Fleeced in Florence


When the best advice is your own, don't ignore it.

A few years ago I spent several weeks in Italy with my girlfriend’s family. Anyone who has travelled in a large group knows the logistical challenges this can create, and that having a strong leader is often the only way to avoid a disorganised mess.

At the heart of our band was my girlfriend’s inexhaustible mum, Ann, a keen traveller, fluent Italian-speaker, great cook, Renaissance art buff and incredible organiser. Equal parts control-freak and inspirational leader, her finest hour was getting us all out of bed and onto an early train for a day trip to her favourite city, Florence.

Our assault on the artistic treasures of Firenze was planned to the last detail: off the train and straight to San Lorenzo, then north to San Marco. Then we would divide into two groups: one heading to the Accademia and a date with Michelangelo's David, the other on a quest to find flawless leather boots and focaccia.

Naturally when the train rolled to a halt, one member of the group was dying for a cigarette, another an espresso, and another had to have the latest English newspaper. By sheer force of will we were goaded through the crowded, cobbled streets, into the remarkable quiet of San Lorenzo and left to gape at Donatello’s bronze pulpits.

Ann’s plan was holding together and when we’d had our fill of Fra Angelico (the painter, not the liqueur) at San Marco, we broke into our two groups. Watches were synchronised, meeting times agreed upon and everyone knew the rendezvous, in front of the city's largest church, the Duomo. As we moved off our noble leader repeated her advice, ‘Florence is renowned for its pickpockets, so keep your money safe; don’t keep cash in your pockets and watch your bags at all times. Oh, and unless you are an idiot, don’t buy anything near the major tourist spots, you’ll get fleeced.’

We all enjoyed a beautiful sunny day in the cradle of the Renaissance, some marvelling at Michelangelo’s chisel work, others the skill of the local bakers, bootmakers and barristas. It was only when we made our rendezvous we realised all was not well. As she had waited in Piazza del Duomo, our watchful guide had allowed herself to relax and take in the artistic marvels that surrounded her in the busy square. Seeing her suitably distracted, a thief struck, unzipped her bag and made off with a large sum of Euros. Instead of a happy reunion, we found her distraught, the plan in tatters. We ended up delaying our return home until the tourist police had been informed. Our organiser and tour guide had made the fatal mistake of forgetting her own advice. The only member of the group who was remotely grateful to the thief was the sheepish fool who'd paid a small fortune for a gelato in the Piazza della Signoria. His stupidity was quickly forgotten in all the commotion.

Now my mother-in-law, Ann is still full of great advice.

Ever paid the price for being preoccupied? What's the best travel advice you've ignored?

This article was updated in June 2012.