What an amazing day we’ve had. If I ever come back to Italy, I’m coming back to THIS region. Tuscany is everything they say it is…every bit as beautiful as it is in pictures and in the movies. The things I saw in Rome were cool, and I loved the Vatican, but if I ever come back to Rome, I’ll schedule a one-night layover that allows me time to climb the Basilica dome, and then beat it outta town. Had I done the dome while we were there, I don’t think I’d feel the urge to ever go back. It just wasn’t my kinda town.
But Florence…is. Maybe it’s silly to say this after 28 hours or so in town, without even having really seen the town properly, but I could live here.
If the internet were faster, that is.
Anyway. Today was our coach tour of Tuscany. We had a half-sized coach today…scored the front seats but they weren’t what they would’ve been on a full-sized coach…smaller front window and stuff in the way of our side views. Our guide was very nice and did her best, but was hard for me to follow…her speech was laboriously slow…pauses every few words, very precise pronunciation, but it seemed like she lost her train of thought after nearly every phrase and had to grope for what she said next. Still, she was okay. Mom liked her. The upside of this guide was that she was from the first town we visited, and was very proud of it. So she knew a lot about the city…which Mom says balances out her difficulty with English…had we had a native speaker guiding us, s/he wouldn’t have known the city as well and we would’ve lost a lot of details. She’s probably right.
Our first stop was Siena. Siena was kinda like Florence’s twin city in the 14th century, till the bubonic plague wiped out over a third of the population and left Siena in the dust while Florence struggled on and remained a prominent city. 650 years later, Siena’s population is what it was before the plague, while Florence’s is several times what it was…Siena is still a quaint, medieval backwater, while Florence has kept up with the times. It’s a very hilly city…lots of steep, steep roads…the narrow kinds with the cobbly pavers in the streets and the ancient-looking walls and windows and doors.
The big deal in Siena right now is that they’re revving up for a famous horse race in the town square on Monday…their second of two big races they have each summer. The square is huge, not even a little bit level, and is currently ringed with a thick, wide layer of yellowish dirt to create a track for the horses to run on. Siena has seventeen “districts” and ten of them have a horse in the race (they draw lots, I think?), and a Sardinian rider rides bareback. They do three laps of the square, about a minute and fifteen seconds, and the first horse, not the first rider, wins the race. So if the rider falls off and the horse keeps going, the horse can still win. The worst finishing spot is second, because that just means you coulda won but didn’t. The winning district gets yearlong bragging rights. The district whose most recent win is the longest ago (no clearer way to explain that) is called the “grandma” district. There is apparently no difference between the two races, six weeks apart, in importance, prominence, or bragging rights. Weird. But neat to see the track set up, the machinery wetting and tamping it down, and the stands in place. She says 14,000 come to watch. It must be a zoo. Funniest of all, no one knows when it’ll start. Nine of the horses line up between ropes and the tenth horse in place starts whenever he wants to start…whenever the others look most distracted or whatever. So she says they can sit there for hours. For a race shorter than the Kentucky Derby. Funny.
The cathedral in Siena didn’t make a huge impression on me…neat, but not outstanding. Lots and lots and lots of black-and-white stripes…layered marble. Like prison clothes, or the headdress of an Egyptian pharaoh. Neat mosaics on the floor. We got beautiful stationery and some little watercolor prints in the gift shop of the cathedral. ‘Cause, y’know, I know a good frame shop at home.
Onward. The Chianti region. My LORD. So beautiful I can’t even describe it. We stopped in a little town called Castellina dei Chianti (I think I spelled that right). Not much to it other than spectacular views and beautiful little shops/street market stands. They had beautiful kitchen items made of olive wood from the region…unique stuff, not the crap we see everywhere. We found some treasures there…some will be gifts, so I won’t reveal them here. =)
Oh…one last thing worthy of note about Siena…our guide took us through a chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Italy…told us a whole story about how she decided to dedicate her life to Christ, only lived to age 33, and helped plague victims through one of the outbreaks of the plague…and when she died, Rome claimed her body. But Siena wanted her too…kept demanding that the pope return the body of their native daughter…and the pope finally compromised. They sent back her head. And we saw it. It was in a little glass box in a side altar. Pretty freaky.
Tuscany is one postcard after another. The rolling hills are yellow and tan and brown and green, striped with vineyards, clouded with silvery olive trees, and punctuated with dark green cypresses that look like exclamation points, lining driveways or shading villas with red tile roofs. Every hilltop has a villa like this. Most of our drive through Chianti was on two-lane highways high above these valleys, where you could see all the way to blue mountains in the distance, and everything between you and the mountains looked like something someone painted.
Next on our itinerary was our stop at the vineyard. =) Yyyyyeah!!! We got a brief tour of the general workings of the joint by the owner…found out the oak casks he uses to age the wine for one year only last 4 or 5 years before they’re saturated…that they come from certain regions of France…that they cost a thousand dollars a pop, and that each one holds 320 bottles’ worth of wine. Then, time for the tasting. =)
I’m not a big fan of reds. But these were wonderful…some were sweet, some were dry, some were sharp, and the last two were smooth as silk…we also had three different types of sheep cheese he makes on site, and bread soaked in his own extra-virgin olive oil, which goes for E30 a bottle. His place will ship from his door to yours around the world, if you buy a six-bottle minimum, which is hard to do for E100 or less. Between the two of us, we managed to convince ourselves that if one doesn’t come to Italy to blow too much cash on wine, what does one come to Italy for? (Oh yeah. Leather purses, shoes, jewelry….) Mom even made one of our six bottles olive oil. If I cooked more, I would’ve. Sigh. I also grabbed a bottle of white for us to drink tomorrow evening after we get home from Cinque Terre…provided we can get our hands on a bowl of ice and a bottle-opener. =) I got some honey, too…not sure why, but they were in cute little jars and within my price range. Impulse buy. ;)
We left the winery postcard and headed off to our next postcard…San Gimignani. Little medieval town with 14 tall, tall towers left out of an original 60 or so. I know there’s lots of things a town like this is supposed to be known for, but I declare its claim to fame to be THE BEST GELATO IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. I mean, they had a dark chocolate gelato that was like really really cold, melted, pure chocolate. It was pure friggin’ ecstasy. I can’t even tell you. Come here and try it. I was so sad when it was gone. It was all over my face and I didn’t even care. It was just that good. Even better than the TEN Euro stuff we got outside the Vatican. And this was only 3 apiece. MY GOD IT WAS GOOD!!!!!!
Other than that, S.G. was good shopping. I got a few more pieces of art to frame. I guess the rest was window-shopping…I didn’t buy much there. But I wanted everything. Especially all the kitchen stuff with olives on it, and the leather handbags and luggage with old-style maps on it. Does window-shopping count? I hope so. I can’t afford to grab everything I want. But the upside of that is, I don’t have to carry it. I’m still enough of a Camino pilgrim to think twice about what I buy and mentally weigh it and think of my backpack. =) (That’s actually no joke. Mom leaves on Thursday and I’m back to a pilgrim’s life, even if only for a few days till I get to Vienna.)
S.G. was also good for photography. Mom’s got this thing for cool-looking doors and windows. They’re usually double-doors…the European kind with good archways around them. Some have really cool-looking brass knockers, and they make for great shots, too.
And from there we headed back to Florence. When we got back to our room with our spoils, we sat on the veranda for a while and listened to the clopping of the horses’ hooves from the carriages echo through the alleyways in front of our hotel and underneath our balcony. I decided I was in the mood to shop…there’s a great street market a few minutes away, and they had some gorgeous leather purses there…but when we got there, the market had closed up, and so were all the shops on the main thoroughfares. I think it’s strange that they close while it’s still light, with so many tourists still afoot to spend money. Even the Ponte Vecchio, with all its jewelry, was locked up tight by 8pm. So I decided I needed to seize the moment and run!
And I did! I did a 3-miler through the streets of Florence and around the Duomo. (How’s that, Jeff?) I managed to keep to streets I knew or ones that went in the right direction to head home, and didn’t get lost…circled the Duomo three times and the Baptismal Font once, which wasn’t as cool as I wanted it to be because I had to focus on where I was stepping instead of looking up at the amazing Duomo…the streets are paved with uneven cobbly pavers and a wrong step can twist me an ankle. No good. But I felt strong. Proud of myself. Trying to figure out how to start training on Monday without taking up too much Christa time with running! I’ll manage. I plan to run again early Friday after Mom takes off…
…on a plane!! Yes, she was able to book a flight out of Florence and into Rome! No more stressing about trains and too little time and a huge heavy bag she can’t handle alone! She’s good to go! I’m so relieved…so is she. I can tell because she managed to drain the Crown bottle tonight. Makes room for the white wine tomorrow night. ;)
Mom says her favorite part of today was her olive trees. Her grandparents had olive orchards when she was growing up and she says they just take her back. They are beautiful…all knobbly and silvery-green. We lived on an orchard when I was really little, but I’m mostly too young to remember them. We have been an olive family my whole life, though.
Basically, it was a great day, and I totally love Tuscany. Put it on your list of must-sees if you haven’t been here already. Tomorrow, we’re up with the chickens for our full-day trip to Cinque Terre…which promises to be another amazing day. Time to rub down the old feet and climb into bed. I have yet to get a full night’s sleep…but I guess there’s time for that when I get home. All for now. More tomorrow.