Day 4 - Leaving Florence and Heading For Siena and San Gimignano

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June 24th 2019
Published: June 24th 2019
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As much as we hated to leave the relaxing atmosphere and comfort of Borgo San Luigi, it was time to explore more of the Tuscan Valley. After last night's late night dinner, today was scheduled for a "relaxed start" which means we didn't leave the hotel until 8:30, which means a little extra sleep before a quick breakfast and heading out for our first stop in Siena. Maureen told me she liked this city, and once we arrived, it was easy to see why. Siena is an ancient Gothic walled city built on a series of hills.The ride over from Borgo San Luigi was through some of the most beautiful countryside in the Tuscan Valley, with rolling hills, vineyard fields and villas at the tops of the hills. Since Siena is at the top of these hills, the view at the entrance to the walled city is spectacular in all directions.

The first thing noticeable upon entry through the city gate is that inside the walls of the city there is nothing but buildings or pavement. There is no open space that we ever saw. There also did not appear to be any flat land, as the only directions the roads ran were either uphill or downhill. The roads are VERY narrow, with only some able to be traveled by car. The narrow passageways between the buildings were walkways only, and in most cases were just a steep ramp without steps. This made walking around Siena an exhilarating experience unlike any other town we have visited. In the center of town, there is a massive center square which at this time was getting ready for an annual horse race which is run around the square in the center of town. Some grandstands and barriers were already in place. Today was also some sort of special observance of St John the Baptist in Florence, and since Florence and Siena are arch-rivals, Siena is also proudly displaying their most prized religious possession, the actual relic arm of St John the Baptist. Evidently, Florence has the actual relic body of St John the Baptist, but Siena has the arm.

Evidently, Siena also has some very strict laws about unauthorized tour guides, so while Anna was able to lead us to the square in the center of town, she was not allowed by law to explain anything we were seeing over our "Vox" since she was not an authorized Siena tour guide. Siena is not very large, so it didn't take very long to meet up with our authorized Siena local tour guide Nicoletta. Nicoletta is a Siena native from a long line of Siena natives dating back to the 13th century. She explained to us that Siena is broken up into 17 separate distinct neighborhoods, each symbolized with an animal. such as snail, rhinoceros, dolphin, panther, or caterpillar. Each person is designated as a member of a neighborhood based on where they were born, not where they lived. She was a Caterpillar, even though her husband was a rhino, and the lived in the elephant neighborhood. Each of these neighborhoods are fierce rivals with each other, but that all Sienans see Florence as their mortal enemy. I'm not sure how serious Nicoletta was about her various neighborhood and Florence enemies, but she seemed pretty passionate about it. Fortunately, I did not choose to wear my Florence t-shirt I bought yesterday to my visit in Siena. I'm not sure what would have happened!

After a brief history of Siena, Nicoletta went over the tradition of the annual horse race. The center square of the town has a barrier set up around the total perimeter of the square sufficiently inboard to allow for the width of a race track. The track is then covered with 5" of sand to give the horses a surface to run on. There are bleachers set up around the outboard side of the track, but each seat costs 500 Euros. But the real action takes place in the infield of the track. 5 hours before the start of the race, the center is open to the public to watch the race. There are no seats or bathroom breaks, so everyone stands in the infield for 5 hours waiting for the race to start. She showed us pictures, and it is really just a standing sea of humanity inside the barriers of the race. Evidently , the purpose is more about the party than about actually seeing the race. The entire race is 3 laps and takes about 1 minute and 15 seconds to run. The race has been going on since the 13th century.

After the brief history of Siena and the description of the horse race, our next stop was the Santa Maria Cathedral in the center of town. This is evidently a rival cathedral to the one in Florence as Siena was looking to build a bigger cathedral than Florence back in the 13th century. Evidently the construction was halted by the arrival of the Black Plague, where most of the workers died. The original portions of the church were completed, and the expansion was left incomplete since the 13th century. Some portions have been incorporated into the walls of the museum, but most other walls were left as is. We were supposed to end her tour with a visit to the inside of the cathedral, but the feast of St John the Baptist had delayed the church opening. Anna ended up just giving us the tickets so that we could do the tour at our leisure after the church opened up. We didn't have long to wait, and we got to see the insides without much delay.

The cathedral is beautiful example of a Gothic cathedral, with wonderful statues, a beautiful altar, but most significant were the marble floors inlaid with various religious scenes. There was also a church library that had an extensive collection of church music with beautifully drawn sheet music. Our added excitement though, was the actual display of St John the Baptist's arm. Sure enough, encased in a metal covering and displayed in a glass case, was the actual arm of St John the Baptist. We finished the tour of the church, headed into town to get a couple of t-shirts and made it back to the coach by noon. Siena is, by far, my favorite city so far!

After getting back on the bus, it was time to head just down the road to our next stop at the much smaller walled town of San Gimignano. San Gimignano is one of the few remaining in-tact medieval walled towns. Left untouched for centuries, it's outer walls are completely intact, and none of the inner structures have change since around the 12th century. But the most important things to do, in addition to exploring the town, was to get some lunch and to taste the "best gelato in Italy". The first stop was the gelateria to meet world champion gelato maestro, Sergio Dondoli. Sergio met the group at a shady spot in the town square and gave us a lecture on the differences between ice cream and gelato and why his gelato was far superior. According to Sergio, the main difference between ice cream and gelato is that ice cream is made by injecting air into the mixture and then adding fat to keep the aeration and preserve the texture of the ice cream. Color and flavor is added mostly artificially, and ice cream is designed for long term storage. Gelato is made without the injection of either air or fat, and must be made fresh and consumed within 48 hours. All his ingredient are natural and include many flavors like ricotta and blueberry that sounded a little scary, In the end we were give a card good for a 3-flavor cup or cone for free. Jody & I looked forward to see if Sergio's gelato was indeed the "best in Italy" Sergio was great fun, and we really enjoyed his talk!

By now, we were getting a little hungry and stopped at one of the local pizza stands for a slice of pepperoni pizza and a Coke Zero. We just needed a light lunch to hold us over since dinner was not until 7:00. The pizza was delicious, and just hit the spot. We wandered around town, checking out some of the local shops and Jody spotted a beautiful handmaid linen blouse at a really good price, and even included a pendant. By now it was getting close to 2:30 and we had to be at the bus for 3:00, so we hurried over to get our gelato. There was a long line, but it went very quickly as soon we were picking our flavors. I picked some special chocolate that Anna recommended, along with Tiramisu and Caramel flavors. Jody picked the same special chocolate, along with Espresso, and Orange Chocolate. Sergio was right, this was the best gelato we had ever tasted! We sampled each others, and they were all awesome! After tasting Sergio's gelato, I'm sure we will be disappointed by any other gelato we might try from now on. That beign said, I don't think I have ever tasted "bad" ice cream or gelato.

After finishing our gelato, it was time to head back to the coach at our final stop of the day, a wine tasting. Now Jody and I don't drink, so I wasn't sure what we would do, so I went to ask Anna, and she said she already noticed that we didn't drink and that she would get some soft drinks for us and a couple of others who didn't drink also , so we wouldn't be left out. That was very considerate of her. It was only a few minutes down the road to the Guardastelle Winery, and after a scary bus ride up a very narrow dirt road, we arrived at a very tiny local winery owned by a young couple. They had 12 acres of grape vines and 4 acres of olive trees. Their grape vines were split with most being used for a traditional Chianti which is what most vineyards produce in this area, but that also has an ancient variety that is only available in this local area and is used to make a local white wine. they also use the olive trees to produce Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

The wine tasting included a glass of their local white, their traditional Chianti, and a red wine made from a blend of both. They also served bread and cheese with the bread topped by their olive oil. Jody & I stuck with our Coke Zero rather than wine, but the bread and cheese were good and the olive oil was especially delicious. The various wines got mixed reviews, with some people really liking one or all of the wines and buying several bottles, and others not really liking one or all of them. But all in all, it looked like everyone had a great time.

By now it was time to climb back on the coach for the last time today and head back to Borgo San Luigi. It had been a hot day and the swimming pool was looking especially good. We got some pool towels from the desk, and headed back to the room to put on bathing suits. It didn't take long before Jody were in the pool cooling off. The water was cool and very refreshing. We just stayed in the water cooling off for a while, and Russ joined us as Julie was taking a nap recovering from the day. Eventually we decided it was time to head back to the room, but not before stopping for a Coke Zero at the pool. On the way back from the pool we spotted Anna relaxing on a lounger in the shade and stopped to chat for a while and let her know how much we were enjoying the trip.

We made it back to the room in time for me to finish uploading yesterday's pictures, getting them captioned and publishing yesterday's entry. That way I should be able to get caught up tonight. Dinner tonight was at the hotel, at the restaurant by the pool. The doors were open and a nice breeze was blowing through as we sat down for the 7:00 dinner. Food was great, though Jody and I liked the bruschetta appetizer, we both passed o the goose liver pate. We had a second course of pasta that was delicious with a main course of pork and potatoes that really hit the spot. The blueberries and cream dessert was just enough to fill my sweet tooth. Dinner tonight was with Sean and Vicky and Tony and Allison, and was lively and fun. Tony and Allison are also from Australia, but I found it is much easier to follow the conversation with only one pair of accents, or maybe I'm just getting better at it.

Tomorrow we are off to Pisa to see the famous leaning tower and then off to Lucca and a boat ride to Portofino. The adventure continues!

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