After leaving the Cinque Terre I made my way into Tuscany. The next city I was visiting was Siena, but along the way I changed trains in Pisa and I took the chance to pay a quick visit to the Leaning Tower. I know some people may disagree with me on this, but personally I think the Leaning Tower is the only thing Pisa has going for it. During the 20 minute walk from the train station to the tower, I didn’t see anything that caught my attention or seemed like it would be worth investigating. The tower itself makes for a good photo but you have to pay to go up it and that doesn’t make any sense, since the only thing worth seeing is the tower and when you’re in the tower, you can’t see the tower. A much more entertaining than climbing the tower is watching all the other tourists pose for photos. I got my photos of the tower and the surrounding buildings and then returned to the train station to catch a train to Siena.
Like many towns in Tuscany, Siena is up on a hill (at least, the old part of it is). For a time it was a regional rival of Florence, but it never recovered from the Black Death in the 1300s and was later subjugated by Florence in the 1500s. I stayed in a B&B near the train station, just outside the old city walls and on the first night I was there I took a walk through town. On that walk I came across a place called Grom, which is an international chain of gelato shops. Three years ago, before they got really big, I visit a Grom in Florence and was displeased due to what I viewed as an insufficient amount of gelato for what I paid. This sparked the whole concept of “Grom scoops” which I use to refer to anything that is too small for what I paid. I decided I would pay Grom a visit another day and give them another chance. Later that night I found that four of the apps on my phone decided to issue updates on the same day and with the modest wifi at the B&B, it took a long time to get the updates and be able to use those apps again. Somehow these apps always seem to wait for when I’m in a place with bad wifi to issue mandatory updates.
The next day began what I would later call the Battle of Tuscany. My plan was to be doing a pair of day trips from Siena to nearby towns, however it felt like I had to go to war with the regional bus network in order to make them happen. On this day I was planning on visiting Volterra but I missed the morning bus. As it turns out, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been there on time. Looking over the bus schedule, I saw that there was a bus to my planned destination for the next day, San Gimignano, a little later, so I figured I would catch that bus but it turns out you can’t buy tickets from the driver. I went over to the Siena tourist info center to get more information on the bus system and was directed to Siena’s main bus station, but I couldn’t find the ticket office. Back at my B&B, the staff informed me that the reason I couldn’t find the ticket office is because the station is one level underground below the bus area, so I went back and after some searching found the stairs down to the ticket office. There was one more afternoon bus out to San Gimignano, so I got a ticket for that and went to the bus stop where it was supposed to arrive. I was a little exasperated at this point, but I also wasn’t going to be denied again, so I just stood there and waited until the bus showed up. The ride to San Gimignano was about 1.5 hours and I had to stand for most of the duration due to the bus being full. Although some of you may not know where San Gimignano is, a lot you probably recognize it from photos. It’s the Italian town with all the towers. Originally there were 72 of them, but today there are only 14. As one of the easier Tuscan hill towns to reach, San Gimignano is overrun by the tourist horde and full of shops profiting from tourism. Even so, if you can ignore those things it’s still worth a visit. Mostly clear skies that day made for some good photos of the town with its towers rising like giant spikes above the other buildings. The San Gimignano Civic Museum occupies the tallest remaining tower and I went inside in order to climb it and get a view of the surrounding countryside. By midafternoon I was largely finished with San Gimignano so I wrapped up my visit and returned to Siena. There I gave Grom its second chance. I’m pleased to say I got bigger scoops this time, though it still costs a lot and I think the quality has taken a hit. I really don’t understand Grom’s popularity as it’s one of the pricier gelato shops and the quality of the gelato doesn’t justify the price you pay for it.
Day three of my time in Siena saw a continuation of the Battle of Tuscany. I was better about getting ready for the day and got to the bus station a few minutes before the scheduled arrival of the bus to Volterra. Then I waited. And waited. And kept waiting. And… the bus never came. I stood around for over half an hour and no bus showed up. It got to the point where even if the bus showed up it would be too late; I would miss the connecting bus in Colle di Val d’Elsa. I was peeved, but on the plus side while I was waiting I was able to help a pair of (American?) women who were looking for a particular bus to Florence. I went back to the B&B and after some research online I found that the next time I could get out to Volterra was early afternoon. That left me with a few hours to kill. My plan had been to save Siena’s big sights for the next day, so I walked around town and took in some of the lesser sights. I stopped by the San Domenico church, which holds the skull of St Catherine, a nun known for her peacemaking efforts and then went past the Siena soccer field and the town fort all the way over to the San Fransesco church. I’m guessing the San Francesco church doesn’t get as many visitors as other places because it’s kind of out of the way but it’s worth the effort to come and see. I came to Piazza Mateotti, where there was some sort of fitness expo going on, and there were also guys gathering signatures for an anti-drug petition. “You, sign against the drugs!” I would hear them say. I always wanted to respond “but, I love cocaine!” I actually don’t know what drugs they were campaigning against, but I assume the illegal ones. After some more walking it was time to get to the bus stop and I got there 15 minutes early just to be safe. Wouldn’t you know it, this bus showed up exactly on time. It took me to Colle di Val d’Elsa, a town where many bus routes connect but otherwise doesn’t seem to have anything else going on. I waited around for the connecting bus and then rode it out to Volterra. The hill town of Volterra has only about 11,000 residents and a small historic core. Still, I had to rush through it because the last bus of the day back to Colle di Val d’Elsa was only 1.5 hours after my arrival. Had that morning bus shown up I would have been able to do a proper visit, but I just had to hurry and see as much as I could. I walked quickly through Volterra, going through the old entry arch, visiting the town cathedral and baptistery, looking over the ruins of the Roman amphitheater, popping into an alabaster showroom, and climbing the tower at the city hall. I felt like I saw a good amount of Volterra, but I had also skipped a number of things like the Etruscan Museum which I would have gone to if there was time. When time was up I went back to the Volterra bus stop and while waiting I met a pair of Texans, a father and his daughter, who were spending a week in Italy for vacation and cycling. By the time I got back to Siena it was about 7:00pm but I felt like staying out a bit longer, so I walked over to Il Campo, the main square of Siena, and spent some time there before returning to the B&B.
My final day in Siena was notable for the fact that I was finally doing stuff in Siena. Normally I would do sightseeing in the main town first before doing side trips, however it made more sense to do the San Gimignano and Volterra trips first, since my final day was on a Sunday and bus services are reduced on Sundays. I started out back at Il Campo and went up the tower before visiting the Civic Museum, which has a collection of medieval and renaissance art from Siena’s heyday. My entry to the Civic Museum also got me entry into the Santa Maria Della Scala museum, which is right next to the duomo. That museum holds a bunch of art that used to be hung way up high in the duomo, where no one could see it, as well as the original stonework of the Fonte Gaia fountain which is on Il Campo. The stone blocks used for the original Fonte Gaia were not the highest quality and over hundreds of years became badly eroded, but the city was able to recover the casts used during the fountain’s construction and thus create an exact duplicate, which is what is on Il Campo today. For lunch I grabbed a single slice of pizza and then returned to sightseeing over at the duomo. The Siena duomo was built on the tallest point of the city, but there was very little flat ground there, so parts of the church, such as the baptistery, are below the main part and provide the support columns to hold those sections not on level terrain. The church was also intended to be much bigger. When Florence built its massive duomo, Siena decided it was going to expand its own duomo to create the largest church on Earth, but the advent of the Black Death scuttled the project before it could get far. One part of a new wall got built and you can still see where the new sections would have been. The outside of the Siena duomo looks much like the one in Florence, minus the dome, but the inside is much more ornate (granted, that’s mostly because in Florence most of the art inside the duomo was moved into a museum). I spent a few hours in the various parts of the duomo and when I came out I went back over to Il Campo, where I saw that a section of the square had been roped off and people were starting to gather. Though I didn’t know what was going on, I decided to stick around and awhile later a marching band with flag bearers came along and then a parade of guys with the flags of the 17 neighborhoods in Siena showed up. One of the guys was standing right in front of me and the wind kept blowing the flag into me. There was some sort of ceremony going on but since I don’t speak Italian I don’t know what it was for. As best as I could tell, the city was giving out commendations for people who did something and when it was over the band and the flag guys marched off. I started walking down one of the main streets in the old city when I heard the marching band coming up behind me, along with a bunch of people singing. They were going my way, so for a few minutes it was like I was marching with them, until they turned onto some other street and went marching off to who knows where. After dinner I went out for gelato and then spent some time sitting on Il Campo (for those who don’t know, Il Campo is one of the few main squares in Europe where it’s completely acceptable to just take a seat like you’re on the beach). I then went back to the B&B and ended the day.
The following morning I packed and did some reading at a park before getting on the train to Florence, to topic of the next post. Stay tuned.