"Move baaaaaa-ck, sheep!"
There is something about Siena that excites me, brings an awe that I’m not quite sure is totally quantifiable. Siena is known for its seemingly abrupt halt in time – frozen somewhere in the mid 1300’s when the black plaque took the population from 50,000 to 10,000 in a span of about 4 years. This weakened the once opulent city, and thus allowed its main rival, Florence, to come in and call the shots. However, the plus side of all that grief is that the city is virtually as it was – the money and power that allowed it to become so grand ceased, but the after affects of the buildings, duomo, main piazza Il Campo, and such are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
Our drive due south was blessed with another overlay of Tuscan blue skies, a scattering of clouds for interest, and undulating hills decorated with perfectly spaced villas, vineyards, olive orchards, and wheat fields. It’s fascinating – the things that fill the landscape are basically the same, but in never ending combinations, arrangements, and interest. And the one “Ohhhh my gosh!” scene from a certain angle (it’s hard NOT to find that type of scene in almost any direction you look) can take on an entirely new life when viewed again from the next twist in the road. It’s total saturation in pure Italian countryside beauty. We did have one new treat on this journey, however. As we rounded a turn, we saw several cars slowed to a stop, allowing a beautiful herd of sheep to be pushed down the road a ways and lead into another pasture! There were several dogs assisting, and a young shepherd keeping things organized at the rear. The sheep were following a slow moving truck, just as is done with moving herds of cattle back home. Seeing that this was going to slow things down a bit too long, the shepherd herded the sheep to one lane and allowed us to inch our way past the herd. How great for an “up close” look! It was a sight to behold, and I’m so glad we were lucky enough to chance upon it.
We followed Ray’s advice and found our way (with only one missed turn….thank you, GPS) to parking at il stadio (the soccer stadium), and thus had an easy walk right into the center of Siena. It was a busy place with a myriad of business people, shoppers, tourists, and university students. Crowded a bit, but what a luscious sense of excitement and a buzz of activity it presented as we entered. Instantly I was gasping and exclaiming at the buildings, the sights. It just amazes me at the antiquity right there, at every angle, yet modern life makes use of the space for the purpose of the day. And I adore the ancient iron works found on all these old structures…dragon heads dangling an iron ring, ornate lighting fixtures that now house a bulb but once held a searing flame, decorated loops made to hold the flags of the local contrata, and windows protected from the lurkings of ner’do well’s by massive iron bars stoically at watch.
Rather quickly, we made our way to the dazzling Il Campo and found the Tourist Info office in order to connect with a walking guided tour. Our young guide, Alessa, met us and after a very quick snack for sustenance, we headed out. It was well worth the time and money – Alessa did a great job of giving us more insight to the early history of Siena, the financial foundations of the Monte dei Paschi de Siena bank and family, and other tidbits of interest. We made our way to the San Dominico church, a huge, but plain structure that was built to honor Siena’s St. Catherine. When reading her story, one can’t help but think she was “touched”; however, she did incredible works for the betterment of the people of her land, as well as convinced the pope of that day to return from France to Rome. She is a revered saint not only in Siena, but in all of Italy. And remember that early blog mentioning the “relics” of the saints? Well, we got to take a gander at one of St. Catherine’s fingers, and….her head. Uh-huh, her head. The people of Siena were wanting something tangible of her to reside in Siena…I forget where she was buried, maybe in Rome….so about 8 years after her death, her head was removed and brought home. It’s encased in a wax mask up in a side alter, so it’s really not viewable (like the finger or some other mummified popes we’ve seen), but it’s there!. Oh, but let's not forget the displayed chains that St. Catherine used to scourge herself with... (read a little more on her, ummm, history by clicking here )
From San Dominico, we ventured on to the Siena Duomo (cathedral)….I don’t think I’m even going to try to describe it here. It would take a complete day to make the attempt, and we’re heading out shortly. It is incredible. The Sienese colors are black and white - attributable to the color of the horses the founding brothers of Siena (sons of Remus) supposedly rode in on - and the use of black and white marble for the exterior and interior is stupendous. Build in the 1200 and 1300’s for the most part, we marveled at how this was accomplished. The floors are masterpieces of marble inlaid picture stories…amazingly beautiful. It is a place not to be missed, having missed it myself on the last 3 times I was in Siena. Our tour ended here, so we were able to stalk and gawk to our heart’s delight. If interested, it’s worth looking this place up on the internet and taking your own virtual tour. And if you want the skinny on the history, check out this link. (the slideshow below has many photos, as well!)
Mangia…time for eating! We found another Rick Steve’s recommended spot – off the main path, very local, a casalingua (home cooking) hole in the wall to die for! The Trattoria La Torre holds about 10 tables, all squeezed tightly in this small space situated under ancient brick arched ceilings. The menu is on the front entrance, the freshly made pasta greets you as it lays artistically draped across a table, and you secret yourself carefully into a seat, being mindful not to knock the table closest by. The owner, an elderly gent cloaked in an well used apron, peering over spectacles with his big brown eyes framed by bushy brows, approached us and rattled off the day’s pasta. I heard “Tagliatelle alla casa”, and said “Si…va bene…alla casa!”. He agreed it was good, Marty concurred, and we smiled. As he walked away, he abruptly whirled around, held up a finger and sternly said “No cheese. Is no good with cheese!” “Verimente…va bene.”…. I replied, feeling delightedly chastised for the errors of earlier tourists who no doubt had asked for cheese! A nice red house wine accompanied this grand rustic meal, along with a wonderfully entertaining view of the teeny tiny kitchen that was basically part of the room. Full to the brim, it was a warm, lively place…and we loved it.
A bonus was conversation later in the meal with a couple next to us from Rome. They had an adorable baby girl, and after my interactions with her, we began to visit. They were both physicians in Rome, and the man was an anesthesiologist. Good talk between him and Marty. The Mrs. spoke no English, so talk there was limited. Again, we exchanged contact info, left the trattoria with hearty arrivederci’s with the Romans, as well as the owner, Mr. Bushy Brows.
Wonderfully full and satisfied in every manner, we found our way back out to il Campo...and oh, what a hub of activity! Tourists, college students, families, merchants --- the piazza was awash in color and activity. We stopped here and there to take in one of numerous vignettes playing out before us, and then decided we (ok....I) must climb the bell tower that stands guard over Siena, the Torre del Mangia, meaning Tower of the Eater for its first guardian who is said to have spent all his money on food. I can understand that!
This particular tower was built alongside the central civic building, Palazzo Pubblico, and completed in 1348. It's second only in height to Cremona's tower (which we saw later, but didn't get to climb...this time!).
Interestingly, the tower is the same exact height as the Duomo de Siena, symbolizing equal power between the church and state. The walls are 11 feet thick on each side, and to get to the top, you better be ready for a 400 step climb! After waiting in line for quite some time, however, as only 25 people are allowed at a time, and only for 15 minutes. The walk up those ancient steps, peering through peep holes so many have done for hundreds of years, was incredible. I stopped briefly when I could and marveled at how the steps were so worn, how the view I was taking in was the same as those who'd come so many years ago. And oh....the view at the top!!! Stunning. Breathtaking. Don't miss this if you ever have the chance!
The rest of our afternoon was spent wandering the city, ducking down side streets, watching people, finding time to grab a snack of sun-dried tomatoes and pan forte, and figuring out we were an hour shy of having enough time to tour the hospital museum. We did, however, find some children’s books there that we purchased for practice.
Back to Castellina and a stop at the COOP for groceries. I just love that little store, and am feeling a sense of knowing my way around it, knowing the protocol for certain things, and discovering something new that I’d love to haul home each time I go down another isle. It’s a tiny place, though, and the others we’ve been in different towns are the same. We are quite spoiled with our “super centers” and such. It’s really rather refreshing to have things simpler.
On to la casa piccola and a home fixed dinner of pasta sauce with fresh veggies and a simple salad. Learning a bit more about balsamic vinegar, we purchased a good one for use on our salads….ohhhhh my. Like wine or olive oil, a good one makes a night and day difference in taste. I’m now ruined for anything less.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.