Upon leaving Madrid, we all agreed that it was a remarkable city: one in which you work, sleep and play, rather than ostensibly a tourist honeypot. Much of the city seems unassuming, yet boasts some jaw-dropping sights such as the old palace which faces the cathedral towards the west of the city centre, and the busy Gran Via street running across the area. It is, nevertheless, a lively city, and as expected from Spain full of people eating late into the night: although we learnt the hard way that a meal on the Plaza Mayor is a terrible idea. A definite mistake to trust the menus! Toledo was the next destination: a mere half an hour train journey away from the Spanish capital, but a complete change in atmosphere if equally sweltering!
Having a hostel in the old part of the city was a real find, as the central part of Toledo is medieval, picturesque and definitely worth spending the time to explore properly. Surrounded by huge hills and the ancient city walls, Toledo is made up of countless tiny streets weaving into each other (which, aside from being inspiring to walk through, are all too easy to get lost in, as we found out all too many times!). There’s something very unique about the place, too: whether it’s the alarming amount of sword vendors or the turbulent mix of Jewish, Christian and Islamic cultural history, and the fact that it isn’t somewhere that everybody you know has visited makes exploring that much more exciting. Walking through the city continued to reveal amazing monuments nestled away, such as the grand cathedral which is quite literally in a hidden square, but nevertheless quite beautiful! Our day finished with tapas in the Enebro bar, recommended by the owner of our hostel, which was a find that defies belief- for every (very cheap!) drink, a tapa comes to your table, outside in a tree-covered courtyard. Nothing tastes better than Spanish sangria after a long day in the baking sun! It became even easier to get lost after leaving this restaurant, but night time Toledo was an incredible experience. The whole city carried a buzz late into the evening, with many eating and drinking late just like us, whilst the stars above the old buildings of Toledo surrounded by bats was so atmospheric.
Our next connection was to Turin, via a night train from Barcelona; we managed to reach Spain’s second city after a horrendous day of negotiating with surly ticket attendants to let us on to trains with the Interrail pass- not the most calming way to travel, especially with the night train to Italy being the last for five days! We had just enough time to head to the Sagrada de Familia, Gaudi’s world-famous cathedral, between our trains- despite Barcelona being a humid 37 degrees, the building was unbelievable- ironically, the empty back entrance boasts the best view of the structure. There’s something strange about the fact that it is under perpetual construction, too, as it depends on donors to keep the building work going. Even decades after the architect’s death, the sense of anticipation around the cathedral is a feeling that remains with you. However, we all collapsed into the night train at around seven that evening- air conditioning for 15 hours was irresistible! We had also been fed several horrific night-train crime stories by a sadistic friend before boarding, but thankfully there were no uneasy Agatha Christie/Orient Express vibes, and we awoke to the misty Alps speeding by: again, the view from the trains is a massive plus side to the whole interrailing experience.
So began our stay in Italy, which would continue for five days- we were immensely fortunate to meet a friend who was spending the summer in Italy who could interpret for us (finding breakfast after we left the Turin station was quite an experience with unfriendly and unsympathetic cafe owners!). Turin, despite being planned originally as a brief visit, proved to be a valuable addition to the journey: we had our first taste of authentic Italian pizza for lunch, (it goes without saying that this was delicious), and managed to see the whole of the city from above from the top of the Turin Cinema Museum, which slightly unexpectedly had a tower. It’s a clean, spacious city and is a lovely place to walk around- it’s a definite regret that we only had the afternoon to see it before we moved on to Florence.
Firenze was where we spent the weekend before moving on to Venice, and was also where we would meet the other half of our party who had spent the days between Paris in Rome. It was a struggle as we moved to throw our bags down in the hostel there, it being as hot as everywhere else so far, but we were soon able to go out for a meal once all together. It’s surprisingly easy to find cheap pizza meals in the city, whilst the table wine is absolutely fantastic- nothing on what you’d get in Britain for the same price- and dirt cheap! A stroll around in the evening led us to gelato near the Piazza di Santa Croce- nothing is more touristy, admittedly, but a definite must for any visitor. We devoted the entire next day to walking through the city, spending some time in the Medici Palace (a remnant of an ancient powerful family in the city’s history), and just wandering through the tall streets and Piazzas. There seems to be a grand Piazza every hundred metres or so in Florence, each with an ornate and immensely atmospheric church in the corner- almost beyond belief! After reading Forster’s A Room With A View, and realising that the city boasts a huge artistic and literary heritage, it feels like you’re walking through a novel, tracing Lucy Honeychurch’s steps, or perhaps featuring in a Browning poem: a really surreal experience at times! Nevertheless, a truly memorable experience- more from Florence and from the beautiful Venice to come in the next instalment!