Out of sadness came a trip which I had never envisaged or thought possible. My father sadly died in December after years of disability but was happy until the end and accepting of his limitations. My mum had looked after for him for years but had naturally not been able to leave him. Rome was always, I felt, a bit of a sticky subject as my mum, a Classics teacher, had not only never been there but, unlike me and my dad, had never been blessed by a Pope either...
Anyway, after my dad’s death, we decided that we must go to Rome and set off in mid-April. I should like to point out that the last time my mum flew was in 1970 so I didn’t see it as being entirely straightforward but she was terrific with absolutely no nerves and, yes, the one with all the nerves was the one supposed to be escorting her... It may also be worth saying that the last time she flew was in a BOAC comet from London to Dusseldorf which took off in a thunderstorm and lightning and, during the quick journey, her mood was hardly lightened by her five-year-old son fiddling with a seat button and sending an old girl flying back in her seat. I remember it well.
We flew from Bristol on the strength that it would be an easier and more comfortable airport to fly from than some of the busier London airports. Very correct, as it happened, even if the drive through Bristol at a quiet time of day still wasn’t quite a breeze. Never mind, all was well and very smooth and the easyJet flight to Pisa was delightful, smooth with wonderful views and on time. We took the Autostradale bus to Florence from the airport in just over an hour which gave me possibly my first view of Tuscany although Mum loves to point out that I have a habit of falling asleep on overseas buses. The nerves of the morning had fully gone.
My parents had been to Florence by car on a couple of previous occasions and had stayed at a Jolly hotel which have now come under the banner of NH Hotels. We stayed on this occasion at the NH Anglo American Hotel reasonably close to the railway station and it was most pleasant and convenient for a walk along the Arno. It is more of an old-fashioned hotel the type of which I love and we had a wonderful stay of three nights in good-sized and large-ceilinged rooms. Everything was nice about it even if our very simple Italian wasn’t properly understood. For my part during the trip, I was delighted to get by with a lot of hand-waving and a vocabulary of maybe fifteen to twenty words.
Mum took to the local lasagne on the first evening after which we had a lovely walk along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio. However, my reputation preceded me and she didn’t trust me that much to get us back. There is something odd about my navigational difficulties because, usually, I can get a feel for a place and, not wanting to get back later than necessary having wasted time getting lost, I usually do get it right. Maybe I felt the added pressure of not wanting to waste someone else’s time also but, whatever, we decided to turn back and return the same way. A shame really as we were correct and spent a lot longer returning to the hotel but, hey ho, it happens and it was a lovely evening. We had terrific weather throughout the week.
So, Mum’s first holiday for many years turned out to be a busy one. On the Sunday, I even suggested a bus to take us to the Galleria dell’ Accademia for Mum to see the statue of David whilst I took on Giotto’s bell tower aside the remarkable Duomo. We got lost and nearly missed both booked visits. I will offer an excuse here namely that landmarks are visible, you can see where you’re going and never find the damned place because of the height of the buildings around which, once inside, make the said landmark far from noticeable. My readership may laugh and I know that it sounds ludicrous but, if you are there, do try to see what I mean. Please. Anyway, all was well and we saw what we set out to see before going for a tour which started by the Uffizi.
Now, we have a feeling that Dan Brown may have done a thing or two for tourism in the cities where he set his novels. Inferno takes place in Florence and includes the Vasari Corridor which was built for one of the Medicis to cross from one side of the Arno to his offices on the other side without interruption. Brown includes this in the novel and – expensive – tours are now available to the public which, interestingly, only started about two and a half to three years ago. Mum was delighted to go on this and we started off seeing a little bit of the Uffizi before going downstairs and through the corridor adorned by many paintings and which leads over the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. It was impressive and lasted just over an hour. Such visits are limited and we were fortunate to book late on and get places and the cost was around 65 euros each.
The afternoon allowed us to visit the Duomo in more detail although, after the Vasari Corridor visit, I was too late for my walk up to the Duomo’s impressive balcony. Some people like queues, I’m told but I don’t so missed out. We did, though, go inside and enjoyed it. The whole area is a delight, the carving remarkable as are the colours and trying to fit everything into a camera screen is quite an art. I have some photos which I am pleased with but Giotto’s Bell Tower always seems to be the leaning Tower of Pisa’s twin even if, in reality, it is completely upright.
Sadly on our return, Mum was accosted by a group of delinquent women. I was a few feet ahead and turned back when I heard her giving them a stream of abuse but they still got to her bum bag. Somewhat fortunately, they only got away with a pair of glasses of which one lens kept falling out but I didn’t feel great about the episode even if Mum saw the funny side of it and quickly laughed it off. Such people continue to blight many cities.
Inferno came into our conscience late on when we read that the Badia Tower was open for visits but only until 5 pm. Again, it was a spur of the moment decision and we set off with fingers crossed at 4.30 pm just after learning that it was open on Mondays only apparently. The hotel hailed a taxi but the lady driver – no shrinking violet – misunderstood and we ended up in the wrong place completely so missed the opportunity. I returned that evening, saw the tower, headed for it but got lost in the maze of tall houses which I had previously mentioned. Next time...
The highlight of the trip was always going to be Rome and, after three lovely days in Florence, we took a train down to Rome’s Termini station. It took just an hour and a half and went through wonderful countryside – I think I stayed awake, also: something of a rarity apparently – and, although we were a few minutes late in, we still arrived by 11.30 am and took a bus to the hotel.
Now here’s a thing. We had booked into the NH Villa Carpegna as it was convenient for the Vatican but, a fortnight before, they told me that I had been moved to another NH hotel ( which actually might have been more convenient). Fine, I accepted, telling the hotel that I would happily accept as long as Mum was moved on the same terms. A fortnight later after a trail of emails which became progressively more desperate, we cancelled having found what seemed to be a gem of a hotel in Ancient Rome overlooking the Forum called the Kolbe. I was very keen for Mum to have a room overlooking the Forum so asked them if they could help out: not only did they do that but they upgraded me to a room opposite with lovely garden views so, not only were we both delighted, but the Kolbe was quite a find. Refurbished into a hotel from a convent, it is in the ideal but quiet location in Ancient Rome close to all the highlights. It was an excellent choice. The Forum view rooms had the beds in the centre of the room thus allowing occupants to admire the Forum without having to move. I’m afraid that I had to struggle out of bed for my garden view but I am certainly not complaining.
With Mum the only person not to be blessed by a Pope, I had secured tickets for Papa Francesco’s more or less weekly General Audience for the day after our arrival. We had to collect them but understandably they would allow only one person in to collect tickets on behalf of others. It took time but was quite a little adventure going through the Bronze Door and overseen by the resplendent Swiss Guards. That in itself was a bit of fun communicating with them as we almost had to barter in which language to speak and agreed eventually on German. Whilst fun and memorable, the following day was very much the highlight and we took a taxi to ensure the best possible chance of a seat.
The remarkable Duomo and Giotto’s bell tower in Florence at night.

The remarkable Duomo and Giotto’s bell tower in Florence at night.

The grey door and grotto mentioned in Dan Brown’s Inferno is at the end of the Vasari Corridor

Ponte Vecchio.

Perseus holding Medusa’s head in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo.

Mum’s room in Rome’s Hotel Kolbe overlooked the Forum

A Swiss Guard on duty at the Papal General Audience.

Papa Francesco blesses newly-weds after the General Audience

Thousands turned out for the Papal General Audience.

The Colosseum at night.

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

The Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill.

Mother and son outside St. Peter’s after the Papal Audience.

Piazza Navona by night.

The Pantheon by night.

Whoops. Missed... A tourist’s efforts to right Pisa’s Leaning Tower fails.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, Pisa.

Our taxi man took, shall we say, the back route through tiny cobbled streets to avoid the main, wider but still cobbled streets and, when he received another call, dropped us off conveniently for all concerned just five minutes walk from St. Peter’s. The crowds, even an hour and a quarter before the start, were daunting and we thought that we would have to stand. However, around half way towards the basilica, we found ample seats and had a reasonable view. What we hadn’t expected was for Papa Francesco to come round in his vehicle to wave and glad hand with the audience. Had we known, we would have tried for a seat near the aisles where his vehicle passed for a good ten minutes. Nonetheless, I took some reasonable photos but, inevitably, got the dreaded camera shake when I had a clear but brief view and all but missed The Holy Father completely...
We were blessed not only by Papa Francesco at the end but also by good weather and nice people. The sermon and prayers were said in many languages and, for those further back, a television screen gave excellent coverage. The Lord’s Prayer was said in Latin – I can still recite some of it from my school days but Mum had bought a small card with it on which proved rather more reliable – and the entire audience lasted around an hour and a quarter. Long queues waited patiently for entrance into the basilica and we nearly lost patience but it was desperately difficult to extricate ourselves so waited and were rewarded.
We were amazed to find the Pope still meeting and blessing people, on this occasion newly-wed couples and, although security volunteers chivvied less fortunate people through, we came within thirty or forty feet of him and I was delighted with one lovely photograph. Delighted also to re-visit the remarkable basilica for the first time in twenty-five years but disappointed that we were ever so slightly too early for a visit to the crypt where the tombs of popes can be viewed. We had tickets for the Vatican Museums which precluded us from staying.
The Museums proved to be not as busy as when I went in October but nonetheless a phenomenal number of visitors must go through the doors. Mum had mainly wanted to see the Sistine Chapel and taught me a lesson in gaining knowledge by reading up in advance... Simple. She seemed to know her way around Michelangelo’s ceiling painting and imparted her knowledge to her son on the Creation Story...
What made our stay in Rome even more enjoyable was the places we ate in and where we visited afterwards. The first evening was spent in a simple restaurant with lovely views over Ancient Rome and a later walk around the floodlit Colosseum and Forum, a formidable sight. The second evening's meal was not quite as good but we walked up the Circo Massimo, site of the chariot races, but that evening didn't end quite as happily, Mum being hooted at by a speeding car when I encouraged her across without waiting for the lights... Which, in my defence, seemed to stay red for an eternity.The last evening we ate splendidly by the Pantheon and walked on to the Piazza Navona which was breathtaking.
Our second full day started at the Colosseum which was the place Mum most wanted to see. She thoroughly enjoyed walking inside and the views from the highest point which visitors can reach. On to the Forum which is my favourite place in Rome ever since seeing it in 1987 for the first time. Mum was curious to see the part of the Forum visible from her room and, after a bit of a walk, we found it. Not only did we see her room - I'm confident no-one would have seen her admiring the views from her bed - but the views over the city were terrific.
The only slight mistake was to go from the Colosseum to the Spanish Steps. Mine completely as there was a wait for a bus and I thought that it was two stops by metro. It wasn't and involved a change in Termini so the visit there wasn't a roaring success especially as Mum was offered some flowers by a chap and said how nice it was of him. Hurriedly returned when I said that he was expecting a doubtless vast amount for them.
We were both pleased to visit the vast and impressive Pantheon on our last evening there. Again, it is a daunting place from the outside - and inside - and seems remarkable that it is situated basically in a piazza. Okay, buildings have naturally sprung up around since but it is, like Florence, not quite the easiest place to find. Well worth finding, mind you and we had a wonderful evening between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Lit up. Both places were a wonderful way to end a lovely stay in Rome.
The last part of our stay was in Pisa which we reached by train from Termini in three hours. We were seated in one of the more familiar, continental-style carriages of six seats. We preferred the airline style carriages but it was nonetheless a pleasant journey which arrived on time. We put up in the NH hotel opposite the railway station so it couldn’t have been more convenient. My parents had stayed in the same hotel a few years ago but for me, it was my first visit to Pisa and was most enjoyable.
We naturally took to the Leaning Tower in the afternoon but the whole Square of Miracles including the cathedral and baptistery were a marvellous sight. We didn’t participate in the tourist lark of trying to do one’s bit to right the tower and didn’t even manage to have a photo taken as people didn’t have the courtesy to stop. Maybe that’s where the dreaded self sticks come in useful...
Our last day was sadly indifferent due to the weather and a bit of a panic getting to the airport. The weather of course couldn’t be helped and we had a nice enough walk around Pisa before checking out. Unfortunately, that became an onerous business the credit card machine being blamed and we couldn’t get the receptionist to move at all quickly despite telling him we had to take a bus within minutes. Inevitably, when after twenty minutes we were free to go at just the same time that the bus was leaving, we dived on it and, yes, it was going in the wrong direction... I felt ghastly, we ended up at the Square of Miracles if not quite needing one but feeling slightly desperate when the taxi rank was empty. A kind restaurant close to the tower ordered us one and we made it to Pisa Airport an hour and a half before take-off which should have been fine.
It was. Just. My recent impressions of Italian airports have not been amongst the most comforting and we spent half an hour getting through the Passport Control. One person was on, the queue long and this same chap stopped almost one in every five people to ask questions. Thorough, yes, but we were leaving the country not entering. Our easyJet speedy boarding resulted in a twenty minute wait on the stairs for someone to let us on to the tarmac and that resulted in losing the slot. Anyway, it was the only frustrating part of a wonderful week and now Mum can say that she has finally been to Rome, loved it and become the third member of our family to be blessed by a Pope.
She’s got the travel bug too and been keeping me busy booking a weekend to Devon before we go to Austria in July. She’s heard of Where Eagles Dare too and knows what she’s letting herself in for...