Anyway, enough of my being a cheapskate ;) I loved wandering round the quieter streets and less busy squares, which were usually just round the corner from the mad circus of international coach parties but made me feel I’d been transported to a different town, on a different day! I would look at the map and try to find the most direct route from one beautiful monument to another, hoping to reach as many as possible. As a result I often ended up taking tiny cobbled lanes between tall, crooked, warm-coloured houses, dodging between zooming bicycles and Vespas (moving and parked!) and breathing in fantastic cooking aromas from open windows. Oh, and every now and again a road I’d planned to take turned out to be on the other side of a wall / railing / locked gate, or up a flight of steps I didn’t know was there... which sometimes meant I had to turn round and go back, but it all added to the adventure :)
Here are a few pictures from beautiful Pisa:
After Florence it was time for me to get some work done, and stop spending money on unavoidable things like places to eat and sleep! Before setting off on this second leg of my trip, I had been in touch with about a dozen environment projects in Italy – I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were so many, actually! Ecovillages, renewable energy centres, permaculture farms... I contacted them all, but I have to say only one replied, in the negative. So it was time to try Plan B: volunteering via an organisation that allows eco-conscious and (especially) budget-conscious travellers to find potential hosts running projects that the volunteer can help with and learn from. In exchange for the hours worked each day, volunteers receive meals and lodging, and of course have the privilege of spending time with locals, talking with them about all sorts and sharing their domestic routine for a while. In New Zealand and previously (France, Japan), my organisation of choice for finding volunteering work has been the WWOOF scheme: you pay a fee to become a member, for one year, in each country you want to volunteer in. However, this time, mainly for financial reasons (!) I opted for HelpX, which for a similar fee offers global membership for TWO years. As this second leg of my trip should include volunteering stints in six countries, HelpX was a much more appealing option!
Just for a change, things were rather last-minute when organising this part of the trip *sheepish grin*. So when, three days before my flight out Italy, I received my one and only “Yes, sure you can come on those dates” reply, I went for it! Not a permaculture project, just helping with garden work in Tuscany, which was fine. So from Florence I took the train west to the small town of Montelupo-Fiorentino, only 25 minutes away. Beautiful Tuscany is a land of vineyards and olive groves, and warm sunshine between torrential April showers! My host Gabriele’s house was tucked away up a steep hill 7km from the town, and from the hillside there was a gorgeous view of green valley countryside.
My stay at Gabriele’s was a success on some levels; certainly I was busy, in a lovely place, in a safe environment with a room (and bathroom!) to myself and spending virtually nothing – that was wonderful. It wasn’t the best from a cultural exchange point of view, though. I was basically digging the vegetable patch-to-be for five days, repeatedly stamping a spade into very hard ground with the sun on my back, while Gabriele was out at work, some days for 12 hours. So it’s a good thing I like my own company! I played a lot of music that week and sang my head off in the garden, and when I needed a break from the spade I could just turn round and enjoy the view :) It was a wonderfully peaceful place, with a spacious and colourful garden, and I did get out for a change of scenery once or twice. Gabriele also makes a fantastic asparagus risotto and introduced me to a cheese called “Burrata” – the colour and texture of mozzarella but with extra cream, giving it an ultra-creamy, almost buttery flavour – dangerously tasty!
After Tuscany I found myself a car share to Rome, and suddenly Florence was no longer the most beautiful city I’d ever seen! The area around the Roman Forum, especially, was almost overwhelming... looking at the beauty and scale of everything around me, while also trying to make my brain factor in the AGE and significance of every monument. I looked, stared, gazed, feeling like my eyes were only taking in a fraction of the visual feast and struggling to keep track of simultaneous racing trains of thought. From “the light in this square is unbelievable” to “the folds of the robe in that sculpture look like real velvet” to “watch out for the lunatic driver behind; the light’s turned green for everyone at once” to “this phenomenal building (the Colosseum) has seen some of the cruellest scenes in history” to “how could an empire this mighty have fallen?” to “we are so tiny, so noisy, so many” to “how much have people changed, with this incessant selfie-taking” to “how sad it is that almost all the non-white people here are desperately trying to flog things” to “wow. Just wow.” I have a feeling I gave my (unread – shame on me) copy of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” to a charity shop. Darn.
In Rome I did stump up some cash and join an official guided tour so as not to miss the unmissable: the Colosseum, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Aside from saying that the circus outside is possibly even louder and more intense in these buildings, my lips are sealed as regards the experience of visiting the Vatican galleries and, finally, looking up at that singular ceiling. I hope it’s something everyone reading this will enjoy one day :)
To follow – eventually! Lioness’s first foray into Greece... Rhodes, to be precise :)