“Hop-On, Hop-Off” buses are a great way to see a city and learn a bit about its history. In San Francisco they’re big red, double-decker affairs and cost about $25 for a 24-hour pass. The system in Firenze was very similar, if slightly less expensive. It has three routes you can choose from or mix and match if you want to spend more than a couple of hours riding around.
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What’s really neat about them is that they have a narrated sound-track, nine languages were represented on the Firenze bus (Paris buses had 11 or 12), and they give you a set of earphones with the ticket. It’s all choreographed and stays on schedule for the most part. Occasionally, though, the narrator says look to the right to see the famous (church, palace, sculpture or park) but when you look to the right you’re looking at a laundromat or a movie theater instead. It usually catches up within a few seconds, but then the bus is already at the next interesting landmark.
My wife was taking a special class that week and she’d been to Florence a few years ago, so most of my sightseeing was on my own. That way I could get lost as much as I needed to without having to feel guilty or explain anything to anyone. I got lost just about every time I left the hotel, but I always found my way back, eventually.
The bus went to a small hill town called Fiesole about six miles from downtown Florence. It’s kind of a tony area now but with a history going back to nearly 1,000 BCE. Some of its early inhabitants were Langobards, a tribe I’d never heard of (and may be equated with Lombards, of whom I have heard). They or their descendants were later conquered by the Romans who built an amphitheater, thermal baths and generally turned the place into a spa — suitably fortified of course. The old ruins are situated slightly below on the side of a steep hill. The current town is at the top of the hill and there is a fantastic view of the surrounding hills and valleys and from one side you can see all of Florence in the distance. Archeological excavation is fairly recent, and plans include seeing what’s under the town’s main street. Researchers think that remains of an old fortress extend up the hill and well into the town.
I had lunch at an outdoor cafe before visiting the ruins and the little museum and book shop.
Tip for future travelers: If you have to use a public bathroom, it will generally cost you one Euro. If you pay seven Euros to see a museum, you can use the bathroom for free. So, in effect, you’re knocking a Euro off the price, and you get to see a museum, and you can use the museum’s clean, modern restroom 50 times if you want. Same applies for a restaurant or cafe. For two or 2.5 Euros you can get an espresso or Cafe Americano, use the bathroom and again you’ve effectively saved yourself a dollar-thirty-five (or whatever the day’s exchange rate is).
That evening we went to dinner just down the street from our hotel at a place recommended by our cabbie the day we got there. She said the place on the corner was really good and had very authentic local cuisine. I ordered the regional specialty, Toscano-style chicken cooked in a large open oven. It was served on a huge plate, 12 inches or more in diameter. And right in the middle was a Tuscan-style grilled chicken breast. That was it, an average size chicken breast surrounded by a gleaming white plate. Evidently, I had misread the menu. It was just OK. Whatever else we had, salad and bread and wine was pretty good but not great.
I got out my credit card to pay the fare. Hold on! I didn’t get out my credit card. I got out my wallet but there was no credit card inside. Uh oh! Georgette used her card to cover dinner. That was good but where the heck was my card?
Racking my brain, I had a vague image of my card lying on a plate at the cashier’s stand back at the restaurant in Fiesole. I remembered signing the receipt and seeing the card. I had the receipt but not the card. This could be a real problem, especially given the fact that the bank called us two days before we left to tell us our Visa card had been “compromised” and fraudulently used at a Walmart in South Carolina. We cut those cards up immediately.
So we were using our combination ATM-credit cards on the trip. What to do? I couldn’t remember the name of the place but I checked my pockets and dug out the receipt. The name and phone number were on the receipt. We went back to the hotel, and I showed the receipt to the owner who was working the front desk. I told her I thought my card might be at the restaurant in Fiesole and would she mind calling and asking for me. My Italian would probably be pretty good if I could speak Italian.
She was totally ready and willing to help, and as soon as she had the restaurant person on the line and started to ask, she gave a big smile and thumbs up. It now being about 9:30 at night; I asked her to tell them I’d pick it up the next day. They said that would be fine.
Not willing to spend another $18 Euros on the Hop-on, Hop-off, I decided to take the city’s public bus to Fiesole the next morning. How hard could that be? That’s what the natives would do in my shoes. It really wasn’t too bad after I missed the first couple of buses and finally learned how to read the schedules posted at the bus stops. But first I had to walk to the main train station — Santa Maria Novella, mentioned in my first column. There, I asked a guy in an off-site ticket booth about a bus to Fiesole. He gave me a couple of numbers, 14, 23 and something else as I recall and he pointed to where I should pick up the right bus about a hundred yards away. I got on a number 14 after a few minutes and asked the driver if this bus goes to Fiesole.
No, but it goes to a piazza from where the bus for Fiesole will depart. Close enough. He didn’t mention which side of the piazza I should wait on, so of course I was on the wrong side when the Fiesole bus came and went. Changing corners, I double-checked the schedule, and sure enough I was right where I needed to be for the next bus about 10 minutes later. After that it was pretty much a walk in the park. We got to Fiesole in about a half-hour.
I went to the restaurant and before I even got to the door, a waiter hollered inside and told them the guy without his Visa card was here. Inside there was much grinning and welcoming. I had a shot of something strong and gave the server a very generous tip, and in my best Italian and a tone of enormous relief, I thanked her and asked that she share with the other staff. She said she would, and I left feeling immensely pleased with life in general. Since I’d already seen Fiesole, I sauntered back to the bus stop, my bus stop, exuding confidence from my new Continental acumen. Hell, what if I got on the bus to Rome by accident?
As if that would be a problem! I didn’t so it wasn’t. Went back to Florence with more tales to tell. Got lost between the bus stop and the hotel, but isn’t that really what travel is all about?
If you didn’t already know smoking can kill you, wait till next week.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.