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Day 10 - May 8, 2005 - Florence, Italy

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For the first time in a few days, I was able to sleep in until 8:30.  This made minimal difference, however, since my 4:00 am retirement the previous night was also a first.  I had breakfast and then left for the city at 9:30.
 
For at least a day leading up to our free day in Florence, Kent had been organizing an appealing itinerary.  I was unofficially responsible for this in London and Paris, so I was eager to take advantage of this lack of responsibility for once (not that I minded in the previous cities, mind you).  Kent's itinerary included more than everything I had an interest in, so it was a no-brainer for me to tag along with him.
 
Our first stop, which was with the entire group, was a leather demonstration.  Some of us had no interest in this and I perceived it to be more of a sales pitch than an educational demonstration.  We eventually just left the small, stuffy room and met up in the alley.  The woman giving the demonstration had no reaction to our early departure.
 
Kent followed me out and he proceeded to consult his map.  I again took the opportunity to enjoy the mental break for myself.  Kent's group consisted of James, Vince, Myungsoo, Kim, Yvonne, Freddy, Olivia and myself.  We first made our way past the 800 year old Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.  Ultimately though, we followed Kent to the Uffizi Gallery.  However, the queue stretched 3/4 of the way around the "U" shaped museum.  Also, it wasn't even open yet.  We decided to save this for a later part of the day and we made our way towards the Academia.

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THE PALAZZO VECCHIO

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THE ARNO RIVER

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RANDOM FLORENCE

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A FLORENTINE STREET

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THE FOUNTAIN OF NEPTUNE

The Academia is most famous for Michelangelo's Statue of David.  From what I read previous to the trip, the Academia seemed to be predominately sculpture oriented.  As previously stated, I'm not big on sculpture.  While I planned on visiting the Academia, my expectations fell comparatively short to certain other attractions.  I must admit though, that the David is incredible.  Sure, it's easy to say that, given its influential and historical significance.  But, for me, it completely redefined the potential of sculpture.  Already, at 10:30 am, my day in Florence was made.  We continued through several different corridors, which donned mostly sculptures.  It was an amazing collection and, for the first time I can remember, I was getting a notable amount of satisfaction solely from sculptures.  I remember several of them being so small though.  After hundreds of years, erosions have a significantly more adverse effect on the smaller sculptors.  It's a shame they cannot be preserved to more of an extent.

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IN LINE AT THE ACADEMIA

Next on Kent's game plan was the Duomo.  The exterior of the Duomo is very aesthetically unique.  The colors alone put it in its own category.  Sadly, the interior didn't come close to its outdoor ornateness.  While fairly large, it was rather empty inside.  I just had a sense that something was missing and it fell short to most other famous cathedrals that I had seen, in my opinion at least.  Next, there was a staircase leading to the basement.  There was a long, but swiftly moving line leading downstairs.  We became intrigued and waited.  After what was probably only about ten minutes, we discovered the grave of the guy who designed the Duomo, off to the side of a disappointing gift shop.  Yes, it was indeed a waste of ten minutes.  I remember thinking that it would be slightly both clashing and unnerving to work a cash register all day, next to a grave a couple centuries old.

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THE DUOMO'S CAMPANILE

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DUOMO EXTERIOR

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DUOMO FACADE

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DUOMO INTERIOR

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TAKING A REST IN THE DUOMO

After the Duomo, we headed towards a shopping area, which seemed to be an exact duplicate of the shopping area in Pisa.  It had tons of small stands which all seemed to be selling the same useless souvenirs.  I bought myself my first (and what would be my only) souvenir for the trip.  It was a tee shirt donning The Underground symbol, with Firenze (the Italian translation of Florence) listed as the stop.  I thought it was a clever idea for a shirt, so I proceeded to negotiate a decent price for myself.

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WALKING ALONG THE ARNO

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A VIEW OF THE PONTE VECCHIO

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CROWD SHOT

My money saved, however, was countered by what happened next.  Let's just say some illegal street gambling ensued and it was my personal low point of the entire trip.  I wasn't really absent minded as to what was happening, so I don't know if I was scammed, at least by definition.  But I do concede that I was outsmarted.  My lack of elaboration represents my bitterness and regret of the whole episode.  It was more of a psychological factor than the monetary loss that got to me.  Nevertheless, it ultimately produced a lifelong memory for me and I can sit back and laugh at it now.
 
After my defeat, it was definitely time for lunch.  We tried to escape the touristy shopping area and we found a pizzeria.  The pizza was again not the best, but it was still enjoyable.  I remember a hallway leading to the bathroom with no ceiling.  While looking up, the sky was visible; seems like an unnecessary inconvenience when raining.  After my pizza, I remember feeling slightly depressed from my recent escapade with the street gambler.  Everyone promised they would keep it within our sub-group and not spill the beans to everyone else.  While that definitely helped, it still took me a couple hours to get over it.
 
After our lunch, we went back to the Uffizi.  The queue was only about half way around the U-shape this time, as opposed to 3/4 of the way around that morning.  After we entered the queue, James decided to go find an Internet cafe.  He came back in about an hour, expecting us to be inside at that point.  However, we were only about half way through the line.  We moved about ten feet every 20 minutes.  It was excruciating.  I think he briefly considered joining us, but he ultimately chose to take the early bus back to the campsite.  Later that night, there was an optional Tuscan style dinner and a dance at a place that went by the name of something like "Discoteque."  I opted out of the dinner, in the hopes that I could find something better, and at a better price, on my own.  For anyone that knows me, I don't have to elaborate why I skipped the Discoteque option.  Rex, who loved disco and dancing, admitted that this place was extremely cheesy.  It would've easily been the worst part of the trip for me.  Anyway, the early bus was for everyone who wanted to dress up for the Discoteque.  Even though James wasn't partaking, he planned on taking the bus anyway, I think just to relax for a bit.
 
It ended up taking over two hours to get into the Uffizi.  I couldn't imagine how long it would've took if we waiting in the queue that morning, which stretched 3/4 of the way around the "U" shape.  Anyway, the gallery was huge.  It was comprised mostly of paintings from the Renaissance.  The most memorable, for me, were the works of Da Vinci and Botticelli.  The sheer size of Botticelli's work was very impressive.  Because we were all focusing on different parts of the gallery, we were eventually all separated. 
 
At one point, there was a German or a Dutch kid in there.  He was whistling a riff from the German band Rammstein.  I immediately recognized it and, while assuming he didn't speak English, I just said "Rammstein" to him.  My assumption was correct.  He didn't speak English.  He did, however, smile back.  I remember thinking how strange it was that we were both thinking the same thing, and we both knew we were thinking the same thing, but we didn't even speak the same language. 
 
At the end of the gallery, there was a post office, something I had been in search of for a couple days.  I bought some stamps to finally mail my mom's perfume home.  As an unrelated note, my knee was feeling a lot better that day in Florence.  This was a huge relief, as I was really starting to consider to seek some medical attention.

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OUTSIDE THE UFFIZI

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THE UFFIZI

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WAITING OUTSIDE THE UFFIZI

We were scheduled at I think 6:00 pm to meet at what was a park at the top of a hill for our group picture overlooking the city.  We did, however, have some spare time to kill, so we next went to the Pitti Palace.  I don't really know what it was or what was in it, but I think there was some kind of Italian military significance.  I only went because it was part of Kent's itinerary.  The entrance fee was extremely high, so we opted to not go inside.  Something I noticed on the palace was the Italian flag on the top.  I then realized that, compared to the native flags in France and the UK, there were virtually no Italian flags so far in Italy.

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THE PITTI PALACE

Finally, it was time to make our way to the spot for our group photo.  We paid attention to some of the restaurants on the way, since it seemed that no one from my group was partaking in the optional Tuscan dinner.  There were a few really nice choices that we made mental notes of, all of which were a fraction of the price that Contiki was offering.  We arrived at the top of the hill and it was an incredible view of the city.  It was definitely an excellent location for our group photo.  Despite still being early, there was no one else from our tour.  We began to think that we were in the wrong place.  It seemed that at least one other person from our tour should have been there by then.  We became increasingly more concerned that we would miss both the photo and, more importantly, the directions to where we would get the coach back to the campsite at the end of the night.  Finally, however, the group all showed up at once with the photographer.  We spent probably longer than we should have organizing ourselves for the photo.  The photos were taken and we boarded the coach to the location of the optional Tuscan dinner, even though we weren't joining the group.

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ANOTHER STREET SHOT

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AND ANOTHER

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MORE RANDOM FLORENCE

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GREAT VIEW

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GROUP SHOT

On the way to the restaurant, Rex announced that she had chosen Vince's submission as the cheesiest photo taken in Pisa.  He won a bottle of wine.  I congratulated Vince and I thought it was a good choice, but I still thought mine was better.  Then, out of nowhere, Rex announced that I was an honorary winner for my submission, The Leaning Bin of Pisa.  She elaborated that it didn't precisely follow the rules because it was not a photo of the Leaning Tower itself.  The honorary prize, which was also a bottle of wine, was given due to the creativity.  Despite not being a fan of any wine, I thanked her, accepted the prize, and fully planned on putting it to use that night.  Hey, free alcohol on a budget tour is free alcohol, no matter what it tastes like.
 
We arrived at the restaurant for those who chose the optional dinner.  Those who opted to find something on their own were Vince, James, Myungsoo, Neil, Kent, Kim, Yvonne, Freddy, Olivia, and myself.  We learned that we only had 90 minutes to find a restaurant, eat, and get back to the meeting spot for the coach to go back to the campsite.  This meant that the places we took note of on the way to the group photo weren't an option.  We quickly searched the nearby restaurants.  Due to time limitations, I wanted to settle for a place that was right next to where the Contiki dinner was being held.  The others were more motivated to find a better spot though.  However, due to certain issues including prices, cover charges and the availability of seating, we ultimately chose the one I wanted anyway.  After displaying our interest, the hostess out front began to walk us next door, to the place where the rest of the group was.  Since we opted to not eat with them, it would've been too awkward to eat right next to them.  We immediately told the woman that we wanted to eat at the other place, the door in which she was initially standing in front.  She seemed as if she thought our request was rather bizarre, which made little sense to us.  Nevertheless, she brought us in the door we wanted and sat us at a large table.  We almost immediately realized it was the same exact place that Contiki took everyone for the optional Tuscan dinner, just in a different room.  We were laughing about what just happened before we even got our menus.  We laughed at this throughout the rest of the entire trip.  I believe, however, that we kept it within the people that made up our sub-group.

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AT OUR TUSCAN DINNER

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MY TWO ENTREES... UTTERLY DELICIOUS

I had been anticipating the gluttony on this trip, specifically in Italy.  For days prior, I planned on eating like an animal at this dinner.  So I did just that.  I ordered two entrees.  The first was steak.  While in Florence, steak is a must.  It was incredible; maybe the best steak I ever had.  The second entree I chose was spaghetti in a seafood sauce.  Like the time in France, I must once again credit James to successfully ordering food in yet another language for me.  His general knowledge of European languages is admirable.  Another side note was the way Myungsoo pronounced the word, "spaghetti."  English wasn't his primary language, and he was a little shaky with it.  He would always accent the first syllable (spa) of "spaghetti," making it difficult to decipher the word.  Think of the chaos: a Korean trying to order food in English to a waitress who spoke Italian.  By the way, I give utmost credit to Myungsoo for merely being on that trip.  I couldn't imagine being in that position with that kind of a language barrier.
 
I think my total price was €20.  This included both entrees, salad, and virtually unlimited soda.  The Contiki set price was €27, and they were eating in the same restaurant, in the next room over.  They only got one entree.  We sat and bragged to ourselves about our decision to find something on our own.  After dinner, we met the group outside of "our" restaurant.  They asked how we made out, and we couldn't help but smile.  We hinted that we ate in the same restaurant as them, but I don't think they ever actually realized it.  We boarded the coach to go back to the campsite and those who were going went to the Discoteque.  Did I mention how much I pitied them?
 
After arriving at the campsite, I went to reception to finally get a phone card and call home.  It was mothers day, so it ended up being a good thing that reception was closed the night before.  I almost went on the Internet, but the price wasn't worth it for me.
 
That night was shaping up to be a replica of the previous night.  James explained that he wasn't feeling well.  In the event that James went to sleep early, I went back to my cabin and illegally plugged in the fridge and stocked some drinks into it.  Back at James' cabin, I started drinking the wine that Rex gave me.  It was horrible but, again, it was free.  After finishing that, James had already quit drinking and was on the verge of going to sleep.  He offered to me the rest of his bourbon.  I accepted and worked on that for a while.  We tried to start some Circle of Kings, but it never really organized. 
 
At one point, I went back to my cabin for some reason and began chatting with Matt and Steve.  They went to the Discoteque that night.  They said it was pretty bad and it made me more confident in my decision of skipping it.  We then realized that we had no idea what time the coach was leaving the following morning.  I volunteered to trek to the top of the hill (I hated that hill) and check out the day sheet.  By the way, at each campsite, a day sheet was posted somewhere, which included what time we were doing everything.  Luckily, on the way towards the hill, I saw Rex and simply asked her what time and I avoided the hill.
 
After a short chat with Rex about the Discoteque, I met Tegan, from Australia, who was on the Escapade tour.  In less than two minutes of conversation, she invited me to their party after I told her most of my friends were sleeping at that point.  After the success of the last party where I didn't know anyone (Paris), how could I resist? 
 
The party consisted of about ten people from Tegan's tour.  Similar to what would be an average slice of my tour, the ten people consisted of all Australians and Canadians.  The only names I remembered were Jason and James.  I think it was probably near the beginning of their tour, because they were all very interested in what I had to say about my tour.  I got the feeling that I was the first Contiki person aside from their group that they talked to.  They made me feel very welcome and comfortable.
 
At one point, a heavy set Canadian guy (either Jason or James) from the group offered me a shot of something.  I asked what it was and he jokingly pressured me into taking the shot.  I did and it was the vilest substance I ever tasted.  I again asked what it was and he said it was Absinthe.  He had recently been in Prague and still had half a bottle left.  I chuckled and thanked him for the shot, and explained that it was my first time trying Absinthe.  He gave me two more shots.  No, I didn't hallucinate from it, but it definitely increased the ratio of alcohol to blood in me.
 
The conversation, like so many times prior, shifted to politics and ultimately American politics.  I stated that I voted for Kerry and my state (New Jersey) was a blue state.  I received a round of applause.  Aside from personal opinion, I was really glad on this trip that I wasn't a republican, as it didn't seem like it would be too well received abroad.  We figured out that our tours would meet again in Rome.  I stayed for about an hour and said good-bye until Rome.
 
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole trip occurred next.  I left this party consisting of about ten people from the Escapade tour.  As hard as I apply my mind, I remember going directly to my cabin from theirs.  I would've put money on it in the streets of Florence.  However, when I got back to my cabin, those ten people were in my cabin, including Tegan and the big guy who gave me Absinthe.  I was beside myself trying to figure out how their whole group got there before me.  Maybe the Absinthe was having some sort of a hallucinogenic effect after all.  I can't explain it to this day.
 
In addition to the ten people from the Escapade tour were Neil, Matt, Steve, Michelle and myself.  I informed Neil and Michelle that I would be sleeping in my room that night.  I then talked to Tegan for a while.  Neither of us could remember each other's name for the life of us.  I initially thought this was another effect of the Absinthe, but it would prove to be the case in future cities on the tour as well.
 
Our new friends from the Escapade tour eventually left.  However, Tegan stayed and chatted with me, Matt, Neil and Steve for a bit.  One by one, everyone passed out until Tegan and I were the last one's left.  We finally made it to bed at 3:00 am.

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MICHELLE, MATT, TEGAN AND ME IN OUR CABIN

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SOME RANDOM DUDE FROM TEGAN'S TOUR