Planes, trains, an automobile, and some cabs and buses

Normally we book flights ourselves, but this time we enlisted the services of a travel agent in New Brunswick who was recommended by Sweetie's sister. She got us a really good return fare with only a little inconvenience. Delta and Air France on the way, KLM on the way back, but really the flights themselves were sometimes operated by different carriers because Delta and Air France and KLM and AirItalia are part of a code-share group.

To Firenze

Getting out of Vancouver proved to be more difficult than we had thought it would be. Friends had recommended that we travel as light as possible and not check luggage, which made sense. You don't want anything to get lost on your way to vacation. Our intention was to each have one roller carry-on and one backpack-sized under seat piece. Once in Italia we would buy a cheap bag and fill it with stuff we had bought and check that on the way back, because if a bag gets lost on the way home it's much less of a big deal. But you know how the best laid schemes o' mice and men oft gang aglay, especially when the Transportation Security Administration is involved.

We both know about putting liquids and gels in containers of no more than 100 ml each and then putting those into a resealable plastic bag. We've never had a problem with that before. But this time, maybe because of the Malaysia Air flight, they were strictly enforcing the one litre bag limit. Do you know how much a one litre bag holds? Pathetically little. We had to get out of line at security, redistribute some stuff between roller bags and soft bags, go back to check-in, check our rollers with liquids through to Firenze, and hope for the best. We were glad that at least we were early enough to handle this.

The first flight was to Minneapolis, where we had a layover of several hours (the price of saving money on the flights). We flew through Minneapolis two years ago on our way to New Orleans, but I hadn't remembered that the airport was as big as it is. It's quite nice, actually. There was so much shopping that I joked that they should have had a mall directory. And then I saw one! We had time for lunch (good salad bar in the food court) and even time for Sweetie to have her boots polished by a shoe shiner who entertained us with a story of a rich woman from Miami who was hitting on him to piss off her husband.

We finally left on time for the flight to Paris. I had already got some sleep on the first flight and I managed a little more on this one. They also fed us a couple of times, kind of like in the old days.

I wrote on Facebook that Aéroport Paris–Charles de Gaulle was horrible. Maybe it's not always, but it was for us. We had an hour and a half between landing and our flight to Firenze, which seemed like plenty. But as we walked down Terminal 1 toward 2G, we hit a security checkpoint. Really? We wouldn't have been on that flight if we hadn't already been cleared, but here was another. It took a good half hour to wend our way through the lineup so our stuff could get X-rayed again. We then had to go outside. Outside is secure? We were put on a shuttle bus that twisted and turned up hill and down dale and around a loop until we finally disembarked outside 2G. If you look on CDG maps, you probably won't see a 2G. That's because it's not finished. The building was clearly still under construction. We went through a lineup to have our passports chopped (stamped with a visa), then quickly walked up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor. An airport worker had told us that boarding for our flight had already closed, but it seemed to me that we had enough time, and I was right (she was referring to another flight). At the "gate," we waited in a clump for a few minutes, then went outside (again) to get on another shuttle specifically for our flight. Sweetie said, "It looks like we're going back to where we were." Sure enough, we went around the loop and twisted and turned up hill and down dale until we were back outside Terminal 1, whence we walked across the tarmac to board our small regional jet for Firenze. It was positively Kafkaesque.

Your mileage may vary, but I have to wonder how it would, considering the weird way in which CDG is laid out.

The flight from Paris to Firenze was blessedly uneventful. Once there in the small airport, it took a while for our bags to show up, but show up they did. We then took a fixed-price cab directly to our hotel. We knew that was the only sure way for us to get there at that point.

While we were in Firenze, we walked everywhere. We logged many kilometres a day, and did get a bit foot and leg sore at times, but Firenze is mostly flat, and it really felt great. Plus we had to get the only exercise we could to offset all the wonderful food we were eating.

I love the top deck of a double-decker bus
For our day trip to San Gimignano, we took a regional bus. We knew the bus station was near the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, and we had plenty of time, so we walked there through neighbourhoods somewhat west of where we had already been, which was fun. We walked by the Mercato Centrale, an absolutely enormous market, both indoors and outdoors, just as people were setting up. Once at SMN, we were a bit lost. Fortunately, there was an information place across the street. We were directed to the right bus station in time to buy our return tickets to San Gimi. We rode out of the city and through the Tuscan countryside on top of a double-decker bus to Poggibonsi, where we changed to a smaller bus for the short hop to San Gimi. Coming home, we did the reverse, minus the double-decker (not that time). It was all pretty smooth.

It was late afternoon by the time we were back at SMN. Our legs were tired, so we decided to wait for the #12 bus, which we knew ran down our street. We also knew that it made a big counterclockwise loop around the city. What we didn't know was that the loop is really big, and we were at about 9 o'clock while our hotel was at 12. It's too bad it got dark while we were travelling, because we could have had a great tour of the Oltrarno. We did get a nice view of city lights looking north from the Parco Bardini. I think we will always remember the phrase "Prossima fermata" (next stop), since we went through so many of them. I think it took us about 45 or 50 minutes to get home, about twice what it would have taken had we walked. An adventure in public transit!

Firenze to the coast

It's possible to get from Firenze to Levanto by train, but it would have been slow and difficult, so we rented a car to drive there. The only car rental places are at the airport, so we had a cab take us out there. We might have been able to do it on a bus by that point, but also by that point we had an extra bag with stuff we'd bought, so a cab seemed like a better idea. The driver took us to the aiport terminal, and when we said we needed car rental, which, duh, wasn't at the terminal itself (I should have thought of that), he laughed and laughed at the silly touriste but was nice enough to take us to the other side of the autostrada, laughing all the way.

Hilltop village seen from the A12
The drive to Levanto was my first time becoming part of Italian traffic madness. Fortunately, most of the driving was on the autostrade (A11 and A12). But that was its own kind of adventure. No leisurely passing! There are people not even in sight when you shift to the left lane who will be on your ass at 150 km/h in half a second. I learned how to pass quickly. Driving the narrow hill roads in and around Levanto was an adventure too. I felt so Italian when I passed a Piaggio Ape (slow three-wheeled pickup truck) going uphill with just enough visibility. Sweetie almost had a heart attack. By the time I drove back to Firenze, I was totally in the Italian road groove, except for the 150 km/h part. I kept it to 120 or less.

For our first visit to the Cinque Terre from Levanto, we took the train. It runs right along the coast and through several tunnels. You have to make sure you take the right one so that it stops where you want to stop, but for the most part it was easy peasy. Electric train, by the way. No diesel smoke.

Some roads lead to Rome

After we drove back to Firenze, we cabbed from the airport to the train station. We hadn't done quite enough planning and so weren't sure which train to take, but we opted for Italo, the private line, which was an express train straight to the station in Roma. We're pretty sure TrenItalia would have taken us a lot longer. The Italo train travelled at 250 km/h for most of the way. Never gone that fast on land before! It was quite comfortable, although there were a lot of tunnels, so the wifi was pretty inconsistent, and slow anyway. Boy, are we spoiled! Once in Roma, we opted for a cab again. We might have managed that trip on the metro, but again, when you don't know where you're going, it's probably best for someone who does to take you there.

We walked a lot in Roma as we had in Firenze, but we also used the metro, which is quite a nice subway system, if not yet very extensive. There are two lines that run roughly perpendicular to each other and apparently one more still under construction. When you build anything in Roma, you often have to slow way down to allow archaeologists to do the digging first.

If we had booked a shuttle earlier, we could have saved some money going to the airport to leave, but we listened to our host who spoke of a car service and didn't think that we should have done better. Still, the car was convenient, and we didn't have to wake up as early as we would have to get on the shuttle.

Security in Roma was fast and efficient. Seriously! The flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. Schiphol Airport is pretty nice but quite spread out. We grabbed some lunch and then went through the place to get our passports chopped again. We were supposed to be at our gate an hour before departure, which seemed like a lot to me. Close to that time, I ran off to get some espresso. By the time I had returned, Sweetie had all our stuff with her in a lineup. Security right at the gate! That explained the hour. We had to move from one waiting area through X-rays and porno-scanners (not sure if opt-out was even possible) and then into another waiting area.

The flight went fine. KLM knows how to do things. It was long enough for me to watch three movies. But that's the subject of another post.

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