When planning our trip to Italy, Deanna and I decided that rather than trying to see too much, we would focus on two completely different worlds. The southern coast of Amalfi was full of mountains, ocean, picturesque towns tumbling like blocks down the limestone cliffs, and warm sunshine.
Tuscany is a place that calls to many people, helped out by movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Good Year”. I wanted to see Tuscany, but I also wanted to see Florence. Florence is not exactly in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, but it makes a great jumping off point, lying on the northern perimeter between the Tuscan hills and the landscapes of Umbria farther north.
We decided to stay in Florence but to use it as our jumping off point for possible tours into the Tuscan countryside. Options were many, from expensive day trips using a private driver, overcrowded day trips on tour buses, overnight stays at “Agriturissimo’s”, local farms that usually include feeding cows and chickens and experiencing the Tuscan farm life.
Once again, the Rick Steve’s Florence and Tuscany guide book came to the rescue. We opted to spend a couple of days in Siena, a reasonable distance just 43 miles south of Florence using public transportation, the Sita bus from Florence to Siena. Following Rick Steve’s advice, we booked a room at a small hotel, Albergo Tre Donzelle, just a couple of blocks from the famous Piazza del Campo. According to the guidebooks it is especially nice to spend a night in the city and enjoy it after the day trippers leave and the crowds thin out a bit. Something impossible to do on a day trip.
On Monday morning we rose early and packed up our small cases for the overnight trip. We opted to walk to the Santa Novella bus station which was about 1.5 miles from our apartment rather than paying for a taxi. Leaving home on foot around 9 am gave us ample time to walk along the river and through town. We didn’t bother to attempt to get to the station at any particular time, knowing that the Siena buses ran every 45 minutes or so.
Figuring out the bus station wasn’t too difficult. Finding the ticket line, we purchased round trip tickets for the Siena Rapida, rather than the local bus that would have several stops on the hour long route. The Rapida left just as we finished purchasing our tickets, but that was OK since we were first in line for the next bus 45 minutes later. In the mean time we returned to a little café that we had passed earlier and purchased a “stand-up” coffee and a pastry. The morning was chilly and holding the hot coffee felt great.
Getting on the bus was as usual for Italian buses, fighting people even though we were first in line. Once we got on the bus with our hot coffees in hand, we settled into our roomy and comfy seats wondering where the cup holders might be. Instead we found a sign, “No Food Or Drinks Allowed”. Hiding our cups under the seat, one of them tipped over and we hastily tried to hide the evil evidence. UhOh. No one seemed to notice and we didn’t get kicked off the bus.
The drive to Siena wasn’t as scenic as we had imagined, with the road down in a draw most of the way, surrounded by lots of shrubby trees and brush. It was surprising to me how much this part of Italy reminded me of brushy Sierra Nevada Foothills, or Arkansas hardwood forests, quite claustrophobic. Instead of the rolling golden hills I had imagined, the landscape was thick with scrub oaks and brush. Only rarely would we catch a glimpse of what I had envisioned as “Tuscany”. The highway was quick and modern, in good condition, and I could envision easily driving in this part of Italy.
Thick vegetation covers the Tuscan hills on the southern edge of Florence
When we arrived at the station in Siena we used the offline google maps again to get our bearings. The bus station isn’t located in the main part of town, but the city center is within walking distance.
A side note: We took so many vertical shots in the town that I have decided to use some collages since vertical shots don’t work that well in the blog. If you click on any of those shots, it will take you to the smug mug folder where the original photos are located. Only if you are interested.
This Tuscan hill town will transport you back to the Middle Ages. Siena’s grand cathedral, built in the 1200s, has treasured artworks and marvelous marble floors. The Piazza del Campo, the main town square, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to the Palio, perhaps the most infamous horserace in the world. No hats or juleps at this race. This is a medieval tradition involving bareback riders racing on cobblestones (so as you might imagine, it’s quite dangerous). Check out this video of the famous race!
As we headed toward town and our hotel, we passed the Siena Duomo. Italy is filled with gorgeous cathedrals and the Duomo is one of the best. This church is striped with white and black marble both inside and out, giving it a unique and somewhat dramatic appearance. Continuing on down the narrow and quite busy streets, we passed a little restaurant that looked quite charming but decided to find our hotel before stopping for lunch
The hotel was just another block away, easy to find, and check in was simple. The proprietor was friendly and charming, and when we asked about a place to eat, he told about Taverna Di Cecco, the restaurant we had passed earlier. He said Di Cecco was best for our Bistecca, a Tuscan treat we had decided to enjoy in Sienna rather than Florence.
While the hotel was charming, the room was small with a window that looked out to a tight courtyard surrounded by very tall walls. The bed was as we have discovered in Italy, hard as a rock. Sigh. We unpacked and walked back to Di Cecco for a late lunch, thinking maybe we could spend the rest of the afternoon and evening walking off what we knew would be a huge meal.
With lovely service in the small but delightful restaurant, we had our best meal in Italy. Our traditional Tuscan Porterhouse steak, 1 full kilo, cooked to perfection and seasoned with coarse salt and rosemary was the best steak I have had anywhere. We shared a half bottle of local chianti, and spent a long time sharing our steak. The steak was served with no side dishes, but the chef did bring a plate of Italian bread soup for each of us as an appetizer. Another treat, the bread soup is like Italian bread soaked in marinara sauce, quite delicious.
With Bistecca being such a “thing” in Florence and Tuscany, it isn’t necessarily easy to weed out the tourist restaurants claiming to have traditional Bistecca, and the real thing. One of the factors in determining the real thing is that the meat must come from the famous right breed. The Chianina is an Italian breed of cattle, formerly a draught breed, but now raised for beef. It is the largest and one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world and is known for its incredible flavor.
After our amazing lunch we walked back toward the main part of the city, exploring the nooks and crannies, and were suddenly caught in a huge rain storm. Our umbrellas were safely back at the hotel, but we were just close enough to the Duomo that we managed to get tickets to get inside in time to escape the heaviest of the rain.
The Duomo was an incredible experience, with so much complexity and art. Like many churches in Italy, it took hundreds of years to build the cathedral. Work began in 1196 and over the next 200 years, additions were built and ornate facades were added. In 1339, another massive addition was planned, but the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 halted all further construction on the cathedral.
Once we entered, we were awed by the intricately designed interior with large, colorful mosaics. It was probably our favorite cathedral that we visited during our time in Italy. We loved the most famous masterpiece of Duomo, the inlaid colored marble mosaics covering the entire floor of the church.
Sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.
When we left the church the rain had diminished and we ambled back toward Il Campo and the square discovering what some say is Italy’s best medieval city experience. Narrow red brick lanes wander in every direction, lined with colorful flags and studded with iron rings for tethering horses. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhood associations), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio.
“Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.
Siena’s loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza — Il Campo. People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped “square” of red brick. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.
Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers around Siena’s city hall, symbol of rational government, and a tall municipal tower (open for climbers). If it’s true that a society builds its tallest towers to its greatest gods, then Siena worships secular effectiveness more than it trusts in God.
Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings (including a knockout work by hometown master Simone Martini). The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace (Room of Peace) under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.”
We enjoyed the contrast between the Renaissance era of Florence and the Gothic style of Siena, especially the narrow winding lanes. After a short power nap at our hotel, we decided to explore the square in the evening. The crowds had thinned, and we enjoyed sitting at a café for an aperitif. I had my first classic Italian spritz, and Deanna chose Baileys, since the spritz was a bit too bitter for her taste.
We people watched, and the waiter brought us delicious fried potato appetizers, free gratis with our cocktail. After taking some photos of the beautiful fountain and a bit more wandering, we returned to our hotel for what was to be a very long night in our very hard bed.
The next morning we woke to a darkened room with little light even though it was after 8AM. We went downstairs to have a coffee and a croissant on the square before getting tickets at 10 am to climb the tower of the Civic building.
The Torre del Mangia inside the Public Palace in Piazza del Campo is the most recognizable landmark in town. To reach the top of the tower you have to climb 400 steps, but the views of the town and surrounding countryside are simply terrific. 400 steps..very few people. Early morning when the tower first opened at 10 was the perfect time to do the classic climb.
The climb was more dramatic than our previous climb of the Campanile in Florence. The stairs in the tower were older, much more narrow, and the turns were much tighter. We were incredibly happy that the foot traffic was light enough we didn’t have to pass too many people either going up or coming down. I am pretty sure that this will be another memory of our trip to Italy that will stay imbedded in our minds for a very long time.
We had purchased the group ticket, which included seeing the civic museum, but after climbing the tower we had to make a decision. We really wanted lunch. For us at this moment it was more important than the museum, with the desire to have a dish of pici pasta more compelling than another museum. The caveat was that we also wanted to get back to Florence before too late in the evening.
We had a hard time deciding where to eat. By this time the square was horribly crowded, and settling into one of the few open tables at Il Palio, right on the square didn’t feel right. When no one came to attend to us, we simply decided to get up and walk the back lanes to our little restaurant Di Cecco. When we had dined there on the previous day, there was a group of people on a “Eating in Tuscany” tour, with a fascinating guide that we enjoyed listening to as we ate. The group was served the classic Sienese pici pasta, but many of them asked if they could look at our Bistecca, as the guide explained our famous dish to them. It was time for us to return to what was obviously a good restaurant to try pici.
The pasta is a bit like spaghetti, but thicker, and of course denser with the al dente cooking that is so important for Italian pasta. We had it with a porcini sauce, which we thought somehow was pork, but turned out to be mushrooms. The lunch was delicious, and we enjoyed eating at the outdoor tables along the narrow street watching people amble by as we ate. Our simple glass of chianti was just 3 Euro each.
Before exploring the town, we had checked out of our hotel and left our bags in the safe keeping area. We walked back to get our bags and headed out of town toward the bus station where we had arrived the previous day. It took a bit of doing, but in the confusing square we found our bus number and time, and the area where we should plan to board. Once again we managed to deal with the crazy Italian bus system and got on the right bus to Florence, Firenze Rapida.
Then a conundrum. After all of this, we both needed a bathroom, and of course there is no such thing on the Sita buses. The 90 minute ride was a bit of a challenge, and when we arrived back at the station in Florence Deanna and I both had our euro ready for the bus station washroom and managed to get there in time! Simple problems, and it was funny only later.
With our lightweight overnight luggage, which seemed a lot heavier than it had yesterday, we walked the mile and a half back to our apartment. Both of us were happy to finally climb our 4 flights of stairs. We knew that we wouldn’t want to go out again, so supper was another piece of take-away pizza purchased on our walk home. It actually was a pretty good piece of pizza, or we were just tired and hungry which made it taste fabulous. A great ending to a lovely two day adventure.