Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Very Wet Visit to Siena

First of all – Happy Halloween!!!!!

Today we visited Siena. It was a very wet day as it rained from the time we got up in the morning until we went to bed at night. Our morning wasn’t scheduled for very early, we didn’t have to be on the bus until 8:55am. We had requested a wake call for around  7:30am but both of us were up at 6:00am. So we got up and showered and got our things ready for the day. Then we left everything in the room and went to breakfast. We had our usual of eggs, bacon, yogurt, pastries, pineapple juice and coffee. After eating we returned to the room to get our backpacks and then returned to the lobby to meet the group. By 9:00am we were on our way to Siena. I kept hoping the rain would stop but it didn’t but lucky for us it was a very light rain.

From the bus we made our way to San Domenico to meet our tour guide for the day in front of the church. We arrived early so we were able to take a bathroom break and get a few pictures. But mostly we just stood in the rain. Our guide for the day was Nicolette and she gave us a brief history of the church before we went inside.
St. Catherine of Siena
Then we entered the church and we got some more history of the area and the church. Then she talked about St. Catherine. She was born and lived in Siena and in this church they now have her head and her right thumb on display. These are considered relics and they preserve them in wax. We also learned about the contrade. This is like a family but isn’t. The city of Siena is divided into 17 areas called contrade. Your contrada is determined by where you were born. Meaning that even though your parents are part of one contrada you may be of another if your parents moved before you were born. In Siena you are loyal to your contrada first and family second. The contrade are represented by animals and colors. Examples of the animals used are rhinoceros, caterpillar, dragon, elephant and goose. After this we left the church and went back out into the rain. We walked the streets of Siena learning more about the history and the contrade and we got to see the symbols on the buildings marking each of the areas. We made a stop at Piazza Salimbeni where it meets Palazzo Tantucci, Gothic Palazzo Salimbeni (prestigious head office of Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank), and the Renaissance Palazzo Spannocchi, from where 29 finely carved busts stare down at you from beneath the eaves.

From here we continued our walk to Piazza del Campo. This is the main public square that is in a fan shape with a fountain at the narrower end and the whole thing slopes down from there. 
Palio di Siena
Here we learned about the Palio. This is a horse race that takes place twice a year (July 2 and August 16) between the contrade. This race is a source of pride for the contrada that wins and there is a winner for each of the two races and they carry the title for one year. Upon hearing about the race we were all thinking that the Sienese were a little crazy. They pack about 40,000 people into the little square leaving the outside edge and the fountain area free of people. The outside edge is then covered with sand for the horses to run. Once you are in the square you can't leave, there are no bathrooms, no food and no drink and you are there for five hours in the hot Tuscan sun packed like sardines. There is some pageantry but the main event is the horse race which only last for one minute and fifteen seconds. There is only one rule - you can't mess with the reins of the other horses (they consider that cheating). And if the rider falls off the horse (they ride bareback) it doesn't matter, the only thing that mattersis that the horse finishes the race. The first horse over the finish line wins. Since the area is small they only let ten of the contrade compete in each race, so there is a lottery to see who participates. If you don't get picked one year then you are guaranteed to be in the one next year.

We left the Campo and headed to the Duomo.
Duomo di Siena
Nicolette gave us a history of the church to explain why there is part of it that isn’t finished – had to do with the plague. So there is a façade at one end that shows how big the church would have been if completed. And it would have been the largest church in Christendom if it had been completed. Once Nicolette finished her tour Thomas and I decided to get tickets to go inside. We actually wanted to see the church but the fact that is was raining and we wanted to get dry made the decision easier. The Duomo is a beautiful black and white marble building with inlaid marble floors and wonderful statues (with two by Michelangelo). But the most incredible part was the Piccolomini Library. The Library contains frescoes by Pinturicchio and what is amazing about them is the vibrancy of the colors. These frescoes have not been cleaned or retouched, they are the originals – it was one of the highlights of the trip.

After about 45 minutes in the church we left and went in search of something to eat. We ended up stopping at a place called Renzo da Siena. Thomas had spaghetti pesto and ribollita (white bean soup), I had Tuscan canapés (chicken liver paste spread on bread) and ribollita. I also had a glass of red wine.
A Street in Siena
The soup was really good but this was the first time I have eaten soup with a fork. It consisted of white beans, spinach, carrots and onion poured over some crusty bread. It was the perfect thing on a cold, rainy day. Lunch was relaxing and leisurely (I think we were avoiding going back out in the rain). We enjoyed the restaurant and I think it must have been a place for the locals because there were only three tables that weren’t speaking Italian. We left the restaurant and wandered the streets of Siena stopping in to little shops here and there. We didn’t buy much, just some chocolate and cookies at Nannini’s (a place I had read about on some blog). It was a great place and I am glad we stopped there. Our afternoon consisted of stopping in at little shops and wandering little side streets and of course taking pictures. Eventually we made our way back to Il Campo to meet the group at 3:30pm at the Palazzo Pubblico. From there we walked (in the rain) back to the bus. It was a short bus ride back to the hotel and then we had a couple of hours to rest and get ready for dinner.

Around 6:00pm Thomas and I went down to the bar and joined a couple of other people for a cocktail and some hors d'oeuvres before dinner. At 6:30pm we all boarded the bus for a short ride to Volpaia for dinner at Ristorante La Bottega. This was the best meal of the trip so far and will ended on the list of highlights of the trip. The meal started with an antipasti of arugula, parmesan cheese and ham. Then they served us linguine with truffles and spinach ravioli for the first course. The second course consisted of chicken and beef with butter lettuce and peas. For dessert we had a choice of panna cotta with chocolate or fruit sauce or chocolate cake. Thomas had the chocolate cake and I had the panna cotta with chocolate. The entire meal was absolutely fantastic. I can’t even begin to describe the linguine with truffles – the flavor was amazing. I also thought the chicken and the panna cotta had amazing flavors. The group really opened up tonight and we all laughed and had fun – probably had a lot to do with all the wine at the table, after all we are in Chianti. Thomas had a little too much to drink and was really animated and relaxed – he kind of got a reputation from the evening’s frivolities.

After dinner we all returned to the bus for the ride to the hotel. Today was a wonderful day – even the rain all day couldn’t dampen the group’s spirits and so far this has to be one of the most memorable days of the trip. Back in the room Thomas and I realized we were really tired so after a shower and a little blogging it was time to call it a day. Tomorrow we are still in Tuscany and we are visiting a winery for a tasting and lunch and then off to San Gimignano.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Day in Firenze

Waking up in Tuscany was fantastic. We are on top of  hill that overlooks the Tuscan landscape and a short distance away we can see Radda in Chianti. It is peaceful and quiet here and very relaxing. It is a bit overcast this morning but not too bad and I am looking forward to our trip to Florence today. Thomas and I were up around 6:30am and at breakfast for 7:10am. We had the usual – eggs, bacon, pasteries, yogurt, pineapple juice and coffee. Once we had eaten we returned to the room to get our things. By 7:55am we were all on the bus and on the way to Florence.

View from the Hotel
It wasn’t a long drive but as we entered Florence we encountered a little traffic. But our driver Mimo knows his way around the area and he took some side roads and got us to the parking area in no time. From the bus we walked a short distance to the Church of Santa Croce to meet up with our tour guide. Our tour guide for Florence today was Luca. He introduced himself and began our tour with a little history of Florence and the area we were standing in. He also talked about Santa Croce and told us of the many famous people buried in the church. We then took a walk around the city and got more history. Our next stop was at the Duomo. We didn’t go in the church at this time but we did get quite a lot of information from Luca about it. We then did a little more walking and eventually arrived in Piazza della Signoria.
This is the square where Michelangelo’s David was originally placed. We got some more history here and then our tour with Luca came to an end.

Ponte Vecchio
Thomas and I walked just a short distance from the square to find a place to eat. We ate at Ristorante Pizzeria Il Bargello. I had penne Florentine (penne with meat sauce and peas) and Thomas had spaghetti with meat sauce. We also had a half bottle of wine. After eating we walked outside and took a little break to get organized. I needed to get a letterbox planted and we had a reservation for the Uffizi Gallery at 2:30pm. I wanted to hide my box near the Galleriadell’Accademia where the original David is now. So we walked over to that area and planted the box. You can read about that at Hiding David on my other blog – The Lion’s Game. Then we walked over to the Duomo and did a quick walk through. A very beautiful church. After visiting the church we headed toward Piazza della Signoria and more specifically to the Uffizi Gallery. But when we arrived at the piazza we still had about 25 minutes to wait. So we ended up heading over to PonteVecchio and took some pictures there. Now it was time for the gallery. We met the group and Christopher in front and then we got in line to go through the security check. After that we were on our own until we needed to meet at the bus at 5:30pm.

So we walked through the Uffizi and enjoyed all the statues and paintings. Highlights being Michelangelo’s painting Holy Family (Doni Tondo), The Birth of Venus by Botticelli and some of Carravagio’s paintings. After about an hour and a half in the gallery we decided to head out. Now we had only covered the second floor which was huge and we had decided to leave the gallery. Little did we know that we had to maneuver our way through countless rooms to get to the exit. So that took us another 30 minutes or so. There were some interesting things along the way – like the naked Christ on the cross. I have seen many crosses in my day but never one with a naked Christ. They usually have a loin cloth on him. I actually thought this gave him much more vulnerability and was tastefully done.

When we had exited the building we read our map and headed toward Santa Croce. Once we arrived at the square we headed to the church. We got our tickets and went inside. We walked around for about a half hour looking at all the tombs. Most of them were so elaborate and beautiful. It was time to make our way back to the bus – so we walked the back streets until we arrived at the road we needed and then met up with some of the group. We waited for a little while until Mimo showed up with the bus. Before leaving Florence we drove up to Piazza Michelangelo which overlooks the city. We had a few minutes here to take pictures and enjoy the view. As we left Florence the traffic was bad so it took a little bit of time to get out of the city. So the drive back to the hotel took a little longer than expected. Christopher called ahead and pushed our dinner back to 7:45pm. This gave us about 45 minutes to clean up and relax for dinner.

Tonight’s dinner was at the hotel and consisted of wine (of course), penne with tomato and olive oil, meat and for dessert we had fruit soaked in wine with homemade vanilla and chocolate ice cream. By the time dinner was finished I was so tired. We have been having long, busy days and by 9:00pm (which is around the time we usually finish dinner) we are so tired. Tomorrow we visit Siena and the day starts around 7:00am.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Umbria & Tuscany

We left Rome this morning. There was so much there to see and do and we had a great time but today we head for Tuscany by driving through Umbria. I am looking forward to our time in this area – it will be our first visit here. The last time we visited Italy we only drove through Tuscany, we didn’t make any stops. This time we get to spend four days in the area and it all started this morning.
Umbria View
We were up at 6:00am and we had our bags out in the hall at 7:00am. We then went down to breakfast for eggs, bacon, croissants, orange juice and coffee. We boarded the bus around 8:00am and headed out. The route we were taking to Tuscany brought us through Umbria and after about a two and a half hour drive we arrived in SantaMaria degli Angeli (which is right outside of Assisi) to visit the Basilica. It was here that the young Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor and thus started the Franciscan movement.
The Porziuncola
The Basilica was built over the Porziuncola (The chiesetta (little church) of Porziuncola (Italian for "Little portion") is the most sacred place for Franciscans. Francis was given this little church, dating from the 9th century, by the  Benedictine monks.) and when you enter the Basilica you can see the little church in the middle of the aisle leading to the altar. It was so incredible. We walked around the Basilica and took in all the wonderful art work and history. There is a rose garden out back that is the last remaining part of the woods where Francis and his followers lived. You take a hallway out to see the garden. In this hallway is a statue of St. Francis. He is holding a real wicker basket. There was a dove nesting in the basket as we went by. Legend has it that doves have been nesting in that basket for a very long time. After our visit to the Basilica we returned to the bus for our short ride to Assisi. As we climbed the hill to Assisi we were able to view the Basilica of St. Francis ahead of us. We got to the bus park at the higher end of town (Assisi is built on a hill) and parked. From here we took escalators up to the town entrance and walked a short way to the Basilica of St. Clare. Here we were given free time to enjoy the town – and we had a good part of the day – we were meeting the bus around 3:15pm. So Thomas and I started walking down hill through town. We stopped at different places along the way – shops, pastry stores, churches. We had kind of planned to stop in at the visitors center and get some information to walk up to the castle in town.
A staired alleyway in Assisi
But somehow we missed it. Partly because it was raining lightly and partly because we weren’t really paying attention. The town is beautiful, built on the side of a hill with winding streets with buildings right at the road forming a canyon like atmosphere. Anyway before we knew it we were at the Basilica of St.Francis – the end of town. It was still early so we decided to grab and bite to eat and get out of the rain. We ate a ham and cheese croissant and a cheese pizza at the Ristorante San Francesco. When we finished eating we decided to walk back to the city center and look around again. As we walked the rain got less and less. We arrived at the center of town and looked for a shop called Gran Café to get some baci and other goodies. We met up with Judy and Cherie who were just wandering around. The four of us then headed back down to the Basilica. The upper Basilica (oh, I forgot to tell you that there are two Basilicas for St. Francis) has some beautiful frescoes and was very peaceful and simple. Then we went into the lower Basilica and in here there was more elaborate artwork and was more heavily decorated. I enjoyed the upper Basilica much more than the lower one. Now it was time to meet the group and head to the bus for our ride to our new hotel near Radda in Chianti.

The drive took a little over two hours and we learned some history of the area. Christopher told us the story of the Battle of LakeTrasimeno as we drove around the Lago Trasimeno. Once we crossed into Tuscany we drove near to Cortona (which we could see in the near distance) – this is the place where the story Under the Tuscan Sun takes place. Christopher decided to give us some time to relax and not have to listen to him talk. So we ended up watching a part of Under the Tuscan Sun for the rest of the drive to the hotel. We arrived at the hotel in the dark so we couldn’t see the wonderful Tuscan landscape that surrounded us.

We checked into the My One Hotel and had a little time to get settled into our rooms and freshen up for dinner. Tonight dinner was at the hotel and we didn’t have a choice of food – it was already decided. The menu was as follows . . . vegetable lasagna, pork loin and a dark chocolate brownie for dessert.  It had been a long day and after the very delicious meal the hotel provided it was time to get some rest. Back in the room we settled in for the night. I can’t wait to see more of Tuscany.