Thursday, February 26, 2009


11:00PM February 23

When I initially sent out a message to the girls inviting them to join Adam, John, and I for a day trip to Siena, at least five of them responded saying they would love to go. By Friday night though, they had all backed out, feeling overburdened with work, so the three of us happily took off Saturday morning to catch the 10:10 train, but as we bought our tickets in the station, we got a message from Alex that she and a few of the others had changed their minds and would meet us there.

Much like the train to Bologna, this one went through the rolling hills of the Apennines, but this time, to the south. Nonetheless, the landscape was similarly gorgeous, with many towns laid into the hillsides and castles perched atop them. Vineyards graced the flat lands between the hills, and fortunately, my window on the train was clean enough to allow me to capture much of this (below).

As we exited the Siena train station, we were essentially forced into a shopping mall, and as we followed the exit signs in the mall, it left us right back at the station. We were definitely confused about how to get into town, and they clearly intend all travelers to take the bus. We eventually did find an errant side walk that led towards a road up the hill into town. Adam, who had been to Siena on a previous trip to Italy, remembered Siena lying atop a significant hill, but after Perugia, and our daily walks to campus, it really didn't seem that bad. The only hard part was the lack of a safe pedestrian passageway at certain points, but that's another part of Italy we've gotten used to.

Even when we made it up the hill and through the gates of the city, we were still a good ways from the historic center of the city. Just inside the gates, we came upon a grand view of the hillside below, where John took a few "band" photos of Adam and I (below). I can't say I was particularly impressed by Siena at first. It seemed a lot like Florence, with a ton of stucco buildings, but without the abundance of entertainment options. Adam assured me it would grow on me though, so I trusted him, and sure enough, the city became more gothic as we went along.

The gates of Siena

At one point we stopped in an old vacant church (below), which seemed so familiar, and yet so odd to me at the same time. Later, I realized that this old stone barn of a church was an image I'd seen so many times in history textbooks and films but had never witnessed in person. The churches such as the Duomo are grand, and those back in America have much more refined interiors. This was a house of god in the very purest sense, and in a way, it seemed that you could become closer to god in this environment, without all of the extravagance. The comforts of a modern church would seem to be just another buffer, separating you from the ultimate source of enlightenment. I found this empty dank building more powerful than any of the grand cathedrals and basilicas we'd seen thus far.

Eventually we came to a great valley of nature dividing the city (below). It was really curious to see the countryside--not simply a park--enter right into the heart of this Italian city. Across this valley, set atop the highest of the hills, was the Duomo of Siena, temporarily covered in scaffolding. By this point, we got word that the girls had arrived, and we decided to meet them--they took the bus to the center--in the town's main square, Piazza del Campo (top).

While waiting there, the three of us breathed in the surroundings. It was really wonderful, with tall stone buildings on all sides of the sunken square. Before the girls showed up, we weren't entirely sure how many people would be joining us. As we sat on the far side of the square, we saw Alex, Jen, and Lauren walk towards us. From there, we went for a short stroll around the backside of the square, and then we set off to find a restaurant for lunch.

We came upon this rustic place which had hand-written menus. It was really charming, and the food was pretty good but nothing of note. I got the "Fantasia di Polenta": an intriguing title, and a change of pace from pasta.
The polenta was okay, but it just didn't have any overwhelming flavor or texture to it. Adam and John got pretty good ravioli, but their servings were, like mine, quite small.

After lunch we went off to the Duomo. It was everything that the small old church on the outskirts wasn't: huge, extravagant, and gorgeous. You couldn't help but be in awe of the devotion people made to god, the church, and their community by erecting such a structure. Heads were carved into the perimeter of the wall lining the ceiling, frescoes adorned many of the walls while other stories were told in the pictures sculpted into the stone floor, and the large pillars lining the hall gave it all a real grandeur. It was quite a spectacle to behold. I felt as though I had entered some gothic palace of Middle Earth.

I found it fascinating that in one corner was a skull and crossed-bones symbol engraved into the floor. It would have been difficult to find unless you just stumbled upon it, as I did, but I wonder where it's significance comes from, as everything in that building had some significance. Another interesting facet was the wall on one side of motorcycle helmets. Motorcycles and gothic churches seem like a mismatch if there ever were one, but my guess is they were there to commemorate ill or recently deceased people.

The Duomo

Inside the Duomo

We spent most of the rest of the day simply walking around. Alex had heard from her mother that Siena had the best pastries, so we sought out a good pasticceria to try for ourselves. We did not find anything that jumped out at us though, so we settled for one bakery that wasn't particularly great. We then sat outside in Piazza del Campo for an extended period, watching all of the kids in costumes run around celebrating Carnivale in their own way. It was really relaxing and wonderful.

By 5:30, the girls wanted to get on the way home, so John went with them back to catch the 6:20 train. Adam and I decided to stick around a bit longer, taking a leisurely walk back to the train station by way of an open pool of water which Adam seemed to remember being a Roman bath house. We caught the sunset on our way back through the nature valley, and took a different route to the station by way of the soccer stadium--you could easily catch a game from the grass hill outside the bleachers.

Roman Baths

Outside the baths

We didn't have that much more we wanted to see, so Adam and I actually watched the 6:20 train depart as we crossed a bridge over the tracks on our way to the station. By the time we'd bought our tickets, we had another fifty minutes until our train took off, so we went back to the mall and looked for local wine at the grocery store. We picked up one bottle of Sienese wine and a bottle of Tuscan Amaro, an herbal liquor we were curious about.

When we got back, we were disappointed to find that John had already eaten, so we decided to go for burgers at our local high-class McDonald's. I almost never go to McDonald's in America, but this food was really all right. I don't know why they can't raise their standards back home, but I won't complain about having another quality food option while I'm here. We then went back home and tried the Amaro alongside a good batch of tiramisu I'd made up the night before. It was really tasty, and we all agreed it was the best liquor we'd had here yet. It went especially well alongside the tiramisu as a dessert drink. At that point, we decided to get some sleep before our trip to Carnivale in Viareggio on Sunday.

Why is there a guitar footstool on the ground?

They have "Jolly" hotels too!

The Duomo across the valley

Inside the Palazzo Publico

The backside of the Duomo

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