The Italian Job – Day 6

When plans go awry …

I could, and I will, tell you about the beauty of Siena (above) and San Gimignano (below) and the stunningly spectacular Tuscan countryside, about how we travelled to Siena, and then to San Gimignano before returning to a Florence bathed in the evening sunshine, but that would be to miss today’s story, and the true essence of travel.

Whilst I may joke that the best time to see Florence (or any major European attraction) was 30 years ago, travelling today is so much easier than years gone by. Last night, we were able to check the train times for today’s trip to Siena from the comfort of our apartment and book and pay for the tickets in a moment using an app on our phones. But perhaps this has led to a little complacency as we arrived at Siena train station without a thought of what to do, or how to get to the historic centre. Our first mistake of the day. Now, Siena is stunningly beautiful, very much a Florence with fewer (but still plenty) of tourists. But the info, and infrastructure connecting train and bus services, was somewhat limited. We struggled to find our way into the centre (we were not the only ones, we ended up teaming with a Spanish couple who spoke no English or Italian – I was pleased to get a chance to practice my Spanish on Italian soil) and then, when we wanted to return by bus to the train station it was again not straight forward. The lesson for the day – do your research, its not hard, but can save a lot of angst (and wasted time.)

But that is not the end of the tale.

We had always planned to then catch the train from Siena to Poggibonsi, before getting the bus to San Gimignano, then getting the bus back to Poggibonsi and the train “home” to Florence. Having (eventually) found our way back to Siena station, the trip to Poggibonsi was quick, cheap and uneventful. We got off the train, and headed to the front of the station to find the bus stop (having learnt from my error in the morning, I took some time on the train to confirm the location of the bus stop). However, finding the bus stop, it became apparent that the next bus to San Gimignano was not for about three hours. At the bus stop, we found two fellow travellers also waiting for a bus, and also arriving at the same conclusion that it would be pointless to wait.

We agreed to share a taxi into San Gimignano, I found some numbers, made some calls, and Stefano, our taxi driver, would be with us in 30 minutes. Whilst we waited, we chatted. One of our fellow travellers was from Amsterdam, the other, Haron, from Kurdistan (although they were friends, and travelling together.) We chatted about ourselves, our travels and our homes. I quizzed Haron a little about Kurdistan, of where he was rightly proud, and then explained that many years ago I had been in the RAF and part of a multi-national force based at Incirlik airbase, Turkey, enforcing a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq to protect the Kurds who were being persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his regime (this would be in the early 1990s). Haron became a little emotional, and told me how his father had been a freedom fighter for the Kurds and had told him off the help that the no-fly zone had provided, and that he (Haron) now lived in an autonomous and safe very region of Kurdistan in nothern Iraq. I was a very small cog in a big machine, and I’m not really sure I did very much, but it is gratifying to know that, over 30 years on, what we did did make a difference, and it was genuinely heart-warming to meet someone who we may have helped.

And that chance encounter would not have happened if our plans hadn’t gone awry. Planning is good, but flexibility – especially when travelling – is better, and travelling so much more enriching when you abandon the script, meet new people, and go with the flow.

We bumped into Haron and his travelling companion on the bus back to Poggibonsi, and again on the train back to Florence. They are both accomplished artists and listening to Haron talk about some of the works he had seen in Florence was inspiring and energising – the other three of us were all “of an age” and from northern Europe – it is very easy to become blase about what we see: “oh, look, another church, another renaissance painting”, but Haron’s enthusiasm re-lit a spark in all of of us.

Yes, Siena, and Gimingano and the Tuscan countryside are all beautiful, but the most beautiful thing for me today was meeting a son of Kurdistan, a far away people I was sent to protect what seems a life time ago.