfortunately, she only knew about the automated ticketing machines which I couldn’t use as I had large bills. We both searched for a ticket booth and found one. I got my ticket a few minutes later. After paying for my ticket, I walked around and found the station's official ticket booth. I bought my ticket at a travel agency that charged me an extra 3 Euros. It's a good thing they taught me how to read the ticket so I didn't feel too bad. P195 din 'yun.
I had an hour to waste before the scheduled departure. I wanted to sit to eat my lunch. I saw travellers seating on the floor. I refused to join them and decided to walk around the Termini. I found seats near a Music store! They were mostly unoccupied as these were a floor below the platforms and the foreigners probably didn't know about it. I finished my sandwich, bought a bottle of water (1.1 Euros!) used the washroom (.70 Euros) and checked what platform to go to. I easily found my platform and was surprised to see my train there since there was still about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to leave. I looked for my car and seat number and was seated beside 2 Spanish women on vacation. They were blond and frumpy and looked as if they were on a happy pill. They were nice and chatty and even offered me some mints. They only spoke the most basic English and there were time when we communicated using hand signals. They kept me awake throughout the 1 and a half hour ride.
I arrived in Florence and was greeted by a magnificent church. The people were very nice and helpful even if they speak very little English. Their helpfulness led me to my hotel/pensione.
After travelling for 24 hours (19.5 hours to get to Rome, 1 hour to get to Roma Termini, another hour to get my ticket and 2 hours to Florence), I was exhausted, but Florence was so worth the long journey.
I got lost looking for Hotel Pensione Ferretti. I overestimated the size of the streets of Florence ang ignored a couple of passages that turned out to be streets. It's a good thing the person manning the tabacchi was able to give me the correct directions, "avanti, no right, no left." I followed his directions and found Ferretti.
Ferreti was more of a pensione than a hotel. To get to the reception, you need to climb a flight of stairs. From there, you take a flight of winding stairs to your room.
The idea of carrying a luggage and a backpack stressed me out, but I managed to do it somehow. I also managed the second flight of stairs, but this time, I had to stop in the middle to catch my breath.
The room was nothing fancy. In fact, it was starting to wear out. But it had its charm - it had a view of a few buildings and the street below, the bed was comfortable, the closet roomy, the toilet, bidet and sink were gleaming and the pale yellow walls were very comforting. It also had a ceiling fan which I never got to use and a heater which was illegal to use in the spring and summer seasons. I didn't stay too long though, as Firenze church bells reminded me that there was a whole new city to explore. (Yes, I didn't take a full bath but for sure ako pa rin yung pinaka-mabango doon.)
Firenze (no one there called the city “Florence”) is a walking city. The city centre is only a beautiful 45-minute walk from end to end, filled with cobblestone streets, small shops and lovely old buildings.
I was looking forward to attending vespers at the Santa Maria del Fiori but I was too early. So, I decided to make a quick stop at the Basilica de San Lorenzo. I wasn't impressed.
Basilica de San Lorenzo boasts of being the parish of the Medicis, the family who ruled Florence for centuries. Unfortunately, most of its beauty is found in the Medici chapel. Outside its doors, people lounged around and the whole street was full of vendors. It forced me to remember the story where Jesus shooed away the vendors from the church steps. To me, the church of San Lorenzo was just another Quiapo church in a foreign land.
From San Lorenzo, I proceeded to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori. Despite the throng of people outside its doors, it looked magnificent. I went inside and was just awed by the interiors. The stained glass windows were beautiful and the last judgment images on the walls were very colorful. The church became even more beautiful when the vespers started. The priests, in their fuschia and white robes took their seats one by one before the celebrant led the processional. The priests led a handful of people througout the ceremony but everything was done so sincerely. The chanting by the priests and the parishioners gave me goosebumps. It was just sad that vespers and even masses were held only in a small portion of the church as there were only a handful of parishioners (and from what I could see were either senior citizens or Filipina OFWs.)
I didn't enter the Baptistry but I took a look at its beautiful doors.
Happy with my first day in Florence, I headed back to Ferretti where I chatted with Rey using their free internet, and took a long hot shower before going to bed at 7:00 pm.
Challenge 1 - eat without a fork
My second day in Tuscany was full of firsts. Waking up at 9:30 am Manila time, I realized that I was hungry at 3:30 am in Florence. I tried to sleep it off but my stomach was detemined to have a conversation with me. So, I brought out my favorite Yakisoba and put hot water in it, only to realize later that I didn't have a fork. Desperate for food, I called on my Ilongga side and started eating with my fingers. It was so much fun! I decided to do it more often but definitely not with the bowl of hot noodles that I planned to eat that night.
Challenge 2 - Go to Pisa
After having my first meat-and-rice free breakfast, I headed to the train station to go to Pisa. It was my first time to use Italy's regular trains (the Leonardo Express and the Eurostar are special trains). I got my ticket at the station, looked for my platform, validated my ticket and boarded the train. I was already thinking that having old trains wasn't that bad for as long as there was something available for people to use until our train stopped right before a station for 10 minutes. No explanations were given but as we pulled out of the station, I saw a man lying on a platform being attended by 3 emergency personnel. Yaiks. Sana di siya nasagasaan.
Even if I took a nap for a few minutes, I got to see Tuscan farmers at work in long sleeves and slacks and really fat sheep grazing on the grass. I also saw the residential buildings with external cable wires and laundry (read as: nakatiwangwang na kable at labada) which would have looked ugly if seen in Manila but since they were in Tuscany, they looked charming.
After about an hour, we reached Pisa. There were no available maps at the station (there were big ones available at the tourist office, though) so I bought a small foldable one from the Tabacchi. It had all the information I needed in a small piece of paper. Armed with the map, I walked to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Extra Challenge 3 - Find the Leaning Tower
There were so many things to see on the way to Piazza Miracoli. Beautiful old buildings lined the street and there were plenty of opportunities for window shopping (literally).
I also loved the little-town feel that it gave. I also felt that its people welcomed tourists - there were lots of signs that pointed where the attractions were. The streets weren't too crowded and I felt so safe and comfortable walking on its streets.
Near the Piazza Miracoli, I noticed a line of beautiful trees, I decided to deviate from the direct path to take a look at them. It led me to a beautiful park with lots of trees, pigeons, dogs on leashes and babies in carriages. It was a nice sight, as it gave me a glimpse of real Tuscan city life.
A look at the map showed that I was near Piazza Miracoli. True enough, as I looked up, I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I was overwhelmed as the truth that I was in Italy suddenly hit me on the face. I felt so giddy! I continued to walk towards the tower and reached Piazza Miracoli. I then realized that if the Leaning Tower wasn't leaning, it would have been the ugliest structure there. The cathedral beside it had a facade that was decorated with white marble, colored sandstone and glass forming flowers and animals. The baptistry was equally stunning. And I loved the statues on top of the Campo Santo.
Unfortunately, it was another throw-away-the-vendors moment. Lining the Piazza was a row of souvenir shops. Just outside its gates were rows of buses bringing in hundreds of tourists. I took my cue from the buildings and tried to be unaffected by them. After taking a few shots, I took a bus to the train station.
Extra Challenge 4 - Find Nerbonne, Home of the Florentine Steak
Deliriously happy from my Pisa adventure, I went out to search for Nerbonne, a restaurant inside the Mercato Centrale which was famous for its steak. Looking for the Firenze's central market was a joy to do. The path was full of tiny stores selling leather goods, trinkets and scarves. Unfortunately (fortunately for me!), these leather goods, trinkets and scarves were the same stuff that you see in Divisoria at much lower prices.
The Mercato Centrale was another feast for the eye. It was full of colorful fruits and vegetables (giant tomatoes and round violently violet eggplants!) as well as huge but still pretty bottles of olive oil and an unimaginable variety of pasta and mushrooms. At the north corner were huge slabs of meat hanging on humongous hooks. I saw the Nerbonne near that area.
I ordered their specialty - Florentine roast beef on bread. It was prepared in front of me - a handsome teen cut paper-thin slices of beef from a juicy slab, poured drippings onto the bread and slapped the beef in the bread. The sandwich was as big as my face! But it was utterly delicious. I ate it at one of Nerbonne's tables, next to a couple of old Italian men who were having an animated conversation while drinking wine and greeting friends who passed by.
Final Challenge - Climbing up the Hill to the Basilica de San Miniato
One of my must-do's in Firenze was to hear the monks chanting at the Basilica de San Miniato. There were two ways of getting there - a 30-minute bus ride or a 2-hour walk. Since I wanted to see Ponte Vecchio and the Basilica de Santa Croce, I decided to walk. Knowing that I had lots of time, I decided to find my way to these places without a map. Wandering the side streets of Firenze was a wonderful experience. I saw dozens of street cafes tucked away in the tiniest of streets and a couple of baby stores selling tiny lace bonnets, knitted mittens and booties and white wooden cribs with ruffled sheets.
I reached the Santa Trinita bridge and was given a magnificent view of the Ponte Vecchio. After taking some shots, I walked to the Ponte Vecchio. It was so much alive with its rows of shopes and picture-hungry tourists. Near its foot was a shop selling miniature luggages in real leather. I was smitten.
Crossing the Ponte Vecchio, I suffered through a line of tourist traps and headed for the Santa Croce. I had to walk with a sea of tourists, who thankfully, while headed in a similar direction, didn't go to Santa Croce.
Santa Croce was another beautiful church with beatiful paintings, sculptures and even more beautiful crypts. But what gave me the strongest impression was the marble pulpit carved with scenes from the bible. The carving was so intricate that I got mesmerized. Interestingly, it wasn't one of the highlights of the church.
From the Santa Croce, I had a few minutes to reach San Miniato. As I looked up by the side of the river, I saw the church' outline at the top of the hill. I took out my map and planned my trek. It was a tiring one.
The climb up required me to take hundreds of steps and several steep slopes. There were time when I had to walk slower so I could catch my breath. These were the times when I wanted to give up and just go back down but I continued. After an hour, I was greeted by a bed of red and yellow tulips at the Piazza Michaelangelo. They were so beautiful! As I walked to the railings, I was rewarded with a magnificent view of Firenze. This alone was worth the long hike up.
A few steps from the piazza, I saw the church of San Miniato. I was a bit disappointed as it was dark and a bit dreary, although it did have a set of beautiful stained glass. I asked the lady arranging flowers at the altar what time vespers started, and she said that there were no vespers but there was a mass at 6. That sounded odd to me since I knew that the chanting was done at vespers. It was only 5 pm so I decided to wander around the area. It was then that I saw the Basilica de San Miniato. It was beautiful. Like the church of San Miniato, it was dark inside but the treasures of the church were lit. I took a few shots, rested at the park outside the church and went back for the 5:30 vespers. The chanting of the priests were better than the chanting in Santa Croce but I felt that it was less sincere. It still gave the basilica an ethereal feel, though. And I had another goosebumps moment.
After the vespers, I went out and was treated to another view of Firenze. This time, I couldn't help but ask a stranger to take my picture.
How Great Thou Art
My last day in Firenze was reserved for the museums. But then, I also realized that I can actually get to see the largest open market in the area which was open only on Tuesdays. And so, I woke up early and started my happy journey at 8 am.
This time, I decided to ride the bus as my feet were already battered from all the walking. I didn't know which stop to get off to so I asked a nice-looking old lady. It turned out that she was also on her way to the market.
The market was huge! There were only 2 rows of shops but the 2 rows were probably a kilometer long. I loved looking at the flowers, the fruits and the meats. There were also cheap winter and fall clothes that were being sold at the same price. May ukay-ukay sa Florence! Ay, "vintage shopping" nga pala ang politically correct term. Anyway, I got a body bag from one of the vintage shopping tables for €3. Wagi!
From the market, I went around the Lorenzo street market again. The cheap leather bags looked like the ones being sold in Greenhills while the truly beautiful ones are way beyond my budget. So, I decided to ignore the wares and proceed with my museum tour.
I grabbed a panini from a store and looked for a place to sit and eat. I found it in Piazza Signora, in the middle of all the statues in the square. I enjoyed the sights while munching on my delicious panini in front of a statue holding a decapitated head.
Right next to the piazza was Uffizi, the biggest museum in Florence. I wasn't planning to visit but I decided to go since I wanted to see Michaelangelo's Holy Family. Luciano of Ferretti booked a ticket for me in advance so I didn't have to line up. I just had to claim and pay for my ticket at one of the gates.
Except for the paintings of Fra Lippo Lippi, the first few rooms were unimpressive. I wasn't even impressed by the famous Birth of Venus painting. But the Holy Family was something else. Perhaps it was the combination of bright colors or the extraordinary way the Holy Family was portrayed but I was just mesmerized by it and I stood there for minutes. (Warning: I also get mesmerized by Christmas lanterns.)
All other paintings looked plain compared to the Holy Family. And I didn't see the beauty of the paintings by Raphael and Rembrandt. After seeing the sculpture of the happy pig, I didn't see any other interesting work so I decided to leave.
On my way out, though, I was led through their Leonardo da Vince Project. It showed and explained his works, even making models of the things he invented. It also showed his artistic and scientific studies. It was pretty impressive and I specially loved his water organ, which was actually a musical instrument where the same amount of water is poured into ceramic pots of different sizes. The ceramic pots gave out different sounds.
After going around the whole floor which was dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci, I became a fan. The man was a genius.
After my enjoyable time at the Uffizzi, I walked to the Accademia, enjoying the paper and leather shops along the way. I saw another store selling the miniature luggages but still decided not to get one as they were a bit expensive.
When I got to the Accademia, I claimed my ticket, again using the booking code that Luciano got for me. At first, I was irritated that I was behind a bunch of teenaged boys. But after looking at more paintings that seemed more and more similar, their comments gave me a fresh perspective. I started seeing "jiggly boobs", "hard asses" and "orgasmic faces." And then I saw the original David, the real reason for my visit. I had another I'm-really-in-Italy moment.
Most people skip the Accademia as David has copies both at the Piazza de Michaelangelo and the Piazza de Signora. But these copies are exposed to the elements making David look like he had gonorrhea (as if it weren't enough that his penis is so minute!) The original David was way more beautiful. I loved looking at the details (veins on the hands and the intelligent look on his face.)
After gushing at the statue for several minutes, I entered a room filled with the plaster molds used for various structures in Paris. Many of the molds were unnamed but several of them were pretty interesting. I loved the mold that had a girl with a dog and the lady in a provocative pose.
It was getting pretty chilly when I left the Accademia so I needed to get home. But as I started to walk home, I remembered the miniature luggages and decided not to leave Florence without one. So, I bought a cheap Indian scarf and walked back to the store. I spent so much time choosing and decided on the first one that caught my attention - a classic-looking one in red leather. The man at the store carefully wrapped my purchase (in an expensive-looking sheet of gold-colored paper!) I was happy.