Ten day photo challenge – behind the scenes!

Hey dear readers! It’s me again! You must be bored of me by now, right? I think this is the first time I’ve ever posted more than two days running! Haha.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed following and playing along over the past ten days. Now it’s time for me to reveal why these were “favourite” photos and the story behind picking these particular ten.

To be honest, I followed the favourite objective a little loosely. These aren’t necessarily Instagram-worthy or being printed to go up on my bedroom wall any time soon but they bring back good memories for one reason or another. In a lot of cases they’re favourites purely for the story behind the photo.

Forewarning – this is likely to be a long post. So if you’re only interested in the answers and not the stories behind them I’ll list the locations above each photo.

I think the initial “no explanation” part to this challenge was only implemented for people such as me who have to ramble on and on and on!

Anyway let’s get on with the stories shall we?

Day one – “I’m really fucking here!!” – Sydney, Australia

Hostel View

Truthfully, this wasn’t the photo I would ideally have used for this particular story. I wanted to share my first photo from this trip but it clearly had the name of the city in the photo so it wasn’t particularly suitable for the challenge haha.

This one seemed to have you all stumped! Interestingly Nick was the first to play along and made the observation that they’re “driving on the wrong side of the road”. The photo might therefore be a little misleading but the Aussies actually drive on the left like ourselves in England!

The Travel Architect suggested this was Big Ben’s little brother but the guess of Walla Walla, Washington was way off the mark!

This building is actually Sydney’s Central train station and the photo was taken from my dorm room at Sydney Central’s YHA hostel. Not a bad view right? The alternative photo had the name of the hostel and ‘Sydney’ was clearly visible so wasn’t much use.

Those of you following me on Instagram will have already had some insight in to the story for this one. On the 9th of February 2013 I was embarking on my first ever solo trip! On the 11th of February 2013 I’d landed in Sydney, Australia.

I was so fucking nervous. See Instagram for my “excited at Heathrow” photo before leaving. Sydney was one of those bucketlist destinations for me. The seed got planted in to my head about going to Sydney in the near future and shortly after I picked up Bill Bryson’s “Down Under” book which only tempted me further.

I started considering it and floated the idea with a few people – “I’m thinking about going to Sydney..” – and the feedback was pretty positive. I spoke to my parents about it, I booked the time off work, I had the money in the bank and nothing..

I just couldn’t find the courage to book the trip. I had everything planned out! I was going to Sydney on the 9th of February and come mid January I still hadn’t booked the flights or the accommodation.

It was really last minute but I’d finally done it. It was booked! There was no turning back now!

The rest was history. I stepped out of the train station, walked down the stairs and right in front of me was the hostel I was staying at. I was really in Sydney! Fucking pinch me! I checked in to my hostel and this was the view greeting me from the dorm window.

That trip changed everything. I’d got the bug! Travel stopped being a luxury and started being the priority. I don’t think the majority of the trips that followed would have happened had it not been for this trip and this experience.

Day two – “Disney of the North!” – Helsinki, Finland

Jason Fi

Some interesting guesses on this one. Finland enthusiast, Marion, I knew would get this one instantly but she refrained from giving the game away and kept schtum on the correct answer.

The Travel Architect came up with Greece as her best guess so was on the right continent at least, meanwhile Salsa World Traveler went for something a little more vague and guessed “somewhere cold” – you weren’t wrong! It was Tanja however that came up with the correct response – Helsinki in Finland – an impressive guess given she’s never been to Helsinki!

Funnily enough, I almost went with a train station photo for this one too but then I started looking at day three and didn’t want to post three train stations in a row haha.

I’ve not actually blogged about the Finland trip yet but this was another bucketlist destination for me, albeit for very different reasons on this occasion. My grandmother was Finnish and she lived with us throughout my childhood up until she died. I’d always felt such a strong connection to Finland and those roots and it has always given me a huge desire to see Finland for myself.

It was only as the trip got closer that the realisation hit me that I might not actually like Finland as much as the place I’d built up in my head. I’d convinced myself that Finland was perfect. What if this trip crushed every fairytale I’d created in my mind?

In the days leading up to this trip the nerves really hit me. There was suddenly pressure towards this trip. I’ve always felt that Finnish connection and I’ve clung to it as best as possible since my grandma died but I couldn’t brush off this doubt. I was DESPERATE for this trip to live up to my ridiculously high standards.

The day of the trip came and this was it! I landed at Helsinki airport a little while later and it was pretty smooth, it’s a really nice airport. I followed directions towards the train platforms and then bought myself a ticket heading for the centre of Helsinki.

My first real memory of Finland was this little girl sitting on the train, with what I assume was her dad, and singing some nursery rhyme which just sounded heavenly. I then got off the train, stepped outside of the station and it was snowing! There was no snow in the forecast for the weekend!

“Are you kidding me? This place is magical! Sod Disneyland, this is Disney of the North!”

I was instantly swooning over Finland. I can’t adequately describe what I felt that weekend. I went with such high hopes and it was infinitely better than I could have ever imagined.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily the reality, Finland probably isn’t for everyone but the trip somehow strengthened my love for this country. I’m itching to go back and probably would have returned in 2020 had it not been for Covid.

This particular photo was on the day I arrived. It was still lightly snowing and I saw Helsinki cathedral for the first time and I was blown away. I’d seen photos of it online but it somehow seemed even more remarkable in the flesh.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to judge Finland objectively, it might purely be the Finland-tinted glasses on but I felt a belonging and at home in a place I’d never been to. Magical!

Day three – “I know your language!” – Köln, Germany

TheEnd

“Hauptbahnhof” was your big clue for this one, or the DB and S train services that run throughout this country! Translating Hauptbahnhof from German in to English would give you the main or central (haupt) train station (Bahnhof) so if you understood Germany or had been to Germany you might have been able to narrow this down a little!

I’m not sure how recognisable this train station is but this proved the easiest photo challenge so far. Tanja and The Travel Architect were able to narrow this down as far as Germany.

Fellow bloggers Little Miss TravellerWhole lotta RosieLiving in KarolingstonOur Crossings and Handstands Around The World were all much more accurate in their guess of Cologne – this being Cologne’s main train station!

I first visited Cologne in 2013, a few weeks after coming back from Sydney. I told you I’d got the travel bug! I was itching to go somewhere and Easter weekend was the perfect opportunity for some travel.

Well not perfect! My last minute planning meant my options were relatively limited as far as my budget was concerned and I ended up booking myself a train to Cologne – not a city I’d ever cared about visiting, nor a country I really had much interest in visiting.

That trip was the first time I truly felt like I’d been abroad. I didn’t know the language, I was all on my own, the Germans didn’t seem particularly welcoming. My hostel was lonely – a very different vibe to my first hostel experience in Sydney. I was still an inexperienced traveler and all of the comforts of Sydney were lacking here.

I still enjoyed Cologne but I wasn’t sad to be going home at the end of the Easter weekend. So I was happily sat waiting for the train back to Brussels (and then London) and some bilingual, seemingly homeless, person approached me asking for money.

A bilingual homeless beggar! I brushed off his pleas in German, playing the ignorance card and he trumped me!

“No worries mate, I can ask you for money in English..”

What!? That backfired! For what it’s worth, I hadn’t refused the first request because I’m some heartless soul. I’ll happily help anyone but it’s difficult differentiating between someone who’s genuine and needs help opposed to someone who’s just a chancer and taking advantage of people’s kindness.

Nevertheless, asking me in two languages humbled me a little bit and he ended up walking away with a few spare euros in his pocket. That experience has stuck with me ever since.

Fortunately in 2016 I returned to Köln (not Cologne!) as a German speaker and it felt like a sign of personal growth. I’m not fluent by any means but it was hugely satisfying to be able to speak the language of the locals.

I’ve been to Köln four times now and whilst I hadn’t ever anticipated visiting that many times, the subsequent trips have been much more satisfying than that first trip was. No matter where I travel now I try and learn a few phrases because it can transform your entire experience. I’ve grown a soft spot this city and I’ve been to many other parts of Germany since too.

This particular photo was taken in 2016 on the way back to my hotel – I’m sure that ‘Hauptbahnhof’ sign was always there but it was more noticeable on this occasion and I had to get a photo.

Day four – “The big 3-0!” – Chicago, USA

River Il

This one was seemingly too easy for many of you! MarieJessMarionSalsa World TravelerThe Travel ArchitectTanja and Diana were all able to correctly identify this as Chicago!

Of course this inclusion shouldn’t be a surprise. How could I not include at least one photo from this trip? I could have probably found a hundred photos from this trip to have used but I really wanted something from the first stop on this trip – Chicago! My only regret is not making it harder for you! Haha.

This is genuinely a favourite photo from that trip though. As you’ll know, I’m still in the process of writing about this trip on the blog but it was truly an unforgettable trip. To spend that length of time on one trip, seeing so many places, creating so many memories – just wow!

It’s another trip that humbled me. Thousands of miles, six states, an entire month traveling the USA – I’m not sure I’ll ever take another trip that’s quite that grand and I’m really appreciative that I had the opportunity. It was the best way to celebrate turning 30.

This particular photo was one of my last in Chicago and I was just in awe of its beauty. I was sad I’d had such little time in the city and needed the memory of this view to take home with me before heading on to Minneapolis.

Day five – “snap me while you can!” – Paris, France

July 2019

I had more success in making this difficult for some of you. Marion had no idea, meanwhile The year without Wimbledon and The Travel Architect were only able to narrow down their guesses to Europe with Budapest and Vienna for answers.

Fortunately some of you were able to come up with the correct response. AivaMarieSalsa World TravelerTanja and Sarah knew this was in Paris – the balcony of the Musee D’Orsay to be specific!

This was an interesting choice because I’d say “favourite” photo loosely. Admittedly this was one of the better ones from the 20 or so photos I managed to take on this particular weekend. A chunk of those however included one of the most famous landmarks in the world, The Eiffel Tower, so I couldn’t use those for this challenge either haha.

This trip was somewhat of a throwback to the “good old days..”

“Erm, Jason.. I know you’re 30+ now but you’re not that ancient..”

I know, I know but this trip afforded me the luxury of something I haven’t experienced for a number of years. There’s perhaps even some readers who’ll never have experienced travel like this but what you might call “off the grid” travel.

I’d charged my phone before work on Friday morning. Following work, myself and Haleigh would be catching the Eurostar to Paris! Now I’m 99% certain the Eurostar has charging points but I hadn’t been worried all day – my phone battery would last long enough for us to reach our hotel.

I’ve not written about this trip yet but after a hectic ride we finally arrived at our hotel, I plugged my phone in to charge and nothing!

Tried Haleigh’s phone – success. Tried mine – nothing!
Tried Haleigh’s charger – nothing. Tried Haleigh’s phone with her charger – success!

My phone had decided it was taking the weekend off! “Sorry Jason, you can’t expect me to work in Paris..”

It was mind-boggling. Three days later, I arrived back in England and it charged like there’d never been a problem. I’m using that same phone and charger 18 months later and it works perfectly fine but on this particular weekend? No chance!

So it was a race against the clock really. I was preserving my phone life as long as possible but by Saturday morning my phone was dead! I was in Paris off the grid! I was unreachable. I had no idea where we were, I had no idea what time of day it was anymore, I had no idea what was going on in the world.

Had Trump declared war on North Korea over Twitter? Quite possibly but I had no way of knowing, I was unreachable, I was.. free!

I’d missed this way of traveling. As an American, Haleigh also didn’t have the luxury of roaming data to use so we were solely reliant on those ancient travelers methods such as picking up a paper map to find our way around or god forbid, asking somebody!

Ironically, one of the reasons I hadn’t done this style of traveling for so long is due to being in a long distance relationship! There are very few people I feel a need to be at constant beck and call with but it’s hard to just disappear and have no communication when you’re in a relationship that’s heavily dependent on online access.

So for this to happen on one of those rare occasions we were traveling together was incredibly convenient, fate-like even. Nothing outside of Paris existed for a weekend and I was with the only person that I needed to be with. Admittedly Haleigh could still use the Wi-Fi as and when she could use it but it was in short supply – we were in Paris and effectively off-the-grid.

What a city for such a luxury too! It was so, so nice. I’ve missed this style of travel a lot and I hate that it has been “so long” since I’d previously traveled that way, I’ve not done it since either. Haleigh is a convenient excuse but I’m looking forward to being together someday soon and being able to travel off the grid more frequently.

This was one of the few photos I managed to grab before my phone died. The photo itself is fine but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a favourite – however it aids this story and I’m looking forward to writing about this trip in more detail at a later date!

Day six – “My second home” – Moses Lake, Washington

ML Mar 2020

The American flag was a little hint here because I thought it unlikely anyone would guess this one otherwise. As it was Salsa World Traveler came closest with a guess of Southern California having recognised those clocks from somewhere!

I don’t know that they’re unique enough that they couldn’t potentially be in other states but I’ve seen them throughout a few towns in Washington State so on the right coast at least!

This particular one was in Moses Lake, Washington which perhaps won’t come as the biggest surprise to long time followers of the blog (or other social media) who will know that I have spent a significant amount of time in the last three years visiting Washington State.

Moses Lake, Washington has become somewhat of a second home for me. I’d dare say I’m probably fonder of Moses Lake than Haleigh who lives there currently but it’s just a place that holds a lot of good memories for me and the locals have always made me feel welcome.

I’ve always been a big city person but I’ve spent many an enjoyable day in this little town. It only felt right that it was a “favourite” that I included among the photo challenge. This particular spot is opposite the small independent little coffee shop in the downtown area and has quickly become a favourite spot on my frequent visits to Moses Lake.

Unfortunately Covid robbed me of a proper farewell last April and although I’ll definitely return to Washington in the future, I’m not sure Haleigh will still be living here by the time I next get to visit.

I’m not sure I’ll have any real reason to go back in the future so it may be that I’ve actually visited Moses Lake for the last time – we shall see! Nevertheless, this photo brings me some joy and memories of living here and many other visits prior to that.

Day seven – “the growth of Weetabix Boy” – Bruges, Brussels 

Moules Frites

I was a little hesitant to share any indoor photos because it makes the challenge particularly difficult and dare I say impossible? However I also said that each photo had some story behind it and I’m not sure any other photo would have had the same meaning behind it.

As is quite clear, the story here was food related and given this dish is so synonymous with this country it seemed an acceptable exception for the challenge!

Little Miss TravellerThe Travel Architect and The Red Phone Box Travels all correctly predicted this was somewhere in Belgium. Nobody guessed this was in Bruges but given the lack of identity in the photo that’s understandable. Salsa World Traveler anticipated a trick question and opted for an out-of-the-box guess in New Orleans but this was as obvious as it seemed so no cruel trick from me on this occasion!

Anyway, on to the story!

I mentioned in a blog post recently that I don’t really eat cheese and how that’s just a long-time habit more than anything. I know that I’d in all likelihood enjoy cheese now but there’s no huge incentive for me to “find out”. For instance I could order the cheese burger instead of just a regular burger in any restaurant but why? I’m equally content eating a burger without cheese so if I’m going to have a burger then I’ll do that.

Admittedly that’s not the greatest example as far as cheese was concerned but the point is I was a fussy eater as a child and it has been difficult to kick those habits as an adult. I’m just an incredibly predictable person – which was best summarised in my “Weetabix boy” post.

Nearly three years on from writing that post, I can guarantee you I’ve probably had Weetabix 500 times for breakfast – at least! Realistically it’ll be many morning’s more than that number.

FYI – I’ve yet to receive notification of any Weetabix sponsorship or ambassadorial role but maybe this will serve as a timely reminder? Weetabix’s CEO reads my blog, right?

Anyway, the overall point being that in many ways I’m too predictable for travel but this photo served as proof that I’m better than I was twenty, ten or even five years ago.

I first visited Belgium back in 2013. We’d gone to Brussels for a friend’s birthday and ended up taking a day trip to Bruges. We stumbled upon the main square in Bruges and I remember the smell from the food market hitting our 3 person-party – Belgian waffles!

The other two were inevitably drawn towards the smell of food but as someone who is the complete opposite of a “foodie”, I was a little more sceptical. Do I even like Belgian waffles? Am I going to part with my euros to find out? What alternatives are there?

I can’t actually recall if I stumbled up the “courage” to try them or wherever I skipped out on lunch entirely due to my fussyness but it’s funny for me to look back at and think just how safe my food choices were when I first began traveling.

I’ve been to Belgium a few times since that first trip. Whether it has been Brussels, Bruges, Gent or Liege – you don’t have to go too far to find mussels on the menu – it’s the “biggie” as far as Belgian cuisine is concerned.

However despite several trips I’d always excused myself from taking the leap as far as mussels were concerned. I’ve eaten waffles and seeked out other famous Flemish dishes in both Belgium and Lille but I’d always found an excuse to bypass mussels.

Six years after that first trip I found myself back in Bruges and enough was enough. I told myself that I couldn’t leave Belgium without trying the famous “Moules Frites” and consequently you have your photo!

Undoubtedly a minor accomplishment for many of you but it wasn’t a dish I ever thought I’d “give a go”. Accompanied with some wonderful Belgian beer, it was a little tick for “Weetabix Boy”.

Day eight – “this isn’t Leeds?” – Florence, Italy

DSCF5146

I had a feeling this might be one of the easier photos to guess the location for because if you’ve been to Florence, it’s an unmistakable view. If nothing else the Duomo is one of the most easily recognisable buildings amongst this skyline that I think it’d be impossible to confuse with anywhere else. So it proved with the guesses!

SarahMarionAiva and Ellie all correctly guessed this was Florence – with some very specific guesses naming exactly where in the city this is! It’s safe to say that Salsa World Traveler has yet to visit this wonderful city with a guess of Spain – hope you get there soon!

Again this particular photo probably wouldn’t have been my “favourite” from this trip but I’ve posted many Florence photos on the blog already so I thought I’d go with this ‘happy’ photo instead which I don’t think has ever seen the light of day anywhere other than on Facebook!

Unlike any of the other photo choices, the unique thing about this particular photo is that it theoretically shouldn’t exist! I wasn’t actually supposed to be in Florence at this moment in time, I was supposed to be in Leeds!

I’d booked flights to Italy with the intention of flying home on Friday morning, in anticipation of joining a friend at a gig up in Leeds on Friday evening. As it turns out my flight home wasn’t on the 27th of February (2015), it was on the 27th of April!

“How did that happen!?”

I still have no idea to this day but of course it was a last minute realisation. The night before flying to Italy I wanted to check in for both flights and discovered that I had no flight home on the Friday! With a “fuck it” attitude I figured I’d sort it out once I got to Italy – I’m going regardless, I’ll work out how or when I’m getting home later.

The upside is that my mistake meant I stayed in Italy an extra night and I spent my extra 24 hours in Florence seeing beautiful spots such as this: the Piazzale Michelangelo.

The other reason this trip was a little special is because it was probably my last off the grid trip – ironically to the detriment of this particular moment. The atmosphere here was wonderful with dozens of people sat on the steps waiting to watch the sunset. There was a little stall selling beers and snacks and all I wanted to do was to tell my friend to meet me here so we could enjoy a beer together and watch the sun go down with everyone else.

However sadly where “off the grid” travel had its perks in Paris, this was one of the occasions where you remember it’s not all glamour and has its inconveniences too. The only way of meeting up with my friend whilst in Florence was with a specific pre-arranged “meet here at this time” plan.

We’d already agreed to meet up outside the Duomo that evening and the only way to make a change of plans was to hunt him down in this huge city and try and do it quickly enough to get back here for sunset. Inevitably it didn’t happen and I made my way back down with a heavy heart – jealous of the people I was leaving behind at Florence’s prettiest view!

Nevertheless, every time I see this view it reminds me of the time I got an extra 24 hours in Italy so I can’t say it was all bad!

Day nine – “the quiet before the storm..” – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Moura Day Selfie

I was a little worried that this might have been an easier one so I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d stumped AivaMarion and Anita with this one! Marie and Leighton however were more successful in guessing this was Amsterdam, with Leighton going one step further and narrowing this down to being Dam Square! Great job!

I’ll be honest, one of the first things I thought after picking this photo was “I clearly need a new jacket..”

Somehow this jacket found its way in to three of the photos on display in this challenge! Needless to say, it’s a well travelled coat! Although admittedly this and the Helsinki photo were at least taken in the same week so perhaps it’s a little more acceptable?

and what a week it was! I’d flown to Helsinki on Saturday, I was determined to prolong my weekend in Finland as long as possible so I flew home on Monday evening.

I didn’t have time to dwell on my disappointment at leaving Finland behind because no sooner than I was home, was I off again! On Tuesday morning I woke up to go to work and on Tuesday evening I made my way down to Victoria to hop on an overnight coach to Amsterdam to get me in to the city early Wednesday morning!

Consequently this photo was probably taken close to 6am which is why one of Amsterdam’s busiest squares looks like a ghost town. Unless you’re up at the crack of dawn, you’re not going to see Dam Square look like this when you visit!

Now you might be wondering why there was such a quick turnaround between trips and why I’d take an overnight coach trip to Amsterdam – what a hassle!

Admittedly it wasn’t planned that way! The Finland trip was planned months in advance, along with a number of other plans in 2019. However Amsterdam hadn’t been one of them!

Yet my beloved Tottenham Hotspur decided it was this year that they’d give the football thing a crack and, against the script, somehow found themselves playing in a Champions League semi final in Amsterdam!

As a hypothetical I’d told myself I wasn’t going to travel for a Champions League semi final. Of course I’d go for the final but Dortmund was my European trip for 2019, I wasn’t going to the quarter finals or semi final. More than one European football trip wasn’t in my budget for the year.

The quarter final was easier to commit to, particularly as the “European” adventure would only have taken me as far as Manchester but that hypothetical semi final became a genuine semi final – our first at this level since 1962!

“I’m not going.. I’m not going.. it’s my mum’s birthday.. I’m not going..”

By the time the foolishness had subsided I’d paid the price for my indecision. It was a Champions League semi final, how I could I not go!? This may NEVER happen again!

Unfortunately by the point the penny dropped, the sensible Spurs fans had already taken advantage and booked up the flights and Eurostar journeys to Amsterdam. Now I wanted to go but costs had skyrocketed which made a cheap Amsterdam trip impossible! I compromised and booked a return overnight coach – cheaper and two less nights accommodation!

This particular photo was essentially the calm before the storm. Those already in Amsterdam were happily sleeping, the rest would be following throughout the day to watch the English completely take over Dam Square for the day.

I still can’t put in to words what followed. I’d go as far as saying this was probably the best night of my life. From 3-0 down Lucas Moura put away a hat-trick to send us to the first Champions League final in our history!

From 3-0 down! In a Champions League semi final! In the 95th minute! Away! In Amsterdam! What the fuck just happened!!!?

I spent the evening bawling my eyes out – tears of joy, tears of disbelief. I hugged hundreds and hundreds of fellow Spurs fans who were equally delirious in Dam Square. A complete contrast to the silence and emptiness of that same morning!

The only thing that could have topped this night would have been winning the final three weeks later in Madrid but this night will live long in the memory. For it to have come barely 48 hours after being in Helsinki made this a truly unforgettable week. Two contrasting experiences but WOW!

Day ten – “Africa, it’s right there!” – Gibraltar

Mosque Rock

I wanted to end this challenge with somewhat of a challenge so this is another I wasn’t sure anyone would get, with the exception of Marion who visited even more recently than I had! Hannah however also correctly guessed that this was the wonderful Gibraltar!

Whilst I do like this photo, I actually blogged about Gibraltar quite recently so many of my favourite photos from the trip were only posted recently and I didn’t want it to be too easy for you. Those of you following me on Instagram or Twitter may also have seen a few other photos so I opted for this one.

I have to say that Gibraltar was somewhere that wasn’t too high on my list to visit really. I live in the fantasy that at some point I’m going to visit every country in the world so I’ve always had the intention of visiting Gibraltar someday but the reality is, Covid pushed Gibraltar towards the top of the list to visit.

It was one of the few countries you could visit last year with minimum fuss. Low covid cases, zero covid deaths (at the time of my visit, sadly no longer the case) and because it’s an overseas British territory I was pretty confident Gibraltar wouldn’t be banning UK citizens from visiting any time soon.

Whilst my visit was largely due to limited options, I can safely say this is somewhere you should be making an effort to visit! Gibraltar is lovely. I touched on it more in my blog post on Gibraltar and Marion went in to even more depth on her trip here but wow! I did not expect to like Gibraltar quite as much as I did.

I don’t know what I was expecting but Gibraltar had the best bits of European and British culture with the added bonus of Spanish weather – what more could you want!? I absolutely loved it, I could easily see myself living in Gibraltar and walking by my company’s Gibraltar office only aided that temptation.

“Could I keep my job but work from here!? Please?”

This particular spot was undoubtedly one of my favourites in Gibraltar. Had 2020 been a normal year I’d hoped to visit Africa for the first time last year, probably starting off with Morocco which has jumped towards the top of my list to visit.

I’ve been to some wonderful places in the world over the last few years but I’m conscious that I still haven’t been anywhere too far outside of my comfort zone. I’m determined to explore Africa, Asia and South America in the coming years but obviously any hopes of getting there in the immediate future have been disrupted by the worldwide pandemic.

So there was an element of awe about ‘Europa Point’ in Gibraltar! I could see Northern Africa! I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it!

“It’s right there! That is Africa!”

It was spellbinding. I found myself a spot to sit and just really take it in. Even in a digital age, Africa has an element of mystery and wonder about it. This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to Africa without setting foot on African soil and it was really, really cool to think about in that way.

I’ll 100% return to Gibraltar but I’m hopeful it’ll be under better circumstances because I’d love to just catch the ferry over to Morocco next time. Africa was right in front of me, Gibraltar and its famous rock behind me and Spain to my right – what a feeling!

Anyway, I think I’d best wrap this up! Thanks for playing along over the past eleven days! I imagine next time on the blog it’ll be back to the “big 3-0” trip but I guess we’ll see!

Stay tuned!

Jason

Firenze: The end!

The final part to my Italy adventure (February 2015).

On the Tuesday I’d flown out to Pisa and spent a day exploring the city. Wednesday and Thursday (matchday) were days 1 and 2 of my time in Firenze and now we were at the end of the week! The football was over with and it was time to go home – or was it?

On Monday evening I figured I should probably check in for my flights, given I was heading to Pisa the next day. My outbound flight was no problem but I was trying to check in for my Friday flight home and was having no luck.

“Sorry, you can’t check in for a flight more than 7 days away”.

What? I’m flying in four days! What is this nonsense? My flight is definitely on the 27th! I was baffled and kept darting my eyes between the error message and the flight details and couldn’t understand what the issue was. What am I missing?

Wait.. why does that say my flight home is in April? That’s a mistake! Let me find my confirmation email.
Looking for reassurance, instead I found despair. All that email had confirmed was that I’d somehow messed up my booking and that I was indeed flying home in two months time! My February 27th flight home was actually April 27th!!

I was light-heartedly acceptant of my fate. I guess I’ve got to stay in Italy for an extra two months then – what a pickle, right? How do I break the news to my family, friends and work. Will a postcard suffice?
Realistically that wasn’t an option but resolving it Monday evening wasn’t an option either – it was too last minute and most of my available money was in Euros by this point. I knew I’d get paid whilst I was in Italy so I figured I’d worry about the flight home once I was over there.

So back to day 3 in Firenze, my intended departure date. Care to guess what my first plan of the day was? You’re spot on! I had to book a flight home! I was supposed to be going to a gig back in England on Friday night (I’d paid for a hotel too!) but Friday flights seemed so much more expensive than the Saturday flights so in the end I decided I’d stay in Italy an extra day.

 

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As far as mistakes go, winding up in Italy for 24 more hours is a pretty good mistake to make! My next concern was that I had no accommodation for the extra night so needed to sort that out. I loved the hostel I had been staying at, it was in a decent location and the host was incredible but sadly it was a small hostel and they didn’t have space for an extra night so I had to find somewhere else.
My host did help me find a hotel though which I appreciated.

Flight sorted, accommodation sorted, time to enjoy a bonus day in the city! I’m so glad at how things worked out because Friday probably ended up being my favourite day in Italy. Perhaps that’s just because it was an unexpected bonus day but I also ended up doing a few things to top off the Italy experience.

Firenze was a different city entirely. Most of the Spurs fans were England bound and the excessive police presence was long gone, this was Italy in all its glory and without the burden of an invasion of Brits.

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My first stop of the day took me to the Piazza della Signaoria which is a large square with stunning architecture, sculptures and a few museums closeby such as the famous Uffizi gallery. I wasn’t supposed to be here so inevitably I hadn’t booked any museums. Some of the lines were far too long so I decided I’d add the Uffizi to my “next time” list and checked out another museum instead that I can’t remember the name of.

I wish I could remember the name of it because I’d recommend a visit. The museum was over a number of different floors and had all sorts of art, although the sculptures were the pieces I enjoyed most and something you’d associate with Italy / Firenze I suppose. Eventually I was content I’d seen enough and my attention switched to a late lunch.

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Inside the museum. Anyone know the name?

I do try to make an effort to eat locally and delve into the culture when I travel but one of my guilty pleasures is the Hard Rock Café (HRC), I usually try and squeeze a visit in where I can to tick off another city from the many locations HRC are based.

My waiter asked where I was from to which I replied Peterborough and most of the time I end up wishing I’d just say London because it’s easier but to my surprise he’d heard of Peterborough, better yet he’d been to Peterborough.
“Oh yes, the place with the shopping centre opposite the train station.. Queens..? “
“Queensgate! Why were you in Peterborough!!!?”

Excuse my overreaction but seriously, Firenze sets a pretty high standard and its inhabitants are visiting Peterborough? Are you crazy? It did amuse me though before enjoying my HRC experience. It isn’t the best food you’re ever going to have and it can be expensive too but I just have a fondness of them and Firenze’s was nice too.

Following a late lunch I was ready to go and explore further. On Wednesday I’d climbed the Duomo as I’d heard it had one of the best views in Firenze – the views are great. However my hostel hostess assured me the best view of the city was at the Piazzale Michelangelo and that it was free! I had to check it out and on route could see the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge!

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Ponte Vecchio bridge!

It’s a beautiful bridge to look at but the bridge itself is a proper tourist trap. Historically butchers and other merchants occupied space on the bridge but you’ll now find a host of shops selling jewellery and gold! It’s cool to look at but it’s busy so I settled for getting a few photos and swiftly moving on to escape the crowds.

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Quick photo and then I was out of there!

I continued following signs to Piazzale Michelangelo and was soon climbing my way up this hill to discover the views awaiting me at the top. The Piazzale Michelangelo is a huge square that offers incredible views over the city – my host had said it was the best view in the city and it’d be hard to disagree. The one thing lacking from the view at the top of the Duomo is the Duomo itself which is the standout piece of Firenze’s skyline.

Whilst the views are spectacular you’ll also find a replica of the David statue here, a few stalls selling food and drinks plus a few buskers which all helps create a really nice atmosphere. You’ll find plenty of people occupying the stairs to sit and just admire the views over the river and the rest of the city.

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The best view in Firenze!

It was getting late in the afternoon and I would have loved nothing more than to have picked up a beer and waited for the sun to set on the city. It was a beautiful spot to watch a sunset! Sadly I’d arranged to meet my friend Daniel elsewhere and had no way to contact him for a change of plans so he could come join me instead. I left a little envious of those I’d left behind that got to enjoy it fully.

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The perfect sunset spot!

I didn’t stay jealous for too long, as a pick-me-up I made a necessary stop for gelato. Firenze is credited as being the city that brought Gelato to the world so what better place to enjoy it? I had to buy some and see what the fuss was about. It was delicious and a good ‘starter’ before finding dinner and having a few drinks.

I’d probably been the drunker of the two of us on Wednesday night so it was nice to see the roles reversed this evening. We shared a few beers on our final night and Daniel was a bit tipsy come the end of the evening which amused me plenty. It was a great way to enjoy our final evening before heading back to England.

The next morning I had a last wander through the streets of Firenze and was sad to be saying goodbye. After the disappointment of Pisa, Firenze had really delivered and made for a memorable first visit to Italy. It’s a cracking city and one you should definitely try to visit!

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My morning flew by and before I knew it the clock read 12pm! I had time to enjoy one final meal in Firenze before I had to leave and inevitably wanted one final pizza before I said arriverderci to Italy. It rounded off the trip perfectly, I hopped on a train to Pisa and was soon boarding a flight back to London.

Italy had lived up to my expectations and the food was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. I still haven’t been back to Italy but I’m feeling a return is long overdue!

Who’s coming with me?

Jason

Firenze: Day 2 – Matchday!

If you’ve read my two recent posts on Italy you’ll know I was in Firenze to watch Tottenham take on Fiorentina back in February 2015. If not you can catch up here (Pisa and Firenze: day 1) but we left off last time round with the end of day one (Wednesday) in Firenze which had been a great first day in the city.

Thursday was matchday and in all honesty if you’re doing a trip like this you just have to write matchday off. If you can squeeze some culture in to the morning then great but you sacrifice your afternoon to soak up the atmosphere of the city and then save your evening to watch the game itself.

For this reason I always travel for 3 days at least for a European football trip because I know one of those is lost, nevertheless I love the matchday ritual and knowing there would be roughly 3,000 other Brits in the city for the “party” does get you excited.

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The matchday fun was temporarily put on hold a week before our game. On the previous Thursday Dutch football fans had clashed with riot police in Rome which added another unwanted spotlight on Italian football, which already holds a tainted reputation. Unfortunately it left us to face the repercussions of those actions and it was clear the Italian authorities were not going to be treating our visit lightly – in what was already a fairly high profile game.

A lot of news and rumours came out of Italy over the course of the next week. Some of the rumours included calling upon resources from other cities with 1,000 additional police (on top of the presence for a normal game) expected in Firenze, tightened security measures, police escorts, curfews on the bars/restaurants throughout the city and even a proposed drinking ban on the day of the game (today!).

You could certainly feel the police presence in the city, Tottenham had communicated to our supporters that we HAD to take specific buses to the stadium as the police would be closing off all surrounding roads for away supporters, Wednesday night had added substance to the curfew rumours but surely, surely there wasn’t going to be an alcohol ban today?

Breathe a sigh of relief! There wasn’t! I think it would have been near on impossible to enforce so I’m not sure where the rumours surfaced from but luckily the beers were still flowing!

On Wednesday night me and Daniel had found an Irish bar full of Spurs fans so we decided we’d revisit it on Thursday. By the time we arrived Thursday lunchtime it was already a little busy with people hanging up their flags wherever possible and creating a bit of an atmosphere.

 

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Pride of North London – Then, Now, Forever

It was only ever going to get busier as many opt to fly out on matchday, so the majority of Spurs fans would be arriving in to Firenze over the course of the next few hours. So to my surprise this bar had TWO barstaff working. 3,000+ Brits were here to drink the city dry so it was baffling how unprepared they were – surely you knew we were coming? This isn’t a normal Thursday afternoon shift!

From a business point of view I found it ridiculous! You are due to make an absolute fortune! If you can’t serve the people quickly enough they’ll find their beer elsewhere – you’re driving your customers away!
On the plus side there was no sign of this drinking ban at least!
After plenty more beers and much more singing eventually the police advised time was up and were moving us on – time to go to the stadium!

Fortunately me and Daniel were one of the first on the bus so managed to get a seat (we didn’t use) but one by one more Spurs fans would get on board. Whilst waiting for the bus to fill up we were sat parked at a bus stop so every so often an old lady would get on with her bags and things. Clearly confusing it for a regular bus from the same stop but every time they would quickly be advised to get off! “Wrong bus, trust us, you don’t want to be on this one!”
Having crammed enough of us in like sardines we were off and so began a wave of noise!

Every bus was sandwiched front and back: Police vehicle – bus – police vehicle – bus – police vehicle.. you get the idea. We were being paraded through the streets of Firenze like criminals and in all honesty we made the most of the attention it brought.

The atmosphere on board was incredible and I don’t think anyone was sat down for the entirety of the bus journey. Spurs had arrived and we let the Italians know it – leaving some very puzzled onlookers as we whizzed through the streets at the expense of the other traffic that our entourage had taken priority over.
Song after song after song at the top of our lungs with police sirens blaring too – our presence was making a racket!

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We’re here! Far too early!

Eventually our bus dropped us at the end of an empty road with a bit of a walk to the stadium. The police had cordoned off every surrounding road giving us one way in, one way out. It ensured we didn’t cross paths with a single Italian fan and also gave us no opportunity to take a look around the area / rest of the stadium. It was a little sad in truth.

 

Before you could even get to the stadium you had to pass through a number of security checks – tickets, passports and then a thorough body search. Far too intimate for my liking (“Valentine’s Day was a couple of weeks ago guys”) but given how well stocked the police were I don’t think they were going to get too many complaints. Having been sufficiently groped we’d passed the necessary tests and could make our slow walk to enter the stadium.

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Playing the waiting game!

We were here far too early and the facilities were terrible so there wasn’t anything to do except fly our flags, sing our songs and wait. I’d love to say the game was worth the wait but it wasn’t. We were crap, the less said the better and it was bloody freezing too. Fiorentina’s stadium lacks a roof and we were at the back of the stand so were catching most of the wind.

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Fiorentina’s noisier supporters at the opposite end

The game came to its conclusion and we were kindly told that we wouldn’t be going anywhere just yet – you can freeze a little longer whilst we lock you in to allow enough time for the Italians to disperse. It’s not unusual for away games so it wasn’t a huge deal, it was cold but at least it wasn’t raining!

Oh now it is! I don’t know how long we were kept behind for but it felt forever. Eventually they let us out as far as the buses because, of course, we’d be escorted back in to the centre of the city. The bus journey was much tamer heading back. Nothing to celebrate and most fed up at how long we’d been forced to wait.

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The game probably ended at around 8:45-8:50 – the bus journey was around 15 minutes so inevitably it was about 10:30 by the time we were set free back in the centre of Firenze. We’d been at the stadium since about 5-5:30 (for a 7pm kickoff) so needless to say we were craving some food and a beer.

The police had kept us so late that by the time we’d got back to the centre barely anything was open. We did find one restaurant in this nearby square still open so we took a seat outside, it didn’t take long for the waiter to tell us that we needed to be quick! We’d barely sat down but, of course, there was a looming midnight curfew.

Dinner was.. okay? Who knows? Surprisingly you don’t tend to enjoy it so much when you’re feeling rushed. As if that wasn’t enough you could feel the close watch of the two police vans sat on the opposite side of the square – ready to enforce an early night if necessary.

I think both me and Daniel could have quite happily gone for another beer after dinner but were we likely to have any luck finding somewhere open? The city was dead, the police had done their jobs, killed the mood and put an end to any potential trouble before it could begin. I headed back to my hostel and got tucked in for another relatively early night in Italy as I had important things to sort out on Friday (stay tuned!).

Reflecting on the overall football experience it’s hard to say if I’d go back to Italy for football. On the one hand you’ve got the safety concerns of racism and violence in places such as Rome or Naples that I’d still be nervous to visit for football. On the other hand the only way to counteract it appears to be with over-the-top-policing to ensure your safety.

I’m not criticising the approach, it worked. I had no interest in being another statistic, another number in a long line of English stabbings in Italy but that doesn’t make it any more satisfying.
A year earlier I’d witnessed Portuguese buskers singing Tottenham songs, Benfica fans embracing our visit and barely a police officer in sight. Benfica knocked Tottenham out of Europe but as fans you exchange pleasantries and wish eachother luck for the rest of the season. That’s football, that’s why I love the game.

To go from that experience in Lisbon to Firenze was a sad reflection on Italian football and made it easy to see why attendances in Italian football have been on the decline over the last decade  Football is about the fans and I didn’t meet a single Fiorentina fan whilst in Firenze, they’d been cut off from our reach.

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In fairness to Italy, Tottenham returned to Firenze a year later and by all accounts I heard from those that visited that it was a better experience. Perhaps a realisation that Tottenham and Fiorentina had no bad blood and could coexist in the same city without any fuss. Nevertheless, whilst there were still aspects I enjoyed it didn’t quite live up to watching Tottenham in Portugal, Belgium, Germany or Spain.

I’ll definitely go back to Italy, there’s so much of the country that I want to see but maybe I’ll give the football a miss.

Anyway, hopefully you enjoyed the little insight in to travel as a football fan. Stay tuned for the final day in Firenze, I promise it’s a good’un!

All the best!

Jason

Day one in Firenze!

You may have noticed I have a tendency to ramble on a bit (“no Jason, don’t be silly. Of course you don’t!”) so I’ve decided that going forward I’m going to split some of my longer trips up across multiple blog posts.

Anyway back to Italy and on to part two of the trip! If you’ve been following along you’ll know that my trip (Feb 2015) began with a day in Pisa and that I’d be moving onwards to Firenze (Florence) the next day (Wednesday). What you don’t know is why I was visiting Firenze, nor why I’d been sceptical about going at all! First of all let’s start with why I was visiting?

Well that’s an easy answer, football of course! My love of football is no big secret on the blog and it’s perhaps the only interest of mine that surpasses my love of travel. Opportunities to combine the two loves are always a bonus!

In 2014 I lived a childhood dream when I went to Lisbon and I got to watch Tottenham play in another country – a European away trip for football – an incredible experience! I’d wanted to do a European away day with Spurs for so long and Lisbon had finally given me a taste for it. Come the end of 2014 I was itching to do another and was awaiting news of where Tottenham would be playing in the February. I eyed up all of the potential opposition and hoped for the best – in the end the “football gods” were sending us to Firenze in Italy to play Fiorentina.

 

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Fiorentina v Tottenham Hotspur!

Visiting Italy had been another childhood dream of mine so surely I had to go!? No, I hesitated. The news of Spurs visiting Italy was met with trepidation, was it safe going to Italy?

For those of you not clued up on football I’d forgive you for thinking I’m scaremongering but I couldn’t erase the stories or images from my mind of Spurs visit to Italy three years earlier. One night in Rome saw an ambush on an unsuspecting pub which left some of our fans in critical condition. I’d love to say it was an isolated incident but fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Middlesbrough have all faced problems of their own in the last 15 years when visiting Italy.

It doesn’t make great reading for English football fans and sadly Italy’s reputation speaks for itself in both football violence and racism.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting English football fans are angels and I’m not suggesting it’s a reflection on all Italians either. It is very much a minority but enough of a minority that you’d be naïve to not have some concern visiting at the very least!

“but you went to Italy so you are just scaremongering!”

I did go to Italy and the location was a factor. Would I have gone to Rome or Naples so easily? I’m not sure. I definitely want to visit both, particularly Rome, but I’m not sure I’d risk it for the football.
In contrast Firenze I had never heard of English fans running in to trouble so I felt a little more comfortable going over there.

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Firenze’s Duomo!

Five days before I was due to fly to Pisa news broke from Italy. The headline read something like “Dutch football fans clash with riot police in Rome”. – the worst part about it was that it wasn’t a surprising headline.
Rome has its own tainted reputation but the same can be said of Netherlands-based football club Feyenoord – stick them together in one city and it was only ever going to lead one way.. “in other news, water is wet..”

Irrespective of how inevitable it was, it did put an unwanted spotlight on Italian football again. The timing was terrible given there was going to be an imminent arrival of 3,000+ Brits to the country in the next few days.
Lots of reports and rumours came out of Italy following the trouble in Rome: 1,000 additional police in Firenze to be called upon from surrounding cities, tightened security measures, police escorts, curfews on local establishments and even a proposed drinking ban on the day of the game. It was clear that the Italian authorities would not be messing about for our visit!

So now you’ve had a little background, what actually went down in Firenze? Here’s day one!

I made a swift getaway from Pisa on Wednesday morning and was soon arriving in to Firenze. My first job was to find my hostel but luckily I’d been given directions.. “let’s have a read”.. Step one: Find the Burger King opposite the train station!
Here I was in a city famed for its culture, a country famed for its food and what am I doing? Looking for a bloody Burger King! I didn’t come to Italy for this! At least things could only get better from there, right?

My directions did at the very least take me where I wanted to go (my hostel, not Burger King!). I was soon checking in with the most wonderful host imaginable and dropping off my things in anticipation of exploring more of the city!
My host was brilliant and gave me so many recommendations for food, drinks, gelato and things to do. With that in mind I went off in search of lunch to a nearby place that supposedly had good food and good beers – a winning combination!

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Mostodolce pub/restaurant in Firenze

This bar was beautifully decorated, the bar staff were friendly and I ended up enjoying my first pizza in Firenze alongside a beer. Following lunch I went off to find the “must see” of the city – Firenze’s famous Duomo (cathedral) and it’s famous with good reason. I’d seen photos of it online but photos don’t really do justice as to how impressive it is. The building is absolutely stunning and you could spend a lifetime admiring it. I was in complete awe of it!
I could only imagine how impressive it looks on the inside!

I should have left it to the imagination! The exterior wows you but inside it’s rather underwhelming – it isn’t anything special, Pisa’s Duomo was better. I felt so disappointed by it – if you have no interest in climbing the 463 steps to the top I wouldn’t recommend going in at all! Just keep admiring it from the outside!
If you do decide to climb the Duomo you are rewarded with great views overlooking the city once you’re at the top so it’s worth it in the end.

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View at the top of the Duomo!

After I’d climbed back down I set off to explore a little more of the city and familiarise myself with where things were. As I walked around I knew I was going to love Firenze. It was full of charm and character plus had a number of stunning pieces of architecture, Firenze won me over very quickly.

Firenze has spectacular squares that are perfect for people-watching but simultaneously is home to narrow little streets that are perfect for getting lost in and exploring all the intricacies that the city has to show off.

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Having seen a little of the city I made plans to meet up with a friend (Daniel) who’d flown in to Italy today and was going to be imminently arriving in to Firenze after a brief exploration of Pisa himself.
We went and found some food somewhere and then our attention turned to grabbing some drinks for the evening and potentially catching that night’s European football. We had a beer at bar number one but there was no sign of them showing any football so we moved on to bar number 2.

We found an Irish bar down one of the narrow side streets and unsurprisingly weren’t the only ones who’d had the same idea – the bar was full of Spurs fans creating a bit of an atmosphere before our big game tomorrow (Thursday). There was definitely a bit of a buzz in the air which was helped by the fact that they were showing the Arsenal game.

Whilst the bar was predominantly taken over by Spurs there were a few exceptions. I vividly remember being stood in the vicinity of a couple of Americans in our limited standing space who were curious who we were supporting, making the assumption we’d be cheering on our fellow Englishmen! The suggestion was quickly ridiculed – “don’t be daft”.

If they’d had any doubts about where our loyalties lied it didn’t take them long for them to realise we were all Monaco supporters for one night only. Former Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov was playing for Monaco and he’d left Spurs on rather sour terms so wasn’t too popular at the time. However all was forgiven as he smashed home against Arsenal and sent the pub into bedlam – a huge roar followed as we basked in Arsenal’s misery. It left our fans in high spirits and created a great atmosphere following the result.

Things wound down pretty soon after the game though. There had been rumours of a midnight curfew being imposed on all of the bars and restaurants in the city and it looked as if there might just be some substance to it – the bar was closing for the night and we were swiftly being moved on. It was probably for the best, I was a little drunk anyway.

Me and Daniel left and it took me 2-3 minutes to realise I was needlessly going in the same direction, I didn’t want to be following Daniel because I was staying elsewhere! The consequence to that was that I took a rather “scenic route” back to my hotel. A lot of the narrow streets all look the same, particularly after dark, and I obviously took a wrong turn at some point. Soon enough I was stumbling upon Firenze’s river – which happened to be my first sight of it so I was clueless as to where I now was!

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First glimpse of the river!

I tried retracing my steps which wasn’t as successful as I would have liked but then I spotted that HUGE Duomo once again. If you can find the Duomo you can find anything in Firenze and it got me back on track and tucked up in to bed pretty soon after.

Day one in Firenze had been a success in my mind but I wasn’t done just yet! Stay tuned to hear more!

All the best!

Jason