Trip to Europe: Day 12 – Florence

15 June 2012. I think this was the day when our group became closer. That morning, I could sense a different vibe with everyone. Spending everyday with each other had started to become like a normal thing for us, and I felt like everyone was much more comfortable with each other. It was also the day that we’d get our group photo taken.

I was eager to go back to Florence and there were only 3 things I was interested in: gelato, leather boots, and seeing Michelangelo’s David (again). Florence is the leather capital of the world, and the last time I was there, I got myself a wallet for €10, which I still use. What could be a better souvenir than something you can use everyday. My goal this time was to get leather boots, and I knew they’d be expensive so I thanked God for my credit card.

I was familiar with the drive from Rome to Florence, and looked out for things I had seen before. I can’t think of one word to describe the Tuscan countryside, but “enchanting” should do the trick. I was last there at the beginning of winter, and I remembered everything being those typical autumn colours of red, orange, brown, yellow, and the occasional green. Everywhere you looked was like a postcard image. This time though, it was much greener, but still as gorgeous.

Upon arriving in Florence, Driver Steve drove straight to the top of a hill that overlooked the whole city so that we could meet the photographer in order to have our group photo taken. We drove up winding roads surrounded by lush greenery, before finally reaching the top. There were many cars and a handful of busses parked there, on a wide open paved area. In the middle of it stood a replica of Michelangelo’s David, though it had turned green. I didn’t bother taking a photo of it because its nothing in comparison to the real one. And really, a green David? Oh hell no.

My eyes popped out in amazement when I stepped closer to the edge, as I marveled at the view of the city. You really could see the entire city, it was fantastic. The Duomo and the bell tower stood out just like the monuments they were meant to be, as well as the tower of Piazza Della Signoria. We had a 180° view. There was only one downside to it: the glare from the sun. It hit us the most when the photographer arrived and we had to face the midday sun in order to look at her. My eyes have always been sensitive so I have difficulty moving around outside without sunglasses on a sunny day. I can’t drive without my sunglasses either. Even though I have this issue, I know I wasn’t the only one struggling to look at the photographer, who was now balancing on a medieval lamp post so that she’d get a shot of us from above. We pleaded with her to let us wear our sunglasses but she insisted that we couldn’t, so we all looked down as she got herself ready and told a few people where to stand. On the count of 3, we all looked up as she clicked, and had to immediately look down again. 2 things are clear from the result: not everyone listened about the no-sunglasses rule, and nearly everyone had to squint their eyes.

Contiki group

After our photo we hopped back on the bus and headed for town. First stop, Leonardo Leather Works. Now, a few days before, we started taking notice of the accessories that Steve wore. One was the Nomination bracelet which had a charm for every country that he’d been to. The other was the Puzzle Ring. We could get both those items from Leonardo. I was pretty convinced that I was going to get the Nomination bracelet, but I wasn’t so sure about the puzzle ring. Even though I’m not too bad with solving puzzles, I felt a little intimidated with the way the puzzle ring worked. Steve could do it with such ease, but it was not without practice.

It wasn’t too long a walk before we got to Piazza Santa Croce, which is of course the piazza right in front of the Santa Croce church. It was not as empty as I remembered it to be. This time of the year was when Calcio Fiorentino, a form of soccer where the players use both their hands and feet, was to be held. We would be missing it by just a few days as there were dozens of people setting up the area and it seemed almost complete. Steve explained that we were to meet in Piazza Santa Croce after our free time, a few hours later.

Leonardo is located in a relatively wide street, and we gathered outside its large black gate which guarded a small courtyard. We walked through the gate and into a large room with an inadequate number of wooden benches to accommodate all of us. Nearly half of us had to remain standing (or had to sit on the floor). The room was very stuffy and we struggled to keep cool. It was not long before a quirky, but good looking man came into the room to give us a demonstration on leather. He also showed us how to tell the difference between real and fake leather. Although I paid attention at the time, I cannot remember a word he said now.

When he was done with the demonstration, we could go into the store and get whatever goodies we wanted. I desperately looked for boots but the selection wasn’t that great, so I figured I’d use my free time to find a specialist shoe store. There had to be a couple in the area. I didn’t want to get a handbag or another wallet, and walked around a little more when I saw some girls from my group looking at the jewelry. At the last moment I decided for sure that I was going to get the Nomination Bracelet.

Travis and Tracy were with me, as they were also interested in getting one. For Travis, at least. We waited patiently (well, reasonably patiently) for the brats from the other Contiki group to stop screaming like school kids and wasting the time of the lady who was to attend to us. She saw us waiting and eventually shooed them away because, from my point of view (and it seemed like hers, too) they were just there to be annoying, not to buy anything. We were genuinely interested and wanted to buy something.

Finally, when the lady got to us, Travis let me go first as he was still deciding on which charms he wanted. I had decided to get 10 flag charms because even though its 6 short of the number of countries I’ve been to, it was a significant number of charms to make the bracelet actually look like it was worth something. Also, the great thing was that we got all the charms tax free, and if you bought 5 then you’d get the bracelet for free. For those who don’t know, you get a plain silver bracelet of charms and you add charms to it, then you just get the excess plain ones removed so that it fits round your wrist.

I had never bothered to check the price of the Nomination charms in South Africa . At least, not as a serious buyer. One day when I did enquire, they were some amount that was so ridiculous to me for one charm that I purposely blocked the price out of my mind, never to speak of it again. Now I know that each flag, in South Africa, costs R350 (say €35 if  I used the then exchange rate of ZAR10 = €1). At Leonardo, they cost €20 each. But, because we got them tax free, I paid only €16, or R160 each. Not that cheap, but in comparison, its a damn bargain. Now I regret not buying those 6 that I’m missing. Anyone feeling generous? I’m missing Austria, Mauritius, Belgium, Monaco, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Don’t be shy!

Florentine gelataria

Travis had been to 22 countries but wanted to get a bracelet with all of them on one, which didn’t work out. I think he did get one in the end, though, even though it didn’t have all the flags. I don’t recall seeing anyone else from my group with one. We were the chosen ones!

Palazzo Vecchio

After we were done shopping, we had a few minutes to ourselves to wander around. I needed to get a gelato as it was our second to last day in Italy, and I was on a mission to get a gelato at every place that we stopped at. From experience, (and I think I mentioned this in my post about Rome), I know that it is foolish to buy anything from a busy, touristy area. Therefore, I walked a couple metres out of Piazza Santa Croce and found a fabulous gelataria. I paid about €3.50 for my ice cream.

When I got my ice cream I went back to Piazza Santa Croce and met up with Steve and a few other people. Steve asked me what I paid for my gelato and I told him, and he seemed impressed when I told him where I had bought it. When CC and Jose met up with us, they told us they paid about  €6 for theirs, as they had bought it somewhere in the middle of the piazza. What a difference!

After some time our guide met us there and handed us our audio guides. Finally, mine worked. One of the first places we stopped at was Piazza Della Signoria. On our way there, he showed us where to refill our water, which was on the side of a building. What was amazing to all of us was that you could get both still and sparkling water at that fountain. Only the Italians.

When I saw the tower (Palazzo Vecchio) in Piazza Della Signoria for the first time on 9 November 2009, I told my mother “that looks like a potential viewpoint for Assassin’s Creed”. Days later, when Assassin’s Creed 2 was released, I was proven right. I knew that the game would be set in Venice, but not that parts of it were set in Florence, too. I was quite chuffed with myself for being such an Assassin’s Creed geek.

The guide showed us the fake statue of David, which we got to see from the back due the way that we entered the piazza. When I had seen the real David, I was in complete awe. My mother had raved about it my whole life and I always admired pictures of it, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. In pictures, you always see it from the front, but when you go to the Akademia, you can walk all around it. I never knew that the sling went down his back, and it made me appreciate other things like the veins on his feet and hands even more. Meticulously carving a perfect figure from a single solid block of marble (not just any – Carrara Marble), making the head larger so that it would appear to be in proportion to the rest of the body since people would be looking up at it…I’d like to see how many people can get that right today! I really wanted to see David again but there wasn’t enough time.

After Piazza Della Signoria, we headed to the Medici Palace. I was excited to see it because, hello, who hasn’t heard of the Medici family? To be honest, I was slightly disappointed with what I saw. There was more significance in “being in the Medici Palace” than “seeing the Medici Palace”. The Fleur de Lis, the symbol of Florence, was all over the place too. Its probably my favourite symbol, so I loved it. Here’s a  fun fact too – Caterina Sforza, the Countess of Forli in the late 1400s, was married to a Medici (Giovanni de’ Medici il Popolano to be exact), and she is in fact the ancestor of Princess Diana (and hence Prince William and Prince Harry).

I didn’t know that after the Medici Palace, we’d be going to Ponte Vecchio. In fact, I had totally forgotten about it. On our way there, we passed some statues of prominent figures such as Niccolo Macchiavelli, Galileo, Amerigo Vespucci, Dante, and of course, Michelangelo. I explained to Renae that Michelangelo is my hero, so I was really happy to see his statue there.

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When I got to Ponte Vecchio, I felt like I was experiencing deja vu. I knew I hadn’t been there before but I still felt like I had. And then, the geek hit me again: Assassin’s Creed 2. I know, how lame am I. But seriously, I only realised where I was because of it. It still amazes me that  a game was made with such fantastic thought and detail that it can transport the mind there and make one recognise a real place. Assassin’s Creed 2 also taught me about the corrupt Borgia family – Rodrigo, a.k.a Pope Alexander VI; Cesare, Rodrigo’s pain-in-the-ass son; and Lucrezia, Cesare’s sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship with. Its fascinating that what we assume is fiction can actually teach you about history that really took place. Dylan, the only South African guy in my group other than Steve, found it quite amusing that I recognised the place from a game. Its true, Dylan!

At some point while on the bridge, we stopped to take photos with the Arno River behind us, but because space was limited, it took a while for everyone to get a photo. Hence, some of us got a little left behind. I saw which direction the tour guide and the majority of the group was going, but there were still at least 12 of us that were left behind. After we were done, we literally ran to catch up with the group. I could see Ally and Paul so I kept my eye on them as I ran. Eventually, we caught up with everyone. We were such typical tourists.

We ended our tour in Piazza Del Duomo, next to the beautiful Santa Maria del Fiore basilica and my second favourite bell tower (my first being the one in St Marks Square in Venice), Giotto’s Campinale. I had taken many pictures before so I didn’t waste my phone’s battery by taking any more. We then had some free time, so some of us chose to go to the Market District, as I figured it would be my best bet with finding my boots. Although, I remembered Steve saying that  you wouldn’t get genuine leather there.

I wandered around a bit with Elliot, Tijana and a couple other people. We stopped at some stores where the girls were going a little crazy, but the only thing on my mind were the shoes that I didn’t find yet. After walking a little more, we got to the market district, where, eventually Elliot and I lost everyone. I walked a few minutes with him before deciding to go off in search of a proper leather shoe shop. After all, even though I liked the company, I was in Florence to get leather boots, and since there wasn’t much time I couldn’t have myself worrying about whether I was alone or not!

I made my way back to the vicinity around Piazza Santa Croce (I had about a 1.5 hours to meet Steve and the group there) and went into a number of shops. I finally found a pair that I liked. They cost me a hefty €95, but they were genuine leather and a dark turquoise blue, which is very unusual. I didn’t want to get a typical brown or black pair, so those were perfect. However, they hurt like hell. Since they were leather, though, I knew I’d wear them in, so it didn’t concern me too much. As long as they weren’t tight. I now  had appropriate shoes for Monaco, too!

I had spent about 45 minutes looking for the shoes and I had no idea what to do with myself for the remainder of the time, so I went to Piazza Santa Croce and decided to look for some other kind of leather souvenir that I could take back with me. I wasn’t too interested though because I had already spent more than enough that day with the Nomination bracelet and the boots! It was not long before I decided that it may be a good idea to rest my feet. They were still sore from the galavanting in Rome, and I knew I still had many hours to go before the day could end. With this in mind, I sat in the shade on the side of Santa Croce church, watching some pigeons. I was pretty tired, and the shade was much needed after being in the blistering sun all day. After a couple of minutes, I spotted Renae walking towards the entrance of the church so I drew her attention to me to check what she was doing. We both decided then to go into the church, since we still had some time left and it didn’t cost much to go inside. Also, I didn’t realise that Michelangelo’s grave was there. I couldn’t miss seeing that.

Renae and I went inside, equipped with our little maps showing the layout of the church and what was where. Galileo was also buried there, so since we didn’t have much time, we made sure we stopped by his and Michelangelos’ graves. The church was beautiful like every other church I’ve been to, although probably also the smallest in comparison. I wished that there was no scaffolding above the main altar, but I guess that’s how the church’s are kept in such good condition.

I got goosebumps when I got to Michelangelo’s tomb, and Renae carried on to see something else so as to give me a few extra moments there. Yes I did shed a tear, as it was the closest I had ever been to the man himself.

Michelangelo's tomb, Santa Croce church

When we were done, Renae and I followed the signs towards the exit, and we stepped out into an enclosed but open courtyard that had the greenest grass I’d ever seen. There appeared to be a cross in the middle of it, made from the same grey (cement?) flooring that surrounded it. We walked to the other side, sheltered by the covered passageway that encircled the courtyard, and finally reached the door to the outside, right where our group had gathered. We still had to wait for some people so we took a few minutes to sit down and rest our feet a little, and catch up with the others. Eventually, Steve got tired of waiting and we had to leave as we still had to get dressed to go to the Tuscan dinner. Because of our tight schedule, we had to leave Jye behind. I can’t remember who he was with (I assume Sam and Coralie, since the three of them had become very close), but they were too far out to be able to catch up with us.  We therefore had to leave, after Jye’s reassurance that they’d take a taxi back. At least an international SIM came in handy!

We had a little bit of a walk to get to the bus, most of which was alongside the river with the sun on our backs. It was the hottest weather I had experienced on tour, and I felt like my back was cooking. It was beyond uncomfortable! I don’t think I wanted the comfort of the shaded, air-conditioned bus more than I did at that point. I was extremely relieved to be sitting back on my seat at the front, with some shelter of the top/front part of the bus above Driver Steve providing extra shade.

Driver Steve then took us back to the hotel, where we freshened up and got dressed for the Tuscan dinner. I was pretty excited about it because it was supposedly right inside the Tuscan Hills, and we all know how beautiful Tuscany is. Because we’d be heading straight for Space (the nightclub) after dinner, many people got dressed in something shiny. The shiniest thing I had was a pink top with some silver diamante’s on it, which was suitable enough (at least, I thought). Because I didn’t what the hassle of carrying anything with me, I didn’t take my phone. I just carried some cash for a drink or 2 at Space.

We drove for a little while through winding roads, all the time going uphill. The trees got more dense until eventually it was as if we were driving through a forest. On our way there, Steve warned us about Meatloaf. We wondered why.

After some time, we saw what appeared to be a sign for the restaurant that we were going to. Driver Steve had to go down a really steep, death-defying driveway in order to get to it. That man really has skill, and we cheered a sigh of relief once we reached flat ground. The white, vintage-looking building that was the restaurant was nestled right in the middle of hundreds of trees. It had a romantic look about it because of the dull lights that greeted us outside.

When we walked up some stairs, 2 long dining tables awaited us, one longer than the other. I sat towards the end of the table, in between Travis and Paul, the Australian who came with his brother Joe and Joe’s girlfriend, Mel. Mel sat at the head of the table, with Joe on her right. In front of me sat Renae and Ronnie. It wasn’t long before we were served with some entrees which consisted of cold meats and cheese. While we were whetting our appetites, it became clear what Steve meant by Meatloaf.

A large man with long, slightly disheveled dark hair walked in, and set himself up with a keyboard in the corner right behind Mel. Next to him was a little table with a bottle of wine and a glass, which a waiter had brought out shortly after his arrival. He poured himself a glass,  a gulped the whole thing down in one go. I looked around wide-eyed to the others, most of whom didn’t notice. I figured it wasn’t the last time he’d do that, so I didn’t say anything.

Then, he began to sing. He started off pretty good, and it was quite enjoyable. Then, Travis and I started noticing him drinking more and more wine, in the same way as he had the first time. It wasn’t long before he finished the bottle! By that time, he was sweating profusely and kept wiping his face with his handkerchief. His hair was drenched with sweat, and it was clear from his facial expressions that he was very passionate about his music. His closed eyes, head (and hair) bobbing, and painful-looking facial squeezing provided entertainment like no other. Mel and I occasionally exchanged “WTF” glances, and Travis (who had his camera out) and I could not contain our laughter at times. He was absolutely hilarious.

We ate so much and I enjoyed practically every item that was served to us. As we were getting towards the final serving, Meatloaf started to play a romantic song, and there was nothing to do but dance. Everyone’s eyes were on Steve because he looked very dashing in his black pants and white shirt and he was approaching us with his arms open as if to see who wanted to dance with him. At the back of my mind I thought “Please don’t pick me, I know you’re going to but don’t. I suck at dancing!”.

I guess its the law of attraction. Tell something not to happen to you and it will. Steve came up to me first with his hand out. I didn’t want to be a spoil sport and thought “Heck, when will I get to dance with a good looking guy in front of an entire tour group again”, so I went for it. He said to follow him, and I tried my best. I don’t think I’ve ever blushed that much in my life. I felt like a blithering idiot, but he was such a gentleman and laughed along with me, and not mockingly at all. When we were done, he hugged me tightly and I fumbled back to my seat, probably red-faced. I was relieved that I was out of the spotlight, but thrilled that I was the first girl he called up to dance. Maybe its a Durban South African thing!

After more people danced and finished eating, we took a quick bathroom break at the back of the restaurant before hopping back on to the bus. We were excited to get to Space.

Florence is not a place I associated with nightlife. I always thought of it as a historical, Renaissance city filled with beautiful buildings and colours. The last thing I thought of was what people do at night.

When we got back into town, Driver Steve put on some party music, and replaced the normal lights in the bus with blue, flashy ones. He really got us into the party mood. The locals must have been shaking their heads thinking “not those Contiki groups again” as Steve drove round one of the traffic circles a good 3 or 4 times. It wasn’t too long before we got to Space.

Steve explained that we’d each get a card for our drinks orders, which would be punched for every drink we bought. This was to save time and overcrowding at the bar. Nice idea. Also, our first drink was free. Ain’t nobody gonna turn down a free drink. The other reason for the card was to disallow people from spending more than €50, thereby reducing their alcohol intake.

When we got inside, we had to walk down a flight of stairs. The whole club was lit by a blue light, and when went round the corner, we saw the bar on the right and a karaoke bar on the left. There were a couple really young people there, and it was quite obvious that they were part of another Contiki group. Steve said that we’d be one of 4 Contiki groups there that night, so I expected it to be crazy, especially if the other groups were as big as ours.

I got my first drink, which was a vodka and Red Bull (a dangerous combination, I know, but I felt like having one), and joined some of the girls who were heading upstairs. I didn’t know there was an upstairs area until I was standing at the bar waiting for my drink and noticed some people ascending some stairs that disappeared into nowhere. When I got up there, it was clear that that was where the real club was. It was absolute mayhem because of the crowd. We didn’t really know where to go, until we looked up and saw some people dancing in what seemed to be a gallery-type area. We found the staircase and went up to “assess the situation”. It definitely was madness. From there, we got to see the entire club.

At the opposite end was a stage, and a curious looking shower in the middle of it. I hoped that it wasn’t going to be used, but I didn’t want to bet on it. At the top left corner of the room was a large screen, the top of which read “Wet T-Shirt Competition”. Uh oh. Underneath was a list of 10 girls names as well as the countries to which they belonged. I recognized 2 of the names – they were from my group! I died a little inside, as I knew both of them. One of them was probably the quietest girl you’d ever meet, and Tina and I stared wide-eyed as she was called up, along with the other girl from my group.

Some time passed after they were called up, and we used that time to dance and enjoy ourselves. It was only when I looked at my watch that I realized that at least an hour had passed since the girls were called up, and they were going to make their appearance again. I went back to the gallery area with Tina a few other people, so that we could watch from a vantage point. We had no idea what to expect, but I knew that if it was a wet t-shirt competition, they’d probably be wearing white shirts. And they were.

When the girls came out, all were wearing blue denim shorts and white shirts. They had obviously been given the clothes to wear. The guys in the club were going a little crazy with excitement, but it was nothing compared to the way they reacted when the girls went under the shower and began to dance. After seeing how slutty some of the girls behaved (I won’t go into details), Tina and I ended up covering our mouths in shock as the 10th girl, the quiet one from our group, had her turn. Since 9 out of the 10 girls took their tops completely off (a number of them took off their shorts, too), Tina and I prayed that the girl we knew wouldn’t take hers off. Thankfully, she didn’t. There is some decency left in this world! Needless to say, she didn’t win! The other girl from our group DID win though. Everyone’s reactions were mixed, as was mine. I was excited that someone I knew won a competition and did something as daring as that (and got so many guys’ tongues to hang), but I was also slightly mortified and shocked. Everyone became a little protective of her afterwards as some guys approached her thinking that because she had done that, she was “easy”. I suppose, in a small way, their thoughts were slightly justified! Don’t hate me, girl, I’m just stating facts!

After the madness, it turned out to be pretty late and I was exhausted. I decided to see who was getting a taxi home so that I’d be able to go with them. Sam and some of the others said that they’d be leaving soon, but I was quite thirsty and wanted one more drink. I wanted to avoid spending money and thought I’d just take the first free drink, but I thought that one more wouldn’t hurt. I quickly went back to the bar and ordered another vodka and Red Bull. I had barely taken a few sips when my leaving crew said that they were going to leave. Because of that, I practically gulped down my drink. The bartender wasn’t exactly mean with the vodka either, so at least a third of my glass was alcoholic, unlike in South Africa where they’re so mean with a single shot. I don’t think I need to explain the effects of having a drink too quickly.

After having my drink, I joined some of my leaving crew in the queue to pay for the drinks we’d had. I owed about €6.50 for my drink, which is about 1.5 times what you’d pay in South Africa for the same thing. Finally, when I was done, I waited for a couple more people and we went back upstairs to the where we had entered hours before. We had to wait a little for a taxi and during that time saw 2 guys practically carrying their friend out of the club. He was drunk beyond belief, and couldn’t stand. They sat him down on the sidewalk, and he leaned so far over with his head between his legs that I thought he was gonna rest his head on the road itself. I’m pretty sure he drank for the full €50!

By the time the taxi came, I was quite tipsy, riding on the strength of the vodka. So I don’t even remember who was in the taxi with me. We ended up having to pay about €4-5 each, which didn’t work out too bad (Steve said that we shouldn’t pay more than €30 for that particular journey). I didn’t take very long to get changed before crashing for the night, knowing that I’d finally be seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa the following morning.

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