Lucca, June 2013

Lucca, June 2013

17th June, Monday

Going commando in the shorts was a good opening move for the trip to Lucca, where the heat was intense.

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On Piazza San Michele, I fell for the buccellato bullshit (€18 for two grande loaves). They weren’t even fresh. My mother and I later stopped at a café outside the Puccini house.

Jean Italy 2013 035

She’d mentioned leaving (the Puccini house) first but I have to wonder if working there with the constant piped music in the background would lead to undying hatred of the maestro.

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A German sat down beside us with a Middle Eastern guy and the latter’s kid. When we said Cork, the German knew of Ryanair but then he said that he was only the driver and the others were off a cruise ship at La Spezia. The client’s (American?) wife had f*cked off – shopping – but he and his kid were kind. The boy offered some of his Pringles to my mother. The man then said, “What about him?” He meant me.

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Escape from Italy

Escape from Italy


10th August, Sunday

Fiddlers Cross [a short film, co-scripted] won first prize for Best Screenplay in Rhode Island. My mother and I had boarded a train to Pisa in Santa Maria Novella in Florence when D. rang briefly with the news. I’d just been giving out about a young f*cker in shades and a baseball cap who had taken up three seats with three cases (“Uomo gentile! Tre valigie sui tre posti!”). His two buddies removed theirs but we got seated behind him upon a cooling suggestion from at least three Italian women sitting nearby.

Later I enjoyed seeing him bang his head off the overhead rack, blinded by his cap and shades. I don’t think he was even Italian, just some twat from Portugal or Brazil. My head and torso were melting after the hot Florentine afternoon; like an anthill it was, apart from the relaxing couple of Bacardi & Cokes (a fiver each) at an Irish pub called The Fiddler’s Elbow on Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation in Florence today. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down and said, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”


The hotel here in Pisa is more like a hostel and we had to cross the river to find a place to eat; somewhere that looked better than it tasted, at least where my plate was concerned. I was just demoralised, having to walk that far and for some sh*t (prawns) too but what was I thinking? My mother was a bit happier with her (tough) steak choice (with homemade… crisps!), after I’d wondered would she ever find something on the menu. We’re tired of Italy now and this time Pisa looks or feels more like C.W.’s verdict (“a dump”). She even slipped off a step near the hotel on the way back but thanks be to Jesus neither she nor her camera broke anything. Even if I sleep a few hours, this last leg always seemed like it would be a chore.

11th August, Monday

Up very early to get out of the kip of a ho(s)tel, we were still stuck with a plane an hour late, so again we were spared the Ryanair on-time fanfare on landing in Cork, where the pilot must have fancied he was doing it on an aircraft carrier.

Orvieto, August 2014

Orvieto, August 2014


6th August, Wednesday

We had to wait two hours for a train in Siena but getting to Orvieto took a little less than that. Up we went on the funicular to this table-top town in Umbria and I took the luggage as we marched up Via Cavour in the heat. The Valentino is a nice hotel. We got air-conditioned rooms with a view, though not over the edge.




In Italy you could spend your life with a crick in your neck, looking up at church ceilings and other lofty positions. In the Duomo my mother spotted The Preaching of the Anti-Christ (“I thought it was Our Lord at first”) before I came across it in the Rough Guide, which has a lot more numbers in the key than in the actual diagram (I filled some in). In the background the original men in black seem to be rampaging around the temple.



After that I brought her down to the vertiginous wall near San Giovenale but went back there on my own later to make a video that captured the drop. On one of the narrow, stony, shady lanes a guy passed whistling Baker Street very melodically. His day was done.

Perugia & Assisi, August 2014

Perugia & Assisi, August 2014


7th August, Thursday

Round Lake Trasimene, we got to Perugia by three. Johnny in Knoxville. The lift is needed to get up to reception (third floor off a narrow, sloping, side street). After another shower I slept for an hour and then we went out to eat and walk about a bit. The old city is high up, as we realised from various angles.


We had a good meal with a bottle of Grechetto at Merlin’s on Via Fani beside the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where we were the first to sit down, and then we sat on the crowded warm steps of the Duomo.

8th August, Friday

Assisi: it was hot on that holy hill (I didn’t try to take Rocca Maggiore) and we had a long wait for our lunch in La Lanterna, where the breezy air-conditioning was too much.


I’d sleep now only for the nearby angle grinder. Maybe the f*cker has stopped. Yes, he can. Roberto the Builder.

This evening that my mother thought she had locked herself into her bathroom while I was getting her a spare shower cap from mine (and there delayed a little to figure out where we might go later). She just didn’t put enough effort into turning the door knob and instead resorted to banging on the door “with a can” for a while. She said ten minutes but it was probably two or three. Today she wandered off inside the St. Francis Basilica too. St. Clare’s was quieter.




Anyway, we’re not going anywhere tomorrow and tonight we found a decent restaurant called Da Peppone on the far side of the Duomo. Spaghetti carbonara (& more Grechetto) did me fine and a pork chop was something she would eat off the menu but I couldn’t really relax, looking at her and wondering was she half-dead or what.

She came back to life after we sat on some steps on Corso Vannucci (she had an ice cream cone) and we got talking to a French couple from Lyon, with two young daughters. She told me to offer to take a picture of all four. Madame, si vous voulez, je peux prendre la photo.  A pigeon went on to shit on the bare shoulder of one of the girls. The father and I later exchanged email addresses and by the time we separated it was almost ten and I had to rush back to get our keys before they closed the door and made it un po’ awkward to get in. It took a few minutes to find my mother again, outside.

9th August, Saturday

Rest day. Instead of grinding, Roberto is banging today, towards 5 pm. By noon or so we had Perugia done. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.

A note on the blonde at reception today (whom I’d already briefly seen at our first breakfast, in a black dress, smiling when I passed her the milk for some other guests): she’s someone to put most in the ha’penny place but also probably a demon if crossed. I don’t think she liked me when I accidentally pulled my mother’s finger when reaching for the other key, earlier, to hand it in with mine. Anyway, who cares, she’s a receptionist with Italian pop buzzing on the radio somewhere behind the counter. My mother is relieved at not having to go anywhere today. “A whirlwind out of this world” was a description I saw in a text to M., sent yesterday.
At half past seven, I discovered my mother had been at her room door so much (a genuinely faulty knob) that the (elder, peroxide, I think) blonde rang from reception to see was she all right. At the desk I explained to the babe, who was there then, that it wasn’t my fault as I’d told her to text if there was any problem. After the evening meal we were sitting on the warm cathedral steps again. My mother said it wasn’t the first time there had been an issue with that doorknob because the peroxide one had been too quick to pick up that phone. From Giardini Carducci, Assisi looks closer in the dark than it did in the light, looking east.

The Spell of Siena

The Spell of Siena


4th August, Monday

Departure was delayed for over an hour but we landed in Pisa at ten to five. Getting to the station and on a train to Empoli was easy, as was changing trains, but the second was a hot one (no air-conditioning in our carriage). The line we took into Siena was shrouded in trees. Around nine we ate well near the hotel (Ristorante Vitti), with a nice house white in a charming bare bottle, in a wide nook with wall statuary. Then we went down to the Campo, after stopping off at the Loggia Mercanzia.

Loggia mercanza

palazzo publico

The book mentioned a scallop shape but the one photo of the Campo therein gives no idea of the hollow that’s in it or the size of it.



campo thru gap

5th August, Tuesday

Going into buildings is of less interest to me at least than the exteriors but my mother was amazed by the marble reliefs on the floor of the Duomo.

duomo floor

The Madonna and Child part of the Maestà in the Duccio room of the Museo dell’Opera is like a class photo, with all the heads, and it was a good job we abandoned waiting for the Panorama del Facciatone. A French child (a girl) emerged in tears, scared of heights, as I deduced from checking the book. At 12.30 we got finished with interiors. As for lunch, I chose Osteria Cice just for the aroma out of it and again we weren’t disappointed with the food (main & dessert) or wine.

Siena is an extraordinary place, roof over roof, all the reddish brown (i.e. sienna) bricks piling up from ridge to ridge.

ridge john


duomo distance

Tonight I mistakenly looked for a third good place to eat and dragged my mother around for nearly half an hour – there were still some banking suits out and about – before we went back to Ristorante Vitti. I’d been down at (if not quite in) Saint Catherine’s hangout at six when she sent a text (“Come back”) from San Domenico. There was thunder and a darkening sky with at least one distant flash but the rain didn’t last long, back at the hotel.

girl street

A thunderstorm in Florence

A thunderstorm in Florence

24 June 2013

In Florence, the bus tour didn’t last the hour. It sped around a shorter, darkening route, minus Santa Croce, but at least it was over before the deluge. The omission of Santa Croce was due to the Calcio storico annual free-for-all, which the impending thunderstorm would inevitably postpone.

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As we disembarked, my father asked for chips, having developed a taste for the McDonalds variety in his eighties. The rain started during a shared quarter-pounder meal beside Santa Maria Novella, where I took the burger. At the table my mother rustled in her bag and produced a baby Bacardi and put it into the Coke. Then she revealed he had expressed to her a wish to see the Duomo.

Outside, the rain was getting heavier by the minute. She rustled in her bag again. They donned plastic macs and I got the umbrella, which was broken. A few hundred yards away, the piazza was by then a pond, ankle-deep under thunder and lightning. The authorities had shut the door of the Duomo. I told my father to go back to the door of the Baptistery, where she had ducked into the doorway. A young man there with a clipboard told her she couldn’t stay because there was a christening on but then he let her be after she used the one phrase of the English-speaking nations that is understood by all others.

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By the time we made it back to the station the elements had eased off. At first I couldn’t find a ticket validating machine on our platform. I asked two inspectors talking at the far end. One of them just waved me away with words that included “schermo” and “binario” but where was the schermo on the binario? That was what I wanted to know.

It turned out to be half-concealed at the entrance to the platform but then a delay invalidated the urgency. On the train I asked a glamorous, dark young woman across the aisle to make doubly sure it really was the one for Viareggio. When she learned we were Irish and I was the minder, for their fiftieth anniversary, she looked at my wet father and said something that made him say, “Eh, she doesn’t like me”, but she’d only said that she thought he looked a bit Italian.

The inspector with the wave showed up with his Germanic eyes and his short beard, a spaghetti western type, a dodgy Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte. His first move in the carriage was to eject an African hawker (“Scende da quà”). After punching our tickets he gave a sinister smile and politely said “Grazie” but then my mother told me to ask him if there was a toilet because she was feeling a bit sick. He only grasped why I was asking when I explained it was for my mother. Then he indicated a choice, front and back. I didn’t say anything to either about drinking in McDonalds.

John Italy 2013 173

John Italy 2013 172

Juliet’s Curse – Two Nights in Verona

Juliet’s Curse – Two Nights in Verona


8th August, Monday

Noon in a park near the station in Bologna. We’re here since half past eleven. We have hours to kill here. It’s hard to believe the next train to Verona is not until half past three. The cicadas are sawing away in the trees. The grass is burnt. A couple of the male pigeons are doing 360° turns to impress the girls. How can we have to wait this long when Verona is only fifty minutes away?



The arena is bigger than I’d expected, at least from the outside. We had dinner nearby at a hotel restaurant (Torcolo) on Via Cattaneo. The lamb rack and varied veg were nice but there wasn’t any elbow room where we were seated, outside, between the German-speaking couple to my left and the French-speaking pair to my right. We didn’t say much. All the voices were low. Who wants to draw the attention of the neighbours? An assortment of flying insects buzzed my face too. Tomorrow we can can take our time and do Verona properly.

9th August, Tuesday

Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until this afternoon when I paid the bill here with my card. A young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception most likely pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. I had to ring Dublin twice to get that opinion confirmed and then I got on to my brother to provide help for when we get to Innsbruck. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and the sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before she was, eh, finished with me. At least I had my receipt but my worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash.

Late on Tuesday. I have a f*cked credit card and though we still have €327 we’ll be relying on Western Union come Innsbruck. We’d seen a lot this morning. There are lots of tourists here speaking German and French but not a lot of Americans or Asians. Or Brits. We crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.



That was before I found a café bar with no name on Via S. Rochetto, where we had a couple of great (Pampero) rum and Cokes each – in what looked like jam jars – plus a nice lunch (carbonara for me).


Then it was time for a rest from the heat, back at the hotel, but I wasn’t feeling particularly tired and therefore fatefully went downstairs to pay up. Immediately afterwards the card wouldn’t work.

I first called Bank of Ireland after we went half-way over the red-brick Ponte Scaligero by the Castelvecchio. It was on that hump-backed bridge that I told my mother I was worried about the card and what was wrong with it. A couple of jazz musicians were hammering away noisily nearby.


Out on my own later, the first advice from the bank – to try to change the pin at an Italian ATM – proved useless, even at a Barclay’s branch, and I used up the rest of my credit ringing Dublin the second time for confirmation of the bad news. I didn’t realise I’d been gone an hour and a half but at least had got back to the hotel when my mother began texting. I couldn’t answer her otherwise. My brother will replenish my phone too.

10th August, Wednesday

I’d thought I wouldn’t complain online about this but the dismissive attitude of the charmless young woman with the glasses this morning changed my mind. Hotel Siena will get a roasting. The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying it wasn’t nice and it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, as she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous, f*ck-you shrug, just like the reaction to the opinion of my bank.

I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up because we still wanted to get the other (nice) one to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There was lightning last night, in the distance. Early this morning, heavy rain thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six.

Postscript: once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at my bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.



Having proven there was nothing wrong with the card, before or after Verona, I then received a threat of legal action from the hotel proprietor (16/08/16). How much simpler it would have been for her to be polite and sympathetic at the outset, especially as I never asked for any money back nor made threats of any kind.