We awoke at 6a and ate our hotel breakfast at 7:30a sharp as we were to be picked up at 8:15a for our bus tour of parts of Tuscany. Before heading to the pickup spot we saw the plaque on the piazza marking the place that Savonarola (of Bonfire of the Vanities fame) and two conspirators were burned in 1498 after being sentenced and hung. Gruesome!
After pickup not far from our hotel we were driven to Firenze SM Novella. Our bus, a large air-conditioned touring bus, left at 8:45a. While not full there were a number of people, perhaps fifty or so. Our guide, Giulio, was around 30 and spoke fluent English and Spanish, seamlessly drifting between the two. The driver, Massimo, was an older gentleman but didn’t speak much (if any) English, speaking through Giulio when needed.
On the way out of Florence we saw a prison. It was in the shape of a stadium, with the cells opening to the air overlooking the “field”. While I certainly wouldn’t want to go to jail (and especially not in a foreign land!) it seemed like a pretty nifty setup. No idea if it was a minimum or maximum security jail, however. Also on the way out we saw several neat signs including one with rain clouds, snowflakes, and the like marking slippery when wet and dangerous conditions.
After an hour or so driving through the beautiful countryside of Tuscany we arrived at the first of four destinations for the day, the town of San Gimignano with its many tower houses. Once a thriving independent town based on the pilgrims’ route to Rome from England and France (the Via Francigena) it had quite a large merchant class catering to the pilgrims’ needs. They used this wealth to build tower houses — not only as a display of wealth (the taller the tower the wealthier the family) but also for defense. Should an enemy come calling (often in the form of roving bands of mercenaries) the wealthy family need only pull up the ladder to protect their family. Originally there were 72 towers, of which 14 survive, with the last built in 1311. This last one, the tallest surviving tower at 177 feet, is known as the Torre Grossa and served as a guard tower. One of those towers that did not survive was much taller at 230 feet!
Sadly, the Black Death hit San Gimignano in 1348 and killed three-quarters of the people. Unlike Florence the town never bounced back. There was a silver lining, however, in that the town’s rapid decline and remaining in obscurity meant that it is well preserved to this day. The vast majority of the town’s remaining 5,000 people cater to the tourists that come to see the remaining towers (though only one is open — the Torre Grossa).
In addition to the very impressive towers, many with tufts of vegetation growing from them as well as the hint of exterior staircases, a few other things stood out about the town. There were vast… flocks?… of swallows flitting about the tower tops. One of the two piazzas in town had a neat old well, the other a church. We didn’t get to visit the inside of the church, however, as service was going on as it was Sunday morning. We also ate some “free” (included in the tour price, I’m sure) gelato that was quite extraordinary (having won some Italy-wide competition, supposedly) that would normally have served as an afternoon snack instead of a pre-lunch snack. We were in San Gimignano in the morning as Siena (the normal morning destination) cathedral was also having services and it was not to be missed — hence the destinations were flipped.
San Gimignano had a variety of quaint shops including one specializing in painting metal soldiers but we didn’t have much time to shop aside from buying a few magnets. We also took the time to walk along the walls and see some beautiful views of the countryside of Tuscany. So very beautiful! Reluctantly headed back to the bus at 11:15a and talked with Giulio. We laughed as a different tour bus was leaving and one of our group ran after it asking it to wait up before realizing it wasn’t his bus. Even more amusing was hearing Giulio relate the tale to Massimo in Italian a few minutes later.
A short fifteen minute drive along a narrow road and around a couple of tight turns (along which we were treated to views of both San Gimignano and our destination Monteriggioni) we arrived at the small walled town built by Siena to guard against their rival Florence. Unfortunately I didn’t get any decent wide view of the small town’s walls and its fourteen towers — the downsides of being on a tour where I can’t just have them stop the bus for pictures! In the parking lot we were amused by a guy yelling at *something* under his car — never did find out what it was!
Walked a short way to the gate into town and visited the main piazza that had a marketplace set up. Michelle and Addison bought magnets and sat on a bench while I went across to the other gate and climbed up to the top of the walls (for a 5 euro fee) to take some pictures. Atop the wall the view was spectacular and I could even see San Gimignano off in the distance. To give a sense of how tiny the place is, the walls encircling the town are only 1,870 feet long and only forty people live within today. On the way out of Monteriggioni at about 12:20p we saw a sign with the town’s name and a diagonal red line through it indicating that we were leaving it.
After a short ride to Siena we had a fairly long walk from the outskirts of town near fortifications built by the Medici to the old town, arriving about 1p. We at lunch with the tour until 2p, quite tasty. We had salad, bread, pasta with ground beef ragout, pork slices with roasted potatoes, pastries, and (for me, at least) water. We met a nice lady from Honduras who was currently living in France with her two pre-teenage daughters. She said the oddest thing about living in France was going to school on meet the teacher night and other events and having wine. She also recommended that we visit some islands off the Honduran Caribbean coast.
Afterwards we walked with Giulio to the city center, a large plaza called Piazza del Campo dominated by the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. We couldn’t walk into the center of the plaza as they were setting up for the twice-yearly horse race, a famous event in the region. The peremiter of the plaza had hard-packed sand and dirt on it to serve as the track and wooden stands were built all around. Each of the town’s districts (represented by a color scheme and animal) have a horse and bareback rider race around the perimeter of the plaza, the winner being recognized as the best district until the next race.
While we stood in a group listening to Giulio’s instructions a nearby band of musicians playing to restaurant patrons kept getting louder and louder each time Giulio asked them to get quieter. Finally muttering “bastardos!” he conceded that they had won. A local lady joined us as our tour guide to Siena. We were equipped with small walkie-talkies so that she could speak quietly to us as we’d be going to the cathedral. She told us all about Siena (a town now of 50,000 people) and its rivalry with Florence in the 1500s. There are seventeen districts and the races are held in early July (the 2nd this year) and mid-August. She told us that only the horse need finish first, the rider can fall and that doesn’t disqualify the district’s horse. She told us that despite living in another district she was born in the district represented by the turtle and she’s thus a turtle for life.
We walked uphill through narrow streets away from the plaza to the spectacular cathedral. She pointed out arches and windows in adjacent buildings — originally the existing cathedral (already quite big) was to be greatly expanded and become just the end of the new cathedral. This didn’t happen, however, as the Black Death put a stop to those plans. Sadly because it was hot and so bright I totally missed taking any photos of the front of the cathedral and its really cool triangular mosaics. Genetta has a nice shot of them in her blog here, however, from when she went. Yay!
Inside was amazing. The first thing that struck us were the black and white striped marble pattern everywhere as well as the colorful flags of all of the districts lining the main corridor. There were also 56 floor mosaics made of white, black, red, and even yellow marble. Only some were on display, however, the rest protected by carpet to prevent them being worn. Twice a year they uncover them all — Genetta actually got lucky when she went earlier in the month and saw that. Another cool detail were busts of the first hundred or so Popes (all of the ones up until the mid-1300s) staring down from above.
As spectacular as the cathedral was, the library was even more amazing! As it had never had lamps within it was free of soot and sported the original — never restored — murals with beautiful colors. The ceiling was equally impressive and cool old music books were on display as well. At the bookstore we bought a small dragonfly ornament and magnet before re-meeting the group at the plaza at 4:10p.
Once back at the square we couldn’t linger long as they were wetting the surface for a trial run of the horses. Sadly it was not to be for another hour and we had to leave before then. We did get to see, however, a parade by one of the districts, blue fish banners waving in the breeze. After a long walk back to the bus we proceeded to our last stop of the day, a vineyard, arriving at 5:30p.
After a short (but not short enough, haha) tour of the winery we sat with others at tables and tried two white wines, a red wine, some cheese, bread with olive oil and veggie mayo spread, and salami. Before each wine was poured the vintner described what we’d be tasting but honestly it was lost on us. We did meet a couple from Glasgow who were great to talk with so that’s something at least. While the rest of the tour shopped for wine and such we headed outside and enjoyed the view of the Tuscan countryside and the nice early summer evening.
At 7p we hopped back on the bus for nearly an hour. Along the way Giulio talked with Massimo lots. He kept talking about his dog’s big ears and called him “Dumboreener” based on Disney’s “Dumbo”. He also started talking about the movie “Armageddon” and the dog “Little Richard” that he called Ricardino. I think the sun may have gotten to him!
Arrived back in Florence about 7:50p and walked back to the room. We met Genetta there, wine in tow for us to take back for her (as she’s underage in US terms). We went to a burger joint called “Off the Hook” that was quite good. I had a bacon cheeseburger with cucumber and onions as well as fries. Everyone else had burgers too. Much Coke was drunk and Genetta had some white wine. Belgium was playing somebody for Euro ’16 at the time.
Dropped Genetta off and on the way back to the room had some gelato before going to bed. What an insanely busy day!