Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa (A Fast Day in Tuscany)

Siena--a medieval hill town--reached by five sets of large escalators

The Duomo--gothic cathedral is home to valuable art works by Donatello,  Bernini and Michaelangelo

Wine tasting accompanied lunch at a beautiful family-owned vineyard

Cathy's new Ferrari

San Gimignano --nicknamed "medieval Manhattan"--14 towers remain from over 70  

Stefano - our entertaining and informative tour guide for the day

No visit to Pisa would be complete with this obligatory picture!
Today was a bit of a whirlwind--we visited three Tuscan towns. It's not an ideal way to learn about them in such a hurried fashion, but with our time in Florence dwindling, we put in a 12 hour day with Walkabout Florence Tours. It was such a contrast with the small group of people from the previous day. There were probably about 50 people on the very comfortable air-conditioned bus. Stefano, our energetic and very witty guide, made the day a pleasure. He's Italian and has a irrepressible love of life. Always smiling, he managed to keep his guests happy and interested--not an easy task with several people on board whose grasp of English is rudimentary. He was especially careful, to explain meeting times and places carefully so as not to leave people behind.
He talked about the history of the places we visited without over dwelling, as some guides tend to do.
Out first stop, after a 60 minutes drive through the Tuscan countryside south of Florence was the beautiful town of Siena. Like so many Medieval towns, it was built on a hill for defensive purposes. The Florentines and Sienese apparently were bitter enemies for centuries--reading between the lines, they aren't too keen on each other to this day! Most traffic is not allowed into the towns to avoid congestion on the extremely picturesque, but narrow streets. We left the bus below and rode five successive escalators to reach the town. The heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo where the famous Palio horse races take place twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. They put a dirt track in the square and horses from the 17 Siena neighbourhoods compete in a no-holds-barred race that is dangerous for both rider and spectator. Bribery of judges and officials is standard practice since winning the race brings so much prestige to the district which wins. It's both a religious and a secular event. Each horse, for example, is brought into the church to be blessed by the priest before the race. We were told: "Don't try to understand the event--even people who live here don't really understand it. It's a colourful pageant that is planned and looked forward to all year."
The Duomo  is spectacular. The columns are black and white marble. Artists have used different coloured marble to produce beautiful mosaic pictures on the floor. Everything about the church is spectacular, including four small marble statues by Michelangelo.
Our next stop was an organic farm ten minutes from San Gimignano. They grow olives and grapes (over 300,000 bottles of wine a year), as well as raising cattle (they are white like Simmental cattle) and growing a large commercial garden.
Our lunch included pairings with five different wines produced by the vineyard. The key was to have very small tastings of each with the bruschetta, pasta ragu, salad, cheese, salami and prosciutto and a dessert wine with almond biscotti. The family must do very well--or else they have rich friends--because there were three expensive sports cars in the lane by the house-- Masseratti and Ferraris. A ride in one of them was not part of the tour package.
Following lunch, we made our way up to San Gimignano--also on a hill. In previous centuries, this fortified town had upwards of 70 towers to protect inhabitants from invaders. Many of them have subsequently been destroyed by invaders, but 14 remaining towers make San Gimignano distinctive; it is nicknamed the "Medieval Manhattan." It was was wonderful place to stroll along the narrow streets and view the countryside from a park called La Rocca. San Gigignano has a duomo (of course) but the short time we had didn't allow a visit.
Our final stop of the day was at Pisa, famous for its tower. The tower tends to overshadow a much more beautiful structure, the Baptistery, finished in 1260. Mercifully, we only spent about an hour in the Field of Miracles which is what the area is called. The places was swarming with tourists--all posing for the seemingly obligatory picture of them holding up the tower.
Altogether, it was a marvellous--if exhausting--day.

1 comment:

  1. I will be in Florence in May with limited time. I am deciding between this Walkabout Tour of Tuscany and the Slow Day in Tuscany. Which of the two do you recommend? My husband and I are in our late-20s and quite active. We're also going to the Cinque Terre and look forward to that, especially after reading your post!