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.

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