We woke up Friday morning to blue skies on Friday and decided to go into Siena for the day. We really had not done any research about Siena or the surrounding countryside. I knew that Chianti wine came from somewhere around here, and we saw a Rick Steve’s program featuring San Gimignano. We also knew about the Piazza del Campo and the summer horse races, so that would be our first destination for the day.
Finding parking was our first challenge, as you must park outside of the town center and walk in. We did pretty well, finding parking at the top near the Futbol stadium and thus not having to climb up a hill into the town.
We found the Piazza del Campo easily by just walking down the most crowded streets, as we had left our city map in the car. The Piazza was bathed in the weak winter sunlight, or at least half of it was. Only the cafes, restaurants and gelateria on the northeast side of the square were open. The food establishments on the south and west sides were mostly closed because in that side of the Piazza was in the winter shade and thus cold. We ate lunch outside in our jackets enjoying what solar warmth the low, winter sun had to offer. Justin disappeared regularly into the Piazza to commune with the pigeons. There were a large number of young Americans, most likely university exchange students, wandering the Piazza in groups and calling out to each other. This was the most American English we had heard in the last 6 months. The only dish from lunch worth mentioning was the ribollita soup, a Tuscan vegetable, bean and bread soup that was delicious. I would love the chance to order that one again. As the sun was just about to dip below the buildings and deprive the Piazza of its warmth, we moved on to visit the Duomo. Jordan and Justin both got gelatos in spite of the cold; I guess in Italy gelato stores never close, no matter how cold it gets.
Once out of the sun and walking through the shady wintertime streets, we were all freezing. We found the entrance to the Duomo was free, but all the side rooms charged entry. One room, the Piccolomini Library, had a special exhibit of illuminated songbooks from the 15th century. For some geekish reason I love looking at these medieval handmade books, so we paid for a visit to this room. The Duomo was spectacular. Gigi commented that it might have been the most beautiful church she had ever seen. The illuminated manuscripts were also beautiful, and the upper walls and ceiling of the Piccolomini were elaborately painted with medieval and Greek mythological scenes. I love the fact that you can see a picture of a satyr with a long, engorged penis ogling a naked woman under the roof of a Christian cathedral.
Saturday was a homebound, constant fire in the fireplace day. We woke up to snow again that stuck on the ground for a while, but by the afternoon had turned to rain. No way we were going out. It was cold! We did a lot of schooling with the boys and watched movies in the evening. We have discovered that with a VPN account, we could sign up for Netflix and get all the streaming movies and TV shows we want, no matter what country we are in. This is a new twist for us on this trip. In Grimaud, we had Sky TV with all its English language programming. We have also been using iTunes for movies, Once Upon a Time, Vampire Diaries, and the Daily Show. Netflix is much cheaper than using iTunes.
Checking the weather online that day, it looked as if our entire stay in Tuscany was going to be overcast with daily rain. This was a turn for the worse as just a few days earlier the forecasts had shown at least a few dry days.
On Sunday we took a day trip to Monteriggioni and San Gimignano. The skies were overcast and we had sporadic rain all day, but in spite of this we were pretty much dry for all our sightseeing. We had seen the turreted walls of Monteriggioni from the SR2 road when we first came into Siena. This medieval walled hamlet (pop. 42, I read), 20 minutes from our house, has only two entrance gates wide enough for one car lane and a large central square. You are supposed to be able to walk the battlement of the walls, but unfortunately this tourist option was closed from January 14th until February 14th. Justin and Jordan hopped the locked gate to get up there for a quick look around. The place was pretty dead and no one noticed. There were only a handful of tourists walking around. Monteriggioni was very quaint and old, only one restaurant was lively with lunchtime patrons, and after maybe 30 minutes we were done with this place.
San Gimignano was about a 30-minute drive from Monteriggioni, and once we got into view of the town, the countryside changed. I would say the area we are staying in to the west of Siena looks a bit scruffy and wild with weedy fields that haven’t been tilled yet for the summer crop planting. Around San Gimignano, on the other hand, the olive orchards, vineyards and farmhouses are orderly and really look like money has being poured into them. Tidy and clean. San Gimignano was a beautifully preserved medieval town.
It is set up as a major tourist town with large parking lots outside of the city walls. Again, with this being the lowest possible tourist time, we parked in the closest lot to one of the gates with no problem. The boys and I climbed the stairs of the Torre Grossa for a panoramic view of the town and countryside. We also popped into the Civic museum to look at the religious artwork from the 14th and 15th centuries. Justin commented that one of the Jesus crucifixion pictures was ‘creepy’, and indeed it was as Jesus had unnaturally long, skinny arms and legs with extra bloody nails. It did provide a good art lesson, as the paintings spanned the time from medieval to renaissance art. It was easy for the boys to see the difference in the ways the painters from these eras were able to represent human forms and move from flat representations to depth of a scene. We spent time in a café drinking hot drinks and playing Uno and Bananas. On the way out, I bought bottles of local red Chianti wine and white Vernaccia wine. Chianti is well known, but I had never heard of Vernaccia and read it is special to this area and was mentioned in Dante’s Inferno, which gives it some fame.
Monday was another hill town outing, this time south to Montepulciano and Pienza, with a stop on the return to the monastery of Monte Olivieto Maggiore. We were very lucky with the weather these past two days of exploration. Both nights it poured rain, but during our times outside we stayed dry. We even got some nice sunshine on Sunday, but it was quite chilly. These two towns did not impress us as much as yesterdays’. In Montepulciano, ALL the stores were closed, the town was fairly deserted, and it was cold. Our main goal was to eat lunch in this town, and as we walked the town looking for a restaurant, with running comments from the boys of, “I’m hungry, this one looks fine, the last one looked fine, where are we going,” we ended up at the very first restaurant we saw just inside the town gate. We had a good lunch; the boys ordered pici pasta, the special Tuscan style of pasta. I got another chance to have a bowl of ribollita soup. This meal was so filling that Gigi and I skipped dinner that night. I have no idea how Italians order an antipasti, primero, secondi, dolce, and then actually eat it all.
After lunch, I popped into an enoteca to try the local wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The bottles of wine sold for the princely sum of 15 euros.I was told they are aged in oak barrels for 3 years. Good stuff, but when I can get great Chianti Classico for 7 euros, I skipped buying any bottles.
Our visit to Pienza was very short, maybe and hour. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon and still wanted to visit the monastery. The town was tiny, but very picturesque. Also again empty and cold. A pope came from Pienza, and he commissioned some palaces around the tiny town square that are famed to be classic examples of Renaissance architecture. Pienza is also famous for producing the best pecorino cheese, and we found a cheese store open. It had like 15 types of pecorino in various stages of ageing and flavoring. We only know the dry, aged pecorino in the US. We bought a chunk each of ‘fresca’ and the aged type that is familiar in the US. The guy behind the counter was the worst salesman; he kept his nose in his paper and gave us cheese to taste with minimal exertion and no explanations. Out of Pienza, Gigi had me stopping every 3 minutes to take a landscape photo.
We wanted to visit the Monastery of Monte Olivetto Maggiori because they do mass and vespers in Gregorian chant. They also have a monastic library that can be visited. This place made me think of the novel The Name of the Rose, because they have a Latin translation copy of The Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, this visit was a bust.
We arrived after closing, in winter the monastery closes one hour earlier than in summer. The place was completely locked up with no one in sight to ask about the vespers service, and although we waited outside the church, when the time for vespers came, we could hear no sound, no music.
Tuesday was a school day out on the farm, and a run into Siena to the only self-service Laundromat in the city. We had to walk our bags of dirty clothes into the old town near the Campo, again passing twenty-something American girls in the streets. There were 3 of them in the Laundromat. Is it every American college girl’s dream to study a semester abroad in Italy? Gigi and I struck up a conversation with an American couple that was at the end of a 5-week stay in Tuscany. Like us, they had loved Lucca.
Wednesday was our final day in Tuscany. We took the hour drive back up to Florence with one goal: visit the Uffizi gallery. We parked at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which has free parking and the best view across the Arno River and over the city. We had our picnic lunch up there. A 20-minute walk brought us to the Uffizi Museum.
We walked right in, no lines, and no advanced ticket sale. The boys, for the most part, did an excellent job staying engaged and interested. I had prepped them with the Uffizi’s website’s short list of ‘must see’ paintings, which became our treasure hunt. We rented audioguides. The boys brought their iPads to do sketches using the app Paper. For Justin, this ended up being mostly using the color pad to try to match the colors he was seeing in the painting. When we were done with the Uffizi, we headed back over the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, grabbed a gelato, and headed back to Siena. Tomorrow we were heading to Rome.