Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Siena Part 2: Montalcino and around

We woke up characteristically late on Saturday and wandered through the town in search of a quick bite to eat and a bit of planning before heading off into the countryside. We visited the tourist office which recommended a noleggi our guidebooks had said only rented scooters, and off we went into the Tuscan countryside in a slightly dodgy Ford Escort with a slipping clutch.

We headed straight down towards Montalcino as the first part of a circuitous route around the region of Siena, despite the fact the only write-up Montalcino gets in our guidebooks is that it has good wine for sale. Not to say that it doesn't have great wine, but when we got there that was hardly our focus as it is a beautiful little medieval town with stunning views over the country side.

In the end we spent several hours wandering around the town soaking up the views, buying up on panforte and exploring the streets before deciding it was time we had some lunch, whereupon we bought ourselves a couple of the best sandwiches ever made from a local deli.

We took our sandwiches up to the fort (Castello di Montalcino), which enabled Montalcano to hold off the irrepressible Medici's longer than any other town in the area, to eat our lunch and take in the views over the town from the ramparts.

At last we managed to drag ourselves away as there was still so much to see and the day was wearing on.

Being the driver, I often take the opportunity to stop by the side of the road to take in the scenery and snap off a few photos. This time I decided I would try to show how pleasant it was driving around Tuscany by showing the road and backdrop.

However, while we were standing there, a classic car came around the corner. And then another.

And then another and another!
It turns out there was some huge touring club event on and there was several hundred of these classic cars motoring their way around Tuscany. We stayed to watch for a while as the cars kept filing past, but eventually decided we could be there all day if we didn't make a move. A wise decision in the end as when we got to the next town we saw a huge number of cars still to head out.

So on we went, stopping every now and then to take more photos of the countryside. It's quite amazing, driving around Tuscany, just how often the classic images of vineyards, rolling hills, and lone trees on hilltops come up. However it actually is quite diverse, with quite thickly wooded areas in parts, which is surprising considering how long people have been living here and farming the land.

Soon we were at the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, which is quite nearby Montalcino and overlooked by the town of Castlenuovo dell'Abate.

It is a magnificent abby in a spectacular location. Linda managed to track down some of its interesting history here, which I won't try to replicate.

At some point, while we were belting along a motorway, we looked at the window and spotted one of those Tuscan clichés - the landscape of rolling hills of wheat, lonely stands of trees, and blue skies with fluffy white clouds. Unfortunately, being a motorway, there wasn't anywhere to stop. Luckily we spotted a break in the safety rails and I slammed on the brakes, almost causing a pileup behind me, and we pulled in for gravelly halt following by the beeping of horns from cars behind.

Whoever owns this land should sell tickets. It really is an incredible spot, bringing together all the elements that make this such a classic Tuscan scene. In fact when we returned to Siena we found this exact spot on many postcards, which is also how I found out the name of the place: Val d'Orcia.

At some point we realised we weren't going to get to all the places we wanted, in particular Montepulciano. However, knowing we were going to come back some day, we decided to go back to Siena via Le Crete, so as to catch this famous stretch of land at dusk.

It would be easy to be disappointed by landscapes after the Val d'Orcia, but Le Crete certainly had some amazing views. The famous clay wasn't to be seen as the fields were full of crops (it is primavera after all), but the light certainly made the most of the fields of wheat.
After all this it was getting quite late and we left the other photographers behind and drove back into Siena.

Getting back into Siena naturally took about 4 times longer than expected, taking us hours to find the right Porto through the city walls, negotiating the Zona Traffica Limita, and finding a parking spot with a reasonably low likelihood of getting booked.

After that little victory we were in a fine mood to take on the rudest-waiting-staff-ever at a local trattoria. Their only saving grace was their fantastic tirimasu.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Siena Part 1: Arrival

I felt I already knew a fair bit about Siena since the historical rivalry between Siena and Florence means it comes up an awful lot in la storia di Firenze. I especially wanted to go because, while we are planning on going again in July for il Palio, I figured it would be so crazy at that time it would be impossible to take in the city and surrounds in peace. Plus who can argue with traveling around Tuscany in Spring time!

While we deliberately took three days out of our week to make it a leisurely, un-rushed trip, Linda and I are both of the type that can't stand to think we are missing out on something. This, plus the picturesque nature of the area, means I've decided it best I split this weekend up into three posts, for your benefit as much as mine.

We headed out of Florence on the 5pm Rapido bus on Friday and, arriving slightly disoriented about 2 hours later in Siena, we headed down towards our hotel to the sounds of drums from children rehearsing with their Contrada for the Palio ceremonies. Upon reaching our hotel, and finding it as plain as the price suggested, we headed out pretty much immediately towards piazza del Campo.

I had one of those it's-not-as-big-as-I-thought-it-would-be moments, but this passed very quickly as il Campo is a very pleasant place to spend your time (and anyway it actually it is pretty big). While most cities in Italy seem to be centred around their duomo, Siena's centre is most definitely il Campo, with tourists mixing with locals and little kids running around late into the night.

We identified a trattoria of good repute in our guide books and booked a table by phone (such a luxury) before strolling there in a round-about kind of a way so as to see a bit of the town.

I'd like to think I am a bit adventurous, but with eating I think it's more theoretical than actual. We ordered the mixed antipasti, however, upon its arrival I remembered a few of the more exotic options from the regular menu which must now be lurking on our giant platter of unidentifiable nibbles. I'm pretty sure I spotted the beef spleen and a blood sausage, which we both gave wide berth, but who knows what else we swallowed down. Anyway it was delicious and we lived to tell the tale so I'm sure it was nothing to be concerned about...

For primo piatto I had a delicious risotto with nettles and pecorino cheese, which was plenty adventurous after our entrés (not an Italian word).

After all this it was actually quite late so we wandered back to our hotel by way of il campo, shuttered our windows, plugged our ears and tried to get a good night's sleep.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

alt gr

It was with great excitement that I bought a second-hand laptop on ebay the other day. It cost me around €200 which is about $AU500 (a slight exageration). It arrived in the post after only a short delay (unexpected in Italy) and in perfect condition excepting that the battery doesn't hold much charge (typical for a second-hand laptop).

Now I've been using internet café's for a while now, so I knew it had to be an improvement over their non-working-spacebar keyboards, but still, getting familiar with the Italian keyboard layout is going to take a little while. As you might be able to tell, this layout gives me easy access to symbols like the Euro (€), accented characters, (èéòàù) and some funky characters I am not yet entirely familiar with (ç§). All well and good but this layout completely screws up anyone trying to do some programming, or even simple blogging, because many of the relevant keys have been shuffled around the keyboard into obscure locations. This is only made worse by the fact that this is a laptop keyboard so, along with the new (to me) 'alt gr' modifier key, I also have to contend with the dreaded 'Fn' key. Now some keys have four possible outputs depending upon the combination of keys pressed. eg: (òç@+).

The good news (after that long rant) is that I now have my own dedicated laptop to work off so, so no more territorial disputes with Linda over who gets to use my other laptop, and no more sliding into dodgy internet café's to write off job applications or a blog entry.

Palazzi di Firenze

Right after the Museo dell'Accademia we took the time to visit some of the Palazzi of Florence which were open for cultural week.

It was amazing to go into these places, which look so bland and anonymous from the outside, to find beautiful interiors and lush gardens inside.

We didn't make it to all the gardens we wanted to as, while we raced to make it through the gates just before closing time, we found them closing in our faces, which was very frustrating as we'd gone quite some distance out of our way! To make up for our disappointment we found a forno that made pastries so good we're now trying to figure out where exactly it was so we can go back and get some more.

Our own Palazzo was also open and, although it has a courtyard which is not quite as exciting as some of the gardens we saw, it was all cleaned up for the day and a little concert was put on for an appreciative audience (almost certainly entirely made up of friends and relatives).

Some of the children seemed less keen than others, sometimes ceasing singing completely while their adoring parents jostled each other to take footage the child would likely dread come 21st birthday time.

Since the Palazzo courtyard is all cleaned up, our hosts put on a dinner at this time every year and invite their friends and family. We were invited (we think) to come along and, after handing over our gift of wine (which immediately got put to the side), we stood around friendless for the majority of the evening pretending to at least be enjoying our own company. There was a couple of nice people who made an effort to talk with us, but it must have been dull conversation given our limited italian so I could completely understand when they gave up on us and returned to the main scrum of diners. At some point we made our apologies citing mythical exams the following day and retreated back to our apartment.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Museo dell' Academia

The Museo dell'Academia is famous solely because of one work, The Giant. Of course we forced ourselves to view the many other works of art on display in the relatively small gallery, and Linda was overjoyed to find an exhibition of Medici-era musical instruments, but in reality everyone comes to the Museo dell'Academia for one reason only, the David by Michaelangelo.

Again, it was free entry due to Cultural Week being on, but we wisely booked ahead to reserve a timeslot for entry because they only allow a certain number of people to pass through the museum at a time and there is always a long queue for those who have not reserved a time. €6 well spent.

Strictly speaking you're not allowed to photograph within the Museo dell'Academia however, this being Italy, I decided I would try to be furbo and take a few sly ones from the hip (or from the eye in one of my more daring moments).

Before coming to Italy, Linda and I watched a documentary on the Medici's which included some of the history surrounding David. Apparently it took Michelangelo 3 years to chisel this famous figure out of a single piece of marble, during which time the marble was dripped over by water to prevent it from breaking apart. For his part Michaelangelo rarely took off his clothes or shoes and became bonded to them. Nice!

Anyway, seeing the David in person really is something you have to do. It is quite amazing not simply because such an icon and immediately familiar, but because it really is a very powerful sculpture. In addition you get to see the Prigioni or slaves, the half-completed series of sculptures also by Michelangelo.