Saturday, December 4, 2010

Day 23: Italy's Hill Towns – Siena and San Gimignano

Thanks to a Western Union transfer from Dad, I had some funds to go and see Siena and San Gimignano. I spent the past three days on my feet. I feel like I've done enough walking for a lifetime. I couldn't be happier to lay in bed and tell you all about it. So go get yourself a hot pocket and hunker down around the fire.

The night before I left for Siena I joined my Florentine friend Paolo for some authentic Florentine aperitif. Over a Negroni he gave me the scoop on Siena. Siena is comprised of 17 contradas. The contradas were formed during the middle ages. They're groups of families that came together to defend the city. Members of a contrada are bound together for life. Babies are baptized twice; once at the church and at their contradas' fountain. For most of the year the contradas live harmoniously, but twice a year, il Palio drives them into a frenzy. Il Palio is a horse race that has taken place in Piazza Del Campo every July 16th and August 2nd, since the middle ages. Twice a year tensions between the contradas surge. Paolo made it sound like a scary place to be! The town is obsessed with this horse race.

Twice a year Il Campo explodes with people for Il Palio.

Siena greeted me with open arms and open skies. Despite trying to drown me, it was surreal to see one of Italy's great hill towns. I got the full impact because my camp site was at the bottom of the hill! The city walls and gates were sites to behold, but they merely acted as wrapping paper for the treasures within.

Siena's northern gate.
I loved the bright colors against the grey sky.

On the second day, my mission was simple, be a sponge (not for rain). I wandered aimlessly around the city and enjoyed the hills, sights, and people. My friend Sarah spent a period of time in Siena and gave me the inside scoop with this delightful Google Map! Climbing the hill made me hungry so I made a bee line for the kabob place she recommended.

Sarah's favorite kabob place.
A most delicious pollo kabob!

After a stellar chicken kabob and coke I chanced upon this beautiful view of the city. It was pretty cloudy so I waited for the sun.

My patience was rewarded!
Holy panorama Batman! Click to enlarge.

In my search for the best view in Siena, I found the Duomo. It hadn't dawned on me that hill towns are difficult to photograph because they're usually the highest thing around. My only hope was to get on top of something tall in the town. Once again, the Duomo did the trick!. Despite the steep €10 price, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I shelled out the cash. I got access to the inside of the Duomo, the museum, something else, and the panorama. The panorama is all I cared about. As soon as the ticket was in my hand I ran up the circular steps to the top of the panorama.

Duomo di Siena. Magnifico!
The unfinished addition to the Duomo. The panorama on the right.
Passing someone on these stairs was interesting.
Outstanding view. Worth every euro penny.
Top of the Torre del Mangia.
All of Siena. Click to enlarge.

The Duomo in Siena is fascinating because the church is unfinished. The current structure is finished but during the 14th century the Sienese were building a massive addition, which would have transformed this Duomo into the largest cathedral anywhere. The church that's there now was going to be the transept of the new church. Construction was halted with the onslaught of the Black Death around 1350. The plague hit Siena especially hard, killing most of the population. Today the addition makes for interesting conversation and the best photo opportunity in all of Siena.

Once it got dark Siena showed another side of itself. It was comforting to see Christmas decorations in Europe. It made me feel like I'm back in NYC. The Piazza Del Campo was decked and all the streets had various kinds of lights. There were shimmering snowflakes, glowing globes, and tantalizing trees. Bella!

Siena's main tree, off of Via Binchi de Sopra.

Another tree. Loved the light on top.
The Palazzo Pubblico decked with holiday cheer.

On the panorama both of my camera batteries died. When I got back to camp it was time to charge up and make an online appearance to assure everyone I wasn't dead. The only place I could use the camp's internet was under an awning. It was raining and a sweltering 6º. Coincidentally, when my time ran out I could no longer feel my feet, so I headed into the bathrooms where I hoped to use the outlet and lay on the radiant heat floor like a lizard. At one point, another camper came into the bathroom. I can only imagine what he thought, seeing me sitting on the floor with my shoes off, laptop and camera all plugged in. "Ciao!"

Sleeping felt good. I would need it. Tomorrow I was headed to San Gimignano, another hill town. I wouldn't have long to explore, thanks to daylight savings time, especially with a full pack.

While checking out the next morning, I learned an important lesson. When an Italian tells you something is "free" what they really mean is "You'll pay later." Although I had to pay for my accommodations, camping was still cheaper than a hostel.

Finding the bus that went to San Gimignano was a hassle. Of course it couldn't have left from the train station at the bottom of the hill. Of course the 'help' at the station couldn't mark where the bus station was in town. Thanks! Relieved and out of breath, I found the bus station in the middle of town. Of course the train wasn't leaving when I thought. I had about an hour. Since my camera batteries died before I got inside the Duomo yesterday, I hurried over to the other side of town for a quick peek!

Duomo di Siena.

Once I was on the bus I was psyched to sit for an hour! The bus ride to San Gimignano was amazing. Despite some anxiety about getting off at the right place, once I saw the city's famous towers excitement swelled inside of me.

Off to San Gimignano!
What a magnificent bus ride.
The towers of San Gimignano from afar.

San Gimignano is known for its towers. Towers were a common sight in the hill towns of medieval Italy. They were status symbols for the rich. The richer you were, the taller a tower you could build. Towers were expensive because they required thick walls to support their height. This silent fiscal competition between the aristocrats resulted in some breathtaking skylines. These towers are kind of like the skyscrapers of old. I wish I could have explored inside one. I enjoyed imagining what living in a tower would have been like. They didn't have a lot of windows but I'm sure the view from the top was all worth it. There wasn't any Duomo that they could pay €10 to get on top of.

City wall. Birds loved the towers.
Main strip.
One of the many towers.
A main square.
The bus arrived around 14:30 so I had about two and a half hours to see the entire city before it got dark. Even though San Gimignano is small, I had to hoof it. I zoomed down the main street, snapping pictures like a super tourist. Zipping around the small streets, I quickly got lost and found myself outside of the city wall. A wall of olive trees to my left and stone to my right I continued along the wall and happened upon a way to get on top of the wall. Amazing!

Outside of the city wall, surrounding countryside.
On top of the city wall!
San Gimignano framed by olive trees.
What a guy!
San Gimignano panorama. Click to enlarge.

I wanted to stay longer in San Gimignano but there wasn't much left for me to do. No CouchSurfers to hang out with. I got on a bus headed to Florence. Sitting felt amazing. I was dead tired. I've finally learned to spell and pronounce San Gimignano, though after climbing its hills with full pack I found myself at a loss for words.

After three days away, as the bus crossed the Arno I was filled with joy. What a pleasure to be back in Florence. It's funny how quickly someplace new can feel so much like home.

My last night in Florence. Ciao bella :)

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  1. love!!! the panoramas are amazing. love the fact that you rushed around to take pictures just to show us :) and i love the self portrait! miss you keep having such amazing adventures!!!

  2. This is awesome Ross, it looks gorgeous! What camera did you use for these photos?

  3. @ Kate: Your constant support warms my soul.

    @ Jane: I've got a Canon T2i. My post today will be all about my gear :)

  4. I'm really glad my suggestions have been useful! And your posts are always so detailed and well written, how long do you take to write them!?

    So, I'll be always ready for another aperitivo when you'll be back, and even to go to the Palio race together!

    P.S. I couldn't write comments until now, but I'm trying with a different browser now.

  5. Wowowooo my comments finally show up!


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