Sunday, June 22, 2008

Italian Adventure: Siena (Part 3)

Part 3: Siena

James: On Friday, 11/9, we caught a bus to Siena, where we splurged for a hotel room ($55 for a double, bath and shower down the hall) at Albergo Bernini, which is run by the very friendly accordion-wielding Mauro. We kind of got tired of hostels after a while, and it was great to have our own room. It even had heat (the hostels never do), which turned out to be a good thing, as Siena was bitterly cold. We made good friends with Chico, a black and white cat that lived at the hotel. Chico visited us each morning on his "rounds," sitting on the bed and playing with us (a great way to start the day). One day when we returned to our room, Chico was inside waiting to bolt out the door-he must've gotten in when the room was being cleaned that day.

Rachel: We just walked around town the first night. Siena is a small-to-medium sized town that has perfectly preserved medieval streets and buildings, including the beautiful Piazza il Campo, the public square that is the heart of the city. The winding cobblestone streets, tall stone and "burnt siena" colored brick buildings and archways make it a beautiful place. As a bonus, traffic is highly restricted in the city center, which made it perfect for leisurely strolls through the old city streets. We found our favorite pizza place on our whole trip almost next door to our hotel: "Mister Pizza," which might lack a good Italian name, but more than made up for it in heavenly pizza ($1.30 for a huge slice). We had tried one or two other places before finding it, but once we did, we ate there everyday. James's favorite was potato pizza, without red sauce, covered with thinly sliced potatoes and rosemary.

James: At one of the pizzerias, we ordered a stuffed spinach pizza, then asked for it "caldo" or heated (all food is made ahead of time, and when you order, they will heat it for you in ovens). The lady getting us our food ignored us, so we asked again, then she kept repeating the price, so finally I pointed to the oven and asked, "Caldo?" when she stormed off in a rage, screaming "Caldo" and getting into a huge argument/fight with a manager, who eventually took her in another room and closed the door. I don't know if I was being especially rude, or if I was the tenth person in a row who had insisted that she heat up some pizza, but I definitely didn't make her day. I almost thought she was going to come out front with a knife, her manager trying to drag her back, so we got out of there fast and ate on the go. As we were leaving, another lady came out, and the next customer ordered and asked for it "caldo," and they popped it in the oven with a smile.

Rachel: An Italian we met at an internet cafe recommended "Ciao," a self-service cafeteria, with delicious home-cooked meals for an unbeatable price. These cafeterias ended up being the best places to eat, with amazing and varied meals with wine for about $5 per person. Just take your tray, and pick out whatever you want--salad bar, dessert table and cooks behind counters cooking up 3 types of pasta or risotto dishes to choose from-all prepared in smaller quantities--very fast and very fresh.

James: The next day, and all other days in Siena, it was cold and rainy. Rachel caught a cold, which put her in a crabby mood for the first time (she had been doing very good so far, which is saying something. Rachel, at least when traveling, is kind of a cross between Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy and Gelsomina from the film La Strada). We walked around town and saw the Duomo, and had some good food, but the rain just wouldn't let us enjoy ourselves much. Unfortunately, our favorite activity is walking (we really don't see many "sights") and either rain or cold doesn't bother us much, but the two together were miserable. Rachel's journal for Siena has one word above all: Rain! Our first day was so windy that our little umbrella was nearly destroyed! From then until the end of our trip, when we were huddled under our pathetic twisted umbrella in the rain, we referred to ourselves as "Les Miserables."

A payphone was right outside our door at Albergo Bernini, and each night a couple from America would call home to talk to their kids and their grandfather about what they did that day. They had rented a car, and were having a much more exciting and enjoyable trip than we were, so we began to look forward to eavesdropping on them each night. The father had such a wonderfully pleasing and joyful way of speaking with his kids. I had wanted to go out a meet him, but I never did, not wanting to spoil a strange notion of mystical being that I had in my mind, who calls from exotic destinations around the world and lovingly describes the amazing things he has found. In better times, this guy would have been the storyteller of his tribe, and probably a memorable one.

Our last day in Siena, I got the great idea to take a road trip to the picturesque hill town of Montalcino, in southern Tuscany. It rained on the way to the station, where we missed the bus and had to wait for two hours. (Rachel: It was a three hour wait.) As soon as we got on the bus, the sun came out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Our bus ride through the vineyards and villages of Tuscany was great. However, the second we got off the bus in Montalcino, guess what happened? It started to rain… After walking around the deserted town in the cold rain for five minutes with our pathetic umbrella, Rachel had HAD ENOUGH! She took the next bus back, but I stayed. It stopped raining soon, and I took a two hour hike through the country side, passing vineyards, old churches and farms. I finished my day with an excellent glass of local wine in a pub. It turned out to be a great day-trip after all. Rachel visited the Church of San Domenico, where Saint Catherine is buried (the first female saint) and her preserved head and finger are on display for pilgrims. More phrases from Rachel's journal for today: I want to go home! I miss Kitty! We checked our e-mail for reports on our cat (she was doing just fine, but a little lonely).

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