There are so many songs that sum up this part of the trip: "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" (1969) by Bob Seger; the Stones live cover of "Movin' On (1965);" "Call Me the Breeze" by J.J. Cale (written in 1970, amazing cover by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1976); and of course, "Ramble On" (1969) by Led Zeppelin - to name just a few. Maybe because I was born in 1960, these songs speak to me.
Picking up from where I left off in Florence, one of the downsides of where I was staying, which was near all of the tourist sites, is that to get to and from the bus and train stations, the options were either a half-hour cab ride or a nine-minute walk. Being the tough guy (in my own mind) and/or the extremely impatient guy (more accurate) that I am, I opted to walk both directions. With a 40-pound suitcase, a gym bag and a laptop bag. That wouldn't be an issue normally, but the streets are mostly cobblestone-ish, and the sidewalks might as well be. So it was a bumpy trip.
On the way to the hotel, it was fine as I had plenty of time and paced myself. On the return trip, however, I was running a little late. And with the sidewalks and streets clogged with throngs of tourists on the morning of my departure, I kind of had to use my four-wheel Samsonite rolling suitcase as a battering ram. I made it to the train station with five minutes to spare.
As I'm sure many experienced travelers are aware, things don't always go according to plan when you travel. Kind of like in life. A wise friend of mine once said, "It's okay to make plans, just don't plan the outcome." Three things happened in Florence that were definitely not according to plan.
First, I rented a bike and, when I returned it at the end of the day, I was tired and not fully cognizant about making sure I got my driver's license, used as collateral, safely back into my wallet. I woke up the next morning with a funny feeling, like, "Make sure the license is there, dummy, you were a little tired last night." It wasn't there.
For the first and only time (so far) of the trip, I was in a bit of a panic. Without my license, I could not rent a car in Budapest and make the 45-minute drive each way to the lake to race. No car would mean my racing plans would be severely screwed up. There are buses and trains, but it would be at least a 2-hour trip each way in a best-case scenario. And yes, I could have booked a hotel room near the venue, but I suspect they were mostly booked by the time I decided to go. Plus, I just had this feeling that Budapest was a wicked cool city (it is, as you will read later), and my hotel was reserved and paid for. No car would have just sucked, pure and simple.
I was off to my tour of the Uffizi museum, knowing I had no license and therefore having a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I got to the museum, only to find that the tour was supposed to meet in the Piazza de San Marco, not at the Uffizi. Honestly, I was a bit too keyed up to sit through a tour, so it was probably for the best, but this was strike number two. I was determined to see the great paintings and sculptures, and the line wasn't too long, so in I went. I can read and knew enough about what I was looking at. I could also move around freely, which was preferable anyway, especially given my state of mind (the tour groups in that museum are gargantuan, and it's nice to be a free agent to skip around them). And, despite being stressed about the license, the museum truly blew my mind. A definite highlight.
If Leonardo had been a rower, imagine the boats he would've designed
After the museum, I raced back to my hotel. The sweet women who run it told me at breakfast that they'd call the bike rental place; they could see the state I was in and were genuinely concerned, which was kind of them. When I got back, they said they called, and the guy at the bike place said they didn't have it. GREAT. Determined, I walked/ran to the place, which was only a few blocks away. I waited for the guy (not the guy from the night before) to rent some bikes to some elderly, slow-moving patrons, which took what seemed like forever. I was pacing like…well, like only I can pace. Finally I talked to him.
"Si," he said, "She call. No license. I don't have it." I asked him to check again. He rustled through the drawer... no luck. "Not here! No license!!" he said. Finally he handed me a card to write down my name and contact information, which I did, sheepishly. I handed it to him, thinking my trip had taken a very bad turn indeed. He looked at it and kind of paused.
"Wait... Treaaccyyy," he said, trying to pronounce my name. "Yes, TRACEY," I said, "John Tracey." He said wait a minute, and looked in the same drawer again. He reached into the far back of the drawer, saying "Yes, I think this might be it," or something like that in Italian. He handed me my license, and my blood pressure dropped about 70 points.
You could travel through Europe NAKED so long as you have your passport and wallet
I learned a little lesson here, my friends. There are a few things you absolutely cannot lose when you travel. One, obviously, is your passport. You can get one at the nearest U.S. embassy, but that process will be neither easy nor fun (and the nearest embassy might be not-so-near). The second is your wallet, with your credit cards and driver's license. And that is pretty much it. You could literally travel through Europe NAKED, as long as you have those two items with you. People and authorities might suggest that you put on some clothes, but you could survive and get back home (if they let you on the plane).
So I was finally, safely on the train to Trieste, which I had planned as a way station on the way to the Rowing Mecca of Lake Bled, Slovenia (because Florence to Bled is a long-ass trip).
I arrived in Trieste, on the border with Slovenia, heaving a sigh of tremendous relief and ready to chill. I had had a fantastic time in Rome, Siena and Florence, but I was a bit worn out. My hotel was a stone's throw from the massive and stunningly beautiful Piazza Unita d'Italia, which is said to be the largest city square in a port city. The elegantly designed main building is a municipal building (that is one hell of a municipal building; they don't build them like they used to). But, given that the city was the most important port city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it stands to reason.
The 'municipal' building in Trieste
I had a great night's sleep, went for a short walk (and stumbled upon an ancient Roman amphitheater - bonus!), and was on my way to Lake Bled by Noon. The beautiful port city had served its purpose in recharging my batteries.