—seat of the renaissance; birthplace of Machiavelli and Dante; home to Da Vinci and Michaelangelo—smells very slightly of urine. Admittedly this is intermingled with the wafting aroma of freshly baked bread, pungent salami and Belgian waffles which emanates from countless cafés and gelatarias, but it was the undercurrent of toilet-based perfume which made itself most forcefully felt in my tender gut.

We’d taken a cheap-before-taxes Ryanair flight out of Prestwick and had killed the inevitable delay between check-in and boarding with a bacon roll and an orange juice in the departure lounge. The cabin doors opened in Pisa to admit the furnace-like Tuscan air and deliver us from the awful Euro-pop piped into the cabin exhorting us to “fly-fly Ryanair”, and my downfall began the instant the blazing sun smote my sweaty brow. We trudged through Pisa’s graffiti-covered streets* to dispatch the leaning tower with a few clicks of the camera shutter and then caught the next train to Florence. Either the bacon roll or its piratical £4 price tag was stuck in my craw, and whichever one it was was making me feel pretty rough. I drank a bottle of mineral water, closed my eyes and hoped for the best. I slept through the hour-long journey.

Of course, this being a holiday and the very last thing we needed was for me to be feeling dreadful and reminding Ash of this fact every few minutes, I continued to feel dreadful and reminded Ash of this fact every few minutes once we’d checked in to our pensione and taken to the cobbled streets of Florence.

We wandered around for a while, surprised by the niggling street perfume and dodging scooters and tricyle vans with blaring horns. I know this is a cliché, but Italian drivers really are utterly without fear or the instinct of self-preservation. Little Piaggios, Hondas and Yamahas would charge into spaces barely wide enough for a pedestrian (often between two moving cars), stop for an instant while their rider lit a cigarette, ciao bella-d into their mobile phone or disinterestedly inspected the garb of this or that member of the opposite sex, who would almost certainly be lighting a cigarette of their own or ciao bello-ing into their own mobile, and then charge off again into the next fleeting gap in a cloud of blue smoke. We threaded our way through this two-stroke mayhem to the Duomo while I wobbled slightly at the unexpected, faintly unpleasant smell. We gazed Stendhal-like at the cathedral’s intricate façade, found a tourist-trap pizzeria and ate a meal ill-tempered by my whining.

The small amount of food I’d been able to eat must have helped to sort me out (that, and the litre of water I quaffed while Ash demurely sipped at her wine) and by the time we made our way back to the hotel I was feeling almost human. We stopped at an intersection, perched on the stone lip edging a grand palazzo and watched the Florentines and their visitors go past by foot, scooter and car. I felt much better, and considerably under-dressed, after half an hour of idle people-watching, and we called it a night.

* * *

The next morning we went straight to the Accademia to check out Michaelangelo’s David, bearer of the most famous renaissance arse in the world. It was overcast and a bit muggy but entirely bearable compared to the day before. I was a much happier camper. In a fit of responsible pedantry I’d pre-booked tickets online so we sailed past the enormous queue of unfortunates waiting to purchase their own and straight into a slightly smaller one for those who already had. We passed through an airport-style security checkpoint (for the second time in two days I was disappointed that my arm didn’t cause alarms to go off) into the gallery, and wandered into the main hall.

The statue of David is clearly the main attraction here. We took up our places with the others in the admiring circle around him, at what we thought was roughly the right distance—apparently, Michaelangelo deliberately distorted the proportions of the statue so as to appear correct from a particular viewing distance—and considered it.

Being a bit of a literal, scientific type, I thought the proportions were just a bit wrong. Maybe I’m ultra-philistine or just narrow minded, but I didn’t really get what Michaelangelo intended to do; was he really aiming for some kind of forced perspective correct only from a certain angle and distance? Apart from some slightly odd proportions (“What’s wrong with his hand?”), the rest of the statue looked perfectly normal—perfectly incredible, really, in some of the details—but any sort of cunning grand design to fool the viewer’s eye was lost on me.

Stomachs rumbling we found a little café for some breakfast, sharing the seats with an English family. “Gracias señor,” the dad said to the waiter, “gracias.”

We spent the rest of the day getting so lost that we came to a road sign telling us we were about to leave Florence, found the church of San Miniato al Monte about two hours and six miles later than we’d expected, dazedly took in the view and went home for an extended siesta.

(To be continued! I moan far less in the second part, honest.)

* The sheer amount of graffiti in Pisa and Florence was astonishing. Elaborate spray-painted tags lined the railways, along with some political stuff declaiming against GM food, George Bush or whatever; and wherever a queue formed in any historical building outside the sight of an attendant, the walls would be covered with scratched-out signatures and dates. Thank you, Cindy from Atlanta, for letting us know you saw the Duomo in June 1997.