Siena: We awoke on Thursday, 07 October, to a cold and crisp morning, with the promise of warm afternoon temps. Both of us had adjusted to the quite countryside and had slept better. Being able to make our own breakfast was a real delight, and the farm-house apartment was equipped with a stove-top espresso pot like mine (only larger), so we were all set. Lovely yogurt, whole grain cereal, our own flax seed (essential to counteract all the white flour pasta!), fresh fruit, good coffee…
It was lovely to take our time in the morning and not have a specific schedule. Eventually, I programmed the GPS for Siena, and off we went. All went well until we hit the city, at which point, there were too many signs and I missed the turn we wanted. I ended up parking in a large free lot at a shopping area down in the new part of the city, far away from all the tourist stuff. We went into a chocolate shop and asked for directions. The woman was very helpful and said that there was a bus right there that went up to the old city area. With a little more help from a few other people, we located the little tobacco shop where you can buy tickets, and waited for the bus. It did, indeed, drop us right at a main church, with a street leading straight down into the old area.
What a mob scene! Tourists everywhere! The weather had warmed up quite a bit, and we made for the Campo, the massive piazza that is Siena’s heart. The narrow roads of the old city were set off by small piazzas in front of smaller churches. The architecture was quite distinct from Medieval cities, looking more ornate, as one would expect from a city that was a major center in the Renaissance.
Every little mini-piazza seemed to hold its own statue. I lost count of who they were, and just allowed myself to soak up the atmosphere. It was very difficult to stay on the main street, as enchanting arched paths enticed us from our path. There was a lot of oooh-look-at-this! going on, and I bumped into a few people because I was too busy gawking at stuff to watch where I was going.
Eventually, we made our way to the Campo, which was thronged with big groups of tourists. For the first time, we ran into large organized tours: Japanese, German, French… they trudged dutifully across the Campo, following their leader’s banner. There were also plenty of unaffiliated tourists like us, sitting at one of the cafes or having a picnic on the steps (something that is seriously frowned upon in most Italian cities). However, no one stopped us and we were able to enjoy our tomato and cheese sandwiches in peace.
Here is one view of the Campo…
We were then ready to take on Siena’s utterly jaw-dropping Duomo. This cathedral is built into a steep hill, so you can enter the crypts at the bottom, come out and see the baptistery at another level, and then get the full whammy of the front facade and the main cathedral area itself. Nothing you have ever seen prepares you for it.
While the facade was the usual eye-popping confection of doo-dads and what-nots, the artwork inside was stunning. Of course, inside you can’t take pictures, so here is another look at the facade…
The crypts were mostly empty, but here and there you could get glimpses of the original stonework (1100s, I believe). The baptistery was far more interesting, crammed with paintings and sculpture on every available inch. We sat for a while in the pews and tried to pick out specific elements. I was intrigued by the figure all in black (Death), separating the dead and the living. Since much of the “modern” Duomo was constructed at time of the Black Death, this is not surprising. In fact, Siena was hit particularly hard. While most of Europe lost about one-third of the population to the plague, Siena lost more than two-thirds of its population. They had to abandon part of the construction and, to this day, one facade of the Duomo is completely blank, a testament to that dreadful pandemic.
In the main part of the cathedral, we decided to split up and meet up again at the exit. This allowed us to micro-explore. David discovered the illuminated manuscripts, while I got completely engrossed by some 15th-century graffiti, as some of the artists who produced the lush paintings and sculptures had managed to sneak their names in on columns tucked away in the back of the nave.
One of the best finds of the trip was actually in the Duomo’s book shop: a book of traditional Tuscan recipes. That evening as we both glanced through it, we decided that it was such a winner that we subsequently found additional copies!
A word or two about food: Yum. I love Italian food and I generally do far better here as a vegetarian than I do in many other European countries. While we had a few blah meals (notably our first dinner in Rome and one lunch in Venice), by and large the food was great. We had some truly outstanding meals. My dad and I are both real “foodies,” so we ate with great gusto and ended up talking about food and cooking. Food highlights included the gelato in Rome, outstanding pesto in Volterra, the pasta with black truffles in Orvieto, a very snazzy dinner in Venice, top-notch tiramisu and panecotta, great pizza, zesty bruschetta, and lots and lots of lovely fresh, crisp insalata mista (always served with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, which was a lot less sweet than the stuff you find in teh States, on the side). We enjoyed an excellent cheese plate with good, crusty bread in Siena, and my last night in Rome featured a spicy little pasta with cauliflower. Even the chocolate bar we nibbled we great (very dark, bittersweet), the hot chestnuts sold on the street in Florence, and, as luck would have it, I managed to score a small box of Pocket Coffee at the airport on the way out!
After the Duomo orgy of art gawking, we were in need of refreshment. We let ourselves wander and found a traitoria with a microscopic outdoor seating area, a mere meter wide, separated from the street by a railing. We sat outside and drank beer as the scooters roared up and down the street and an endless stream of tourists plodded by (you could always tell the locals as they strode smartly along, armed with school books or grocery bags). Another dead give-away: the locals are all slim, well-groomed, and very stylish! The Americans are recognizable long before you can hear them speak!
As we started heading back to the top of the old city area, where we could catch a bus back down to the new city, we noticed that in one neighborhood, the Turtle flags were dominant. Turns out that this year’s winner of the Palio was the turtle group! I tried to convince David to buy a flag, but he wasn’t having any of it. Our other favorite teams (based on their flags) were the fish, the hedgehog, and the giraffe. If you aren’t familiar with the Palio, imagine a bunch of guys, each representing one group (formerly associated with guilds), dressed in a Renaissance costume, riding bareback in a huge oval race track inside an ancient city, where there are no rules in the race. You can try to unseat your opponents and do all sorts of dirty tricks with no penalties. They do lay down dirt over the stone flooring of the course, but it is still pretty rough.
Content to leave the crowds behind, we had a quick coffee and rest stop, retrieved our car, and headed “home.” With no GPS to rely on (we never did figure out how to program specific coordinates into the damn thing, and our winery was not listed), we tried to retrace our steps from the morning. But we got lost. The irony is that both of us are pretty good with maps and directions, and we both thought that we were on the correct road! We ended up going 70 km in the wrong direction. But once again, people were charming, helpful, and patient, and we eventually corrected our mistake.
After this adventure, we were happy to be back on home turf. We returned to what we had already begun to think of as “our” pizzeria and had another great meal. We had the same lovely waitress, who turned out to be Romanian. My handful of Italian words and the translation dictionary in my phone helped us navigate a simple conversation. This young woman was quite taken with my dad, and couldn’t believe that he is 83. “Molto forte!” she exclaimed in admiration.