Tuscany and onto Singapore - but not without some drama...
When I last left you we had arrived in a wet Montepulciano, thankful to be off the road and safely ensconced in our gorgeous room in a real life Palazzo in the centre of the old town - frescos, 6m high ceilings, original paintings and the whole noble palace shebang.
Thankfully by the following the morning it had stopped raining and we set off on a walk to the town of Pienza, about 13 km away through beautiful vineyards and olive groves and ploughed fields (which had also clearly been visited recently by that poo truck that followed us around Catalonia by the stench wafting through the air!)
Now, I've come to realise that, with the exception of the Netherlands, there are no flat roads or walking trails in Europe! You can absolutely take my word for it!
Down along some dodgy path that had been labelled 'a pretty descent but rocky in parts' - although smiling, I don't think it's a genuine one...
I have also learnt that when your destination is a village, there is definitely going to be a steady to steep climb involved, which makes going downhill all the more frustrating because you know that, ultimately, you are going to have to climb the same distance uphill and then some!
Looks can be deceptive and you are just going to have to trust me that the climb to Pienza on the top of that hill in the distance took another hour of steady climbing and the entire time I'm thinking - that's it I am hanging up my boots and poles! I'm happy to walk around a vineyard, pretty little cobblestone village, a shopping mall in Singapore or even on a treadmill in the hotel gym but no more hills/rocky tracks/steep steps - that's me done for this trip!!
After all that effort, what I needed was pasta - my absolute favourite meal in the whole world, but it has to be good, there's too many calories involved to waste them on bad pasta! To date, the best spaghetti I have ever had is made by my brother - his spaghetti bolognese is legendary! However, sorry James, but the spaghetti I ate that night was the best thing I have ever tasted in my life!! It was a very simple 'white bolognese', made without tomatoes and so full of rich, peppery flavour, if we had stayed another night I would have gone back and had the exact same thing again but, sadly, we had to move on.
Worst photo of the best meal ever...
The next morning it's time to pack up (again) and move on, not too far, just to a 'resort' outside Siena for three nights, which we had specifically chosen for the fact it was a bit out of the way, had a pool and a restaurant and, hopefully, we could have a bit of downtime before heading to Singapore and then home. I'm not sure what happened to the plan but, again, it's probably a case of we're here so we'd better visit San Gimignano, Siena and Monteriggioni, so that's what we did...
No regrets - Siena is one of the most beautiful places on earth...
Ideally, we would also have visited a winery or two but we just didn't have the time, something Andrew does regret but a very good reason to come back one day!!!
It was, however, during this stay that our luck did change a little - firstly our car was side swiped by something whilst parked by the side of the road, which took the gloss off the day somewhat and we're yet to hear what the damage is on that one, but the guy at Avis was very apologetic about having to charge us when we returned it. However, by that stage we were in such a hurry, we didn't have time to discuss the details and here's why....
So, we are at our hotel, quietly enjoying a drink by the pool (about 12 kms outside Siena) and are due to return the car to Florence the next day, before making our way to the station to catch a train to Rome and then onto the airport for an 11 pm flight to Singapore via Doha. It wasn't a day I was really looking forward to, not being particularly partial to driving on the freeways in Italy, or waiting around in airports for late flights, but had resigned myself to a slow start to the morning and packing ready for a 12 noon check out, before hitting the road with plenty of time to spare to make our flight. It's about 6 pm and Andrew goes online to see if we can check in for our flights yet, only to find that I was still booked on those flights but he was not, his booking had completely disappeared!
Just to back track a little here, the whole trip was booked using frequent flyer points by Andrew (a massive feat in itself, costing a grand total of $421.00 for both us to fly around the world in business class) and all was going swimmingly (again, with the exception of the small Canadian visa issue) until we went to check in in Chicago for our flights to Barcelona via Madrid. We had wanted to book our bags all the way through to Barcelona, rather than having to collect them in Madrid and then check them in for the flight to Barcelona. For some reason the system was only allowing one of us to do this, it took some time and a few calls by the lady at the check in counter to her manager, but ultimately, "no problem, all sorted Mr Mooney". We were happy, didn't consider whether or not there would be any ramifications, boarded the flights and, sure enough, our bags appeared on the carousel in Barcelona. Awesome!
It was only when our British Airways flights were cancelled out of Barcelona to Amsterdam, due to the pilots strike and we needed to make other arrangements, that we realised that our bookings had been split in Chicago and we were now travelling on two separate bookings. Qantas assured us at the time that this wouldn't cause any problems at all as we were linked in their system. Well, maybe it would have been fine if we were travelling only on Qantas flights but the flights to Doha/Singapore were with Qatar. We'll probably never know but this seems to have been at the root of our problem here.
So, anyway, here we are in Tuscany, the night before we are to fly out and Andrew rings Qantas who confirm that there is a problem and he doesn't have a booking. I'm good to fly as planned but he doesn't have a seat - Qatar are claiming there are no seats left on these flights, in either business or economy. However, not to panic just yet, Qantas asked that we leave it with them and give them a call back in a couple of hours. So we finish our drinks by the pool, go to dinner and head back to the room to call Qantas again. "Sorry Mr Mooney, we are still working on this issue, unfortunately it's out of our control to some extent as they are Qatar flights so we need to work with them. We can, however, confirm you wont be able to travel on the original flights as your seats have already been sold. One solution we are investigating is whether we can get you both on the 4:30 flight out of Rome and an earlier connecting flight to Singapore. Can you ring us back in another couple of hours?"
By this stage it's 10:30 and, if we do need to make that 4:30 flight, we will need to scramble in the morning to get back to Florence, drop the car off at the airport, get to the train station, get tickets to Rome (assuming the original ones we had booked would be useless now) and then make our way from Rome to the airport, about 40 minutes away, for a 4:30 flight. So we make the decision to pack so we are ready to go if this does turn out to be the case. Now usually I'm a pretty neat, organised person but there were clothes, shoes, toiletry bags, wet socks and undies that had been drying in the bathroom, etc. etc. flying in all directions, but at least we are packed and in a position where we could move quickly if needed. We set the alarm for 1 am and try to get some sleep, of course we get no sleep. 1 am comes around and Andrew calls Qantas again, explains himself to the third person, who can find a record of the issue in the system which is now being dealt with by someone in Auckland who, in turn, is dealing directly with One World. The situation is looking pretty dire at this stage with the most likely scenario being both of us on the 11 pm flight to Doha (somehow they have now found a seat for Andrew on this flight but not the next one), then a 12 hour layover there, before a much later flight to Singapore. Very boring! By this stage we have done some research of our own and know that there are in fact seats on both the original flights and the earlier flights, they just don't have 'reward seats' available to match those we had booked.
It is now 3:30 in the morning and we have been told someone will call us back in a couple of hours. Having heard nothing by 6 am, and not having had a lot of sleep at all, we make the decision to pack the car, check out and make our way to Florence then Rome, so we are at least at the airport, so if a flight becomes available, even if we need to fly separately, we are ready.
I won't bore you with the details of our high speed check out, the 90 minute drive in pea soup like fog on the freeway along with semi trailers, wanna be Fangios, and morning commuters making their way to Florence, or the trip through Florence itself with Google taking us on the back streets and Andrew driving like a true Italian, to the rental car drop off centre. It was at this point that Qantas did ring back to let us know they had managed to secure us both seats on the 4:30 flight out of Rome, with an earlier connecting flight to Singapore, meaning we would arrive in Singapore 5 hours earlier than originally planned, and that they were going to essentially foot the bill for Andrew's tickets, as Qatar had been willing to change mine but not reinstate Andrew's without payment. Thank you Qantas! Hated you one minute, loved you the next!!
Great news, but we are still in Florence and need to make it to Rome, so we then take a taxi (yes, in this case a taxi was justified!) into the centre of Florence in peak hour traffic (not for the faint hearted let me tell you), deal with the fact there was yet another strike, this time by the Italian rail ticketing people (I don't think I have ever traveled by train in Italy when there hasn't been a strike of some sort.) Very luckily we already had tickets for a later train that we were able to change using the automated ticket machine (a minor miracle in itself) and made our way to Fiumicino airport - in the end we arrived with a couple of hours to spare, completely exhausted but giving ourselves some serious accolades for having had the foresight to get our act together so we were able to fly out early.
There are probably several lessons to be learnt here and questions to be asked of both Qantas and Qatar, and of ourselves in regard to the wisdom of booking your own travel (given the nature of the trip this wasn't really an option) but at the end of the day, we made it, again better off than we had originally been, with an earlier arrival in Singapore which in this case, came down to both a bit of luck, good management and awesome teamwork!
So we definitely deserve this pre-take off glass of bubbles and then some!!!