16 January 2012

Perspective

"Benjamin Button: Your life is defined by its opportunities… even the ones you miss."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

At 3:30 the alarm blared. No shower, no continental breakfast with Streganona; just brushed teeth and a fresh outfit. I put on my light jacket and backpack. We said goodbye to the front-desk attendant at Hotel Della Signoria and stepped into the night.

I was puzzled. First, why was the cobblestone road wet and shiny black? Second, why was I sweating?

In the six hours that Mom & I slept it must have rained, although we didn’t hear the slightest commotion. Oddly – but very much a blessing – that was the only rain we encountered on our three week excursion.
I suppose – like when I camped in the Tanami Desert in Australia – the same clouds that brought the rain also trapped the city’s heat. It was the most humid weather we had experienced and at 4:00, in the pitch black, the outdoors felt more like 8:00 when the sun was already climbing in the sky. I shed my light jacket (that I assumed I would need).

As Mom & I walked toward Firenze’s main train station, the city had an entirely different personality. Unlike most large metropoli I’ve visited the only person I saw on the twenty minute trek was a guy on a bicycle passing as we crossed paths at an intersection. There were no glitzy lights like night-time in Las Vegas, Nevada or Chicago, Illinois, USA. Everything was silent; all the ruckus from the bars was over. Mom & I walked down the middle (and purposefully flattest) of the road because there were no tourists. Like a house without furniture, Piazza Santa Maria Novella looked more expansive now that it was unobstructed by souvenir stands.

While finalizing our travel plans – less than 24 hours ago – Mom & I noticed the hourly trains from Firenze to Piombino had two transfers, more stops, and were two hours longer than the first commute of the day. Furthermore, we had not fared so well in Stazione Termini nor in finding the SITA depot so we decided to take the first train which had less stops and zero transfers. Yet, the seating confirmation from ItaliaRail.com clearly stated we "Must print and validate [our tickets] prior to boarding" hence why we arrived at Stazione Santa Maria Novella 45 minutes before our 5:15 departure.

Like Firenze, the station still was peaceful, relatively clean, and free from crowds in the early morning. Unlike Firenze, it was well-lit with other human beings. I went to the ticketing lobby to "print and validate" our arrangements from a self-serve machine. On almost every bench there was a person sprawled out and sleeping, using his jacket or her backpack or a shopping bag – basically their luggage – as a pillow. I followed the automated instructions, entered the 6 digit confirmation code and… nothing.

Thinking I missed a step due to my grogginess I repeated the process and received the same result. The machine kept asking me – in English – for a "CP Code." I reread the two pages of the confirmation email I printed from the internet cafe, verified the confirmation number (which you would think would be all you need) but found no other codes. Non capisco a.k.a. I don’t understand! I could not go to the ticketing windows because #1 they were not yet open and #2 there was no sign stating what time they opened. I was surprised at the lack of information inside the train depot.

Then I started panicking. I booked our tickets through ItaliaRail.com yet we were traveling on TrenItalia. Did I just spend  40 for a ticket I would never use? I was about to be sick to my stomach from my error. I squinted to read the small text but confirmed that the tickets were for TrenItalia. So why wasn’t I able to print the tickets? I told Mom about the mishap and – like in Stazione Termini – we wandered off in search of assistance. I saw an adorable little old man in a neon yellow pinafore pushing around a big bin with the recycling symbol on it. I approached him, smiled and simply asked "Aiuto a.k.a. help?" He smiled back and hobbled to the machine with me. I don’t think he knew how to read because he was given the option to proceed in Italian or English but he did not know how to even navigate the site. Looking confused, the helpful, hunched-over man asked a tan man in his early 50s with silver hair a question in Italian. The 50 year old guy nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders without looking up from his task of setting up his magazine stand. The sweet, recycling man asked another – but different – question and this time the 50 year old magazine-store owner shooed at us with his hand. I was so put off! I could disregard the fact that the stand owner didn’t want to help me as I was probably just another annoying tourist in his eyes. But this owner just brushed off a fellow worker and countryman who had taken time away from his chores to aid me. I felt guilty I brought about the mistreatment of the friendly, older recycler.

The only way I could communicate was through my sorrowful eyes and by repeating "gratzie" a.k.a. thank you! I gave him a pat on the shoulder and he continued on his mission with the recycling bin. When Mom & I reconvened she had only asked one person but he had no idea. We decided she would continue to search the terminals for help while I would stay with the baggage and continue to toy with the machine/seek assistance in the ticketing area.

I returned to the damned machine. Next to it was a young guy with dark, frizzy, chin-length hair. I watched as the red machine dispensed a ticket to him. I asked if he could help me & he obliged. The male asked me where I was going, to which I responded. He looked a little scruffy & I was a bit hesitant to ask where he was going at 4:30 in the morning. I imagined he would answer "I’m going home to recover from this all-night drug-binge" or "Away from the polizia a.k.a. police." Yet his cryptic answer made me even more curious. He simply said "I want to go home so I can sleep."

I inquired about his name & introduced myself. Dennis went through the same process with the machine with the same result: there was no "CP Code." He slapped the machine & mumbled "that’s the problem with these things." Both of us at a loss, I leaned against the baggage and we chatted about where I was heading. Dennis asked if I was on holiday. He walked with me out to the terminal and told me to try & ask the conductor. We bade arrivederci a.k.a. goodbye to each other and split up.
Mom & I regrouped and – with 10 minutes until our time of departure – waited at our train with all its doors open. We looked up and down the length of the train but only saw three, rambunctious, young guys jump on board. With 5 minutes left I was surprised to see Dennis amble down the terminal. I remarked "You’re back" to which I learned he missed his train. He got on the train and flopped into a seat. At this point Mom & I were beyond frustrated because we had exhausted every resource to make this situation a success. We agreed that we didn’t care anymore about being fair, patient, lost tourists. We were taking our future into our own hands and getting on this train to Piombino!

We sat apprehensively in the quiet, empty train compartment. Finally, a female worker with light brown hair passed through our car and told me to take my foot off of the chair in front of me. Oops! I was going to try to win her over and play dumb but I made a negative first impression. Mom explained our ticketing problem to her and the young woman replied "Yes. I have to check them in our system with your reservation number." So all our time & worry up to this point was irrelevant because it all came down to Ms. Gatekeeper validating our reservations that floated in cyberspace! Oh the relief and agitation that overflowed from me. Why was none of that information noted on the confirmation page or the self-serve kiosk?

Finally Mom & I could unwind! The train’s stops became spaced further and further apart as we left the city and crossed the countryside of Toscana. Hardly anyone boarded or disembarked, except for around Pisa. The morning sun was low in the sky as we grazed the outskirts of Pisa. Then, the train turned south along the coast. We would stay on this route until the end of the line at Piombino and from there – according to Lonely Planet – we would have to taxi/bus/hoof it to the marina.

Along the way, the mare di Toscana a.k.a. Tuscan sea would appear, then disappear as we went through a tunnel. As we drew closer to our destination the female employee passed through our cabin again. She had valuable information and I needed it so – as sweetly as possible – I asked her how to get to the port. She told us that if we just stayed on the train, it would be turned on the tracks and lead us directly to Piombino’s port. This was great news because it would save us money, time, and energy!

Mom & I knew we had reached Piombino (since we were tracking our progress on a handy map from a travel agent) but were unsure where to get off since – like Firenze and Roma – there could be multiple stops in one city. We felt the train rotate on the tracks then restart. We reached a stop and saw a few people get off. Mom & I stared at each other, both wondering if we should depart. That was when the female worker popped her head into the car and mentioned "This is your stop." She was so helpful I wanted to hug her after the tumultuous morning we experienced.

Down the long ramp, Mom & I emerged into the sunlight and there were all the ferries. The ticketing office was less than a block away and – finally – without issues we purchased our return tickets. Within an hour we sailed away from dry land aboard Moby Love.

Mom is notorious for her instant nausea (I’m not so great myself), so we climbed to the top deck for fresh air. The trip only lasted an hour but it proved enough time for Mom to feel uneasy. The entire time she sat front & center and fixated forward at an immobile white wall. Contrarily I explored the Moby Love. I found the restroom and cafeteria inside. I sat in the warm sun and circumnavigated the top deck. It was so refreshing to look out at the Tyrrhenian Sea. From the walkway it was a tranquil ride. However, when I stepped to the rails and leaned ever so slightly outward the wind was fierce and loud – so much so that a few times I pushed my sunglasses tighter to my face in an effort to keep my eyes from tearing up and to not lose them.
I found one particularly quiet, open spot on the top deck and remained there – transfixed -- for the majority of the trip. As the mainland shrank behind us Moby Love passed little fishing boats (similar to the ones anchored at Oia) littered across the sea. The dinghies undulated as our ferry created massive waves. I remember thinking "If I was that fisherman, I would be vomiting right now." The small boats dissipated and then there was nothing. I stared at the flat horizon and understood people’s fear of the world being flat. It also felt like I was in outer-space. I tried to imagine what was beyond that blue point on the horizon but it was too far and too abstract. I could only envision more clouds, sky & sea.
I knew Elba was a small island (though the largest of Parco Nazionale dell’Arcipelago Toscano a.k.a. Tuscan National Archipelago Park), but it seemed like another land as we neared it. The ship slowed as it drew closer and I felt like I was in a scene from Jurassic Park because the entire island was covered vibrant green foliage that ended at the beach.
Moby Love rounded a corner of the isola a.k.a. island into a cove which harbored the lackluster city of Portoferraio. It did not look touristy nor was it happening. We hailed a taxi for our hotel. Though Priceline.com listed our accommodation in Portoferraio the ride actually lasted about 25 minutes as we left the city and swerved into the Jurassic Park-like jungle on the only road that lead inland. Our taxi turned right (off the paved road) and drove a block up a dirt street to the end of the road.

Park Hotel Napoleone was a four-star hotel, built out of contrasting brick colors with beautiful landscaping. Healthy plants overflowed from rotund vases, vine-like flowers climbed the walls, and the lawn was a vibrant green. There were grand stone stairways and the fragrance of fresh botanicals.
After we shed our suitcases, Mom & I wanted to return to town to run errands like buying groceries, eating breakfast (though it was lunch time) and renting wheels so we could explore Elba. This time we hopped on the bus two blocks away. Once in Portoferraio we stopped by TWN. The company did not rent ATVs – only 50/100cc scooters and 125cc Hondas.

In an effort to save money (and the majority of TWN’s stock was already rented) Mom & I decided to share a Honda 125 because it sat two. We filed the paperwork and loaded up. I planned on driving first but the motorbike was difficult to maneuver due to its weight and Mom didn’t like sitting on the sloped passenger seat. So, we switched.

Mom & I both felt unsteady on the motorcycle, so – as we pulled out of the parking lot – Mom said she wanted to do a few laps around the block. I agreed. We drove a block toward the port and Mom attempted to turn right. Yet the bike felt unbalanced and – in an effort to not tip – she gassed it. The bike reved and instead of bumping into the curb, it went over the median and crashed into a sign, almost tossing both of us.
Mom asked if I was okay. I was more worried about her because her left hand/arm had nasty gashes and was bleeding from the impact, as well as her left calf. Adrenaline pumping, she hadn’t even felt the pain. An Italian male who was dining at a nearby café ran over to us and helped us push the bike out of the way. He started with "Oh my God, are you alright?" We assured him we were fine (and for the most part we were) except our egos were crushed. We had wrecked the motorcycle in front of the store that rented it to us! Not to mention, upon receipt of the bike there was only a minor scuff on the left panel. Again, I was just relieved Mom wasn’t seriously hurt, though her left arm began to swell.

I waited outside as Mom had to financially settle up inside. I dreaded hearing the final total. About an hour later we did our walk of shame and left TWN. We were unnerved, bruised and hungry so we scoured the nearby area for a restaurant. Nothing sounded appetizing and the majority of the menus were dull, but we knew we needed something to eat so we snacked.

Mom & I inquired with locals about other rental agencies in the area – obviously we needed something with four-wheels. We found one but they were out of scooters and only rented manual cars (it turned out the entire island only had stickshift). With no other options, Mom continued to apologize and we both chuckled at the chaotic tragedy that just occurred. We bought some groceries and waited in the shade at a bus stop. Portoferraio was not bustling. Its pace seemed so slow I wanted to take a siesta. 45 minutes later the correct bus finally picked us up.

Crestfallen we sat in the lobby of Park Hotel Napoleone. The entire reason for traveling to Elba was to explore its multiple, pristine beaches. The busses did not cross the island. Adding more insult to injury, we learned that although Priceline.com advertised a "daily shuttle" to the local beach from the hotel, the shuttle left at 8:00 and only returned at 18:00. It did not run on an as-needed basis or even a schedule.

Mom was still frustrated about crashing the motorcycle but I really held no animosity, sadness or disappointment. I just wanted to decompress. We had been on the road since 4:00 and were met – mostly – with adversity. I was putting my feet into sand on Elba if I had to walk to that damn beach! We did not come all this way to sit inside, so we agreed to pay the money & take a taxi to the beach and catch the single shuttle home.

We readjusted our attitude, let go of opportunities lost and committed ourselves to making the most of this short trip to Elba… and from that moment forward we enjoyed every second on the island.

08 January 2012

Commitment

"Some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity…"
-- Gilda Radner

Mom & I awoke in time to enjoy (although by now the routine pane a.k.a. bread with condiments and arancia rossa juice was overkill) our last breakfast with "Streganonna". Perhaps because it was a new week (Monday) the terrace was full, however we graciously sat inside. It was the last week in June and the Mediterranean breeze that originally cooled Mom & I from the sun, was now equally hot as the outside air. There was no relief from the heat and even at 9:00 the day was warm. I wrote in my journal "hottest day yet".
Like clockwork, Streganonna approached us in her uniform of a muted blue, knee-length dress, shin-high, white socks and black old-school Reebok look-alikes. The best part of her predictability was her heartfelt morning greeting: "buongiorno". We had been in Florence just shy of a week but by day two she remembered our freakish preference so she brought our carafe of juice.

Again, Mom & I labored over where we should spend our last two days...

We heavily considered returning to Roma since Mom did not get to visit Villa Borghese nor Trastevere. It seemed like there was still plenty to see in the Eternal City. We tossed around the idea of extending our stay in Firenze – since there would be no travel required – and branching out again to Pisa or Chianti. In February 2011, while researching for our trip, Mom & I were both excited to possibly visit Bolzano – a town in the Italian Alps that more resembled a mountainside German village. How awesome would it be to see the Alps? Then there was the iconic, disappearing Venezia a.k.a. Venice. The Grand Canal; St. Peter’s Basilica; the gondolas; the romance. I was incredibly keen on traveling to Venezia (since when would we be in Italia again?) but I admitted to Mom "I’m getting people-d out." Therefore, I started brainstorming about a beach or the Italian Riviera – a place to get away from the bustle. After three weeks on the road, bumping shoulders with other sweaty people on the tight, Florentine streets was becoming aggravating. At the beginning of our holiday I was more patient. Nowadays I was appalled at the self-centered tourists who abruptly stopped, mid-step and mid-sidewalk to bury their heads in a map.

Each city was enticing and for an additional four hours (as I searched Firenze for a pair of authentic Italian sandals for my best friend Lisa) Mom & I debated the best destination. In a total deadlock we stopped at an internet café and thought we should let budget and logistics be the pivotal factor. We were deterred from remaining in Firenze & using it as a hub to explore Toscana due to the SITA bus problems. A bit dismayed we scratched off Bolzano since it was incredibly far north (added travel time) and we only had 60 hours left in Europe. Again, due to lack of time – and excessive prices – we ixnay-ed the Italian Riviera. Roma looked like a full-proof option because then we would not have to worry about making it back in time for our international flight home. To appease me, Mom looked for any noteworthy beach around Roma, but the only recommended one was a lake an hour south. Then, Mom really started yearning for Venezia. We both heard it was a dilapidated, sad city, but worth seeing because of its uniqueness. Though it was on the complete opposite side of the country, it was easily linked to Firenze & Roma via the national rail system. Last, there were no beaches on the Tuscan coast that seemed worth the voyage but the islands of Giglio and Elba came highly recommended from an Italian travel agent.

We had narrowed our choices from twenty cities to three. Despite its proximity to the airport, we had already stayed in Roma and wanted to conquer a different town. That left Venezia and a Tuscan island. Mom totally refused to pick because she did not want to "live with idea that you (myself) were disappointed or didn’t get to do what you wanted." We both confessed: neither of us cared where we went, we were simply happy to have a few more days to explore.

Elba was going to be a bit of a struggle because of its seclusion. We would have to get to the coastal city Piombino via train, taxi or bus to the actual marina, ferry across the Tyrrhenian Sea, then find transportation on the island. Plus, there were limited trains leaving the Tuscan port of Piombino for Roma. We hadn’t had the best of luck at train/bus stations thus far so staying in Elba until 30 June (our departure date) was incredibly risky. On the other hand, Venice would have just as much travel time involved but with less variables since we would only be traveling via rail. Yet, being on the opposite side of the country meant that if there was mishap it would be harder to return to Roma 542 km. a.k.a. 337 mi. away.

In summary, both places had their pros and cons. Where there was ease of transportation there was also too much distance, and vice-versa. There were ultimately two reasons we chose Isola d’Elba a.k.a. the island of Elba: first, a hotel in Venice would cost €150 more than one in Elba; second, we Google-d its beaches and we were instantly captivated! After five months of being in limbo, Mom & I committed at the last hour. We purchased our train tickets online through ItaliaRail.com and emerged in the afternoon to enjoy our last day in Firenze.

Mom & I crossed over Fiume Arno a.k.a. the Arno River and again passed Palazzo Pitti. The complimentary map of Firenze clearly marked the Giardini di Boboli a.k.a. Boboli Gardens but did not identify its entrance. We walked further down Via Romano and were now unsure if we would ever find the gardens. We were entering a more residential area of Firenze and the road narrowed. Thinking we were on the wrong side of the park we were about to turn back when we stumbled upon a not-well-marked entrance. So why were the barred doors closed? Perhaps we were not at the main gate. As I read the small sign on the wall – the only sign identifying the gardens – Giardini di Boboli was aperto a.k.a. open every day except for the last Monday of the month! We peered through the metal bars like prisoners – except we were trying to get in, not out – and everything was green with beautiful flowers.

Mom & I were upset because we wanted to see the expansive, lush gardens built by Cosimo Medici complete with an ampitheatre, pools, grottos, views of Firenze, fountains, and temples. As we retraced our steps toward Hotel Della Signoria, in a small courtyard with the usual gamut of tourist-catered restaurants we found a café offering fresh delicatessen meat. We hadn’t yet seen a deli so we stopped for lunch. Mom ordered a breaded pollo a.k.a. chicken breast on a ciabatta roll while I chose a "panini" (not quite a warm, melted sandwich like in the United States) with Italy’s hallmark meat and cheese: prosciutto crudo a.k.a. cured ham with buffalo mozzarella.

Mom hated her meal because the ciabatta was not the freshest and her pollo tasted like "pressed, flavorless chicken." I was disappointed too – the prosciutto was incredibly tough and salty. Dissatisfied and unable to handle anymore heartbreak we regressed to the hotel to snack on food we knew we liked. We folded our sink-washed clothes that hung outside our window to dry and reorganized everything in our suitcases. We agreed that we both overpacked!

As the afternoon drew to a close, Mom & I walked to Piazza Santa Trinita to meet for our corsi di cucina a.k.a. cooking courses. In a kitchen packed to capacity, everyone split into four groups to prepare an authentic Italian meal. My group consisted of my mom, and a family with two daughters from eastern Pennsylvania, USA. For at least 90 minutes we cleaned, fried, julienned and baked with a sous chef that resembled a young Nicolas Cage. Then, the four groups sat downstairs in the cool, basement cellar of the building to feast on the meals prepared with our own hands.

FIRST COURSE: Vegetable Millefoglie. Eggplant and mashed patate a.k.a. potato stacked like a hamburger on zucchini slices then baked with Parmesan cheese. Finally, olive oil was drizzled over top.
SECOND COURSE: Crespelle Al Forno a.k.a. baked crepes. Ground chicken and veal with Ricotta and Parmesan cheese, Marsala wine, and salsa di Besciamella a.k.a. Bechamel sauce wrapped in a crepe; baked to a crisp, golden brown.  Also, pollo alla contadina a.k.a. Famers’ Chicken. Seasoned chicken legs and breasts pan-fried then baked in a red pepper, onion and balsamic vinegar reduction. This was my favorite dish!
LAST COURSE: the staple of Italian dessert, Tiramisu! Delicious cookies that absorbed the Italian coffee it was dunked in, along with the layer of sweetened Mascarpone cheese and dusted with cocoa powder.

By the Crespelle Al Forno I was starting to get full but everything was insanely tastey. I don’t know if it was the heat of the kitchen, because my time in Italia was drawing to a close, or because my group only receive one liter of water but the house vino rossa was amazing (I even stole Mom’s glass)! I was drinking it like we were living during Prohibition!

Filled to the brim with Italian cuisine I could barely walk back to the hotel. Outside the evening was still warm. I got a cramp at the end Ponte Santa Trinita so we stopped for a sunset photo opportunity on the bridge. My last picture in Firenze.

05 January 2012

A horse of a different color

After swerving through Poggibonsi my stomach settled a little once the bus reentered the straight highway.  Mom & I were not certain we had reached Siena, but concluded we were in the city since all the remaining passengers got off.  For both of us, the top priority was food!  After I skimmed Lonely Planet’s map, the city seemed quite small in area.  So we cruised along Via dei Montanini in the afternoon sun past a boutique, bakery and travel agency that were all chiuso a.k.a. closed.  On the street the majority of people we saw were other tourists who – like us – kept their head on a swivel scanning the town.

Mom & I continued down this road on a mission for sustenance but did not find any sort of ristorante – which was odd compared to Roma, Napoli, and Firenze where all the eateries blended together.  We had wandered further than anticipated so I was surprised (Mom was ecstatic) to stumble upon Piazza del Campo.  The piazza was home to the city’s famed summer festival: Il Palio.  Now I recalled the details from February 2011 when Mom & I first tried to develop an intinerary for Italia.  I had long forgotten about the well-known event and that it happened here, in Siena.

Since the medieval ages, ten of the town’s seventeen contrade a.k.a. districts was represented by its own flag, colors, symbol and even church.  The contrade competed annually for il palio a.k.a. the silk banner which was awarded to the fastest jockey and horse (outfitted head-to-toe authentic clothes) that raced around Piazza del Campo thrice.  I remembered Mom said that tickets to Il Palio sold out a year to six months prior to the event.  Unfortunately, we would be back in the United States by July 2nd -- the day of the race.  

A steep, stone staircase (one of many that lead down to the racetrack) opened up to the enormous, trapezoidal, tan dirt that was Piazza del Campo.  With one week left, the city was preparing for the momentous event.  Sections of the sloping piazza were marked off and a myriad of bleachers lined its perimeter.  Also enclosing the piazza were wall-to-wall ristorantes.

Mom & I emerged into the piazza to take in the panoramic view of restaurants.  As soon as we stepped out of the shade, I felt my body temperature rise 10 degrees from the inexorable sun.  As we previewed the menus at the entrance to each café’s patio (kind of like strolling a boardwalk) I dripped sweat.  Hungry, tired and thirsty we chose La Speranza by default. 
Under the hunter green, canvas awnings of La Speranza we were sheltered from the brutal sun but not the heat.  There was absolutely no breeze since we were at the back wall of the piazza.  The thick awnings trapped the majority of the heat which made it feel like we were baking to death.  We were seated at a two-top toward the back of the ristorante close to the dusty, compressed bleachers.

Mom & I normally split a liter of water to save €s and avoid toting around a bulky, half-full bottle.  However, we were parched from our walk across the piazza so we each ordered a liter.  At this point, I would have eaten almost anything on the menu, but one unique item stood out: the white pizza topped with pear & pecorino cheese!  I immediately knew this was my meal because my favorite course at The Melting Pot (an American fondue chain) is the cheese mixture with Granny Smith apples.  Fruit & cheese pair well in my opinion.

Our meals finally arrived and we dug in!  Mom ordered filetto maiale a.k.a. pork tenderloin that was wrapped in thick, salty cuts of bacon with tart apples atop.  My pizza arrived and it was nearly the size of a large American pizza (don’t worry, we finished everything)! The mozzarella oozed over the edges & the pear mellowed the distinct pecorino flavor perfectly.  And for dessert: tagliata di frutta a.k.a. fruit plate.  The white plate had a rainbow that consisted of red strawberries, orange cantaloupe, yellow ananas a.k.a. pineapple, and green kiwi.  The plate practically overflowed with juice from the pineapple chunks and the entire plate was deliciously fresh – which surprised me due to the scorching heat.

Unbeknownst to us, there was a price to pay for the shade and marvelous food at La Speranza because the bill had two coperto a.k.a. cover charges.  Mom & I were a little miffed but the food was much needed and appreciated.  Reenergized we climbed a different stone staircase and sauntered along Via di Citta to the city’s other main attraction: Piazza del Duomo (a lot of Italian city’s have a duomo.)  Halfway there, we detoured through a set of wooden double doors on large metal hinges and found a serene courtyard tucked inside the towering walls.  Palazzo Chigi Sarachi -- a music academy -- was lined with stone benches and a few perennials that looked like dwarf Christmas trees, which made it a splendid resting spot.  Within, there was also a Latin-engraved stone well with a working, wrought iron bucket and gear.  Like every visitor, I peered through the grate wishing I could see what lurked below.
Mom & I turned right on Via del Capitano and could not deny the duomo’s dominance as it broke up the skyline.  As soon as I saw the duomo I was transported back to medieval ages and imagined this church as the steadfast solider against Firenze (who constantly attacked & eventually seized Siena).  Siena’s Piazza del Duomo was not as closed in and cramped like in Firenze, making it truly feel like the city’s center. This duomo was made out of the same green, white & red travertine marble as Firenze’s duomo but the two looked nothing alike.  Siena’s cathedral was simply striped and had a more basic décor whereas Firenze’s resembled a geometric pattern and was very busy.  Furthermore, both cathedrals had extremely ornate facades but Siena’s was more Gothic and – in my opinion – more beautiful with its angelic spires and turrets.
 
Again, Mom & I sought shade.  From the perimeter of the piazza it was difficult to fathom the actual size of the structure.  Wanting a picture, I ventured into the sizzling heat, across the piazza, to the front of the church’s doors.  It was a much longer walk than I anticipated, sort of how you can see a mountain in the distance but it is still an hour’s drive away.  As I returned to the shade I was red in the face.  I reviewed the picture Mom captured and didn’t recognize myself!  Even in the tiny 3” x 2” Canon screen I was dwarfed by the cathedral.  Can you find me? 
We headed northwest from the piazza down a narrow cobblestone road that curved right (literally down because Siena is a walled city atop Toscana’s a.k.a. Tuscany’s hills.  Since Piazza del Duomo is one of the town’s highest points, most roads fan downward and outward in semi-circles.)  Away from the main tourist attraction the atmosphere was somber and quiet.  We looked down – again, literally – side streets but every shutter was closed.  Except for the colorful flags of the contrade that infrequently caught wind, nothing moved.  Mom later described it as a “ghost town”.

Now that we had visited Piazza del Campo and Piazza del Duomo we had more of a loose itinerary.  In fact, we had no idea what else lied within Siena’s walls.  The narrow road briefly opened up at an intersection, and there – standing in the middle of the street receiving directions – was the handsome, blonde Dutch guy from the bus depot in Firenze! How was he here?  He still had on his tall backpack and the blue plastic bag that contained an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.  All this time I silently cursed and shot daggers with my eyes at the young Italian brunette on the bus and felt somewhat bummed at life’s unfairness.  I remember pointing Dutch out to Mom & she replied “Yeah he was one of the last people to board [the bus].”  My spirits lifted knowing the nomad made it to his destination.

As we approached Via di Galluza we heard deep booms in the distance. We were sure there wasn’t a thunderstorm approaching since the sky was clear blue. The same droning booms grew louder and we watched tourists start to walk in the same general direction. Mom & I followed suit and saw below/ahead of us a marching band and flagholder pass by en route to Piazza del Campo.

Still winding downward, we turned left onto a silent side street – Via Camporegio which spit us out at Piazza San Domenico/Piazza Madre Teresa di Calcutta a.k.a. Mother Teresa’s Square. From the enormous chiesa a.k.a. church Mom & I looked upward now. Jutting into the horizon were the zebra-like stripes of the duomo, the attached Pamorama del Facciatone (the "131-corkscrew stairway"), and Piazza del Campo’s Torre del Mangia a.k.a. bell tower
After the stressful morning, the path from Piazza San Domenico to Viale XXXV Aprile on Viale dei Mille Mille was quite relaxing since most of the cars alongside the road were parked and fragrant trees shaded the sidewalk. Yet, we were nearing the city limits. It was easy to tell the boundaries thanks to the foreboding stone wall in front of me. I saw two people exploring atop the wall (I imagine it’s like The Great Wall Of China which actually has a walkway in the between). They reminded me of Siena’s violent past and medieval roots. Like a lot of events during this three-week journey, seeing Siena’s defensive wall from Viale dei Mille Mille was not the same as experiencing it because up close, I saw every interlocked stone slab and all the erosion caused by thousands of years of fighting.
As Mom & I set off for the bus stop (Siena is so small we traveled everywhere by foot) I saw one of the entranceways to the city in the distance. The gate was simpler but similar to Porta Pia in Roma. Tired, Mom & I sat on the curb at the quaint depot for local and regional busses. The bus to Firenze left from #3 (which was only about 20 feet away from spots #1, #2, and #4). So why did the bus to Firenze pass by spot #3 and swing around to #1, then wait for 15 minutes with its door closed? Another example of how Italia was an anomaly of regular life everywhere else in the world.
Eventually, the bus returned to its designated spot. This time, neither Mom nor I had to battle for seats... thank God! On the ride back I saw many more towns elevated on hilltops like Siena.

Back in Firenze, Mom & I pined only for dinner and our beds. We cruised the area around the Duomo and settled at another café (just like all the bazillion others nearby) that had indoor/outdoor seating. Mom was beginning to get "pasta-ed out" so she had a french fries with a pork cutlet – thinking it would be like the epitomical pork chop from Siena – but it tasted and looked like lunch meat. In an effort to branch out I chose the "panini" with Brie cheese, melanzane a.k.a. aubergine, peppers, cipolle a.k.a. onions, and garden vegetables alla griglia a.k.a. grilled. It turned out a European panini was not the same as its American counterpart. My dinner arrived and looked more like a sub. Despite the Brie cheese – which I love – the sandwich was plain. I needed a condiment, but which one? It took awhile for the young server to bring it to the table (again, eating out in Europe is nowhere as efficient or quick as American dining) but I had identified the missing ingredient! The panini was actually amazingly tasteful I sprinkled it with balsamic aceto a.k.a. vinegar.

Mom & I discussed how three weeks of non-stop activities were beginning to take their toll. She longed for typically American food (i.e. the french fries) and I had a moment in Palazzo Vecchio where I longed for my boyfriend. Yet, we both agreed if we had the money we would certainly continue around Europe.

But we were not out of gas yet! We had an entire day in Firenze tomorrow with nothing scheduled until 18:00! Furthermore, we had two days of absolute freedom before we returned to Roma on 30 June, 2011, to fly home. In February when we made a lot of the arrangements Mom & I simply could not decide where to spend our last 60 hours. So – much to Mom’s anxiety – we left our itinerary totally open-ended. Now the time we had worried about was in our immediate future, however Mom & I were no closer to making a choice. For the last night possible, we decided to sleep on it.