Friday, April 27, 2007

My unforgettable Siena

I have said in my previous travel entries that I prefer smaller cities and charming villages over large chaotic sprawls of civilization. The good points with Florence are, a. it is a city with a large Centrum that is packed together, and b. the Centrum can easily be explored on foot. But honestly, I had enough of the hectic activity around me and wanted something countrified - sluggish and bucolical (I think I am really getting old!). Siena was what I was thinking...

The scenic train ride from Florence to Siena. In this short movie clip you can sight a castle snuggled above a hill with the village below it.

The medieval city of Siena is huddled up on a hill. Visiting Siena will truly bring you back in time!

So on Saturday evening, I sat down propped up on my hotel bed reading the travel guide my Dutch-in-laws lent me about Siena. Siena is one of the important cities of Tuscany, located right in the middle of the region. It is a city couched beautifully on top of a hill -- but do not be misled, Siena may be a burghal on its own right, yet she has this countrified charm and ambience magically weaved into her.

Halfway through the read I made the decision to go to Siena the next day Sunday. Ah, I am so looking forward to it!

On the 1st foto is a peek from the alley to the Piazza del Campo. 2nd foto is a leopard statue (there is a story behind this), more like a hyena that you can find all over Siena. And the last is the Palazzo del Pubblico built in 1297 with the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo.

The train ticket cost about €11+ retour and the ride took about an hour and a few minutes.

It was a sunny day. The train ride was quite scenic and had they cut the high shrubberies along the tracks, it would have been a very pleasurable and pictorial ride from Florence to Siena (and vice versa). I even thought, for a moment, that I saw Monteriggioni from a distance, the famed medieval walled town. I swear I am going there soon.

Piazza del Campo in Siena, the shell-shaped public plaza.

More of Piazza del Campo in Siena…

Unlike most cities where when you arrive by train you find yourself right in the smack of the center, with Siena, the Centrum is about 1-2 kilometers away. You will have to take a cab or the bus to get there. Some individuals I traveled with in the train preferred to walk, while others, like me, bought bus tickets for €0.80 one-way.

And more of Piazza del Campo in Siena... the Palazzo del Pubblico, the fountain - Fonte Gaia, a favorite hang-out of the pigeons, and of course... me!

The uphill bus drive was a quick 5 minutes. Most of the people in the bus were tourists. There were Italians too, but they were still tourists, albeit local. The bus finally arrived and passengers started unloading themselves. I searched for my Siena travel guide and quickly put myself in the map.

To make this long introduction of Siena short – I FELL IN LOVE WITH SIENA!!!

The city has this small-town feel which was just perfect for me. It livened up my spirits and brought a new angle of excitement in me. *Sigh* It’s just too bad that I only had a day to spend there. Jammer.

Piazza del Campo in Siena, the shell-shaped quadrangular oblique public plaza. It is said that the 8 divisions (quadrangle) of this shell-shaped plaza represents the 8 municipalities of Siena in the past. Please click the 1-minute movie clip to see the striking Piazza del Campo.

The 1st foto will lead you towards the outer settlements of Siena. 2nd foto is a narrow alley, a bit eerie though. And the 3rd foto is the “Torture Museum” – eww!

I spent my time wandering in the narrow streets and alleys, and discovering new things. I loved it and didn’t mind getting lost, ha-ha! I even went farther to the outer settlements. And although the settlements were still connected to the Centrum, it was clearly outside the inner city’s perimeters. Uh, what can I do? The place just gives me this quirky spirited feeling of I am on “holiday” and I am not just visiting. It’s quite refreshing I might say.

Charming window and more of the leopard hyena look-alike statues – the real dog is a bit shy with the fake animal, he-he.

Then around 12noon I went to the Duomo (church). Luckily they have a mass scheduled that time so I decided I will linger a bit longer and went up the stairs to queue in.

By the front façade grounds of the Duomo, very busy with tourists! Click the 1-minute movie clip to see the Duomo.

“Sir, if you want to visit the church please come back at 1:30 when the mass is over.” The young teenage volunteer standing outside the church said to this over 6 ft. man with a huge camera hanging on his neck.

I was watching them from a distance and the man ignored him. I thought to myself – I’m going to smack this teenage volunteer if he says that to me!

The queue was moving fast now, and I was standing right beside the young teenage volunteer, when he eyed me up and down and blurted, “Miss, if you want to visit the church please come back at 1:30 when the mass is over.”

I was like – Aaarrggghhh, I knew it; he said it!!!! I wanted to retort by saying --- Hey kid, even if I am a tourist and an atheist, I am here to attend mass!!! My conscience though warned me to keep my mouth shut. Due to the strong surge of the crowd, he was already a few feet away telling another tourist the same thing when I looked back. Oh well...

The Duomo church in Siena, and what it looks inside -- grand, in black and white marble.

The inside of the church was amazing, all done in black and white marble, they reminisce Cleopatra and the Egyptian era. I just stood there absorbing all the history of art that I took back in college.

The magnificent dome of the Duomo and the leopard-hyena breastfeeding the 2 babies. The 8 circles with animals I believe symbolizes the 8 different municipalities Siena had in the past, which in the same manner reflects the 8 divisions of the shell-shape quadrangle of Piazza del Campo.

The mass was about to start. Let me just say that I do not believe in religion and gods, and the reason why I want to attend mass is to muse over my Catholic days.

The experience was actually very nice, esoteric yet relaxing. Maybe because my feet were tired from walking, and sitting inside the church surrounded with historical graphic art with the priest talking was a good refreshing change. I was also quite surprised that I still remember the sequence of the mass, and even if it was in Italian, I can follow everything. The liturgy, the songs, the responses of the churchgoers, and the ceremony of making the sign of the cross and nodding or shaking of hands to other pew neighbors were amazingly the same back in the Philippines! I had to chuckle, ha-ha.

I stealthily stole a picture of the priest giving mass. There was actually someone from the church surveying while the mass was going on, making sure tourists are not taking pictures and disrupting the service. As you can see, I have been very well-behaved!

Everything in the 1-hour mass service brought back recollections of my childhood days. During Sundays, my parents would bring the whole family to the Catholic Church. And aside from the birthday parties that I must regularly attend and wear a frock, on Sundays I also get to wear these dainty, frilly, and lacey frocks that I hate. I could not wait for the mass to be over so we can go home and I can change into something comfortable. And there’s my Catholic Alma Mater during elementary and high school too. The austere and grave-looking nuns in white, they are of course worth reckoning into my childhood Catholic days.

I personally believe that it is a matter of realizing and accepting that the “truth” many religious individuals believe, and insist, doesn’t always mean it’s the “truth” for everyone else out there.

Cafes and tourists, they go together.

Italian specialty - pasta, wine, and some sweet delicacies. I am not fond of their hard biscottis and breads though.

My late lunch was spent in this café by the shell-shaped plaza. I ordered a glass of sparkling Chianti white wine, bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and a selection of thinly sliced Italian dried meat and sausages.

Two meters from me on my right was a family having lunch, and judging from their accent, I think they were British. They have been sitting in the cafe for sometime, I believe, because they were already there when I arrived. However, my order (and orders of others too) came first while they were kept waiting. Naturally, the woman complained. After a few minutes, the waiter came back with their food. Food ordered by her husband and her son did arrive, but not hers, unfortunately. Looking at her from a distance, it is very obvious that she was not amused at the situation.

A few more minutes passed and a hurried waiter returned with her salad. Before the waiter could leave their table, she protested that it was the wrong salad! By this time she was already angry. Then she added – What about my margarita? Where is it? The flabbergasted waiter scuttled away and quickly came back with the margarita.

Then, just a minute passed from the previous incident(s), I saw her hand up in the air again waving stiffly to the waiter. She looked puffed up, really mad, and about to blow up. I was wondering – Huh, what is it this time woman, lol?! Fuming, I heard her say about “something” is floating in her margarita. Oh dear. After yelling to the dumbfounded waiter, she stood up and left. She went to another restaurant (I think) and left her husband and son to finish their lunch.

My view from the cafe where I sat in Piazza del Campo. Of course, my lunch plate is so so tempting!

What a lunch tragedy. I was sitting there, saw everything that transpired, and honestly, I could not make myself to decide if I should kick the bitch’s bum or pity her instead?

You see, my rules with the hospitality world -- never ever be bitchy to waiters, cooks, and hotel personnel because they can and let me say this, THEY WILL, come back to you with utter vengeance without you knowing. Either they will spit on your food, roll up some nose deposits and add it up on your entrée, or use your toothbrush to polish the sink, tub or toilet bowl even! Yikes, ha-ha.

On the other hand, she was just so unbelievably ill-fated. Oh well, life sometimes sucks.

Busy, busy, and I would like to go up there too and people watch!

There was also this street comedian entertaining us just right in front of the café. He was playing tricks on all the unsuspecting passersby while all of us from the café – actually a stretch of 3 cafes, were laughing non-stop at his antics and at the candid responses of these unsuspecting passersby. After his 30-minute stint, he went to the tables to collect money. Hmm, I wonder how much he earns in a day.

After lunch, I went to wander around again and sat on the grounds of the shell-shaped quadrangle plaza by the fountain. During summer, Siena celebrates the legendary “Palio”, a local equestrian feast held in Piazza del Campo. Do take note that the contestants ride the horses without saddles - they ride them horses raw! Ouch my bum hurts.

I realized I haven’t had my after lunch coffee, which in Italy they call “kaffe” (in English, this is Espresso) so I looked for a coffee place where I can buy it cheap, the Italian way. I have to admit, I have been an Espresso addict lately.

This kaffe culture is quite a very interesting Italian practice, especially when it comes to ordering coffee in bars and cafes. If you buy the kaffe by the bar you only pay something like €0.80, but if you order it while sitting down with a table, be prepared to pay 3x or even 4x of the price!

Scenes of Siena...

It was time to go back to the bus stand to catch my train which is leaving in 30 minutes. The bus ride is just 5 minutes so I was very confident that I will get to the train station in time to catch my train to Florence. BUT, it was already 10 minutes over the time stated in the bus schedule and there was still no bus! I began to panic a bit; I don’t want to miss the train, otherwise I have to wait for another 1.5 hours.

Twenty minutes has passed, a disgruntled big crowd of tourists were pacing anxiously to and fro the bus square, and a lunatic kicking the telephone booth, screaming unintelligible words, and running around the square played in front of me. It seemed like a movie, really.

When the bus didn’t arrive after 5 minutes, I thought to myself – Oh dear, this must be what they meant about Italian service? Buses come late or they never come? Worse, there were no announcements made, which is just as bad as having no bus because we were left hanging without any information to fall back on. Ugh, I was totally chafed -- had not the lunatic kid went running around amok and kicking anything that came across his way (essentially entertaining us, or me), I would have had curls of smoke coming out of my ears and nose!

More scenes of Siena. The city center is very compact and its medieval ambience can truly be felt.

The 2nd foto is the public market hall of Siena (there was nothing though at that time, they were not selling anything)

The looney kid was with his mother, who was, thankfully, quite calm and in control of the situation. So while sitting under the shade of the bus stand and watching the dramatic scene unfold before me, I could not help but hypothesized that the kid blacked out when the bus didn’t arrive on time. Perhaps they also have a train to catch like me? And because the bus didn’t arrive, that totally set him off to the edge? Well, that was my theory anyway.

Later, I saw mother and looney kid at the train station, calm and sober. Hm, I could have been right about my theory, eh?

At any rate, I missed my train and had to wait for the next. Still, I enjoyed my time in Siena even if the finale was quite a drag.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

More of Firenze (Florence), the renaissance city

I would encourage people not to miss the noteworthy Palazzo Pitti, now a museum, and in particular the amazing Giardino di Boboli [Boboli Gardens], spanning approximately a vast 45 hectares of hilly land. Beautiful is the word I can describe this stately property.

The Palazzo Pitti at my back from the Boboli Gardens. Right behind me is the ampitheater, the primary axis of this huge estate where open-air theatrical performances were once held for the Medicis. In the 2nd foto, you can sight the city of Florence at the back of Palazzo Pitti.

Neptune (fountain), the discus thrower in the middle of the pool at Boboli. Next foto is a part of Palazzo Pitti (this is the wing where the Costume Gallery is) with the panoramic view of Florence just right behind it.

This medieval palace with lavishly landscaped gardens and Renaissance antiquities is the home of the once powerful Medici family, rulers of the Tuscan region during the dark middle ages. Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de Medici, bought the palace from the rich banking entrepreneur Lucca Pitti and she transfored the whole place into a kingdom of her own.

On the 1st foto is a sneak peek of the Palazzo Pitti inner courtyard. 2nd foto is just right outside the palace backyard facade. This is before you tread into the Boboli Gardens. And the last is the palace door (entrance) looking towards the outer courtyard and street.

In the backyards of the palace is the great and beautiful Boboli Gardens rising magnificently above the massive chateau. The expanse of the gardens reminds me quite a bit of Madrid’s Retiro Park. The difference between the two is that the Retiro Park is visibly man-made and very commercial-looking, whereas the Boboli Gardens has this spry yet highly imperial twist, like a play between tasteful stately art and the pure elements of nature.

I very much enjoyed my time in the Boboli Gardens. If I was a kid I would have gone amok, running wild, exploring, and hiding in the many arch vaulted pathways that looked like mazes of secret clove passages made purposely of clustered and clipped branches and high shrubberies. It was so Alice-in-Wonderland kind of thing.

That’s me getting ready to descend the arch vaulted clove garden mazes in Boboli. Above is the Pottery Gallery nestled on top of the gardens... and look at that delightful view! Felicity was what I felt when I was up there.

Entrance fee to the Palazzo Pitti and its art galleries is €11, and to the Boboli Gardens (inclusive of the costume and pottery galleries) is cheaper, costing only €6. You can easily spend half a day to a whole day here.

I decided not to do the full palace and museum tour for fear that I will suffer acute art overdoses. Even though I am an art enthusiast, I do not think I can handle too much art all at the same hour, or 2-3 hours, lol. The opulent gardens with its fantastic view of Florence would simply do justice to my lust for art, and my sanity of course as it provides optimum tranquility. I just needed really to get away from the busyness of the city, something I was badly wanting for that very moment.

La Fontana della Oceano con il Perseo che esce dalla acqua - one of the luxuriant pool fountains in Boboli. The sculptures were shall I say evoking, dramatic, stirring, and vivid.

Allow me though to deduce and talk a little bit about the Costume gallery. The visit was surprisingly a very very interesting experience. The museum did not only display timelines of women-and men’s fashion in the olden days but it also exhibits the garments of the very mighty Medici family of Florence.

The clothes Eleonora di Toledo, Cosimo I de Medici and their son Don Garzia wore when they died and when they were buried, and let me add this most important piece of information--they were, the clothes they wore inside the tombs, were freshly unearthed during our time! Right, after several hundreds of years!

The outer grounds of the Palazzo Pitti across the street. Many people were sitting on the grounds basking under the sun.

A team of experts were flown into Florence to preserve and restore the decaying garments, piece by piece, into its nearest original state. The whole procedure took years. I believe 10 years or more.

Just going through the collection was simply mind blowing. Keep this in mind, the Medici family died in the harrowing middle ages. Fascinating isn’t it? Indeed the joys of history...

This is the cafe (Caffe Pitti) across the palace where I had my scrumptious lunch, and two Asian women poring over a myriad of post cards and paintings in a nearby touristic stand.

A busy junction in Ponte Vecchio leading towards Palazzo Pitti by the Arno River.

Before going to the San Lorenzo Mercato (public market hall), which was in my agenda for the day, and which I realized was actually quite near to my hotel, I wandered about aimlessly along the river banks of Arno and the charismatic narrow alleys in the East part of the city.

I love to walk and sight-see, and even though my feet were aching like crazy already, I still walked, devouring all the history, culture, and architectural bounties around me.

With the old Fiat mini car in front, this foto articulates the true Italian spirit.

Then I rolled into Piazza Santa Croce. The square is said to be dated circa 13th-14th century. There were many tourists hanging out in the square. There was even a class doing yoga.

Piazza Santa Croce in the eastern part of Florence - those people standing are doing yoga classes. The Santa Croce church began construction in 1294 with the guidance of the Florentine architect Arnulfo di Cambio. And did you know that the grave monuments of Michaelangelo and Galilei are housed in this church?

To see Piazza Santa Croce and me -- ha-ha, I look so cheeky-corny on film(!), please click on the short movie clip above. This is my first attempt of being on film ;-), perhaps next time I will do better.

This is another Piazza Santa Croce version, but without me.

This foto of 3 men and 4 women is another favorite, taken also in Piazza Santa Croce. Next foto is a street fruit vendor. The colors are so beautiful.

Upon reaching San Lorenzo church, I right away made acquaintance with the buzzing street market scene and its surroundings, then hurriedly walked further. I can’t really be bothered with the kitschy and fake goods displayed. Not only that, when traveling, believe it or not, I realized that I do not like shopping at all, at least the female manner of pouring on every single item and having the shopping activity listed on the agenda every single day.

Perhaps I have reached to a point of contentment-utter contentment to shop once every quarter, that is. Or maybe I am just busy. The last time I shopped for clothes was when I was in the US last early February. I felt obliged to do so because my hotel was annexed to this humongous complex of malls and hotels. It was easy to sneak in and shop during idle moments. Even then, I have only bought 3 items! What a shame?

The hustling street market in Piazza San Lorenzo. Like all over Florence, there are many black guys touting leather goods, watches and even electronic wares here.

I know completely that many women are by nature wanton shopaholics. It’s a bit ironic because I really do like fashion, but I am truthfully far from this women inflicted materialism stereotype--not joking okay. Far be it for me that I shop until I drop or have squeezed out my last cent from my wallet/bank account into some vain whatever pointless shop. I seldom carry cash nor use my credit card--thank goodness. I would rather save, and if I have to spend, it would better be on one of my traveling binges, he-he.

So with that I avoided the crowd and went straight to the mercato (market hall), just right across the San Lorenzo church. The mercato is a public market, something like the wet market in Asia/Philippines where you can find fresh meat, seafood, vegetables, and fruits sold. Well, I found my favorite Italian gourmand there – dried sausages, cheeses, spices and olives. Yum!

The San Lorenzo church (began building in 1420) towering above the street market in the piazza is designed by the famous Florentine architect, Brunelleschi. In this church are the tombstones of the Medici family. Next foto is a cozy cafe terrace that I took at the back of the San Lorenzo Mercato (public market hall).

Nevertheless, I was very pleased with my package of Italian goodies. Here is a point I always make when traveling too, I always make sure to pay a visit to the local supermarkets, wet/public markets, and the open-air markets in the city squares. There is so much to discover in these places and it amazes me everytime I get caught up in the whirlwind of its sights, sounds, and smells.

The Dutchman who is in the Caribbean for work right now will surely love a little slice of this la dolce vita present waiting for him when he comes back to good old flat Holland.

This is what I found inside the San Lorenzo Mercato (public market) - Italian delicatessen, dried sausages, cheeses, preserved fruits... there were also olives, olive oil, wines, spices, and many more.

Later that day, somewhere in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata I sat down to rest my weary butt and legs on the steps in one of the buildings in the square. In my travel guide book, I read that this is the first square built in Florence in Renaissance style during the first half of the 15th century. The fountain across me standing in the spacious square has this grotesque looking sea-creature images. They looked very intimidating, like little minions of the devil, lol, and were believed to be the work of Pietro Tacca, Giambologna’s assistant.

More importantly, I didn’t realize that sitting alone may send wrong messages of invitation to assertive Italian men!? WTF, I better get going!

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata is located very near to the Duomo, Piazza San Lorenzo, and Piazza San Marco. The equestrian statue in the middle of the square is the Grand Duke of Florence, Ferdinand I de Medici, son of Cosimo I de Medici. This is Giambologna’s last artwork and completed by his student-assistant Pietro Tacca in 1608.

All in all, my time in Florence was truly well spent. I love the city! There were still many other places that I would love to see, explore, and experience, but for now they will have to wait for another time.

Next entry: My unforgettable Siena...

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