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Italy - France Journal
June 18 to July 4, 1998
Day Seven: Wednesday, June 24, 1998
Florence, San Gimignano, Siena
(The Festival of St. John, the Baptist - Patron Saint of Florence)
Their smiles and laughter are due to their habit of thinking
pleasurably about the pleasures of life.
- Peter Nichols, Italia, Italia (1973)
Today we boarded a bus for a full day guided tour of San Gimignano and Siena. Our Italian guide was Barbara who conducted the tour in English and in French. We traveled through the hills of Tuscany (Chianti country) to the medieval village of San Gimignano-of-the-Beautiful-Towers where time seems to have stood still since the Middle Ages. Its high walls and narrow streets are typical of Tuscan hill towns. Today, it is a shopkeeper's paradise with an influx of tour buses. We arrived at the church to find an entire movie crew there filming Franco Zeferelli's "Tea with Mussolini" - starring Cher. The views of the Tuscan countryside were beautiful from the hilltops.
After 1½ enjoyable hours in San Gimignano, we continued on to Siena, Italy's most enchanting medieval city. Siena was once Florence's great historical rival, and there still seems to be a rivalry between residents as to which is "Italy's best." The world's oldest bank is still doing business in Siena today. Siena is a Gothic city, unlike Renaissance Florence, and is practically unchanged since medieval times. Like Florence, Siena's rooftops are also predominantly red, made from Sienese red clay (remember Burnt Siena from your Crayola box?).
The main square, Piazza del Campo, is Italy's finest. Twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August, the square is the site of the famous Palio, a horse race in which the city's 17 neighborhoods compete in a 90 second race to possess the cloth banner that gives the contest its name. The residents take this competition quite seriously. Each year, thousands stand for hours in the very hot summer weather to witness a five-minute race. Only the wealthy can afford a seat in the stands that surround the square.
We ate a typical Tuscan lunch, consisting of crostini, prosciutto crudo, bruschetti, risotto, pasta and cheese, and then were treated to a two-hour guided walking tour through Siena. Our guide, Monika, took us through the Piazza del Campo, the Museo dell' Opera Metropolitana, where we saw Duccio's Maesta, and the Duomo. The Duomo is said to be one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Italy. It is most famous for its magnificent inlaid marble floors, which took almost 200 years to complete. Interestingly, the floors cannot handle the foot traffic generated by all the tourists, so all but a few of the mosaics are covered by brown paper and masking tape! The Duomo is also famous for its carrousel pulpit sculpted by Pisano. We also visited the Biblioteca, a room full of frescoes depicting the life of native son, Pope Pius II. We returned to Florence about 5:30pm.
Although tired, we decided to stop in at the Ufizzi Gallery since it was open until 8 p.m. The Galleria degli Ufizzi houses the finest collection of paintings in Italy and is said to be the second most important museum in Europe after the Louvre. However, this museum is very small and, in typical Italian fashion, about half of the rooms were closed and some open rooms were empty! We were impressed by Botticilli's "The Birth of Venus", Leonardo da Vinci's "The Adoration of the Magi", Michelangelo's "The Holy Family", Titian's "Urbino's Venus" and Caravaggio's "Bacchus." The Uffizi is often very crowded - queues can reach three hours in the middle of the day - but in the evening we walked right in!
We ate dinner at Trattoria Enzo e Piero, a trattoria around the corner from our hotel. We had our first and only menu touristico, the Italian version of France's prix fixe menu. It was aptly named, catering to tourists with pasta with tomato sauce, chicken cacciatore, fried potatoes, salad, ice cream and, of course, wine. On our way home, we heard fireworks going off over the Arno in celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.
Piazza del Campo, Siena