Italy Part 2: Rome, Tropea & the (long) journey home


We’ve been using an Interrail One country pass for our train travel in Italy and it works out well if you get the slow regional trains but if you want to get a fast train you generally have to pay a 10 Euro reservation fee.  I considered getting the 3 hour train from Florence to Rome but with Bear Cub’s increasing frustration of travelling and cities and my increasing intolerance of his whingeing I decided the 20 Euros for us both was well worth it.  We arrived in Rome after just an hour and a half. Our new Air BnB host had advised us to get a taxi but I wanted to save money and add to the adventure so we opted for getting the Metro as it seemed pretty straight forward.  It was – just 10 minutes ride away from the main train station but then we had to find the apartment which was apparently a 5 minute walk away!  Now if there is one thing I have hated on this trip it is unclear instructions.  We were told to come out of the Metro station and the road we needed was ‘behind’ the station.  However, of course, this depended on which of the 4 exits you came out of at the station as to where ‘behind’ the station was!! It was so hot – about 34 degrees – and the back pack was so heavy.  We asked two different people, both of which either didn’t understand me and just pretended to know what I meant or simply didn’t know either.  Finally we found the right road – which really was almost next to the station.  It was then up hill. By the time we made it to the apartment I was fit to collapse and knew I’d hurt my back.

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Once I’d recovered our host, a lovely older lady who works as a scriptwriter showed us around the apartment and made me a wonderful strong, Italian coffee which helped to revive me.  The apartment was old and spacious and we had our own balcony from our room.  Our host, Angiola, was a very interesting lady and I told me all about how she’d been a successful scriptwriter but lost all her money after a bad business deal with a dodgy business partner.  She still writes but her style is quirky, almost weird storylines and she says the Italian market does not always ‘get it’.  She described to me a comedy she’d written about a woman in search of a ‘special kind of orgasm’.  Once the woman found the guy who could do this, she married him but found she was only in love with the other guy!! You meet the most interesting people on Air BnB stays!!!

Angiola’s place was fantastically located to access all the sights of Rome by the well-connected Metro (which really was just 5 mins walk away) and Angiola had a wealth of knowledge of the area and acted as a great tour guide.  After some lunch we caught the ten minute Metro ride to the Colosseum.  It really is quite an awesome sight as you emerge from the modern metro station and immediately you’re faced with a world-famous ancient relic!   The sun was so hot so it was difficult to do anything except amble along at a snail’s place.  We visited the Roman Forum (Roma Forma) and the Palatine Hill (Palace of the Roman Emperors).  Bear Cub wanted to see a real ‘Roman’ – I think he meant Roman soldier – and we happened to see a guy dressed up within minutes of arriving at the Colosseum.  I excitedly pointed him out to Bear Cub only to have him reply, ‘He’s not real mum, he’s a fake!’ When I asked him how he knew he simply replied, ‘It’s obvious! He just took his helmet off and Roman soldiers don’t have hairstyles like that!’

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The heat really zapped our energy so we headed for the nearest restaurant and shared a lovely mushroom pasta dish.  We have saved a lot of money by buying just one meal to share when we have had to eat out.  This has saved Bear cub wasting food and helped me to lose some weight!!  Exhausted we headed back to the apartment in Libia.  Angiola had warned me that they had a bit of a mosquito problem and without air conditioning it was impossible to have the windows closed at night.  I always get totally munched by mosquitos so was grateful when she offered one of those spiral things that you burn to keep mozzies at bay – how do they actually work?! Anyway in the morning I had just 2 bites and I think they had been acquired earlier in the day so it seemed to do the trick.

Angiola was great at making suggestions that would entertain and occupy Bear Cub as well as interest me and so she recommended a day out at Ostia Antica.  It was roughly a 40 minute train ride away and was a perfect balance of history (some really well-preserved remains of an ancient town) and space for Bear Cub to run around and explore.  You needed little imagination to pretend you back in the past walking in the ancient town when it was alive and vibrant and the walls provided a fun maze for Bear cub to explore and climb and let off steam.  One of both of our favourite features were the wonderfully preserved mosaics in the gym and bathing area of the palace and the amphitheatre.

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We were only a few stops away from the beach area so after we’d exhausted Ostia Antica and ourselves we headed there to chill out a bit for the afternoon.  It wasn’t a very nice beach to be honest, compared to others we’d been to, but Bear cub, now a fully fledged water-baby and lover of the sea, still donned his swimming trunks and went for a dip.  we headed home late afternoon stopping off at the supermarket to buy some food for dinner and lunches the next couple of days to keep our costs down.

We had three nights in Rome as I was aware we’d been moving around a lot and also there was a lot to see.  For our final day I planned a schedule specifically for bear cub as he was really beginning to miss kid-company and his frustration was affecting his behaviour – badly!  So we headed for Rome’s equivalent of Genova’s ‘Kid city’ – Explora.  Explora is aimed at under-12’s and is a space for them to create, explore, play and learn.  Although relatively small it had a lot packed in including water play, a real fire engine, a mini shop, bank, garage and vegetable patch and an area for creative workshops.  Bear cub took part in one of the workshops where the children had the chance to make their own recycled paper and then decorate it and turn it into an instrument – some castanets.  Although the workshop was in Italian, Bear Cub thoroughly enjoyed it and the guy running it did his best to speak English every now and then to him to make sure he understood what to do.  Time at Explora was limited to just 1 hour 45 minutes and could have done with being a little longer but we managed to fit a lot in to the time and finished with a nice lunch in their very reasonably priced cafe.

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We then went to explore around the Flamina area but really it was too hot to walk around much and another meltdown was imminent from Bear Cub (or maybe me it was hard to tell by this point!)  I have to say at this point on our travels it was difficult to know whether Bear Cub really was being a little s**t or whether I was being a prize b***h! It had been a long time away from home for him.  He was missing home, his friends and his routine.  We’d had a lot of intense time together just the two of us and perhaps it was a little too long for him.  Am I being a good parent by taking him on this trip or a selfish and irresponsible one?  I flit between the two but generally feel it has been a positive and important experience for both of us.  I’m not sure how much of the details of the trip he will remember in time but I do hope it will at least give him an open mind and sense of adventure for life!

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Anyway, Bear Cub was hot and tired so we took a ride on the Land train around a lovely park we discovered an hopped off at the nearest play park.  This seemed to calm things down a lot. Until it rained and we missed the land train back! :-/

We eventually caught the next land train (25 minutes later) and by chance met a really interesting lady and her daughter.  I have loved on this trip how in chance meetings you can have such interesting conversations with interesting people of all walks of life.  I couldn’t help but notice the lady as she was alone with her daughter, like me and Bear Cub and she also spoke English – she was Canadian.  As is often the case, our children got chatting first – Bear Cub will talk to anyone and is often a great ice-breaker for me as I’m much more shy at meeting new people than he is.  We got into a conversation and it emerged that the lady was also a single mother (separated from her Egyptian husband) but still living in Egypt.  She had left Egypt on the very day all the violence broke out there and had extended her stay in Italy to try avoiding returning while the unrest was at its height.  The great thing about travelling and meeting other people with different lifestyles and circumstances is that it puts into perspective your own experience.  This lady told me how as a mother in Egypt without a job and separated from her husband she had virtually no parental rights.  She wanted to leave Egypt but was not allowed without her husband’s permission.  He had parental responsibility due to her circumstances and with no family of her own in Egypt it had been a long and difficult time for her.  She told me how it is frowned upon in Egypt to be divorced and a colleague of hers at the University she works at continued to wear her wedding ring for over a year after her divorce to avoid criticism and frowns but also the very pressing and unwanted advances from Egyptian men!  Compared to this lady my own ‘rough’ journey seemed like nothing.  She told me of an online community she is starting up called ‘SOS – Start Over Sister’ and I in turn gave her the details of More than a Mum.  It is empowering to know there are some amazing, strong, single-mums all over the world doing great things in small ways and inspiring their children!

With 3 nights in Rome we felt like we adequately ‘did’ Rome and were very ready for our final stop in Italy and indeed final stop of our travels – some relaxing beach time in the beautiful, coastal city of Tropea in Calabria.

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Even with fast trains, it took almost 6 hours to reach Tropea. Just over 5 from Rome to Lamezia Terme Centrale and another 50 minutes from there to Tropea.  Bear Cub was great for most of the journey and was occupied doing a puzzle I’d bought him at the Explora museum and his Usbourne Travel Activity book for Little children which I really cannot recommend highly enough!   However the last couple of hours he was truly awful.  Again the lines began to blur between whether it was my tiredness and bad mood fuelling his behaviour or vice versa but I was close to the edge by time we arrived and had the usual trouble of locating the hotel which was apparently 500 metres from the train station.  Everywhere felt much further in the heat of the sun with a whingeing 4-year-old and a back pack that is heavier than him on your back! However, we finally found it and checked in.  The hotel was 3 star and again although basic it was clean and very reasonably priced for high season and in a great location.  Once we rested and showered we ventured out for dinner and to explore and it was then that I realised what a beautiful place Tropea was.

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Our hotel was literally on the edge of the historic part of the town with its characterful and picturesque little streets and shops and restaurants.  Tropea is set high on a mountain with a sheer  drop to the beaches below.  The main road led straight down to a truly wonderful panoramic view of the beach below and the striking Chiesa Dell’Isola. Even at 7.30pm the sea was a vibrant turquoise blue and the sand smooth and golden.  I smiled.  I began to relax.  This was going to be a great way to end our travels.

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We were booked to stay in Tropea for 5 nights to really have a beach holiday as an end to all our hectic travelling to enjoy the sun, sea and sand, relax and have fun – and that is pretty much what we did.  Bear cub loves the beach and is constantly in the sea.  His confidence in water has grown rapidly and even when he had a little scare (and a big one for me) – when he went in too far without his arm bands when I was not at the water’s edge and i had to rush in and save him – it still didn’t put him off!  I however was put off swimming for a day after being stung by a jellyfish! I am really scared of jelly fish anyway and have never been stung before.  It was only a little one and not very bad at all really but it was quite a shock!

A couple of days we ate at the restaurants where you can always find a cheap pasta dish but many days we also opted for a cheap meal from the Pizza snack bars where you can get a giant slice and a drink for just 4 Euros.  During the day we would buy rolls and filings from the shop and make our own picnic lunch on the beach.  Our days were mostly spent on the beach, in the small play park near the train station and ambling around the little shops in the old town.  It was also nice to have the hotel room as a base for when Bear Cub got tired and he watched quite a few hours of Italian children’s TV and given how active we’ve been on this trip, I didn’t feel guilty for it at all!

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It’s been a very healthy trip for us both despite the amounts of pasta, bread and pizza we’ve consumed. With all the outdoor activity we must have been exercising more than I realised as I have never been so happy with my body – even in pre-baby days!! I’m sure within a few weeks of being back in London the comfort food and lack of exercise will change that but for now I look and feel the best I have in a long time – physically, spiritually and mentally!

On our last full day in Tropea there was still time for one more unexpected experience and adventure!  We decided to make the most of the beautiful beach.  We settled down for the day and a man with two little girls started to chat to me.  He was from Milan but had lived in many countries and spoke very good English.  When his wife joined us we all got chatting and they told me they had just finished renovating an apartment in the old town and invited me to come and have a look and a ‘cocktail’ that evening with Bear Cub so he could play with their two girls toys.  I have been known to be a bit naive when it comes to men and never really know someone has ‘designs’ until they actually make a move.  I was a little suspicious of this man’s friendliness and hospitality but figured seen as he was there with his children and wife he was just being kind and Bear Cub really enjoyed having children to play with.  When his very beautiful and sophisticated wife met us in the square to take us back to the apartment and we approached the gate to the property, I suddenly realised that these people were probably millionaires!  I have never seen such a stunning apartment – if you can call it that – it was huge! As soon as you walked in a massive open arch way revealed a direct view of the sea and the beach below the cliff.  ‘Milan Man’ as I’ll call him showed me around the place, which was on two floors, pointing out details such as the tiles he’d had imported from an ancient Church in Calabria and a vase that was bigger than Bear Cub and hand-made from Sicily.  He then pointed out one of the balcony’s and explained to me that he had something special in mind for this place – something that I will enjoy on my next visit to them when I will be their guest (!) – a mini swimming pool and jacuzzi! He said all of this in front of his ‘wife’ so I still wasn’t sure if they were just really friendly or if he was making a pass. Was this intelligent and very beautiful woman oblivious to her husband’s, albeit subtle, advances or did she simply not care/mind?

Anyway, I had a lovely evening with them sitting on the amazing balcony watching the sunset over beautiful Tropea, sipping Prosecco and eating exquisite nibbles.  Milan Man was actually an ex-professional gymnast and actually competed in the Olympics for Italy 20 years ago and he readily demonstrated some impressive moves for the children (and me I think!).  At the end of the evening I was sent of with a string of authentic red Cipolla onions, which are famously specific to Tropea, a business card pressed into my hand and a ‘promise’ (from him not me) that I would be back.

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I have to laugh at the situations I have found myself in on this travelling adventure.  I think I could have been away longer.  Much longer in fact.  But for Bear Cub the last couple of weeks have been tough and because they’ve been hard for him, they’ve been trying for me too so it is definitely time to go home.  We still had the exciting trip of an overnight train from Salerno to Milan before flying home to London so it would be an adventure until the very end.

Unfortunately the journey home turned out to be one of the most trying days of the whole trip!  I think a combination of tiredness, long journeys and the prospect of imminently being home was all too much for Bear Cub and his behaviour was at its worse.  The tiredness, long journeys and heavy back pack also meant my patience was at it’s thinnest – an unfavourable combination!  I’m pretty sure that the only thing that stopped me doing something I’d regret at some points was the fact that we were constantly in public places!  We had a long stop of 3 hours to fill in Salerno before our night train arrived and there was absolutely nothing to do at the train station.  Thankfully we managed to stagger out of the station and the sea front was a 3 minute walk away so Bear Cub could let off a bit of steam and I could seethe in silence!

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When we finally did get the night train Bear Cub was so excited at the thought of sleeping on a train that he was hyper.  I was also looking forward to the experience having never done it before but our spirits were dampened when we discovered we’d be sharing our tiny cabin with another couple and their small child! This meant it was very cramped and I had to further try to contain Bear Cub’s excitement which further wound him up! Needless to say we did not get much sleep that night and arrived pretty exhausted in Milan at 7am the next morning.  My tiredness meant I felt even weaker and it felt like the backpack had somehow doubled in weight overnight.  We also had to get another train from Milan Porta Garibaldi to Milan Centrale where we would be getting the bus to the Milan Linate airport.  Fortunately once we reached Milan Centrale it was a very big station with many really good cafes.  In fact we found one that not only had great coffee (much-needed) and pastries but also free wi-fi and iPads you could use which kept Bear Cub occupied while I consumed a lot of caffeine.   I’ll spare you the details of the numerous meltdowns and tantrums we had at the airport and skip to arriving at Heathrow feeling like a foreigner in my own country.

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It was so strange to hear the English accents all around me.  It didn’t sound real, as if they were putting it on and faking it – either overly posh or dramatically cockney!  When the lady at security was foreign I suddenly had a rush of admiration for her and for anyone who has come from the comfort of what they know in their own country and settled in another culture, learned another language and engaged with another people, another lifestyle.  It is no small thing I now realise.  Having been the foreigner for even such a short time.

And so my travelling ends but I’m hoping my adventure is just beginning or maybe I should say continuing…


Italy – Part 1: Genova, Pisa/Lucca, Florence


In Genova I found a beautiful city full of character and intrigue – far more interesting than I ever expected.  I also came across a man of exactly the same!

Genova was to be our first Air BnB experience.  I was happy to say goodbye to camping though I have to say it turned out to be far more enjoyable than I thought from our dubious start! That said, I was looking forward to a) not having to drive anymore and b) sleeping in a real bed!  Many people had told me about Air BnB and after the prices of hotels seemed extortionate after the cheapness of campsites, I thought we’d give it a go.  If you’re not familiar with Air BnB it is a booking system where (mostly) people who have spare rooms in their own home put you up and it is much cheaper and often gives a more authentic experience of the town or city where you’re staying too.    So we had booked to stay with Lucia in her apartment just 5 minutes walk from Genova Brignole station which greatly appealed as I knew I’d have my very heavy backpack and that Bear Cub would be tired.

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Dropping the rental car back at Nice station had been very stressful (I’ll spare you the details) but thankfully getting the train to Ventimiglia first and then Genova was straightforward.

Lucia’s directions were great and it really was just 5 minutes from the station.  I immediately loved the apartment when I saw the lift!  It was one of those old fashioned ones you see in movies with the metal cage outer door you open first and then 2 wooden wardrobe like doors behind that with a wooden fold down seat inside.  Her apartment was on the 6th floor, old and full of character.  It had a really lovely and peaceful vibe as did she.  Our room was very large with the most wonderful and huge round bed! I was honestly more excited about this than Bear Cub was.  Lucia showed us the bathroom and explained that one of the guys staying with her had his friends visiting so we needed to use just one of the two bathrooms that night and not the shower room.  It was at this point that I heard Bear Cub jabbering on in the hallway to someone enjoying a conversation and that is when I saw him.  He’d overheard Bear Cub ask me what the lady had said in Italian and I explained my Italian was much worse than my very poor French.  And he (understanding me) offered to help with any translation I needed – I later found out he spoke 5 languages!  I asked him where he was from and he hesitated then said, ‘Actually I am Mexican and German!’  I’ve never yet met a sexy German so I am going to call him ‘The Mexican.’  I didn’t know it at that point, except for he was extremely warm and kind and had a wonderful vibe about him, but The Mexican was going to teach me a lot about myself and relationships within just 24 hours – less in real time! (see separate post on my here).

Everything about The Mexican was ‘cool’ and not in a trendy cool way but it a real meaning of the word cool way – effortless, genuine, kind, authentic, interesting, interested, intelligent, deep, laid-back, comfortable in his own skin and just really, really ‘nice’.  Again not in the flimsy, mediocre, sickly meaning of the word but the original, complimentary definition of ‘nice’.  At this point in my head I just thought, ‘What a nice man.  He seems really nice’.  Then he asked Bear Cub if he wanted to see a wolf!  Now there are not many people who know me who don’t know my loves in life other than music and chocolate (and red wine and cake) are dogs!  Big dogs!  Well The Mexican had the coolest dog I have ever seen.  Also mixed race – he was a Husky and German Shepherd mix and absolutely gorgeous!  Now I firmly believe you can tell a lot about a man from his dog.  Indeed you can tell a lot about a person if they do or don’t like dogs.  Again this dog had not been chosen for image or status, it had been chosen for challenge and experience. The Mexican didn’t make decisions for them to be easy or convenient he made them to prove people wrong and to live life to the full and have experiences.  All this was shown to me through his choice of dog! And furthermore, he was travelling with said massive, intimidating, gorgeous dog.  This was only as mad as a woman travelling on her own with a 4 year old!!  I immediately knew we’d be good friends 🙂

On the roof, where the Wolf was kept, I met The Mexican’s friends who had just been cycling in The Alps! You can also tell a lot about a person by their friends (as well as their dog) and they were as lovely and crazy-adventurous (I mean cycling in The Alps??) as he was.  Bear Cub and I had been winding each other up more and more in the last 2 days so he really enjoyed having some ‘man time’ with them and they were all great playing with him and chatting to him.  It felt great being at Lucia’s place.  I exhaled and relaxed there.  It felt safe and in some strange sense I knew I was in exactly the right place in the right time in my life.

We were tired so Bear Cub and I made some pasta and had the most wonderful hot shower (it felt so good to be in a clean bathroom) and fell asleep in the fantastic round bed! Despite it being huge, Bear Cub managed to star fish in the middle of it and hog most of the space all night though!

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The next day we set out to explore Genova. One of my favourite experiences was sitting outside a cafe, drinking proper Italian coffee, in one of the lovely Piazza’s opposite a huge church watching a talented violinist play some wonderful pieces.  Suddenly I felt like I was truly in Italy and I knew it was going to be good.

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I was very aware that the first half of our Italy leg was going to be lots of sight-seeing and Cities and potentially boring and tiring for Bear Cub so I was really pleased  to discover that Genova had a lot on offer for children.  We visited La citta dei bambini a place roughly translated as ‘Kids City’ which was a little like a cross between the London Science Museum and a soft play centre.  And we visited yet another aquarium!

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All this and walking in the intense heat meant Bear Cub was exhausted by the evening.  We bought some fish from the market to cook for dinner to save money and headed back to the apartment.  After Bear Cub was tucked up in the huge, round bed I got chatting to The Mexican, over a bottle of wine until 2.30am!  It is both amazing and frustrating that you need to go to another country to meet someone you really connect with but then as the Erykah Badu song says, ‘I guess I’ll meet you next lifetime!’ I have some wonderful memories of Genova 🙂

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The next day we were off to Pisa but ended up going for a stroll to the beach and getting a much later train than planned.  It only took an hour and a half on the fast train though so we still managed to visit the leaning tower when we arrived before a late dinner.

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Again we’d booked through Air BnB and it was just ten minutes walk from the tower.  The place was clean and a great location but lacked the soul and character of Lucia’s place in Genova.  I’d been to Pisa before years ago and as I remembered it is a bit of a dump in places, however, I also remembered the beautiful little town of Lucca that was just a short way away.

The next morning at Breakfast we got chatting to a young couple from Spain (and Croatia) who mentioned they were driving to Lucca that morning and so offered us a lift.  I like to think Bear Cub was a good contraceptive to many young couples we met along our trip as I could see in their eyes that unspoken exchange of looks between them that said ‘Let’s wait a few more years for kids eh?’ as Bear Cub questioned them, threatened to ‘blow them up’ repeatedly and generally acted weird in their faces! Anyway, we had a lovely day in Lucca.  We actually hired some bikes from right outside the station and I was so glad Bear Cub had learned to ride his bike without stabilisers not long before we left for the trip.  Lucca is the most gorgeous, little walled village and you can actually ride all the way  around on the walls of the village in just 20-30 minutes at a leisurely pace.  We stopped at a play park and bought some fresh cherries and then once we’d been round the whole village we went in and explored the lovely little streets and shops within Lucca.  We found a lovely little coffee shop and enjoyed some pastries and then climbed to the top of Lucca’s own tower which amazingly has a tree growing at the top.  The view was stunning.  We had some lunch at the cheap cafe we’d found and then returned our bikes before getting the train back to Pisa which only took 30 minutes.

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After a shower we went to explore the leaning tower a bit more and did plan to climb up until we found it was 18 Euros.  Bear Cub was really disappointed until I found out you had to be 8 years old anyway to climb up so he wouldn’t have been allowed even if I had thought it worth the money.  We went to the Duomo instead and this was where I caught one of my favourite pictures of the whole trip.  I was just looking at something and turned around to find Bear Cub praying, unprompted and out loud.  It was the cutest prayer about life and love and asking God to not let any aeroplanes crash! He’d been winding me up so much but my heart melted seeing him talking to God so earnestly.  He then asked me to pray with him – so we did! 🙂

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Bear Cub and I had been winding each other up more and more over the last few days and it hit fever pitch when we got to Florence.  I don’t know if it was the heat or the tiredness of the sheer amount of intense time we’d had together but, Bear Cub’s behaviour had gotten notably worse and brattish and my patience and tolerance had grown dangerously thin!  We basically needed a break from each other.  And so it was a complete God-send when we arrived at our new Air BnB place in Florence to discover that the room we’d booked was still occupied so they upgraded us to their ‘Attic’ room which turned out to be a lovely little self-contained flat complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and balcony.  It looked brand new and was lovely and just what we needed.  It meant we had our own private space to chill out in, unwind and have a bit of space.  It was perfect!  We ventured out for some ice-cream from a real Gelateria and popped to the supermarket which was literally 4 minutes from the apartment and stocked up on food for lunches and dinners for the next 2 days.

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The next day was a Sunday and I woke to stomach cramps (which explained why my tolerance was wearing so thin) and Bear Cub was just not interested in going anywhere, so although we were in lovely Florence, we ended up spending most of the day in the flat and it was just what we both needed! It seemed like a shame in some ways but was absolutely what was required for the sake of both our sanity! We did go into the centre late afternoon and visited the Cathedral which even just from the outside was breathtakingly imposing, and we also found a play park for Bear Cub to let off some steam.

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Our time in Florence ended up being the most uneventful of the trip so far, but we were both too tired to be bored or disappointed.  It certainly worked to renew our strength and we could set off for Rome feeling relaxed.