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.