Monday, August 31, 2015

Sunday Day Trip

Sunday we had signed up for a group tour, which we have so far managed to avoid. But we thought we’d like to get out of Florence since we are here for a week. This was a big tour — Pisa, Siena, and San Gimagniano, with lunch at a winery. It was a long day, but we enjoyed the sights very much. Our guide was Claudia and she was very good.

First stop was Pisa for a look at the famous tower. We walked completely around the cathedral, baptistry and tower, but didn’t go inside. It was pretty amazing to see something so well-known, an icon of Italy. The baptistry in Pisa was very large, taller than the cathedral itself. (They had a separate building for baptisms, as unbaptized people were not allowed inside the churches.)

Our meeting point was between the cathedral and the bus area, so Dan and I walked back and had some Indian tea and a samosa at a little shop right by the meeting point. Very relaxing and quite good.

The drive began to look more and more like the Tuscany of the movies, rolling hills, many vineyards and olive groves, with cypresses dotting the landscape. There were also fields of sunflowers as we had seen earlier on the trip. Our lunch place was at the top of a hill at a farm restaurant. They served bruschetta with tomatoes and salami, pasta, and a panna cotta with a small chocolate cookie. Wine and water on the table. It wasn’t quite up to the standard of the special meal we had on the Amalfi Coast, but it was good.

View down the table at lunch
San Gimignano from the farm
Another view from the farm
After lunch we drove to San Gimignano. This has to be one of the most picturesque places in the entire world. The town sits atop a high hill, surrounded by a wall. There are many towers in the town, although not as many as there once were. When the plague devastated Europe in the 14th century, the town was deserted for ten years, and some of the towers deteriorated. We walked up to the fortress. There were amazing views in every direction. On the way back through the town, I had some gelato at the world-famous Gelateria Dondolo, which won the prize as the best gelateria for 2015 (and some previous years). The mango and mixed berries were both delicious (we learned in Rome that you must have more than one flavor in a serving). As we gathered at the meeting point near the bus park, we were all happy to find a water fountain.

Piazza in San Gimignano
View of towers from just below the fortress
View from San Gimignano -- grayish olive trees on left, vineyards below and upper right, cypresses adding vertical interest

Our last stop for the day was Siena, another medieval city with an interesting cathedral. Here buses can’t go into the city and we had the longest walk from the bus to the central piazza, about a mile and a quarter. As we walked into the town, we heard drums and then saw a parade with flags and many followers wearing scarves. We learned that the city is divided into 17 areas and each is identified by an animal and special colors. This was one of the Sundays where two divisions were marching around. They were the porcupines and lions. We saw them again later on. Then we walked up further to the cathedral and had a tour of it. This was the only time we actually toured a sight as a group; we had receivers so we could hear the guide through earphones. The cathedral was very unusual, with multicolored marble inlaid floors. They are usually covered by gray rugs so chairs can be put in, but we were fortunate that this time of year is when they are uncovered. Surprisingly, they are mostly honoring wisdom and myth — Socrates and others are depicted. Some have more Christian themes. There is a side room full of frescoes related to Pope Pius II and/or Pius III (I was a bit confused; both popes were from Siena and both served very short terms). These frescoes have been protected for six centuries and are amazingly bright and beautiful. They were painted by Pinturicchio, and the designs probably were done by Raphael. The room also had many music manuscripts displayed; they were very large and beautiful, but covered by glass so photos didn't take. The pulpit was ornately carved. It has not been cleaned, but you can still see the intricacy of the carvings. We saw many organ pipes, but couldn’t find the console anywhere.

Parade with flags
Town hall with bell tower in main piazza
Floor detail -- Herod on throne ordering babies killed (lying on the bottom) -- rather horrible!
Wonderful frescoes
Carved pulpit

After the cathedral, we went back to the main piazza and had some refreshment at a restaurant, overpriced, but worth it for the sitting and the people-watching. 

Tiny savory snacks delivered with our drinks

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