Travel diary: Italy, France, Monaco, Andorra

After five beautiful days in Florence, we’re on the road again: to Pisa, Nice, Monaco, and Andorra — yes, four countries in three days.

Monday 22/10: Our friend Julie had only two nights in Florence with us, and since she wanted to make the most of her time, we made an earlier start than usual. Unfortunately most of the state museums are closed on Mondays, so we were a little limited as to options… But we still managed to find more than enough to do.

First, we caught the tram into the city and visited the tourist office to pick up an information pack the tourist board had been kind enough to put together for us, then headed straight to the cathedral. It was thronged with tourists but we got a good look before going downstairs to check out the crypt — which was interesting enough but not really worth the €3 entrance fee.

Us and Julie.

The Duomo museum, though, was definitely worth the price. It’s filled with religious art, much of it old decorations of the cathedral itself. After a bit of a wander through the city, including a visit to the Piazza della Signoria and a stroll through the Palazzo Vecchio, we found a small but very popular hole-in-the-wall sandwich place for lunch. The food was delicious but I somehow managed to drip oil all over my clothes.

Cathedral and baptistry.

We crossed the Ponte Vecchio and took a short break outside the Pitti Palace, then headed off to find the entrance to the Boboli Gardens — we could have entered through the palace, but that would have been too easy! The gardens are immense and beautiful, and it was a relief to be away from all that art — I think we all had a touch of Florence Syndrome!

Before we left the gardens, we stopped in at the costume museum, then decided to head home for the evening via the supermarket. Our Go with Oh apartment was furnished with the most awesome kitchen ever — hidden away in a cupboard — so we were able to cook a tasty pasta and salad dinner, which of course was accompanied by too much wine.

Tuesday 23/10: Julie had to be on a bus to the airport by 2pm, so we were in a bit of a rush to do everything she wanted to do before she left. We pared it down to just two essentials: the Accademia and the Ufizzi, but as we were on the tram to the former we saw a market which we decided to visit.

We hadn’t counted on the long lines at the gallery, but we managed to get in quite quickly by getting Julie a ticket with a reservation time. We then proceeded to ignore the reservation time completely and walk straight in… The ticket checkers didn’t seem to mind at all.

Ponte Vecchio.

The gallery was great but smaller than I’d expected. The most famous piece, Michaelangelo’s David, was surrounded by throngs of people, many of them taking surreptitious photos, but the other exhibits weren’t so crowded. I enjoyed the workroom of Bartolini, filled with plaster busts of much of his work, but it was also overwhelming to consider how many statues he had made.

There was also an interesting video about the process of gilding paintings, which gave me a new appreciation for that style of work — Julie and I had just been saying that it wasn’t our favourite style, but we found a lot more to like in it once we knew more about it.

After a stop at the Ponte Vecchio and a quick bite to eat, we visited the Ufizzi Gallery — which was incredible. There was so much to see and so little time! We wandered through the upper floors relatively sedately, enjoying both the artwork and the views from the windows and balcony. However, at about 12.55 we realised that we’d have to make a run for it if we wanted to get home, collect Julie’s bags, and get her to the airport on time. Luckily, we managed — we left Craig in town to pick up the tickets while Julie and I caught the tram home and back again, and we arrived at the bus station with at least three minutes to spare. We waved a sad goodbye to Julie (who arrived in Paris safely, but her suitcase didn’t), and headed home.

Florence is a pretty popular spot at the moment for travel bloggers — there were at least six others here at the same time as us: Erica and Shaun from Over Yonderlust, Randy and Beth from Beers and Beans, and Juno and Steve from Runaway Juno. So, we decided to have a small party, and invited them all to our place for drinks. Well, we all had a lot to say and apparently we were saying it a bit too loudly, so we got a call from the reception desk asking us to tone it down. We tried, but it didn’t work too well, so we decided to take the party elsewhere and walked to a nearby piazza for another glass of wine.

Travel blogger party!

Wednesday 24/10: Because we’d been spending so much time sightseeing, we were both quite behind on work — so we spent the day inside, trying to catch up. I walked to the supermarket in the evening to pick up what we needed for chicken piadines, and after dinner we watched a couple of episodes of QI.

Thursday 25/10: Since it was our last day in Florence, we wanted to see as much as possible while still having time to get some work done. So, we caught the tram into town and visited first the Medici Chapel (which was nice but overpriced) and then the Archaeology Museum. We couldn’t find it at first, as the entrance was not where it was marked on the map, but we eventually got in. The top and bottom floors were excellent, full of interesting displays that were well curated, but the second floor was quite disappointing — most of the time we had no idea what we were looking at as there were no information boards.

A great cafe!

After a tasty lunch at a cafe near the Archaeology Museum, we visited the Ufizzi again, this time more slowly. We passed quickly through the upper floors, as we’d seen them quite well on Tuesday, but took our time over the foreign paintings and sculptures on the lower floor.

Our walk home took us past a food stall, where we picked up a lampredotto sandwich. Someone had recommended this delicacy (it’s tripe) on the IndieRail page, so I thought we’d better give it a go — and it wasn’t bad. Quite tasty actually, with the chili sauce the seller had added.

We both got quite a lot of work done in the afternoon, and had piadines again for dinner — this time with bacon.

Friday 26/10: We’re not very good at early mornings, but we really wanted to stop in Pisa on our way to Nice, so we had to leave the apartment before 8am. It was a bit of a mad rush getting up, packed, out the door, and to the tram stop, but we managed, and even got to the train station six minutes before our train departed — victory!

The tourist information officer in Pisa gave us a map and directions through the city to the cathedral and famous tower, where we spent half an hour or so before hopping on a bus back to the train station. The tower was impressive, as were the other buildings in the complex but I thought the most entertaining thing was watching the other tourists pretend to hold the tower up. It was quite amusing.

Us in Pisa.

Soon after we got back on the train, the rain started. Since we were warm and dry, this didn’t bother us at all… Until we got off the train in Nice, where it was seriously pelting down. We were both drenched through by the time we made it to to tram stop, and the trams didn’t appear to be running. We gave up after waiting about 15 minutes, and had a kebab.

The bar at the Villa Saint Exupery Gardens hostel.

Luckily the trams had started running again by the time we emerged, and we got to our hostel with no further problems. We’d found a fantastic deal on booking.com (data-entry error, I think), and when we arrived at Villa Saint Exupery hostel the receptionist couldn’t find our booking in the system. Eventually he found it, but it hadn’t been processed properly and there was no room for us in the hostel. What followed was a textbook case of truly excellent customer service. The manager came down and explained what had happened, and offered us a private room in their other hostel across town. He gave us money for the tram, walked us to the tram stop, organised a transfer at the other end, and promised us a free meal and drink when we arrived.

The receptionist at the other hostel was just as apologetic and friendly, as was the bartender when we went to get our meals — which were delicious. The room was quiet with a private bathroom, the beds were comfortable, and breakfast was included the next morning. All in all, we had a fantastic time and can certainly recommend them.

Saturday 27/10: It was still raining when we woke up, but by the time we’d finished breakfast the sun had broken through and it turned into a stunning day. We made our way back to the hostel we’d been going to stay in (as it was more central) and left our bags in their secure luggage area, then wandered along to catch the bus to Monaco. This journey, with was much cheaper than the train at only €1, was a spectacularly scenic trip — I’m so glad we found out about it!

Monte Carlo casino — yep, we gambled there.

In Monaco, we walked around the port admiring the yachts, then headed towards the casino. It was closed until 2pm, so we continued on to the beautiful Japanese gardens before returning to the casino. Since we wanted to be able to say we had gambled in Monte Carlo, we fed €5 into one of the machines and lost it all within about 15 minutes — as expected. Not many people were playing, but I did watch a little Blackjack… and saw people lose a lot more than €5 in a lot shorter time.

After a quick lunch of kebabs in the funfair at the port, we headed up to Monaco Ville, where we saw the Prince’s Palace and the Oceanographic Museum from the outside, and ducked inside the Cathedral. We were thinking about going to the Exotic Gardens but we were starting to run out of time, so we stopped into the supermarket to buy a drink, then caught the bus back to Nice.

There, we collected our bags, bought supplies at the supermarket, and headed to the train station for our overnight train to Toulouse. We had upper berths in a 4-bed couchette compartment, and the conductor told us the other occupants would be getting on at around 11pm. Which they did — but there were three of them, a father and his two kids. After a bit of stressing out, it was organised that they’d all move to a different compartment, and we had ours all to ourselves! Luxury!

Pas de la Casa is cold.

Sunday 28/10: Unfortunately we had to get off the train at 5.15, which wasn’t too luxurious really, and neither was spending two groggy hours in Toulouse station. The next leg of the trip, to L’Hospitalet, was comfortable, and we managed to get seats on the connecting bus to Pas de la Casa in Andorra. It was a beautiful journey, interrupted by a border stop that involved the man behind us being taken off for a drug search after the sniffer dog took an interest in him. It was also very very cold: -7!

When we arrived in Pas de la Casa, we picked up some brochures at the information office and had a coffee before hopping on the bus to Andorra la Vella. The 45-minute trip covered about two-thirds of the country, and the views were spectacular.

On arrival, we used the Droam to get to our Couchsurfing host’s place, where our host, Anna, welcomed us in and gave us a bit of advice about what to do in town. Craig and I spent a couple of hours walking around, visiting a feria, the river, and a couple of shops, before heading home for dinner with Anna.

Andorra la Vella.


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