Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Siena: a tale of hunger for culture and not only.

(Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions) Susanne is in Rome, which usually means being quite more busy and usually much less domestic than usual and this week-end made no exception to the general rule. To make good of a promise I had made more than one year ago, I finally decided to take her to Siena from where I was myself absent since 2001 and of which I had quite nice memories when it came to think about them.

Some forewords are necessary anyway. Siena is today almost universally known for the wines produced on its hills and the landscape those very hills provide and only after for it's artistic and architectural masterpieces. Fact is, Siena had two blesses: it has been awesomely rich for the past 1.000 years (usually by lending money at high interest rates to anyone needing that) while being politically insignificant for the last 500, sparing her from most of the wars that ravaged Italy and making the demolishing of old buildings to build new ones a pointless task.

The same two blesses turned into a curse when it came to logistic: Siena is not connected to the rest of the country neither by a highway nor by a train line placed on the north-south backbones of the rail system, but only by a secondary line.

Another thing about Siena and its countryside is that it is indeed one of the best places in Italy (which, obviously, means of the world) for wine and food.

That said , we embarked in this journey and selected the train as the transport of choice, mainly to avoid having to drive after what I expected to be a major banquet of Chianti and local hams.
Of course, we woke up at 6 am on a saturday to take the first train. Obviously, the train departing from Rome was one hour and a quarter late. It goes without saying that we missed the connection to the train heading to Siena which eventually caused us to arrive in Siena well past noon which, in turn, would had devastating consequences over the rest of the day.

In the meanwhile, on the train taking us to Siena (a new one, paid probably by the city of Siena and looking like the interior of a Star Trek shuttle) the funny moment was brought about by a couple of young americans in their early twenties who boarded the train without waiting for their parents and, obviously, did lack the reflex of jumping down as the train started leaving the platform before they had got reunited. It followed a funny exchange between the two that ended with our offer of helping them in the remote hypothesis that a ticket controlled had came about (which, obviously, didn't happen).

By noon, as said, we were in Siena and we headed straight to the main square of the city, Piazza del Campo, and, for the first time in my life, up its 84 meters (and 400 something steps) tall bell tower, called "La Torre del Mangia" from where we enjoyed an impressive view of the city and witnessed a japanese tourist looking down and then collapsing out of vertigoes. To be noted that at the beginning of the ascension there is this large sign saying that the place isn't suggested for people suffering of heart problems, giddiness, claustrophobia and similar niceties. The sign is not to be taken lightly, as indeed the height is impressive and the steps taking to the top platform are steep and running into such narrow corridors with such low ceiling that even I, despite my far from gigantic height, had some problems. The view from above is, however, truly magnificent.

Once climbed down from the tower, we headed for the palace, famous especially for the XIV centuries frescoes that, unlike many other operas of the same period which were over painted as the stylistic fashion changed over the centuries, here remained at their place.

By the time we had managed to finish the visit it was already 2 pm. Having arrived so late in Siena we took a decision that, by insight, turned out to be dramatically wrong: we decided to head for the cathedral by the way of a long sweep of the Eastern side of the city and only afterwards heading for a restaurant.

Not like the cathedral of Siena is not worth a visit as it is actually a majestic example of italian gothic. Originally thought to be only the right transect of the real cathedral (which, map at hand, should had taken almost one third of the whole city), the cathedral remained what it is now due the black death and the consequent economic crisis. Still, it's immense for such a relatively small city and contains incredibly works of art, among which the Piccolomini Library, the pulpit, not to mention those you would actually walk over if they hadn't fenced them: some incredible marble tarsias and mosaics, some dating back to the mid of the XIV century. Also the baptistery is commendable and, from the external, would look like a separate church by itself.

The problem was that, unknown to us poor tourists, the restaurants of Siena, and I mean every single one to them to the very last, close inexorably at 2.30 pm to open again to the public (but quite sadistically, at times, leaving the door open to raise the hopes of the hungry passer by, to crush them right after) only at 7.00 pm, not a minute earlier.

So it was that, after having walked for more than a hour in the desperate search of food in one of the shrines of italian tastes, we had to give up and resolved to just have an icecream, much to my desperation, which we ended up consuming in a typical Sienese fashion: sitting down on the brick floor of Piazza del Campo. The good side of this misadventure - one has always to find a good side - was that, in the quest for a place, we actually got to see many corners of the city that one would normally not even imagine the existence of.

The long search and the icecream pretty much ended the trip, as another short walk around brought us close to the time for our chosen train back home. At least the trip back went as planned, with trains being reasonably in line with their schedule and eventually making it back around 11 pm.

The hunger for culture and art was satisfied, the stomach's one, well... maybe next time.

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