South to Siena

The plan for the day is the explore Southern Tuscany. After breakfast, we headed to San Gimignano, one of the many famous hill towns of Tuscany most noted for its 11 towers that could be easily spotted from a distance. Even before we arrived at the town, we spotted hordes of tour coaches parked in a single file along the road leading up to the town.

Not relishing another experience like Florence, we made a quick U-turn and headed for our next destination Siena. My colleagues from Europe had lauded that this was one of the most beautiful places in Europe so I needed to see it for myself. Thankfully Siena didn’t seem to attract that many tourists perhaps due to its distance from Florence.

If this is the very first hill town you’ve been to, you would be immediately struck by the incredible steep gradient of the cobblestoned pavements. Built along the side of a hill, the locals obviously had thought nothing about leveling the ground.

My calves ached and the stroller groaned as I heaved it up and down the slopes, musing to myself on how it was remotely possible for a drunk to get home safely without tripping and breaking his neck.

Siena seemed to have remained trapped in its past medieval importance and while busy it wasn’t overcrowded like Florence. We had arrived in Siena on 25th April which is Italy’s Liberation Day (or St Mark’s Day in Venice) and I presume half the people are in town to celebrate the occasion.

Our first stop was the San Domenica church dedicated to St Catherine which was built in the 12th century. It is probably the simplest and least decorated church in Italy but strangely more pleasing to the eye. I can never understand why churches had to be so elaborately designed when the main focus should be a place of worship.

It is only when I read a book on Christian history did I understand that in the past many people were illiterate so they learnt about God and the Biblical doctrines through visuals – murals, stained glass and sculptures.

Inside San Domenica, the walls are covered with large murals of angels and those depicting stories of the saints. Two murals closest to the entrance had a strange 3D effect and I wondered if artists back then had already mastered the art of using color blending to create this illusion.

Our lunch experience in Siena was really an eye opener to the Italian’s regard to dining. Not wanting to take full courses, Theo and I selected our meals from different parts of the menu. I ordered a Tuscan vegetable soup for Joel, olive oil spaghetti with clams for myself, wild boar stew for Theo and a vegetable pie as it sounded very appealing.

After waiting about 20 minutes, the waiter brought us a bowl of mushy green stew. Theo figured it was his dish so he took it and started tucking in. Albeit the saltiness which seem to characterise all Tuscan cuisine, it had a very savory smooth taste. I waited miserably for my spaghetti while Theo licked up the remnants of his stew.

Then the waiter came with my order. I attacked my noodles with ferocity as I was famished and was glad that it did not disappoint me. The olive oil tasted different and I soaked it all up with the bread. I guess it’s probably freshly pressed from a nearby farm so the fragrance was pretty strong.

At this point Joel was complaining and I wondered why it took so long for the soup to come. After I completed my spaghetti, the waiter served us what resembled more like wild boar stew. We were puzzled and asked about our soup.

It was then that it dawned on us that what Theo had mistaken for his stew was actually the soup. And the reason the food had come in sequence was because we had unwittingly ordered an appetizer; a primo (first course) and a secondo (second course) and they had to be served in this order regardless who was eating it. Theo and I were extremely amused by this episode and we ended up spending 2 hours for lunch.

Any trip to Siena will not be complete without a visit to the Piazza del Campo famous for its unique clam-liked shape which sloped gently down towards the epicenter. The buildings that surround the piazza were magnificent. Although not grand, they complemented each other perfectly.

After getting hold of a sinfully rich dark chocolate gelato, I joined the ranks of locals and laid down on the square to admire the environment. Joel was amazed to see his mother lying there in the middle of the open area and gladly joined in, rolling about like a happy little puppy.

Even though the idea of a public square is foreign to me, I came to appreciate its significance and how in the past people would come here to meet their neighbours, exchange gossips or peddle their wares. It is quite similar to the idea of parks in Singapore although we don’t generally chat with the people we meet.

We left Siena in the late afternoon and I persuaded Theo to drive us further south to le Crete which many of the travel guides claimed possesses some of the best Tuscan scenery. Theo complied even though he was extremely tired from driving.

The landscape was indeed unique and captivating. Instead of soil, the ground seemed to be made up of some kind of clay. What was intriguing was how the hills looked like they were blanketed with carpet grass – nature’s own golf course. However having been subjected to the rolling hills for the last three days, I had maxed out my total utility of all this beautiful scenery.

After passing le Crete, we drove quite aimlessly towards the Benedictine abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The 6pm bells were tolling by the time I hastily made my way through rows of cypress trees to reach the abbey. In the failing light, I tried to capture my last memory of Tuscany.

Our time in Tuscany had been bittersweet. Although there were so many things to see and beautiful scenery to appreciate, the whole journey had been hampered by poor traffic and road conditions. Signs were not clear and most of the time, distances were much longer than it seemed.

I had made a huge mistake insisting on staying on the agriturismo when my plans never afforded me the luxury.

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