Saturday, April 21, 2012

Siena, San Gimignano, & Pisa

-Twelve Hours in Tuscany-
(minus Florence)

On our fifth day in Italy, Dad and I booked a day trip through Tuscany so we could see some of the smaller towns surrounding Florence.  On this trip, which we enjoyed so very much, we visited Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa.

Part I - Siena

Caterpillar Contrada
Hopping off the bus, we took a series of escalators to get up the hill to Siena and through the medieval city's walls.  Right as we arrived, our Siena tour guide met us in the square and began to explain some of Siena's history to us.  First, she explained that Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, or guilds: the giraffes, the seashells, the caterpillars, the rhinoceroses, and others.  As she pointed out that each street in Siena is marked with a small plaque of one of these symbols, (to claim territory), she proudly told us that her family belonged to the seashell group.  According to our guide, there's no discrimination between the guilds today - people work together, talk together, hang out together, and coexist pleasantly.  Your guild is just a special thing from your family.  The guide told us that in Siena, a person is baptized twice: once into the church, and again into the contrada.

Palio di Siena Banner
This mixing and integrating works perfectly until the Palio de Siena, a biannual horse race that first started in the 1200s, begins.  During the races, the guilds race against each other.  You do everything with your group, and you desperately want your guild to win.  Our guide told us that the races are one of the longest standing, defining features of Siena, and that during and leading up to the race, the whole town of Siena feels united by excitement, even though only one guild can win.

The actual Palio di Siena only lasts about 1 minute and 13 seconds, but the training and buildup, not to mention the excitement, begin way before the day of the race.  Just four days before the race, there's a drawing to match the jockeys with the horses.  On the morning of the race, the horses and the jockeys are blessed into the contrada.  Then, in a crowd of Siena's 50,000 residents, they race around the main square, which serves as the racetrack and is shaped like a seashell.

The main square doubles as the racetrack for the Palio di Siena.

Our guide made a special effort to explain that in Siena, horses are treated like royalty.  After a horse's racing days have ended because of injury, age, or just retirement, the horse is respectfully cared for so it can live in comfort.  During the race, even if the jockey falls from the horse, if they horse continues racing, it can still win.  As the guide said, "It's the horse, not the jockey, who wins the race."

Monte dei Paschi
Bank Window
Another institution our guide pointed out was the bank, called Monte dei Paschi.  The bank opened in 1472, and is still known as the sponsor of the city.  The bank funds the university, the roads, and other important things.  Today, the bank building is a mix of gothic, early renaissance, and late renaissance architecture.

According to our guide, it is said in Siena that, "you used to work for the bank, you work for the bank, or you hope to work for the bank."

Striped Cathedral
Following our guide through the medieval, winding streets of Siena, which seemed like the Italian version of Salamanca (Spain), we arrived at the Cathedral of Siena.  This cathedral is quite different from any others I have seen simply because most of the building is covered in black and white horizontal stripes - like a Gap t-shirt. Walking through the cathedral, the guide pointed out that the stained glass was Murano glass from Murano Island in Venice, and that the marble floor was inlaid.
Cathedral of Siena

A tiny room on the side of the cathedral houses brightly colored frescoes, which have been preserved incredibly well since they are sectioned off into this little room.  Also in this room are very, very old and very, very large books which look like they have an old system of music notation in them.  I was amazed to see that everything in this little room was in such great condition, considering its age.

Frescoes in the Cathedral of Siena

Walkways of Siena
Feeling like we could have spent the entire day exploring all the little streets and alleys of Siena, we quickly found a snack (gelato, of course), met up with our group, and hopped gingerly back onto our tour bus.  From there, we departed for lunch just outside San Gimignano.
Gelato Cones
Part II - San Gimignano

Lunch at the Winery
I was especially excited to find out that San Gimignano was part of this tour since my grandma highly recommended visiting the town.  Before arriving in San Gimignano, we stopped at a winery for a quick tour, and a wine tasting with lunch.  At lunch, we tried some foods and flavors I had never eaten before.  I can't say I loved all the food, but I can definitely say I'm glad to have tried it.  Our first plate was pasta with a meat sauce, and it was relatively standard.  After that, we were served two kinds of cheese (no names, sorry), and two slices of different types of meat.  I'm reasonably sure they were types of ham, but really not that sure.  The cheeses had pretty sharp flavors, and paired nicely with the meat.  With each of the two courses we were served a different kind of wine, first a white, then a red, and later a dessert wine with a basket of biscotti.  I probably shouldn't admit this, but I liked the dessert wine I tried at the Inniskilin Winery in Ontario way better than the Tuscan dessert wine.  They told us to dip the biscotti in the dessert wine, and I tried that, but it just made the biscotti taste weird.  I tried it and made one of those weird faces.  Excellent table manners, I know.

Lunch at the Winery
The best part of our lunch was the view.  We could see several kilometers of vineyards, rolling hills, and lots of green everywhere.  It was so picturesque: vineyards, cypress trees, you know...Tuscany.  As we finished our lunch, we returned to the bus for a quick ride up to the town of San Gimignano, known for its towers.

World's Best Gelato
The first place we visited in San Gimignano was Gelateria di Piazza, the World Champions of Gelato from 2006 to 2009.  This was the only place I had ever seen
mandarin flavored gelato, so I had to try it.  I ordered a small cup of gelato,

half mandarin and half coffee.  The flavors didn't mix well at all, but on their own, each was fantastic.  The flavors were rich, the gelato was creamy, and it was actually as good as the guide had said.

Leather Purses
We had a bit of free time to explore the town, and decided to browse the boutiques instead of climbing the towers.  The boutiques in San Gimignano are adorable and sell all sorts of things.  We saw people selling artsy clothes, leather purses, leather coats, wallets, pottery, potpourri, ham, and other types of food.  Roaming the little streets was quaint and cozy.  We could have used a bit more time, but kept our eye on our watches, not wanting to get left behind.  With only ten minutes left, Dad bought a wallet and I bought a purse.  Even under a time constraint, we are talented shoppers.

Part 2 1/2 - Volterra

We passed Volterra between San Gimignano and Pisa.  I'm not kidding.  You know, Volterra, where the "Volturri" from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight live.  I don't think the older people on the bus were as excited as the younger people on the bus about this.  But really, driving by Volterra and not getting eaten by vampires is an accomplishment, and classifies me as a travel pro, right?  Then again, fiction is fiction.  I wasn't eaten by vampires in Volterra just like I could not manage to jump through the brick wall at Harry Potter's Platform 9 3/4 at Kingscross Station in London.  I'm going back to London next week, and I'll try again.  But seriously, I saw Volterra!  And it really is on the top of a small mountain!

Part III - Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Let me start off by saying that I know there's more in Pisa than just the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but when you're trying to see three different towns in just twelve hours, and you arrive in Pisa, the tower is the attraction you want to focus on.  I mean, seriously, it's a tower that's leaning.  No matter how you look at that, it's pretty awesome.  Well, awesome unless you're standing on the side where it's leaning directly towards or away from you, and therefore doesn't look like it's leaning at all.  No big deal, just stand on the other sides.

Our tour bus was actually too big to get near the tower, so we got off the bus and onto a little train, which brought us right to the courtyard.  In case you didn't know (I didn't), the Leaning Tower of Pisa is the bell tower for the cathedral right next to it.  The cathedral also leans, as do many of the buildings in Pisa.  The guide explained that the leaning is caused by having softer soil under one side of the tower than the soil under the other side.  The Leaning Tower of Pisa was closed so that visitors could not climb it, but in recent years, it was stabilized and reopened, so we got to climb up!

Tilted View of Pisa from the Tower
Our guide told us that the soft soil was removed and replaced by much stronger material.  In doing this, the trademark lean of the tower was secured; the tower will neither stand straighter nor fall over.  Climbing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa is quite an experience.  The staircase wraps around the tower, so depending on which side of the tower you're climbing at the moment, you climb leaning to the right or the left, and it changes as you go around.  Just when you start to adjust to the angle of the tower, you find yourself on the other side leaning the other direction.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a Bell Tower.
Eventually, you emerge at the top of the tower where the bells hang, since it is a bell tower.  Looking out over the rim of the tower, you see that the horizon between the land and the sky is slanted.  Or rather, you're standing on the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and so you're slanted.  You get a beautiful, albeit crooked, 360º view of Pisa.

Not gonna fall today!

When we descended the tower, we joined all the other tourists on the lawn in front of the tower to take the classical, touristy picture: holding up the tower.  You can't go to Pisa and not take this picture.  Holding up the tower, leaning on the tower, anything you can think of.  It's so much fun!  I was really, really looking forward to seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

Here are two more views of the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

After we reluctantly left the tower, we got back onto the little train and saw a bit more of Pisa.  Along the way, our guide pointed out the University of Pisa, a prestigious university where Galileo and Fermi studied.  From there, we passed a picturesque river with brightly colored buildings, and then boarded our bus once again.  Tired, but very satisfied with the tour and the day, we headed back to Florence.
At the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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