Status Update:

Current location: Bochum / Germany

50 countries, 1226 days, trip mileage: 124200 km

2 Jun 2008

Italy (3) - Florence & the dreaded visas

Piazza Michelangelo, Florence

My next stop is Florence (again): once Siena’s main rival and now capital of Tuscany, Florence had its peak time during the renaissance. It’s my second visit to the city, and it’s raining again. This time, I can make good use of this ‘city-hoppers downtime’: the ‘Hostel Monaca’ I’m staying at in the city centre has free wireless internet access, and – on a less encouraging note: the first mail that I receive indicates that I am about to spend a fair amount of time on the internet over the next few days, as yet another(!) visa issue is going to keep me entertained for a while.

It’s an e-mail from my travel partner Len, who I will meet up with in Turkey in 3-4 weeks. Due to his later departure date from England, Len is about one month behind me with his paperwork and has just received his Iranian visa – which means he was ready to apply for his Turkmenistan Transit Visa. However, the Turkmenistan Consulate we were going through, has 5 days ago changed their visa policy and apparently we now need a Letter of Invitation for the transit visa. Not good. I spend the best part of the day e-mailing other overland motorcyclists about their situation, emailing the Consulate and trying to find tour operators in Turkmenistan to see who could provide a Letter Of Invitation for a transit visa – to no success. No ferry connection across the Caspian Sea (Iran to Uzbekistan) either. I get so desperate about the situation, I’m even investigating a quick stint through Afghanistan, just to bypass Turkmenistan. A phone call to Len tells me he’s up for it as well. Then again, the political situation in Afghanistan is a little too hot for my liking at the moment…

(Two days later, things should change for the better: one of my contacts (another motorcyclists who was in the exact same situation) had been on the phone with the consulate – and the transit visa policy has now changed back to what it was before: we don’t need a LOI (touch wood), and a quick e-mail to the consulate confirmed this. Phew!)

Florence, Ponte del Vecchio

In the meantime, the at least the weather in Florence got a little better and I leave the hostel to go for a little stroll and take some snapshots. With its abundance of bridges (which are very helpful to find your way through the city), Florence reminds me a little bit of Prague. Florence’s most famous bridge is the Ponte Vecchio: unaccessible by car, it boasts an endless number of jewelry shops in ancient buildings, all terraced next to each other. There’s so many buildings that I forget that I’m actually standing on a bridge. I imagine some of London’s bridges must have been like this before the fire of London.

Florence Graffitti in front of Museum of Arts

I visit most of Florence’s tourist landmarks, but I decide to give its most famous attraction a miss: Michelangelo’s David statue. Although I do appreciate the arts, I don’t cherish the prospect of queuing up for several hours, just to then enjoy myself in a cramped museum and have a glimpse at the David for a few minutes. As I walk past the museum in the evening, I can see the ugly side-effects of people’s boredom when they’re standing in a queue: the outside museum walls are covered in adolescence-style writing & tags in various languages, often saying something like “I’ve been queuing for 3 hours and THIS is how far I got”. The funniest thing about it is that there’s a CCTV camera just above all this waste of ink. (I suspect the CCTV operator is probably just as interested in his job as the customs officers at the Swiss-Italian border).

Later that evening I go for a meal in a local restaurant. On the table next to me sits a man in his 60s. His name’s Warwick and he’s a retired violin player from Canada, who came for an audition for the Florentine Orchestra some 25 years ago. We end up talking about music, Italy and Tuscan food specialities. The moment I mention the word ‘traffic’, he laughs out loud and tells me about his first year in Italy, when he had to do his Italian driving license. A few of his anecdotes from that time confirm exactly what I had been thinking.

It’s getting cloudy again – and I wanted to see the leaning tower in Pisa, some 70km from Florence. By the time I arrive in Pisa, the sun’s gone completely. A few pictures of the tower, and I find myself in a familiar situation: the pursuit of sunshine. This time I’ll try my luck on Italy’s East coast, near Rimini.