Italy: an adventure to remember

After years and years of much hype and my desire to visit, I finally went to Italy this past weekend! And Chris finally went back to San Gimignano. It is simply beautiful. It is a lovely little town in a castle that reminded me only of two things: Christmas and a fairy tale. When you first see that town, it literally looks like it was taken out of a Disney movie. It’s just so…pretty!

The summertime, when more people probably vacation in San Giminagno, it must be heavenly to be there, surrounded by sunflowers and beautiful landscapes. It just looks beautiful all around Toscana.

(Getting there—but very especially getting out—wasn’t all THAT pleasant. I’ll get to that later.)

Arriving in Italy

We arrived in Roma, Italia, on the 24th (Thanksgiving Day) and stayed there for the first night. Otherwise, it was going to be a long trip (3 hours by train) to Siena and then almost another hour to San Gimignano. Unfortunately, the taxi we took from the airport to the hotel got a little lost and that took away our energy—and time—to go to center city Rome. So we had our Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. There was no turkey, but there was Prosecco. 😉 We had a decent time.

Check our trips on the map

Getting to San Gimignano

The next morning, we skipped center Rome again and went straight for San Gimi. So glad we did. Transportation in Italy doesn’t seem to be very straightforward. The language wasn’t so much the problem; I could understand enough to move us around and could speak back whatever broken Italian came out of my mouth. Also, unlike in small towns in Spain, a lot more people in Italy can speak some English. But, yeah…the transportation system was a bit confusing for us.

Nevertheless, we managed to buy our tickets and made it to our destination: Rome to Florence, Florence to Siena (Poggibonsi), and finally from there to San Gimignano. We didn’t feel like waiting an hour for the bus at Poggibonsi, so we took a taxi. This time the taxi ride was better and the driver knew where he was going.

We stayed at an apartment inside the castle for a relatively cheap nightly rate, considering how expensive everything is in San Gimi. Oh yeah, did I mention it is an expensive little town? Worth it though. The view from our apartment was stunning. If I could wake up to that every morning…I don’t know what I would do. The only thing is we did not really need to stay there for more than two nights—you can see and do almost everything in just one day! I’d give it two days max.

To me, three to four days (or more) in San Gimignano is something that people of “certain age” would probably enjoy more, especially on off-season days because it is quiet up there. On the first night, Chris and I went out to eat really late, perhaps thinking that we were still in Spain, and that almost didn’t happen. We found a good open restaurant, thankfully. After dinner, there was not much to do. Actually, I’ll rephrase that; there was nothing to do but go for a walk. And we did just that. San Gimignano is just as beautiful at nighttime with all the lights and all, so we enjoyed the walk.

Leaving San Gimignano

We had planned to stay until Sunday, but we cut it short because, 1) We had already seen everything in San Gimignano, and 2) We had an early flight the next morning and by that point we did not trust the transportation system. Again, so glad we did. Now, this is when it got fun.

Our outbound flight was flying out of Pisa (a shorter distance than Rome), but we still needed to make sure we were going to be able to get train tickets and all. So, on Sunday, we said good-bye to San Gimi at around 11:00 AM, only to find ourselves still waiting for the bus outside the castle at 2:00 PM. It’s OK—we killed some time by taking pictures and what not. To make up for the wait, the bus driver didn’t have any more biglietto (bus ticket), which I still don’t understand how that worked, so we got a free bus ride to Poggibonsi.

We thought that was going to be it, but then we got to Poggibonsi train station. As I had finished purchasing and paying for one train ticket on the machine, two old men (who I will call “angels” for this purpose), understanding that we were foreigners, approached us and said, “No, no biglietti…il treno viene soppresso!” (They were telling me not to buy tickets.) Soppresso? I wondered. That’s one Italian word I had not heard before (among many others, of course). And then one of the angels pointed at the screen and made that sign with his finger to his throat, that worldwide-known sign that indicates that something is “dead.” That’s when I understood that our train was not coming.

Check our trips on the map

Getting to Pisa

I looked at the screen and almost every single train was soppresso (cancelled). I wasn’t so sure of what was going on. We needed to take a train to Florence and there wasn’t one going there. The two angels kept talking to me from time to time, trying to help me figure out how the heck we were going to get to Pisa. After an hour wait or so, a two-story high bus pulled up. It might have been regular transportation, I’ll never know. But as I stared out from a glass door, the last two persons were getting on the bus and I think they were going to Florence. I didn’t have much time to go ask the driver if it was going to Florence. So I quickly asked the angels, Firenze? And they responded, “Si, questo bus va a Firenze…diretta.” That was a non-stop bus to Florence!

I ran as quickly as I could and asked the driver, just to be sure. When he confirmed, I signaled that I was going to be right back and I went and got Chris. We got on the bus and I was getting ready to pay the driver when he gestured that there was no need and just to go ahead. I thought that maybe he was going to charge us later, but when we got to Florence one hour later he didn’t. Did we just get TWO bus rides for free? I think we did!

Anyway, we didn’t really need to go to Florene, but needed to take the Florence train from Ponggibonsi. However, one of the main stations was in Florence and we could easily catch any train going to Empoli (the station where we needed to exchange trains for Pisa). Or so we thought. A customer service rep informed us that there was a strike and that’s why most trains weren’t running. We got lucky that our train was just leaving Florence when the bus dropped us off, but when we got to Empoli, that’s when we waited the longest.

By the way, the train ride from Florence to Empoli was free, as well. We didn’t really plan it, but the train was leaving and we thought we could pay cash inside, like they do at many stations. So I boarded the train with the wrong ticket (the one I paid 5,90 for in Poggibonsi) and Chris got none. When an agent came around, I flashed some cash and my erroneous ticket and explained what happened. He said that it normally shouldn’t happen, but that he was going to accept the ticket. He stamped it and didn’t take any extra money. So basically, all this time we travelled free of charge.

Anyway, we arrived at Empoli at a decent time. We really thought we’d make it to Pisa with daylight, in time to see the leaning tower. But we soon faced reality. I looked at the screen and every train we could possibly take was cancelled.

By then, we were really tired. We thought about all the possibilities. I mean, we had lucked out so far, so we could still get out of there. Maybe a bus would pull up again, who knows. Chris thought about just getting a hotel in Empoli and leaving in the morning. We just contemplated and contemplated the whole picture, literally and figuratively.

We were outside and I saw this hotel across from the station. I thought maybe someone in there could tell me how to get to Pisa otherwise, in English or Spanish. So I walked inside and asked the old man at the front desk if he knew of a bus going to the airport. He gave me a strange look like, there’s no such thing. Then he said that there were so many trains going to Pisa, it was hard to believe they were all cancelled. (And this is all in Italian, so I don’t know how I put all those conversations together!)

Well, thinking about what this other old man said, I headed back to the station. Chris and I looked at the screen again because, according to the man, there had to be a train going to Pisa. Indeed, there was one. Hallelujah! The train to Grosseto, Italy, was leaving in another hour (we had been waiting for two or so) but we’d take it! We sat at a cafeteria next door, had a snack and a well-deserved drink and just prayed that goshdarn train didn’t get cancelled, too.

Oh my…the whole thing was unbelievable so far.

The amazing thing is that none of us panicked. We were tired, but determined. I know other people would have freaked out in the same situation and would end up paying hundreds of euros to a taxi to get them out. I don’t know the real reason we were so calm, but being stranded in another country where you barely speak the language (or don’t speak it at all) is not funny. It can be frightening to many.

Despite this hard-to-believe adventure, I enjoyed myself in Italy and I want to go back. I enjoyed practicing the language and listening to native speakers. I loved the food. I hope next time I can make it to the spots we missed—and that there aren’t any strikes this time.

Check our trips on the map

Check our trips on the map

Getting to Madrid, Spain

We did make it to Pisa that night. We booked a hotel room and just stayed as close to the airport as we could. ha ha! It felt like the longest, most exhausting day of my life. But we still had some energy to eat. We had a yummy authentic Italian dinner and some good wine…just what we needed to end this quest.

In the morning, we caught a cab to the airport, which was less than ten minutes away. Everything went well. Chris ended up checking in his carry-on because he had bought some wine and Ryanair does not allow liquids on board now. Other than that, we made it to Spain on time. Of course, to get to Madrid Atocha from the airport, and from Madrid to Ciudad Real, we needed to take just two more trains—we only needed to spend 78 more minutes (combined) on a train to officially end that wild weekend and we made it! It will be one that we will never forget.

Some Pictures from our trip