Sun Pony Ranch

Diary of novice (clueless) ranch owners

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Siena and Friends

On Saturday we were up first thing to leave the castle, and we pointed the car north to meet up with a Brokie friend, Roby, and her husband who so kindly volunteered to play tourist guide for us for a day.

I actually do have to extend a special thanks to Roby, for it was in large part due to her prompting that this trip ever got off the ground. Talk, you see, is cheap and awfully easy to spout off. I'd started spouting off a year prior, and it didn't happen. So this time around I wanted to be sure not to disappoint. So we purchased airline tickets. Knowing little other than our arrival date and city, we decided that regardless, on that first Saturday we would meet up and spend the day together in Siena and surrounding area.

It was just no surprise that we got along great from the first moment of crossing paths inside the car park. {{Roby}} They were both the consummate hosts, showing us the insider view of the cities that they took us to - beyond what you can read in the books.

Walking up from the car park - our first view of the city tower:

The trees were in bloom and the air heavy with their fragrance which we thought was just magical!! However we learned that Stefano has a lot of allergies and isn't quite so endeared to this season of the year. Boo. Thank goodness for better living through pharmaceuticals. ;-D

One of the first things one learns about Siena is that it is divided up into 17 Contrade - or neighborhoods. Only, these are not your normal neighborhoods - each has a fierce pride in their own Contrada. They are marked with flags, plaques, fountains, etc, setting out the boundaries. We passed this corner still on our way into town - clearly noting that we were entering the Onda Contrada, whose colors are sky blue and white, and their symbol the dolphin.

We walked just a little further on, and came out onto Il Campo - the main city square.

That's Roby, Dave, and Stefano there in the foreground.

Rick Steves calls it the best square in all of Europe. It's lively - with people and shops, touristy stands (and gelato!!) all around.

We did our duty visiting the tourist stands, and even came away with a flag of our own. Roby mentioned a time she wanted to purchase the flag of a particular Contrada - and struck up a conversation with the Vendor. Yes, he said, they sell the flags from all Contrade, but it of course tore a little bit out of his heart anytime someone bought the flag of one of the 16 rival Contrade from him. HEE - Roby said she went a head and bought hers anyways.

Streets pinwheel out away from the square (each marked with the symbols of the adjacent Contrada), so you can pick any direction to dive right into city life.

For instance here - at this spectacular patissierie, Nannini.
(Dave, Stefano and Roby)

Oh wow - such goodies! In the window were samples of their Riccarelli and Pane forte, both specialties of the area. We spent awhile inside just oggling all the treats. Roby, in fact, DID stop us from entering another establishment we'd walked by. "Oh no - there is no patisserie other than Nannini." What were we to say, she was our guide. Upon getting there, however, we had to agree.

After having been hearing about the wonderfullness that is "Vin Santo and Cantucci" for several days at the castle, it was here we managed to secure ourselves some. Vin Santo is a very sweet, port-like wine, and Cantucci unbelievably hard biscotti. I mean - really, unbelievably hard. They are intended to be dipped in the Vin Santo, and together they are decadent!

Upon leaving I noticed the amazing marble floor - it was all just so gorgeous from head to toe!

After our Nannini side trip, we made our way back to the square for a couple more great views of Siena's Mangia Tower, or Torre del Mangia.

(ok, ok, I'm cheating - this picture is from much later in the day as we left town. Heh.)

Chatting with my brother prior to the trip, he said, "Well of course you will go to the top of the tower." Um, OK. I mentioned that to Roby and said - I presume you know what tower he is referring to? "OH yes!" she said. And then immediately added: "We will wait for you at the bottom." LOL.

Well, yes. We did it, and the views were really spectacular. Worth it, I think. Though later in the day we were definitely feeling the effects of those 460-some stairs!!

It all starts off innocuous enough. Then you get to the ticket booth, and pay your $13 to continue, and the next thing you know you turn the corner to this:

LOL! Fantastic!

OMG - does it never end??

Eventually it does, but only after trying to trick you several times into thinking you've climbed as far as possible. But NO -- there is now a yet smaller set of stairs still ascending.

But this is what you see from the top.

Whoo whee! That's the Duomo that we'll be visiting later.

The top bell

Bells at the next lower level

You may have heard about the Palio in Siena - a horse race held between the different Contrade. It's famous - and totally crazy. Go lookup some YouTube clips of it. Well, it is held here - IN IL CAMPO! It's hard to see from ground level, but the brickwork around the perimeter of the square is different. From the top of the tower, it's dramatic.

Yep, the black part is the race course. They truck in dirt to make safe footing, and even tie up padding on the buildings so that the horses (or jockeys!) wont get injured if they swing wide. Meanwhile the square is packed standing room only with spectators.

Do note that the jockeys ride bare back. Also - that the goal is to be the first horse across the finish line -- not necessarily with a jockey! So a Contrada can win if their horse just continues the race riderless. Haha! The race is three times around the circuit.

Before the race, the horses are all blessed both within the special church for each Contrada (the one for Onda was just around the corner from the Dolphin fountain we passed) but then they all come into Il Campo and the group are blessed together. Lots of pomp and circumstance. An hour to get into line -- and a minute to ride the race.

There are 17 Contrada, and only 10 can compete in a palio. There are also 2 palios a year, on July 2 and August 16. So there is some system such that if you lose the draw to compete in one race you are automatically in the next, and so forth. The winners get bragging rights for a year.

Oh, OK, here's a YouTube for ya:

And now -- to continue with our trip blog - we eventually had to descend the tower.

After coming down, we were a little late for the lunch reservations that Roby had made, so we hustled on down to the restaurant and got seated directly. Then... the hostess came out to speak with Roby. OhLaLa! Something was going on as there was a rapid exchange in Italian, and we caught on that somehow our reservation was at the next restaurant down the lane. LOL!!! This one, apparently, has opened recently and so our target was no longer the first one down from the tower. But all was cleared up quickly and we made our way on to next door.

Here, Roby and Stefano explained, was their great indulgence - and the reason they periodically make the 3-hour drive from their home down to Siena to enjoy the Tuscan tradition: Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This is, it turns out, is an AMAZING T-bone steak. Served very thick, and very rare, but is absolutely divine!

This was OUR steak, Roby and Sefano split another. Wow, like I said - just spectacularly tender and flavorful. We spread a thin layer of olive oil on the plate before serving ourselves portions and then topped that with ground pepper. YUM!

After lunch we walked up to the Duomo, which Roby was setting us up to be even prettier than the Orvieto Duomo. I have to admit - I was a bit skeptical. We visited Orvieto just a few days prior, and were completely blown away.

On our walk to the Duomo - window shopping

It might just be possible Dave and I drunk the majority of the bottle of wine we shared at lunch and were feeling a bit goofy:

But we were fascinated all through Italy about the prevalence of horse rings in the sides of buildings -- rings to tie your horse to when visiting. Oddly enough I don't recall these in, say, the UK. So they were novel, and represented Horses - which is more than enough to get us to take notice. But here was a really strange case where, as we were heading up the sloped street, the horse rings remained in one layer of stones in the walls, so they were sinking lower and lower to the ground. Until they reset at a different era of building - like 10 feet off the ground. Now that is one tall horse! Perhaps you had to be there...

It is so amazing to be wandering through a maze of medieval streets, and suddenly emerge upon a sight like this:

These pictures don't do it justice, but... it's PINK! Pink marble was worked all into the facade. So enchanting, and completely incomparable to the other Duomos. Perhaps that is the lesson. I do have to say I like the stripes here much better - considerably less busy and more... sane? (my opinion, of course)

Roby pointed out the windows in the tower - one arch on the first level, two... and so forth til six on the sixth level.

I really liked the inlay work done on the patio(?) leading into the church. Again the pictures don't do it justice, but the lines were constructed by dots drilled in / inlaid into the marble. Struck me as a giant dot-to-dot.

As the day was getting on and we had more on the agenda, we didn't take time to tour the interior, but instead returned to the cars. (On the way, passed a Bride arriving at city hall - fun!)

Our next destination: Monteriggioni. Fortunately Roby had mentioned that the best photos were from the car just as you exited the highway. Got one!

Monteriggioni is a walled town/fortress built in the 13th century by the Siena peoples during the Siena / Florence skirmishes. It remains today with an intact city wall, and fewer than 50 residents. But it does boast a number of restaurants and a charming square.

Loved this store down in the cellar.

Tasting Honeys

So this girl was telling us this story about one of the honeys being a saffron honey: A merchant got an order for a bunch of tulip bulbs, but somehow fulfilled that order with much more valuable saffron crocus bulbs instead. The town planted them, and decided they loved the crocuses (and presumably their harvest) and so would not return them. The merchant was ruined. But - she said, he ended up moving to the town and loving it so all was right in the end.

To which Dave goes "Is that where the saying 'Follow your saffron' comes from?" I thought surely he was joking, but the girl says yeah. I was astonished - "is there really such a saying?!" Dave goes "No, probably not".

Unable to take an arial tour, this poster had to suffice. There were posters all around for a medieval festival held here in July. How fun would THAT be?

Walking all the way through town - we admired the view from out the other gate.

Monteriggioni is immortalized by this quote from Dante's Inferno.

Our next destination was San Gimignano, but on the way we had to pass Poggibonsi, where our next Agriturismo (Italian B&B) was to be found. So Stefano (also known as the human GPS) fearlessly lead the way. Well, it turns out the human GPS had to resort to his electronic GPS.. and we STILL had to stop and talk to people to find the way. La Moraia was WAY out in the boonies. Thank Goodness we had Stefano to sort through it for us!

But then we found the place, but there were no signs for reception, not a soul around. We finally knocked on the clearly marked House Keeper's apartment - and that apparently was the right thing to do. We dropped off the bags and headed onwards.

San Gimignano is another gorgeous medieval town, known for it's many towers.

We however, were pooped and ready to call it a day. So we went back to Poggibonsi, and tried vainly for some time to locate a single reference on the hand drawn map the house keeper from the inn had given us, but gave up and opted for dinner at the pizzeria we could keep finding. Handy place, that pizzeria turned out to be - for the next few days we always seemed to be able to stumble upon it and then know our way back to the inn from there.

Though the pizzeria did not get the Italian stamp of approval (it was not wood fired).. we were tired and hungry and it was a nice comfortable meal to end another spectacular day.