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.

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