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For Lovers of Italy: Florence

Florence, Italy You may choose to fly into Florence (or Firenze as Italians call it). I took the day train from Paris, about a seven hour trip. The Alps were snowbound and gorgeous. It had snowed the night before, and everything was white. No other colors showed on the trees and bushes. Even around Bologna there was snow on the ground. In Florence the sun was shining. After Paris, it was lovely to be in a place where it wasn’t snowing or raining or looking like it would. The Arno was flowing, and even in January the narrow streets were teaming with locals and tourists. I’m sorry to say that somehow I inadvertently deleted from my camera my photos of Florence. Where to Stay I booked a room through www.AirBNB.com, the site that lists rooms in people’s homes that they rent on a short term basis. My room was in Leonardo’s house at 4 Via Del Trebbio, Firenze, Toscana 50123. www.leonardohouse.it. It was the bargain of the decade at 25 Euros per night. The room was large, clean and comfortable, as was the bathroom next door that was shared with one other room. It was centrally located in the historic city. Where to Eat and Drink I have two restaurant recommendations. Il Cantastorie, a 40-year-old restaurant serving traditional Florentine dishes, at 7/9 Via Della Condotta, not far from Il Duomo. Check out their website at www.cantastorie.net. I had a nice green salad, traditional Tuscan bean soup and veal with mushrooms — delicious! They have an outstanding wine selection. The other restaurant, more modest in ambiance and cost, was Il Trebbio. Go right out of Leonardo’s and at the end of Via Del Trebbio, make another right and you will see it across the street. I had excellent pasta and salad. Their house wine at two Euros a glass was quite good. If you are into cocktails I found an outstanding bar with nice ambiance and friendly bartenders who speak English: L’O in the Hotel L’Orologio, 34 Via Delle Belle Donne —  www.ilbardelo.com. For breakfast, turn left out of Leonardo’s, make another left at the end of the block and a few doors down on the left is a café with excellent cappuccino and pastries. What To See The sites to see in Florence are well documented and conveniently located in the historic city center, a walker’s paradise. For those who can’t or don’t care to walk a lot, taxi fares are reasonable. An excellent site to see what is available is www.visitflorence.com. My favorites were Il Duomo; of course, the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s most famous art galleries housing the great renaissance art in this city known as the cradle of the renaissance; the Ponte Vecchio and its jewelry shops are a must; the two palaces to see are Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Medici, both Fifteenth Century Renaissance palaces; and the Boboli Gardens. I wandered around for hours through the narrow Renaissance streets and lovely plazas. The historical part of the city is so compact that for most people three days is enough. From Florence I took a taxi to the airport to rent a car (under 20 Euros) and from there drove north to my home for three months Il Mulinello between Monzone and Equi Terme in the hills of northern Tuscany.

The Long Road to Paris: Borders and Bureaucracy

July 12, 2011 Today we did not have a lot of miles to cover, but we did have a border to cross and honestly we always have to plan for some car problem. Today it was Clay. Just 2km from the border we heard on our walkie-talkie that his oil pressure had dropped and he needed to pull over. One of the hoses that had been used for an earlier repair had come off and he lost most of his oil. This time he discovered the problem before his engine was ruined. While adding oil, he also discovered the leak in the water pump was worse. Sometimes it’s a bit uncanny to compare our real long road to Paris to the description in the fictional version. At the border, we did get in line with all the trucks, but in reality, the trucks form a separate line from the cars. Ed (that is fictional Ed, Page 230) walked to the head of the line, “stopped to watch as the border guards inspected a smelly truck loaded with noisy pigs. Pigs to Latvia, now that would be a way to sneak something or someone across the border. Not even border guards would want to search through that.” Well, our truck loads of pigs were going from Latvia into Russia, I couldn’t help but laugh as I made my way on foot across the border. I have no idea how we came up with the pig scenario for the novel, but it was all there in reality! I walked as the cars were loaded with all the luggage from our group and only the drivers stayed with the cars. My trip across the border was easy compared to Ed’s. Jan Ed’s view: We had traveled all of Russia with two support vans. They were not permitted to cross the border into Latvia. That meant, Tatiana, who will go all the way to Paris with us, Dennis, Jeff and Ed (Gavin) had to cross on foot and all the luggage in the vans had to be loaded into our cars — mostly into Stewball as we are the only ones with a back seat and enough room! The requirements were this: Each of our four “race” cars must have only one person, the driver, when leaving the Russian checkpoint and crossing the one-mile neutral zone to the Latvian checkpoint. The others had to walk. Our eight pedestrians were cleared with little waiting and walked to the waiting Latvian vans. Each of us presented our documents and then waited. And waited, alternately pacing and dozing in our packed cars.  After about two hours, we learned that our documents were lacking a small sticker that Kazakhstan authorities were supposed to have put on them. Calls were made to Kazakhstan. Tatiana used her best allure (she later admitted she considered trying tears) but to no avail. The official on the Kazakhstan side was not in. More calls were made to more authorities, higher-ups in the chain of command. Eventually after 4 and a half hours, a decision was made to let us go. Jerry and his Corvette cleared first. I had only a slight problem. They wanted to see the VIN number on the car. Had they read the novel and thought this was a different car than the one I entered Russia in? I explained, with Tatiana’s help, that the number was under the back seat which would have to be removed to show them. This meant removing all the luggage. Well, even Russian border guards have a sense of humor. They all just laughed and waved me on. O.K., now the next problem was Clay did not have his original title, only a copy. Clay’s car was in front of me and I could not get around it. Clay either could not, or would not leave the immigration officer’s window to move his car over. So I waited another 20 minutes for him. Meantime, Tatiana got a call from the Latvian side. A decision was made for one of the vans to go on to the hotel in Daugavpils. (At the point they called, we had no idea when we would cross or even if it would be today. Shades of China/Kazakhstan border crossing.) But there was one more problem: There was only room for seven of our eight people. Someone had to volunteer to stay behind with the remaining van. Jan, bless her heart, volunteered to wait for me. It was only 5 and a half hours, but it seemed an eternity. (Jan’s edit: I was told it may be well after dark before the cars crossed and I didn’t want to leave Ed with the rest of the driving at that point. I could wait here, or wait at the hotel.) The good part was our hotel. I don’t know how stars are assigned. This was three-star, but equaled or bettered most Russian four-star hotel. Great cool room, great dinner and lovely view. Tomorrow, Lithuania. Ed

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