Tuesday, July 12, 2005
My Dream Vacation, Part 3: Siena
We had planned to take a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano with a local tour company after a couple of days to recover from jet lag, so at 8:30 in the morning on Friday, we walked over to the train station and found the proper bus. We had two languages onboard, and so had the same tour guide speak in both English and Spanish. The drive to Siena, which was about an hour and a half south of Firenze, was very pleasant in the air-conditioned tour bus.
Roberto handed us off to Margarita, our Siena tour guide, as soon as we got to the city square. Margarita was a delightful woman in her mid-40's. She had lived in Siena for the past 20 years, but her husband is originally from Siena. He is actually a Snail, she told Val in a private conversation, from that local district.
When the group surrounded her, she pointed upward. "Do you see the flag waving above us?" We saw a yellow and green flag, and if you looked closely, you could see the caterpillar on the flag. "The horse race was just run two days ago, and the Caterpillars won. Therefore, the Caterpillars have the right to run their flag up all over town!" She also told us that various townspeople will have scarves of the victorious district around their necks, and in some extreme cases, some of the men will be sucking from pacifiers. "It's like they are reborn," she said with a smile but not a smirk. This is serious business.
Every few steps we walked in Siena, we saw different flags or markings of another district. The dragon. The rhino. Fascinating.
Although we fairly flew up the streets on the way to the Duomo, it was easy to see that this Roman city was full of charm. Full of tourists, too, although not overly so, now that the annual race was last weekend.
The Duomo was located next to the hospital. I learned that Siena was a natural town on the pilgrimage to Rome, and thus the hospital was born. Hospital in this sense meant a place that would take care of travelers by offering a bed to sleep in and food. The heat was beginning to be oppressive even though it wasn't quite 11 in the morning. The Duomo on the outside is large but not necessarily compelling. However, once you walk inside, you discover instantly that it rivals St. Peter's in terms of artwork filling up every single inch of space.
While we were looking at the mosaics on the floor, some of which were being restored as we were there, one of the teenagers in our party fainted due to the heat. They took her over to get some water and she seemed fine. When we sat with the family during lunch, the mother related that her daughter has often fainted. Here, however, it was obvious that she had no hat and carried no water.
Siena is a fascinating Roman city. The aqueduct system was the only thing that kept Siena alive in the Roman day, as it had no outside source of water like a lake or river. The sloping cobblestone streets spoke to me as I climbed my way through the city's alleyways.
At lunchtime, Val and I opted to join Roberto at lunch in the Black Rooster. The Black Rooster is a cavern, and its small eating area is totally underground, down some steep stairs. All the food, we noticed, had to be toted up and down the stairs by the wait staff. The food was marvelous! We had a four-course meal consisting of small portions of antipasti, vegetable soup, pasta with cheese and some flecks of meat, and cheese. And the bread was the best, but I found I was declaring that at every meal.
After this somewhat heavy meal, however, we followed Roberto quickly into the heat of Siena and to the large square where we would meet the rest of the group. Then we raced back down to where the bus was parked, a good quarter-mile away. In the heat, after the heavy meal (of which he partook), walking quickly when there were obviously some disabled tourists along was unconscionable in my mind. To make this personal, by the time I returned to the bus, I was flushed and my face was beet red. It took 30 minutes in the air-conditioned bus for me to return to normal.
And by that time, we were in San Gimignano, a medieval town totally behind imposing city walls that still stand. San Gimignano in my mind, however, was a complete bust. After climbing up the streets (about 3 blocks) to get to the gate, we found that the only thing that awaited us was a thoroughly modern commercial village, full of knickknacks and gelato. And it was hard to escape the heat.
Still, it was a great day for sightseeing and learning about Italy's medieval towns, towns which spent most of their resources defending against would-be attackers. I loved Siena. The time we had there was spent running after the tour guide rather than plumbing its depths. I would love to return.