After an early morning flight from Gatwick the boys arrived in Pisa for a bowl of steaming pasta in our 'usual' trattoria near the railway station. Onto Florence by rail to check-in at our hotel in the Novoli District, then an evening ramble in the centre of Florence.
The first game of the trip was Bologna v Crotone on Saturday evening (6pm kick-off). We had pre-booked the match tickets with the club (print at home) so we didn't have to get to the stadium too early. On a bright sunny day we set off early so that we could stop off at Prato for a few hours in order to look around the historical centre.
On arrival at Bologna station we took a crammed bus (#21) to the stadium . We had a near 'disastro' when a couple of pick-pockets on the bus nearly got away with a wallet containing the match tickets as well as the normal personal items.
The Serie A game came to life after a slow first half an hour, when Simone Verdi (Simon Green) netted a free-kick with his left foot, visitors Crotone quickly equalised only for Verdi to curl in another free-kick this time with his right foot. In the second-half ex-Fulham man Trotta equalised from the spot after a VAR intervention; this was soon followed by a third for Crotone when Budimir scored his second of the game. Roberto Donaldoni's team were jeered off at the end and quickly abandoned the normal salute to the Ultras.
The second game of the trip was a Serie B fixture late on Sunday afternoon (5:30 kick-off) at Empoli, a venue that had been on Wilkie Tour's list for some time. An early train to Empoli then a replacement bus service to the hill top town of Certaldo, a small ancient 'higher' town reached by funicular a short distance from the railway station. Thunderstorms were forecast for the day as we watched the dark clouds roll in from the hills and took refuge from the rain.
On our return to Empoli we walked via the old centre to the stadium hoping to find a bar in the surrounding area. There was nothing, 'niente'; as the rain started again we decided to seek shelter in the stadium a good hour before kick-off. We had secured tickets via the club website and had wisely chosen seats in the lower level of the covered main stand. The heavens opened and as we watched the referee bounce a ball in various spots of the pitch we feared the game was in danger of being called off. Then the players came out to 'warm' up on the pitch while the heavy rain continued unabated. As we enjoyed a beer and a 'panino' and watched the rain we were convinced that the game would be abandoned if it started. Then, minutes before kick-off someone turned off the tap and the rain stopped!
A technically sound game ensued with both sides playing attractive attacking football in front of just over 4,000 spectators. Goal-less at the interval, and with the pitch showing no signs of the earlier monsoon, the visitors Spezia took the lead with a half-volley from the edge of the box. Empoli, who had been relegated from Serie A the previous season after Crotone's incredible escape act to retain their status, equalised when skipper Pasqual curled in a free-kick from outside the box.
A couple of decent games, a re-visit to Bologna 14 years on, Empoli ticked off the list, now Wilkie Tours can recharge batteries ahead of next month's trip to Rome. Ciao!