The Florence train station, 1994: a remeniscence - Vuelta a Iberia - CycleBlaze

October 8, 2019

The Florence train station, 1994: a remeniscence

In the guestbook (Are you aware that the new comment box on the title page of the journal is a link to the journal’s guestbook?  It’s a new, welcome addition to the website.) , Greg Garceau expressed his and the Feeshko’s regrets that we didn’t in the end have to sleep in Toro’s Plaza Mayor after locking ourselves out of our hotel.   He thought it would have made for a better story that way.

We’re sorry to have disappointed our good friends, but we offer up this substitute for their entertainment - the one night in our travels when we really did end up sleeping on the streets.   Be forewarned, it’s a long story.

This incident occurred over 25 years ago, in the autumn of 1994, on our second bicycle tour of Europe.  For a variety of reasons I’ve never published a journal of this tour, but the lead up to this incident requires a bit of background.  The tour was unique for us in that we traveled with a pair of friends, Laurie and Alan, and in an unusual way.  It was a peculiar arrangement: Rachael and I traveled by bicycle, our friends traveled by a variety of motorized means (train, bus, taxi, rental car), and we met up at points along the way after traveling independently for days at a time.  For health reasons (Alan was a victim of advanced MS) bicycling was not an option for our friends, but we encouraged this arrangement to help nudge them into their first and only overseas tour.

The tour began in Vienna and ended in Nice, although our bicycling experience effectively ended in Venice.  Along the way, we separated and then reunited days later in Budapest, Graz, Vienna, Florence, and finally in Nice.  On the day of the incident, we were in Venice and planning to depart together by train for Florence.

Because travel even by train was a bit of a challenge for our friends, we decided to travel separately.  Alan and Laurie took the express train, and Rachael decided to accompany them to help out.  Bicycles were not permitted on this train, so I agreed to travel separately with both bicycles, and meet them in the afternoon in Florence at the train station.  In the meantime, since they would arrive hours earlier, they would procure lodging for our stay there.

As a contextual reminder, this was travel in the dark ages - none of us carried a phone or other electronic device.  We went on faith that we would just meet up when my train was due to arrive.

This turned out to be an unwise plan.  As it happens, it was not acceptable  for one person to ride an Italian train with two bicycles.  I did make it successfully to Bologna, where a transfer was required; got off with the bikes, had lunch, and then boarded the next train.  This train’s conductor though became very agitated when he realized there was only one of me but two bicycles.  It took awhile for me to understand the situation because neither of us spoke the other’s language, but the end result  was that I, along with both bicycles, was ejected at the next train station, perhaps 20 miles north of Florence. 

With no good options, I found the best spot I could to lock the bikes up, with the plan that I would return on the next day with Rachael to retrieve them, assuming they were still there.  I then caught the next train to Florence, arriving several hours late - hoping they would still be there waiting for me, but excited to tell them of my adventure.  I love having a good story to share, even at my own expense.

They were there when I arrived, but they weren’t so impressed with my story because theirs was better.  They were also late in arriving in Florence, because for some reason they failed to get off when they reached their stop - perhaps they didn’t realize which stop to get off at, but Rachael doesn’t recall for sure now.   

Because their’s was an express, it didn’t make many stops.  The next and final one was in Rome, roughly 150 miles to the south and 90 minutes away by express train.  Since they weren’t ticketed for Rome, they no longer had seats so Rachael stood the entire way.  Once there, they of course caught the next train north, finally arriving in Florence not long before I did.  Good story!

It gets better.  For some reason, Florence was 100% booked up.  It’s a Saturday night, and there’s some sort of major convention in town that has flooded the lodging capacity.  Alan, a very resourceful man, made every effort to find us lodging, even to the extent of calling someone he knew to do some phone research for us.  No luck.   He did find one spot, with room for either one or two men only, which we of course declined.  By early evening, it was apparent that the four of us would be spending the evening in the Florence train station.

We had plenty of company in our misfortune.  There must have been at least fifty other stranded travelers sprawled out on benches and corners of the floor throughout the station, doing their best to get a bit of sleep.

At sometime around eleven, the train station closed for the night.  Everyone was ejected, and left to find a spot outside somewhere on the steps, pavement or grass.  Uncomfortable, but at least it was a fair night, the moon was out, and it was comfortably warm.

I slept reasonably well actually, in short spurts.  Every time I woke up and looked around though, Laurie was always bolt awake, sitting vigil.  A somewhat timid person, she was ever alert for threats to our persons or belongings from passers-by.  I’m not sure she slept at all that night.  It definitely made for a long night, but at least we could measure our progress by looking up at the tall clock tower above us.

Sometime after 2 AM, I look up groggily at the clock tower and realize it has regressed an hour.  It’s early Sunday morning now, in late September.  Daylight Savings Time has just gone off, and we have an extra hour to our long, sleepless night.

At about 5 AM, the sprinklers activate, forcing us and many others to hastily relocate ourselves and our belongings.

After a few more sleepless hours, the city finally comes to life again.  We get breakfast, and then Rachael and Laurie make the rounds and find us a room for the next few nights.  As soon as we’re checked in and leave off our luggage, Rachael and I hop a northbound train to pick up our bikes.  Fortunately they’re still there, and we proceed to bike south to Florence; both quite exhausted, with Rachael held back by a freshly acquired significant cold.

There you go, Greg and Feeshko.  Sorry there aren’t any photos - I’ve got a few, but they’re locked away in storage back home.  No video either - GoPro wouldn’t be invented for another two decades yet.  Just our aging memories to draw on.

Oh, wait.  I’m a liar.  I found exactly one photo from this tour, but not from this day.  Might as well include it.

Veszprém, Hungary, September 1994.
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Jacquie GaudetI had a similar experience, but if yours scores a 10, mine would be a 7. Same setup: arrived in Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India) on a day all hotels were booked due to a convention or something. I spent the night of my 28th birthday on the floor of the train station. Luckily for me, though, this was India so I was in the ladies' waiting room along with several others and nobody was required to leave.
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8 months ago
Scott AndersonTo Jacquie GaudetThat’s so lucky! I don’t think I’ve ever had a birthday as memorable.
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8 months ago
Jen GrumbyThat's quite a day to get separated from two bikes and to have to spend a night without shelter. At least you were in good company.

I think I spent a night on the lawn outside of some city building in a small town in Uruguay .. the details escape me .. so many years ago!
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8 months ago
Gregory GarceauWow. We sure didn't expect to get the story so quickly. It was a good one though, and I appreciate your taking the time to write it when I'm sure you could have been writing something about your current tour instead.
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8 months ago