Sunday, April 29, 2012


Montepulciano – Day 25 – Monday

Even though it was technically the middle of a session, we had a lot of new students on Monday.  Three new people joined our class.  Martin is a very gentlemanly sort of Englishman who currently lives in Australia, but also has a house in Italy.  Maya is from Finland and Irmgard was born in Germany, but now lives in West Virginia.  We are a very diverse group.

After school, I took Martin on a brief tour of Montepulciano and we had lunch in Piazza Grande.  The sun was out and it was very pleasant, but Martin had to run off to a private lesson, so I sat and basked in the sun by myself for a bit.  I came home and did my homework and then Fiorella, Gosia and I had dinner together.  Fiorella made spaghetti carbonara and steak with arugula.  We talked for a couple of hours and then somehow got on the subject of liquor.  I broke out the absinthe.  It was a grand party.

Montepulciano – Day 26 – Tuesday

To learn a language is also to learn about the culture and values of a people.  Today we studied the future tense.  Italians live very much in the present and have a great respect for the past.  They have nine tenses to discuss the past, but only two for the future, one of which is just the simple present.  It is equally correct to say, “I do it tomorrow,” as it is to say, “I will do it tomorrow.”  However, with millennia of history to recount, there are many fine distinctions when discussing the past.

While Americans would consider it highly spontaneous to organize a dinner party giving less than a couple of weeks’ notice, Italians rarely invite anyone more than four days in advance.  Our teacher, Costanza, claims that she can see a pattern in her students’ responses to lessons about the future depending on their nationalities.  People from Spain or South America will talk about tomorrow or next week, while Germans, Scandinavians and Americans will talk about next year or even further out in the future.  I wonder if this is because we have the entire cold winter to stay indoors and plan?

Once again, Martin and I headed out for lunch.  We ran into Gosia at La Pentolaccia.  Soon, Irmgard joined us.  I had pici (a handmade pasta sort of like fat spaghetti) with a wild boar sauce.  It was sort of like pulled pork, but not as sweet.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Fiorella had recommended La Pentolaccia as a good, authentic place to eat.  Her father lives above the restaurant.  We were not disappointed.

I had wanted to go for another walk to San Biagio, but it was raining.  I came home and spent the afternoon reading.  Maybe this was a good thing, since I was starting to sneeze.  Fiorella made us a pasta with cheese and zucchini and some tasty grilled sausages.  By the time dinner was over, I was sure I was coming down with Costanza’s cold.  I went to bed early.  My nose was running incessantly and I had a hard time getting to sleep.

Montepulciano to Montefollonico – Day 27 – Wednesday

Wednesday was a national holiday celebrating Italy’s liberation from fascism and the school was closed.  Irmgard and I had plans to walk to Montefollonico, but we had agreed to meet at 10:00, so I slept in.  I definitely had a cold, but decided to walk it off.  Montefollonico is a small village about seven kilometers from Montepulciano if you take the direct route.  We didn’t.  Since both Montepulciano and Montefollonico sit on top of hills, we descended to the bottom of a valley and then climbed back up.  On the way, we passed San Biagio and I finally got to see the inside of the church.  I was attempting to follow directions in a book written in 1997, but many of the “abandoned” farmhouses have since been renovated and turned into hotels.  The directions were hard to follow.  We made the mistake of choosing the fork of the road that headed towards Montefollonico and ended up walking all the way around to the back of the hill before we reached the top.  Just as we were most confused, we encountered Age and Chris.  They were equally lost, but Chris had a working iPhone and it told us we were on a road that would lead us to Montefollonico, so we decided to stick with this longer, but surer route.

Eventually, we reached Montefollonico.  The town is very small and was seemingly deserted on the holiday.  The first restaurant we tried was full, so we went to another, more expensive one called Botta Piena which means full wine cask.  They had a very large selection of wine.  When we ordered a glass of house wine, they brought us a little crate with six different bottles from which to choose.  The food was very good and I had a glass of a Sangiovese/Merlot blend that was wonderful.  Italian wine has grown on me.  I like Sangiovese, anyway.  This had just a bit more of the fruity flavor one comes to expect in a California wine.  It was a nice change.  We both ordered lentil soup and salad.  There was a couple really enjoying themselves at the next table.  They very generously shared what was probably their second bottle of wine with us.

Montefollonico has a large restaurant with a huge terrace overlooking the valley.  It was a little chilly to have eaten out there, but we decided to stop in for dessert so as to enjoy the view.  They were closed, but were happy to sell us some ice cream confections.  We took a table and were enjoying the view and the ice cream when our friends from the restaurant appeared.  They greeted us like old friends and we chatted with them in Italian for a while.  He was Italian and his girlfriend was from Hungary.

Irmgard was determined that we not take the long route home.  We started at the edge of Montefollonico closest to Montepulciano and made our way down the hill.  We could see the road we wanted off to the right, but the main road went to the left.  We scrambled through the forest and stomped across fields and through olive orchards in an attempt to reach the road cross country, but eventually reached a creek lined with an impassable barrier of blackberry bushes.  We had to climb back up to the main road, but it was still much shorter than the way we had come.  Eventually that road met the road we had taken down from Montepulciano and we climbed back up the long hill to the city.  My cold and bad hip were catching up with me by that time and we were both pretty done in.  I’m sure we walked more than 15km, but I can’t say how far.  It was far enough.

Gosia returned from Siena shortly after I got home and we had a dinner of shells with broccoli and cheese and grilled chicken breast.  I didn’t feel well and wasn’t very hungry, which was probably a good thing, since broccoli is not my favorite food, although this was palatable.

Montepulciano – Day 28 – Thursday

I was a bit worse for wear after our trek to Montefollonico.  My cold was making my head stuffy and I felt like I was moving slow.  I’m not sure I absorbed much Italian, but we did have fun playing a game where we had to mime Italian words.  I also had to admit that my camera was dead and not going to recharge, no matter what I tried.  This is a bad thing for the blog, since I’m sure most of you just want to look at the pictures.  I’ll have to think of some way to correct the problem eventually.

I went out to the pharmacy at the break and managed to explain my condition to the pharmacist well enough to obtain some cold tablets containing ibuprofen and pseudoephedrine.  They are a Proctor and Gamble product with a Vick’s brand that I am sure I have never seen in the United States, but they work well enough.

After class, I had lunch with Fiorella and Gosia.  Fiorella put on quite a spread.  We had bresaola (a dried, thinly sliced, salted fillet of beef) served on a bed of arugula with a side of goat cheese sprinkled with dried red pepper and herbs and bruschetta.  Of course, we also had wine.  Determined to get the best of my cold, I spent the afternoon doing laundry in preparation for my departure and sleeping.  

Dinner was tagliatelle with homemade ragout, followed by breaded, fried beef cutlets …and salad… and cheese… and wine.  I watched a little bit of TV with Fiorella and Kiriku, the dog, and went to bed early.

Montepulciano – Day 29 – Friday

It seems impossible, but I have now reached the second half of my trip.  It seems like I just got here.  How can this be?  I would love to stay in Tuscany for another month, but I will have to settle for coming back someday.  I do want to see other parts of Italy.

We had a productive day of lessons.  I felt a good deal better.  I just wish the congestion in my sinuses would pass.  It’s hard enough to listen to myself speaking Italian without having my hearing distorted by a head full of viscous slime.  I went to the bank at the break and then to the coffee bar where I have gone every day to have my last cappuccino and say goodbye.  It was hard to say goodbye to my teachers and friends from the school, but I managed to do so without shedding any tears.  It was still very sad.

This Calzone Was Bigger Than My Head
The school had tried to arrange a farewell luncheon, but my friend, Peter, and I were the only two who wanted to go.  We went anyway because, hey, we had to eat, no?  I ordered a calzone that turned out to be bigger than my head.  It was very tasty, but I didn’t even try to eat the second half.  It will taste great on the train to Rome tomorrow, I am sure.  We ate at the restaurant below the apartment where I have been living.  Today, the weather was finally warm enough to sit outside.  We had a very pleasant and relaxing lunch.

After lunch, I tried to go to the post office to buy some stamps, but learned that the post office in Montepulciano closes for the day at 1:35 pm.  I then set off down Via Gracciano to buy my train ticket at the tourist office and shopped for a few gifts along the way.  Wouldn’t you know, now that I will no longer have friends to call, I discovered a place to recharge my cellphone.  I bought a train ticket to Rome and a bus ticket to the station.  The travel agent was on a break when I arrived, so I had a nice chat in Italian with the other girl who worked there until she returned.  I managed to conduct my business in Italian, but was not able to use my Eurail pass to buy the ticket.  It didn’t really matter, because the ticket to Rome cost all of $12 and I can use the pass for another ticket later.  I will have to make some reservations when I get to the train station in Rome.  The Chiusi station is not manned on Saturdays.

I came home and started packing.  Despite having restrained myself from purchasing anything, I have still acquired a frightening amount of extra stuff.  I can leave the toiletries behind, but I have a heavy textbook and some sandals a packet of the spice mix Fiorella uses to make bruschetta that she gave me.  The backpack I bought at the market is slowly shredding, so I may have to break down and buy a purse before I leave, just to get my treasures home again.
Fiorella and Me
Gosia and Me
Fiorella, Gosia and Kiriku
Pannacotta with Strawberries
Tonight, we had the best dinner yet.  Fiorella made cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach and served with a béchamel sauce.  For the second course we had pears baked with pecorino and drizzled with honey and then pannacotta (a type of whipped cream custard) with strawberries for dessert.  This felt completely decadent, since the pears and cheese seemed like dessert to me.  I had brought Fiorella a bottle of Vin Santo from Assisi and we had a taste of that, as well.  After dinner, we took some pictures with my cell phone that I will one day upload to this blog, although I can’t say when.  I don’t have service and have failed to upload them via Wi-Fi.  I leave for Rome early tomorrow.  Maybe the Wi-Fi in Rome will be faster.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Montepulciano to Assisi – Day 23 – Saturday

Got up early Saturday morning and Fiorella took me to the bus station to catch the 8:30 bus to Chiusi.  Unfortunately, the bus doesn’t make a good connection with the train, so I had to wait until 10:58 for the next train to Florence and then another hour at Cortona where I changed to the train for Assisi.  I munched my porchetta panino and the bread was only a little stale.  All went well when I got to Assisi, however, and I had just enough time to buy a ticket before the bus came to take me up the hill from the station to the town.
My Hotel Room
Interesting Door Arrangement

My Terrace
The bus from the station dumped me off at the bottom of the town and my hotel was at the top.  It wasn’t actually very far, but it was very steep.  I didn’t have a good map, but managed to find the hotel pretty easily and got checked in.  I stayed at the Hotel San Giacomo.  The hotel is very close to the Basilica of St. Francis.  The room was plain, but spacious and opened onto a lovely terrace that would have been enjoyable in pleasant weather.  It must get hot in Assisi because the outer, locking door to the room was louvered.  There was also an inner door that did not lock.  The hotel is run by a nice family and has really good wireless internet.

Rocca Maggiore

I dropped off my luggage, consulted my guidebook, and set off to see the sights of Assisi.  Rick Steves recommends a walk that starts at the opposite end of the town from where I was staying.  I decided to hit the castle on the way across town, since it wasn’t on the route.  Rick kind of glossed over the Rocca Maggiore, but I found it very interesting.  Most cities in this part of Italy are built on the tops of hills, but Assisi is built on the side of a mountain.  The castle occupies the top of the hill.  The Pope used the castle to dominate the citizens of the town who weren’t too keen on Papal rule.

Red Poppies
Me on Top of the Tower
Medieval Reenactment
Umbrian View
It was a long, steep climb up to the castle, made longer by the fact that I went the wrong way down a steep hill, looking for a road that wasn’t there, and had to climb back up again.  Then, of course, I couldn’t resist climbing the tower.  The spiral staircase was barely one person wide and very steep.  Fortunately, there were landings where people could pass.  The museum curators have replaced the original wooden beams and floors with steel beams and plexiglass floors.  That tower is pretty vertiginous, but interesting.  There are many photographs of medieval life displayed there.  Reenactments are staged each year during the first week of May.  The view from the top of the tower was spectacular.  Fields and farms stretch off into the distance on the downhill side and rugged mountain valleys stretch out in the other direction.  I took a picture for an Asian couple who were trying to figure out how to get both of them into a shot and they took a couple for me.

Assisi from Above
Roman Amphiteater with Infill

From the castle, it was an easy walk downhill to the parking lot when my walk was supposed to begin, but I had a devil of a time finding the beginning because I was looking for a Roman amphitheater and didn’t recognize it because it had been completely filled in with 13th and 14th century houses.  The surrounding 2,000 year old wall is in remarkably good shape and today forms the outside wall of many buildings.  I circled the amphitheater and took in some fabulous Umbrian views from city gates.  Then I wandered down through some very steep and crooked, but quite picaresque, lanes to the Cathedral of San Rufino.

San Rufino
St. Francis of Assisi may be the patron saint of Italy, but San Rufino is the patron saint of Assisi.  The 11th century Romanesque cathedral has been “modernized” with the addition of a Gothic façade and Baroque interior decoration.  The church contains the baptismal font where St. Francis was baptized in 1181 and St. Clare in 1194.  The children of Assisi are still baptized there.  The cathedral features some fine 19th century statues of Francis and Clare and has had sections of the floor replaced with plexiglass so that you can see the foundations of earlier churches and temples dating back to Roman times.
Medieval Street

Heading down the hill from San Rufino, one passes through a neighborhood of medieval houses.  The architecture can be recognized by the pointed arches above the doorways.  Assisi holds a flower competition every June and many homes and businesses are decorated with potted flowers and blooming window boxes.

Geraniums in Assisi
Santa Chiara

The next stop on my tour was the Basilica of Santa Chiara (or Santa Clara.)  The church and attached convent are the headquarters of the order of Poor Clares.  Clare was inspired by St. Francis and formed a corresponding order for women.  The basilica has impressive flying buttresses, which were occupied by troops of cub scouts playing games with friars when I passed by.  The former church of St. Mary of the Angels was the cradle of the Franciscan order.  Today, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Los Angeles are all named after things Franciscan.

Piazza del Comune

The former Roman Temple of Minerva today houses a Christian church.  I wanted to visit, but there was a service in process and, as the place is rather small, I couldn’t visit unobtrusively.  The temple fronts on the Piazza del Comune, which would be a delightful place to have lunch or a cappuccino on a day that was not windy and threatening rain.  From the piazza, I headed down a series of steps and crooked lanes and eventually arrived at Via San Francesco, the main drag of Assisi.  

Via San Francesco boasts many shops and galleries, but most were closed when I passed by.  I did stop into the gallery of Massimo Cruciani.  I am a fan of his glass paintings, but I am not here to buy stuff.  I especially like his paintings of red poppies, but the gallery in Assisi had a larger variety than the one in Montepulciano.  There were many Tuscan scenes and also a wonderful version of the Last Supper.   I decided to pass on visiting the Basilica of St. Francis because it was getting cold and looked like rain and I was tired from getting up early and then climbing all over Assisi.  I went back to my room and read for a bit before dinner.

I had a tasty dinner in an atmospheric cellar restaurant called Locanda del Podesta around the corner from my hotel.  They are noted for their sausages, so I ordered some penne with a sausage cream sauce and a glass of wine.  I was not disappointed.  The service was very good and I enjoyed the food and ambiance.  I was also glad not to have to schlep back up the hill from the lower town after dinner.  After dinner, I stayed up much too late reading and working on my blog.

Assisi to Montepulciano – Day 24 – Sunday

I abandoned myself to the first good sleep I had had in a long time.  When it rains, Montepulciano is noisy and it has rained almost every night for weeks.  I always stay up too late and I have to get up early for school.  I didn’t wake up until 9:00 and wasn’t moving very fast, even then.  I decided not to hurry to eat breakfast at the hotel, so took my time.  I left just after 10:30 and wandered back towards the piazza, thinking I would have a cappuccino there.  It was threatening to rain, however, so I ducked into a pastry shop and had a Danish and cappuccino.  I sat there for half an hour or so reading my guidebook regarding the Basilica of St. Francis.
Mob at Basilica of St. Francis

Basilica of St. Francis
After breakfast, I visited the basilica.  The place was an absolute madhouse.  There are two churches there, one on top of the other and both were packed for Sunday mass.  The lower church is very Romanesque and features beautiful colorful frescoes.  I would have liked to examine them closely, but it was impossible.  I stood in the back, listening to the choir and gazing up at the ceiling painted with stars.  Then I gave a few Euros to the friar with the collection basket and joined the line of people shuffling towards the tomb of St. Francis.

Lower Basilica

The actual tomb is quite beautiful.  St. Francis’ remains are in a stone sarcophagus banded with iron and the whole thing is enclosed in another stone enclosure with iron gratings.  The room is decorated with flowers and lit by candlelight.  It was a peaceful spot and I sat there contemplating St. Francis and his ideas until a troop of children arrived and shattered the tranquility of the place.
Upper Basilica

The upper church is more Gothic in design, with a much higher ceiling and more light.  It is also frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Francis.  The frescoes were damaged in an earthquake in 1997 and were pieced back together except where an aftershock caused part of them to shatter a second time.  I arrived just before the mass ended, so got about a minute to gaze at the frescoes before a fresh crowd packed in for the next mass.  Never visit Assisi on a Sunday.

Temple of Minerva

By the time I left the basilica, I was done with crowds for a bit.  I walked back up the hill and visited the Temple of Minerva again.  This time I was lucky and arrived just as the service had ended.  I was able to look at the building closely.  Today, it is gaudily decorated in baroque style, but the original altar is visible, along with the drains for the blood from animal sacrifices.  Of all the Roman temples I have seen, this is the only one that is still serviceable.  It was built more than 2,000 years ago.  Kudos to the architect.

Giant Meringues

After visiting the temple, I wandered back down Via San Francesco.  Assisi has the best shopping I have seen in Italy, so far.  I couldn’t resist buying a pair of sandals for 22 Euros that would have cost me $125 at home and I also bought a few small gifts and a bottle of absinthe.  I will have to drink it here because I can’t legally bring it into the United States, but it is a small bottle.  I caught the bus back to the train station.  

At the bus station someone asked me if the buses were running because she had heard something about a strike.  This concerned me when I got to the station because all of the monitors were down and I couldn’t determine if the trains were running or not.  I had just missed a train, so had to wait for a couple of hours, not knowing if the train was going to come or not.  It was a bit of an anxious time because I really had no idea how I would get back to Montepulciano if the trains didn’t run.  My train was about 20 minutes late, which added to the anxiety, but eventually did arrive.  I had to watch very carefully for my station because it was impossible to hear the station announcements and the second class cars do not have electronic displays.  Despite these hardships, I managed to arrive at Cortona and change to the train for Chiusi without missing my connection.

There are no buses from Chiusi to Montepulciano, so I had resigned myself to paying 50 Euros for a taxi.  My taxi driver drove straight past the sign for Montepulciano.  I have made the trip several times and knew he wasn’t going the normal route.  I spent the 20 minute drive planning how I was going to argue with him if he tried to overcharge me, but the fare ended up being only about a Euro more than the normal route, so the excess just came out of his tip.  The route was actually fairly interesting, so it all worked out.

I got home in time to unpack and do my homework before having dinner with Fiorella and our new housemate, Gosha from Poland.  She is a cheerful young woman in her 30s and a nice change from the mostly older crowd at the school.  We shared a dinner of gnocchi in ragout and pork loin, along with the usual salad, wine, fruit and cheese.  Oof!  It was good to go to bed reasonably early.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Montepulciano – Day 20 – Wednesday

Marita and I were supposed to go to Pienza this afternoon, but the school schedule changed and it was hailing something fierce, anyway.  I went out for pizza with Eli and Illiana from my class.  They are traveling for a year.  They have already been to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and have been in Italy since the middle of March.  I am so jealous.

We ordered a couple of different pizzas to share and a split of Vino Nobile.  The first bottle was corked.  They brought us a second bottle.  It was off, also.  We settled for a half carafe of house red.  Eli was skeptical at first, but it grew on him as the wine at Fiorella’s has grown on me.  The wine in this region is really very good.

After lunch, I went home and passed a quiet afternoon at home, studying.  Fiorella made homemade tagliatelle with sausage and cheese and grilled sausages.  It was a very savory dinner for a cold, wet day.  I went to sleep content.

Montepulciano to Pienza – Day 21 – Thursday

Vineyard Next to the Car Park
I came home after class and waited for Marita to finish with her private lesson.  We had plans to take a drive to Pienza.  Fortunately, it held off raining long enough for Marita and me to make the trip.  Savannah had taken me on the same drive after my first day of class, but this time I was the one showing Marita the sights and directing which way to go.  Funny how much difference 2.5 weeks can make.  I was completely disoriented that first day and had no idea where I was going.

Marita with Cheese
We arrived in Pienza after a pleasant drive through the gorgeous countryside and found a parking lot next to a vineyard just outside of town.  We walked up into the town and along the main street towards the central plaza.  The smell of cheese was overwhelming.  Nearly every shop in Pienza sells pecorino.  Pienza is famous for its cheese.  Every shop window displayed mountains of cheese attractively arranged.  I had missed my opportunity to buy a porchetta panino at the market in the morning, so ducked into one of the several shops offering porchetta and bought myself a sandwich for later consumption.
Peccorino in Pienza
Cheese & Wine Shop in Pienza

Piccolomini Palace, Pienza
The town now called Pienza was originally named Corsignano.  Pope Pius II was born there and decided the remodel the town in the Renaissance fashion during the 1400s.  The town was renamed in his honor.  While small, Pienza is lovely, having benefitted from unusually cohesive urban planning.  The Duomo and the Piccolomini family palace (Pius was a Piccolomini.) front on the central square.  The Duomo was particularly interesting because the apse is visibly sinking.  The floor slopes downward, walls are cracking and walking behind the altar is a bit like walking into a funhouse.  The Piccolomini Palace is a lovely piece of architecture.  We didn’t tour the inside, but did step into the courtyard, which was reminiscent of a Roman peristyle home.

Bar in Pienza
We wanted to stop somewhere for a late lunch, but had trouble finding someplace open that served food made without wheat, since Marita has an allergy to gluten.  We finally settled for a bar on the way back to the car park.  The kitchen was closed at that hour, so we had gelato and a macchiato and Marita bought a bag of potato chips.  I had presciently munched a pear and some cheese when I got home, so this was not too much of a disappointment for me.  Italian gelato is never a disappointment.  I had tiramisu and vanilla flavors.  The bar had tables outside under a magnificent wisteria arbor.  The sun had peeked out for a bit, so we sat outside and enjoyed the ambiance.

View from Pienza
We drove on to San Quirico D’ Orcia, but I was unable to show Marita much of the town because we could not find a place to park the rather large car she had rented.  We did, however, enjoy the drive through the beautiful hills.  Returning to Montepulciano about 7:00, we finally determined how to get the car pointed in the right direction and found a place to park.  I had plans to meet some friends for a drink, but the bar was closed when I got there and I was unable to locate them.  I tried several nearby places and then just went home to dinner.

Dinner was leftover tagliatelle and roast beef.  The roast beef was rare and tender and generally wonderful like everything else Fiorella has ever cooked for me.  Marita had bought a bottle of wine for Fiorella in Pienza and we agreed to have dinner together the following evening, since it would be our last evening all together.

Montepulciano – Day 22 – Friday

Friday was Knut’s last day, but the rest of us are staying on.  We might have some new additions next week.  We had an interesting discussion on healthcare.  In Italy, Norway and Holland, they have national healthcare.  It seems that it is free and pretty good, but you have to wait a long time for an appointment.  I pay more for health insurance than I pay for my mortgage and still have to pay for my drugs and wait four months for an appointment.  I’d be willing to trade any day.

It started to rain just as class was finished.  I had date for lunch with Fiorella.  She made me bruschetta, prosciutto and zucchini with arugula (which they perversely call rocket here) and parmesan, along with a nice salad with feta cheese.  I had a little wine with lunch, did some hand laundry, tried to study and ended up taking a nap.

Fiorella woke me for dinner.  We had a little dinner party with Marita and shared the nice bottle of Chianti she had brought.  Fiorella made risotto with zucchini and crispy roasted chicken.  We had the usual salad spread and cheese and strawberries after dinner.  There was some peccorino with spicy peppers that was really tasty and also some spicy pepper jam.  After dinner, I packed for my trip to Assisi, checked all my reservations and read a P.D. James mystery until much too late.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Montepulciano – Day 18 – Monday

Monday was the start of a new session at Il Sasso.  I walked to school with my new housemate, Marita, but we are not in the same class.  Since she is from Finland, we converse in Italian.  She knows more grammar than I do, but I am the motor mouth.  Sometimes I talk myself into a corner, but generally I do pretty well.  For some reason, I find Italian very comfortable.  By the time I get home, I may have forgotten English if I don’t run across some English speaking travel companions.  It is starting to sink in that I am going to leave Montepulciano soon.  I am excited and eager to see other iconic sights in Italy, but loath to leave Tuscany where it seems I must have lived in another life.

There were lots of new faces at the school and it took us most of the first day to sort out who belonged in which class.  We ended up with five students in our class.  All three Americans are in our class, although one of the “Americans” is actually from Argentina.  We also have a gentleman from Norway named Knut and one from Holland named Age (A-kay.)  The other two Americans are Illiana and Eli from San Diego.  The three of us also speak Spanish and are constantly confused.  Eli and Illiana are travelling in Europe for several months.  They have been in Italy for a month already and will stay for a few more weeks after this session ends.  Then they go to France to study French for a month or so and are thinking of going to England.   We have the same two teachers, Costanza and Roberta, that I had last session.  It’s a good group.

Dining Room Table
After school, I came home and had lunch with Fiorella.  We had a simple lunch of crackers (suspiciously like matzo), prosciutto, cheese, fruit and salad (with wine, of course.)  The weather was lousy, so I stayed in and worked on my blog all afternoon.  I got a chance to take some more pictures of the interior of Fiorella's house.  Fiorella doesn't like having her picture taken, but I'll try to get one before I leave.

Living Room and Stairs to Nowhere
La Cucina
For dinner, we had leftover gnocchi (even better the second day) and grilled chicken with spinach and assorted salad and cheeses.  I attribute my success in speaking Italian to taking my meals with Fiorella.  Marita is not dining with us and Fiorella and I both felt bad about that.  If I had a gluten allergy as she does, I might also have declined to take meals with an Italian family, thinking that there would be pasta every night.  As it turns out, Tuscans are total carnivores.  There is usually pasta, but there are always enough meat, vegetables, salad and cheese to make a good meal.

Tuscany is not, however, a good place to eat bread.  In ancient times, salt was very expensive in Tuscany.  Traditional Tuscan bread does not contain salt.  It is kind of dry and tasteless.  Today, the meat in Tuscany is very salty and flavorful to make up for the bland bread.  In other parts of Italy, the bread is tastier, but the meat is plainer.  This makes a sort of sense, but all three of us Americans are dying for a piece of sourdough.  Illiana has even gone so far as to seek out yeast to bake her own bread.

Montepulciano – Day 19 – Tuesday

I must be very easily entertained because learning the imperfect tense this morning totally made my day.  Each morning, we have a break from 10:15 to 10:45.  Many of us repair to the nearest café for cappuccino.  The proprietor’s name is Alessandro and he knows my order by heart.  I go to see his smiling face as much as I do for the coffee.  Since it is usually cold, the warm coffee is comforting.  I stick to decaf, but many students (and sometimes teachers) go there for a jolt to keep them awake through the second lesson.
I had plans to eat lunch with Fiorella again.  I came home to find the table laden with yummy delicacies: bruschetta with unbelievable Sicilian tomatoes, zucchini with parmesan cheese, frittata with spinach, prosciutto, fruit, salad and wine.  I have become very fond of the practice of lingering over fruit, wine and cheese at the end of meals.

Temple of San Biagio

The weather was improved enough to risk a walk.  Fiorella has not felt very well and hasn’t been able to walk the dog much, so I borrowed him and took him on a walk to the Temple of San Biagio.  San Biagio is outside the city walls, below the town.  We walked down a steep dirt road, past an interesting walled cemetery and down a driveway lined with cypresses.  The cypresses were planted to honor local soldiers killed in the First World War.  Fiorella’s dog was very happy with this arrangement.  He had a great time sniffing, marking territory, scratching in the dirt and greeting other dogs.  When we got to the church, I wanted to bask in the welcome sun for a few minutes, but he barked at me until I got up and led him around the church so he could explore.

I had visited the exterior of San Biagio during my first week here, but didn’t have time to see the inside.  With the dog in tow, I still couldn’t go inside, but I did get to stick my head in the door.  It’s a pretty domed church built of white travertine.  The dome of San Biagio inspired the architect Bramante to design St. Peter’s in Rome.

We took a different, but equally steep, route back up the hill.  The route wound through pretty houses with lots of flowers and through a couple of archways on the back side of Montepulciano until we finally intersected the main street through town and made our way back up the house.  The dog was dragging on the way back, so I had an excuse to walk slowly and enjoy the view over the valley.  I didn’t have any homework, so the dog and I both took a nap upon our return.

Marita joined us at the dinner table last night and it was very festive with the three of us.  We had white Arborio rice and chicken stewed with peppers, home fries, a couple of different salads, strawberries and brie.  We lingered at the table until 9:30 or so.  I barely had time to chat with Scott before it was time for bed.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Montepulciano to Siena – Day 16 – Saturday

I met Linda in front of the school at 7:30 and we trooped off down the hill to the bus station.  The train station was packed with teenagers and bus after bus was arriving carrying more.  We never determined why Montepulciano was a magnet for teenagers that morning, but we were relieved to discover that they were not interested in taking the bus to Siena.

The bus ride to Siena from Montepulciano takes about an hour and a half.  We passed through Sinalunga at about the halfway point.  It rained heavily all the way there and was still pouring when we arrived.  We were aware that there were several stops in Siena, but were not aware that the one we wanted was the penultimate stop and not the terminus.  They threw us off the bus when it got to the train station.
We ducked inside to consult my map before heading off through the rain to find the center of town.  The train station is a mile or so distant from the center of Siena and we had to climb up the hill through the rain.
Piccolo Palio Hotel
Linda spotted my hotel, so we stopped there.  It was too early to check in, but I was able to tell them that I had arrived so that I didn’t need to worry about returning before the 6:00 deadline and we were able to shelter from the rain and use the restroom.  The Hotel Piccolo Palio is small, but the location was convenient to the train and bus stations and the room only cost me $60 for the night.  The hall carpet needed replacing, but my single room, though small, was clean and comfortable.  I have paid a lot more for a similar room in England and Holland.

From the hotel, we splashed up the hill to the bus station where we should have disembarked and then on into the historic center of the city.  We stopped in an elegant pastry shop and had cappuccinos and a pastry for Linda.  As usual, Fiorella had fed me before I left, so I was able to refuse the delectable concoctions in the pastry case, although I almost succumbed to a cannoli.  Linda had spent time in Siena previously and really wanted to see the Duomo again, so we forged on after warming ourselves over coffee.

Contrada Symbol
We took a side trip to Il Campo on the way to the Duomo.  Il Campo is a huge plaza constructed in a bowl.  It is basically semicircular.  The city hall and its tall tower sit at the bottom.  The rest of the circumference is ringed with cafes and shops.  At the top, is the famous Fountain of Joy.  The original fountain has weathered badly.  Today, it has been replaced with a copy of the original.  The brick pavement of the plaza is made from the local clay.  The color of this plaza gave rise to the color “burnt siena.”  Il Campo is the site of a famouse horse race, Il Palio, which takes place on July 2nd and August 16th each year.  The city of Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods or “contrade.”  In Siena, nothing is more important than your contrada.  The 17 neighborhoods draw lots to determine which ten will compete in the race.  (There is only room for ten horses to race safely.)  The races are the most important events in the Sienese calendar.  The pre- and post-race celebrations and parades go on for days.  Each contrada has its own flag and symbol.  Scarves bearing these designs are on sale at every souvenir shop and the flags line the streets.  Symbols are found at all major intersections where contrade meet.

Linda with Leonardo
Linda had been asked to pay a visit to a friend of a friend who owns a ceramic shop.  As soon as we walked into Il Campo, she spotted his shop on the right.  The gentleman’s name is Leonardo and he operates three ceramic stores in Siena.  He was very happy to see us.  His store was crowded with lovely and expensive ceramics.  He and Linda chatted about their mutual friend and Leonardo gave me advice on where to find an adaptor for my camera charger.  He was very hospitable and gave us some postcards and pens.  Linda bought a couple of small bowls.  Always aware of my need to heft my heavy bag into train overheads, I settled for a pretty wine cork that will make a nice gift.

We finally arrived at the Piazza Duomo, but accidentally ducked into the nearest ticket office, which happened to be the Santa Maria della Scala Museum.  A friendly greeter explained to us that it was the first day of Culture Week in Italy and the museum was free that day.  We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit.  The museum occupies a former charity hospital and orphanage that cascades down the side of a steep hill for several levels.  The hospital had many patrons and was sumptuously decorated with frescoes and sculpture.  The original Fountain of Joy is displayed in one of the basements.  There is also a large collection of Etruscan artifacts and the building itself is worth visiting for the art on the walls and ceilings.  It is hard to imagine the huge, richly decorated halls packed with beds for sick people, but it was used as a hospital until the 1980s.

There was a lot to see at the museum and we worked up an appetite.  It was still raining when we exited, so we ducked into the nearest pizzeria to share a carafe of red wine and eat pizza.  There are no tiny pizzas in Italy.  The crust is thin and the toppings minimal, but an individual pizza is about 12”.  I decided to see what a pepperoni pizza would be like in Italy.  It was very good.  The pepperoni was much leaner than that found in America and very flavorful.  The pizza was piping hot and not coated with a layer of grease.  We took our time over the meal and tried to warm up and dry out.

The Duomo in Siena
After lunch, we finally made it to the Duomo.  Like the Duomo in Orvieto, the Duomo in Siena is black and white striped.  The outside is not as ornate as the Duomo in Oriveto, but the inside is much more so.  The Duomo dates back to 1215 and was constructed on the highest point of the hill on which Siena is built.  The church is larger than the hill, so it sits atop a complex of other church buildings that form an artificial platform.  During the 14th century Siena’s rival, Florence, built a larger cathedral and the Sienese decided to build an even larger one, transforming the current nave into the transept of the propsed cathedral.  They built one wall, but were stymied by the lack of flat terrain on which to build the rest.  Soon after, the plague carried off a third of the city’s residents and the project was abandoned.

Duomo Floor
The floor of the Duomo is fancifully inlaid with depictions of biblical scenes in different colors of marble.  Today, most of these are covered over to protect them from wear, but some were visible.  There is a seemingly coffered dome above the transept crossing which, while lovely, is actually a painted illusion.  The heads of 172 popes look down on the congregation from the ceiling of the nave.  While much of the art from the cathedral has been moved to the Duomo Museum, there is still a Michelangelo statue of St. Paul, an exceptional bronze Donatello statue of St. John the Baptist and a heavenly baroque chapel designed by Bernini.  Also interesting is the Piccolomini Library with its well preserved frescoed ceiling and collection of 15th century illuminated music scores.

Strange Arch in the Crypt
Linda and I also visited the crypts, but they were actually just basement storage rooms, not burial chambers.  The most interesting thing about them was the structure supporting the cathedral and the sometimes confusing architecture that made me wonder if the plans had not been changed during construction.

The remains of St. Clement
Linda had a bus to catch back to Montepulciano, so she left after the crypts, but I also visited the Baptistry (an interesting chapel supporting the rear of the cathedral and containing a baptismal font decorated with bronze panels by Donatello and other well-known artists) and the Duomo Museum.  The Duomo Museum houses much of the original art from the Duomo.  The gothic sculptures on the exterior of the cathedral have weathered badly and have been replaced by copies.  The originals reside in the museum.  The original rose window is also in the museum where it is possible to observe it from close range.  The museum winds up a tower and each floor is more interesting than the last.  One floor contains reliquaries, the most interesting of which displays the bones of St. Clement in a glass coffer, arranged artistically and decorated with silk flowers and gold braid.  Sixty narrow steps take you up to the roof of the cathedral where there is a panoramic view of Siena and the cathedral dome.  It was still pouring and was very wet and windy up there.  I took some pictures, but elected not to climb the last set of steps to the top of the tower.
View from Duomo Roof

Il Campo
CIty Hall
City Tower
Even though it continued to rain, I took a turn around Il Campo and visited the courtyard of the City Hall.  I was a little tired of museums, so elected to pass on the Civic Museum.  The tall City Tower was closed due to the rain, so I was saved from climbing its 300 stairs and also from paying the 8 Euro entrance fee.  I finished my circuit of the plaza and then splashed my way to a fancy grocery store we had seen on the way into town. After my big pizza lunch, I didn’t need much for dinner.  I bought a split of Chianti, some cookies and a pear.  Customers had to weigh the produce and print out a ticket to present to the cashier.  Each bin of produce was assigned a number.  I placed the pear on the scale and pushed a button with the corresponding number and the printer spit out a sticker.  The grocery store was arranged in the shape of a “C” with the entrance at one end and the cashier and exit at the other.  It was a mistake to think I could peruse the entire store before making my choice.  I had to battle my way upstream to get my precious bottle of Chianti.

The rain still had not abated, so I decided to retire to my hotel for the evening.  I checked in and spent the evening eating my pear, drinking Chianti and watching the Poseidon Adventure in Italian on the TV.

Siena to Montepulciano – Day 17 – Sunday

Hotel Room in Siena

Sunday morning I slept in for the first time since I have been in Italy and awakened to silence.  No rain was splattering on the Piazza del Sale.   I didn’t have a lot left to see in Siena and my train did not leave until 2:00, so I was able to proceed at a leisurely pace.  There was a marathon being run in Siena that morning, so I took a seat in Piazza Gramsci and watched the runners go by while I enjoyed a cappuccino and a cheese Danish.  I also bought a salami and cheese panino for my lunch.  Almost all Italian fast food restaurants and cafes operate on the honor system.  You get your food, find a table and eat it and only pay when you are ready to leave.  This makes for chaos at the counter where people may also be standing while drinking their espresso.

Soccer Stadium in Siena
Church of San Domenico
I walked across town to the Church of San Domenico.  I took the scenic route around the soccer stadium and past a Medici fortress.  These features were not mentioned in my guidebook, but the massive fortress was interesting and the modern stadium was in stark contrast to the medieval city above it.  San Domenico is a huge, plain, 13th century brick church.  It is imposing from the outside, but rather institutional looking inside except for some exceptional and probably modern stained glass windows depicting the works of St. Catherine.  They remind me of the windows in the cathedral at Fatima, which also depict the works of women, and may have been executed by the same modern artist.  There is also a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine who helped to convince the pope to return from Avignon to Rome.  Her actual head is displayed on the altar.

St. Catherine
Much less barbaric is the Sanctuary of St. Catherine below the church at the bottom of a steep ravine.  St. Catherine lived here during the 14th century and you can visit her cell.  Pilgrims have visited the site since the 15th century and her once simple home has been embellished with a complex of airy and beautifully decorated chapels landscaped with geraniums and azaleas.  It was a steep climb back up out of the ravine to Il Campo, but I wanted to see the University.  My teacher, Costanza, studied there.  From what I could see, the University occupies a number of rather plain brick buildings that have no doubt stood there for centuries.

Having seen all I wanted to see of Siena, I set out to walk back to the train station.  Fortunately, it was mostly downhill.  I got to the train station early and waited for about an hour.  For the first time, an Italian person asked me for directions.  I guess I am starting to fit in.

The train ride to Montepulciano Stazione took about an hour.  The train travels through the bottom of a valley and the scenery is flatter and not as pretty as the Montepulciano area, but still nice and green at this time of year.  There had been a few sprinkles while I was wandering around Siena, but the weather started to improve and the sky was partially clear by the time I arrived at Montepulciano Stazione.
I walked back up the mountain to the city of Montepulciano (on top like every other city around here) from the station, a distance of about 11 km.  It was cool and pleasant for walking.  The scenery is fantastic.  I don’t think I would have wanted to climb any further uphill, but I made it OK.  Linda happened to be looking out her window as I trudged up the last steep bit and she said I didn’t look too bedraggled.  I took my time and stopped often to take photos.  I will let the photos tell the story of my walking adventure.

A new student, Marita from Finland, had joined our household while I was gone.  I cleaned up, rested a bit and we walked down to Il Sasso for the biweekly reception for new students.  While I am the only one who was here last week, there are several who have been to the school before.  This is a very different group from the last one.  The last group was all American and German.  This group is mostly Scandinavian.  There are only three Americans and one of us is actually from Argentina.  She has confirmed my belief that Argentinians speak Spanish with an Italian accent.  She doesn’t really speak any more Italian than I do, but she sounds like a native.  I came home to a wonderful dinner of gnocchi and a veal chop.  It was good to be back.  This is a warm, welcoming place and I was tired.