Trip to Siena and Firenze October 2008

Saturday 25 October 2008 - Siena

Click here to see all images of Siena

We arrived on time and our bags came through quickly which was not surprising as our plane was the only one in Firenze airport at the time.
The flight over Switzerland was spectacular with the mountain tops poking through the low clouds.
The ride from Florence to Siena was interesting with glimpses of old buildings in the countryside along with vinyards and a great deal of forest.
There was a bit of a delay at the hotel because not all of the rooms were ready. We took one in the annex because it was ready and a shower and rest up seemed awfully inviting.

A walk into town had the objective of getting money from a Bancomat and lunch.  We were successful on both counts. The post office machine coughed up after a couple of false starts. Lunch was at an osteria with a good mixed salad, gnocchi/penne a arabiata with some house red which was soft, very new but quite smooth. There were lots of porcupine pictures and carvings on the walls as well as a flag incorporating the porcupine. Outside there were several cast porcupines similar to those at Blois in the Loire Valley.

There was an organized walking tour of Siena before dinner.  The guide knew his subject but  kept adding stupid inanities. He concentrated on the architecture and I am sure I must have seen everything but it is all a big blur. The shell shaped main square was full of activity. It turns out that the porcupine is one of the parish animals and the lunch venue was one of the porcupine bars.  This is a social function not connected with religion and there are civil christenings where a member becomes part of the parish.

Twice a year there is a horse race in the main square. Ten parishes are represented picked by ballot so that no parish has an advantage.  The route around the square is padded with mattresses and they go around three times.  The build up lasts several hours but the race only takes a minute or so. 

Dinner at the hotel was good although quite ordinary and did not include any unusual local dishes.

Pasta with a tomato sauce.
Chicken in a light lemon sauce with roast potatoes and carrots.
Dessert of cake with chocolate sauce.

Sunday 26 October 2008 - Pisa and Lucca

Beautiful morning.  Our room has a view over the fields and we can hear rooks, magpies and cocks (possibly cuckoo) with church bells in the background (its Sunday). There's a large growth of mistletoe on a branch just in front of the window.

Click here to see pictures of Pisa

After a good breakfast we took the bus to Pisa where we met our guide Cristina who  was very good indeed.  We took the shuttle bus to the main site at Pisa - getting on and off the bus was like running the gauntlet in between the trinket sellers.  Pisa was interesting but we didn't get the chance to go into any of the buildings except the Duomo.
Lunch was nothing special at a
typical tourist place, with a great lump of dry lasgna, insalata mista and house wine. The waiter was a snippy and didn't get a tip.

Click here to see pictures of Lucca

Lucca is an interesting medieval town with lots of narrow streets.  We could have spent more time there.  The streets are narrow and they are quite dark as the sun doesn't penetrate except at midday.  The entire centre area is pedestrian with a municipal mini bus service.  The ladies were nearly caught out at the washroom in the Tourist Information Office.  The toilets were of the full flush type and it is not a good idea to hold open the door for the next person just to save 50.

Dinner at the hotel with wine provided at the bar by Travac tours.  Once again the meal was not as interesting as could be expected when being served for a group.

Monday 27 October 2008 -
Cortona, Montepulciano, Monastery of Oliveto Maggiore

Had a good sleep and met the guide Mario.  He knows his subject but treated us as if we were students studying Etruscan history 101. It was foggy this morning and perhaps this put him off a bit. 

Cortona is a pleasant town and there was first a guided walk.  We were told lots of details about what happened 2000 years ago but I was more interested watching two Carbinieri chatting with people in the square or the old men sitting together on a couple of benches.  They looked as if they had dressed up specially and one even had on a tie.

Afterwards there was some free time which we spent exploring some old medieval houses built half timbered fashion.  A cat watched us warily from behind the front wheel of a scooter although every time we looked its way it pretended to be sleeping.  An old woman was hanging out some washing on a clothes line while a group of schoolkids ambled past noisily.

Click here to see pictures of Cortona

The drive to Montepulciano was very pleasant past vinyards and olive groves.  This is quintessential Tuscan countryside with village and farms on the hilltops and with many cypress and umbrella pines. Montpulciano was a really interesting visit.  We made a bee line for a likely looking restaurant and had the daily special.

Bici pasta with wild boar sauce.
Pork chop with roast potatoes in rosemary..
Bottle of vino nobile

The pork turned out to be ribs, extremely well cooked while the potatoes in rosemary were exceptional.  The pasta was also excellent.  The waiter said that his mother and father were in the kitchen and we met them at the end.  What a wonderful combination.
We climbed the hill to see the rest of the very interesting town with the group.  We could easily have spent more time there.

Click here to see pictures of Montepulciano

The ride to the monastery at Oliveto Maggiore was towards sunset and we arrived just as the colours were fading.  It is a wonderful, peaceful place and it is well preserved inside.  The highlight was probably the inlay work, particularly a very lifelike cat.

When we returned to the bus we found it had been invaded by hornets.  There followed several minutes trying to catch them after they had hidden behind the light housings.  There were several different trains of thought.  Some felt that the lights should be turned off so that they would come out from the housings.  Others thought that we should just drive off and damn the torpedoes.  In the end the main lights were extinguished and we killed the offenders as they emerged in the gloom. The driver was obviously bothered and didn't want to encounter one while he was driving.  One did, in fact, come out but he managed to pull over quickly and deal with it but not before Cindy shouted to Marilyn "Here, you drive!"

Dinner tonight was at the Trattoria Fonte Giusta in Siena.
Bici with wild boar sauce
Ravioli with riccotta and eggplant
Ravioli with riccotta and spinach
One had pumpkin sauce and one with tomato sauce.
Insalata mista
Suckling pig, bisteca fiorentina, roast potatoes with roasted garlic cloves
Tiramisu and two types of cake
Red house wine. 
Very good indeed and it gave us an idea of the local cuisine.  There were many local people eating here in the porcupine district.
The walk back to the hotel took about twenty minutes.

Tuesday 28 October 2008 -
Monteriggioni, San Gimignano, Wine tasting at Verrazzano

Monteriggioni in the rain
San Gimignano - rain had stopped but Mary left me waiting for her outside the toilets.  The locals were pretty snitty here - good job we only had a short time there.
The wine tasting at Verrazzano was very good,  The explanation was well done by an expatriot Brit and the meal with wine was excellent. There was a different wine for each course.
Antipasti - salami with proscuito
Penne with tomato sauce
Wild boar sausage and pork with salad.
Biscotti fiished off with grappa.
There were eight of us at the table and at the end there were eight empty bottles not including the holy wine and the grappa.
This would have been enough for the day but there was a second wine tasting. It was interesting for its small private theatre.
Weather pretty bad all day.

Click here to see today's pictures

Wednesday 29 October 2008 - Siena, Firenze

It was arranged that we would not leave the hotel until 1230 to give us time to visit Siena city centre again and also because the rooms in Firenze would likely not be ready before about 1400. We decided to take the #6 city bus in with Cindy and a few others.  This was not the best choice as the bus was 10 mins late and it took a roundabout route which catered to school kids.  On top of that there was a diversion caused by a demonstration. We would have done better to have gone to the main road where there is a much better selection of more frequent routes.  We eventually reached the bus terminus and walked to the duomo only to find that it didn't open until 1030.  We decided to give it a miss and walked around gradually making our way back so we didn't need to use the bus again.  Saw a bamboo framed bicycle.  It rained and thundered intermittently.  We made a diversion through the Wednesday market which was mainly clothing, footwear and flowers.  A number of nuns were buying flowers, presumably for the churches.

We left Siena in good time and the journey to Firenze took little more than an hour.  Lunch on the bus was cold pizza (Mary) and Chianti Classico sausage and bread (Colin).
The hotel at Firenze was ready for us and we were quickly ready to go out.  The hotel is good, the rooms are excellent.
Sabrina took us on a long but interesting walking tour.  We first visited the Farmacia across the street which has been dispensing for hundreds of years.

Plaza Santa Maria Novella: Basilica di San Lorenzo: Duomo - amazing in its size: Plazza della Repubblica:
Ice cream break: Ponte Vecchio: Piazza della Signoria.

It was exhausting but gave us the opportunity to orient ourselves and decide what we wished to explore in more detail.
After a rest we went to a restaurant near the Duomo having walked out of our first choice because of a group of noisy Americans.
Glass of "draft prosecco".
Half bottle of Castel Greve Chianti Classico.
Vegetable soup/insalata mista
Pork chop alla Campagnola (with mushrooms and tomato)/Osso bucco with porcini sauce.
In all it was pretty good - basic, plain cooking.

Thursday 30 October 2008 - Firenze

Up and out early this morning to visit the Accademia del Arte.  It was empty when we arrived but soon filled up.  The main reason for going here is to see Michelangelo's statue of David which is magnificent although the right hand seems out of proportion (too large).  There are lots of other paintings and statues - one feature is that they all seem to have been restored and the work has made the colours more vivid.

Walk round Plaza San Marco where the kids were gathering to demonstrate against the proposed cut of funding for education. The Medici Chapel was very impressive from its use of marble inlay work.  There were also some Michelangelo statues.

The food market was really interesting.  One place had an incredible number of hams hanging up.  Several merchants had different types of mushrooms both fresh and dried - the smell was wonderful.  We had capppuccino at a bar upstairs.  Many places sold innards and there was one restaurant which was doing a roaring trade with buns sliced into two and filled with tripe etc. and soaked in the tripe gravy. People were tucking in with gusto but it didn't appeal.

Our next stop was the railway station which was busy and very disorganized.  The trains were running about 15 minutes late and there were platform alterations.
Lunch was at Da Sergio in the Plazza San Lorenzo.  Popular with the locals, this family run restaurant provided just journeyman food.
Pasta purses in chicken broth/vegetable soup with bread
Fried chicken with salad/fried rabbit with fries.
House red wine
Both meats were dry.  The rabbit was battered.  There were a lot of locals eating here.
Afterwards we went to the Ponte Vecchio via the gelateria visited yesterday then back to the hotel for down time.
We decided to go to the other side of the Arno (Otrarno) for dinner.  This was a good decision as this area is mainly residencial where the real people live and eat - more like the 17th arrondissement in Paris. We found three promising places and were just at the door of the Trattoria Da Ginone when the waiter opened the door and we went in.  What a good choice.  It is on the Via de Serragli (35r).  It is run by the owner, a waiter, a chef and a chef's assistant.
Glass of proseco each
Litre of house red wine
Fettuccini with zucchini flowers and gorgonzola/gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce.
Wild boar with cacchiatore sauce/stuffed (with prosciuto) boneless rabbit/plate of deep fried fresh artichoke
Local house dessert (flakey chocolate pastry with chocolate sauce and cream) with a dessert wine from Elba. This was red and sweet but not the cloying sweetness of the holy wine.
With a tip the total came to €75.00.
The waiter was excellent, being there when he was needed but not intruding.  It was good that we went when we did because there were two large school groups, one had wine and the other were too young.  They were both from Zurich, one French and one German speaking.  They had a good time and the chef kept coming out to see how they were doing and bringing them extra plates of pasta and chicken.  A great meal.

Friday 31 October 2008 - Firenze
Up and out early again today, this time to visit the Ufizzi Gallery.  When we arrived some of the staff were holding a meeting and it was impossible to buy tickets at first.  When we did get in we found that it was an annoying and disorganized place.  Several of the galleries were closed, presumably because of a lack of staff to police them.  A large number of exhibits had permanent printed signs saying that the detailed information was being prepared.  In any case we saw the important items such as Botticcelli's Birth of Venus.  In all there were fewer than half a dozen exhibits that depicted a smile.

We then walked to a model railway store and on to Santa Croce an enormous church filled with scaffolding which contains the tombs of Dante, Michelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Fermi and Marconi.  The cloisters were pleasant but we were flagging and so, after a calzone, we returned to the hotel to rest up.

There was a farewell dinner at a restaurant close to the hotel.  It was very good and the staff pulled out all the stops to make our last meal a good one.
Prosciuto, salami, toast with tomatoes, toast with chicken liver pate
Penne pasta with beef sauce
Roast suckling pig and roast potatoes, veal.
Biscotti with holy wine
Red wine and water.
A good way to end a good trip.
A special vote of thanks to Cindy Stephens, our gracious Travac Tours Host.  She was always thinking of us, anticipating and resolving potential problems and she always had a smile on her face. Thanks to Cindy, it was possible to relax, not worry about the details and concentrate upon having a really good time.