PART ONE – Train Travel, Tiny Bathrooms, Holy Accommodations, and First Impressions - Wine, Gelato and Feasting
“Weather in Pisa this afternoon will be Sunny and partly cloudy” announced the British Airways pilot shortly after take-off from Heathrow. Kathy and I exchanged “Sounds Good To Us” looks. We had checked the weather report for Pisa and Siena in gloomy, rainy London that morning and they were calling for “Gloomy and Rainy” so things were apparently looking up for us as we were about to start day one of our holiday in Italy. As we later descended into the low clouds blanketing Pisa airport, the pilot sheepishly corrected himself and confirmed that the rainy weather that had descended on Tuscany over the past few weeks was continuing.
But it didn’t matter! We were starting Day Three of our long-awaited three week vacation and a bit of rain was not going to matter. (As we were to soon discover, it was a tad more than a “bit”.) After spending a couple of days in London on our way from Toronto we had arrived in Italy for seven days in Siena, followed by two days in Florence and then nine days based in Manarolo, hiking the trails of the Cinque Terre on the Levanto coast.
Instead of a whirlwind checklist tour of Tuscany we had again adopted our practice of parking our butts in a few places and soaking up the food, wine, art, and ambiance of a limited area. Newsweek ran a cover article a couple of years back entitled “Slow is Beautiful” describing the growing trend of travellers to avoid the “top-10 group tour” format of zipping through 20 countries in 20 days in favour of a different approach to vacationing. The term “Slow Travel”, we read, apparently means traveling and vacationing in a more leisurely way, with unstructured days enjoying in-depth experiences, hanging out in one remote corner of the world, interacting with locals, sampling local customs and food and enjoying such personal pursuits as hiking, sailing, or kayaking. It also means quieter, more intimate, accommodations such as homey boutique hotels or small rented villas instead of all-inclusive mega resorts and large hotels. As Newsweek puts it, for the new “Slow Traveller the quality and depth of experience matters far more than crossing hotspots off a checklist”. Kathy and I realized that our adopted style of vacationing apparently now had a label – apparently we were now officially: “Slow”!
So here we were in Italy and First Stop was Siena. We zipped through departure and emerged into the airport terminal ready to catch the train to Siena. I’d already checked the Trenitalia web site (well laid out and reliable I must say!) and was armed with the full list of trains, train times and schedules. My first pleasant surprise was walking up to the counter to secure two train tickets from Pisa Aeroporta to Siena. It was something like 16 Euro. I corrected the lady and told her this was for TWO people – and all the way to Siena. With a bemused look she politely told the apparently dense, bald-headed, Canadian man that she had heard me right and that was for two people to Siena. Back in Canada, and especially in Northern Ontario where we live, railway fares are atrociously high and that amount would likely have gotten Kathy and I as far as the local truck stop four miles out of town with our train service. I was already enamored with the Italian rail system, and despite a few quirks here and there, using the trains in Italy proved to be an easy, and very cheap way to get around.
After dutifully validating the tickets we were ready to take the first train to Pisa Centrale (where we were to catch the train to Empoli with one further train connection and the last leg to Siena). It went like this: (1) Run for train ready to depart the airport train station. (2) While sweating profusely, and grunting much, lift and sling two 75 pound suitcases up the stairs into the vestibule, while balancing much too heavy carry-on bags on shoulders and backs. (3) Scan the already packed cars for empty seats. (4) With even more sweating and grunting, wrestle and maneuver two bodies, two over-packed suitcases, and two carry-on bags into the middle of the train car. (5) While attempting to avoid cervical or head injuries to us or nearby passengers, hoist bags onto overhead bins, or seats and collapse into seats for the ride. (6) ….at which point the train promptly arrives at Pisa Station and everyone leaves the train! (7) Do all of the above in reverse and run for the next train!
Despite my anal retentive planning I’d failed to note that the trip from the Pisa Airport to the train station is a mere matter of minutes. We used our brains for the remainder of the next three weeks and learned to park the embarrassingly heavy suitcases in the vestibules for the short duration trips instead of hauling them into the train cars.
We were able to navigate the train stations and platforms at Pisa Centrale and Empoli for our trains without any trouble. Knowing the train numbers and the eventual end-destinations for the trains made moving from platform to platform relatively easy but hauling the two ballistic-clad anvils on wheels continued to cause the sweat to pour. After hauling the suitcases down and up the staircases the first time, thinking the elevators were broken, we learned another little tidbit – in some of the tiny platform elevators at the train stations, you have to press and HOLD the “Up”, or “Down”, button in the elevators to make them work! That made things a bit easier.
Nevertheless - we were barely into our vacation and already we were looking at each other and swearing yet again that NEXT TIME we would not o-v-e-r-p-a-c-k. As you have already discerned - we are obviously not the smartest bunnies in the forest when it comes to packing. We try hard to cut back and keep it light, but here, on our fourth trip to Europe we were yet again, staring in bewilderment at the people whizzing around us with one respectably sized suitcase. We know we’re weak – we like lots of nice clothes and I have a terrible weakness of packing things “just-in-case”. As we finally slumped into the last set of seats on the train from Empoli to Siena we were swearing again (both the expletive kind and the oath kind) that next time it would be two pairs of underwear each, a tooth brush, a pack of tissues, the credit cards and the clothes on our back.
I digress. By mid-afternoon we had arrived in Siena and grabbed a taxi to our base of operations in Siena for the week – Hotel Alma Domus. (Cue the Church Choir Soundtrack)
Alma Domus is a very comfortable, somewhat spartan, but very nice little hotel tucked away in the shadow of San Dominica church. It’s also part of the convent of Santa Catarina and attached to the Sanctuary of Santa Catarina. After much research on the web, and good reviews on Alma Domus, we thought that this would be a neat change of scenery for accommodation. As we stepped into the front reception there was no mistaking that we had the right place. This was very much part of a working religious complex – a nun in full habit, was standing near the front desk and the slight, but unmistakable, scent of church incense sent me reeling back in time to my catholic elementary school days at Saint Patrick’s and my brief stint as an altar boy. I suppressed the knee-jerk reaction to genuflect and look for the font with the holy water, and we checked in.
Alma Domus is a bit institutional in character and there is no mystery as to who did the interior decorating – crucifix’s abound (including the one over our bed), holy paintings (one of which was a bit weird and unsettling) are everywhere. I especially liked the photo of Pope John Paul’s visit to the place on the way to the breakfast room. Despite the touches of Catholicism and reverence here and there, we really liked the place and it was a great little hotel. The staff was pleasant (except for the greeting habits of the breakfast room lady who gave out seat assignments, which was a hoot) our bed was comfortable, the coffee was good in the morning, it was very quiet (for the most part – see the section below on Contrada sing-a-longs), the location was perfect, and best of all, we had a walk-out verandah with a terrific view across the roof-tops and hills of Siena and the Duomo and a direct line-of-sight into the convent Sanctuary next door. I made a mental note to make sure I did not walk out onto the balcony in my birthday suit or skivvies in the morning for fear of unsettling one of the sisters.
The bathroom was tiny with a toilet, bidet, sink and “bathing receptacle” crammed into a relatively small space. The bidet seemed to be a bit of an anomaly in a former convent but what the heck. As for the “bathing receptacle” once again as a North American tourist, there was that culture adjustment to the European-style shower/bath. The shower was a tiny corner of the room with a raised ridge to define its area, surrounded by a shower curtain hanging from a rod. It was very small, “cozy” and, as we’d seen before, sometimes required some acrobatic maneuvers practiced only by circus performers in order to get the water to your nether regions. As usual, after showering, most everything in the bathroom was drenched, including any clothing you may have been stupid enough not to leave in the other room.
I had written a travelogue when we first went to Greece, and described the three classes of Greek hotel Bathing Receptacles. I realized that Italian baths and showers in smaller hotels, pensiones and hostels could be similarly classified and so, if you’re interested, I reproduce the outline as follows. Please feel free to skip this part and go directly to the continuation of the report below.
My three classification of Italian (or Greek) small-hotel Bathing Receptacles (aside from the expansive showers found in the high-end hotels) are as follows:
First there is the “TUPPERWARE CLASS”. These are small square basins resembling the largest of the Tupperware containers we use to store leftovers in our fridge. There are no actual shower walls – just the corner of the bathroom. There is sometimes a shower curtain. Sometimes there is not. They sometimes have a little stool or formed seat while you bathe, which are just large enough to accommodate your backside such that it feels like a pressed ham. If you are lucky there is a shower nozzle fixed on the wall, but invariably it appears to be pointed in the wrong direction. Often there is a hand-held nozzle which you must maneuver, thus tying up one of your hands. After you enter, your knees are around your nose, or your nose and other frontal body parts seem to be pressed against the wall or walls to contain the spray of water (an exercise in futility). After you have adjusted the water temperature you often have a limited number of minutes of hot water left to wet yourself, lather, wash and rinse. Putting the hose down to use both hands to get the nether regions or your hair, results in water spraying every which way (sometimes in your face) and often all over most of the remaining four square feet of bathroom, including the clothes you mistakenly tossed on the floor before you started and most certainly the bath mat. By the time you coordinate the maneuvers, you have quite often exhausted the hot water. You thus finish with a bracing cold blast of water just as you are finishing up. If you are male, this shrinks things. You step out onto the soaked bath mat, shivering with teeth chattering, and reach for the towel-the-size-of-a-tissue that, you realize, was also on the floor.
The second classification of bathing receptacle is what I call the “REFRIGERATOR CLASS”. These stand-up receptacles contain about the same volume of space as the average stand-up North American Fridge. When you close the door (if you can), and adjust the water temperature, you are invariably going to next slam the faucet or some plumbing fixture into your elbow or take out a hip joint as you turn or bend to grab the soap or shampoo. Genitals are usually also an endangered zone for guys. Shuffling to aim the water to cover all parts of your body (which usually can’t be done) involves alternative but equally challenging, circus acrobatic maneuvers. You can perhaps remove the hand held hose from its hook and aim it accordingly, but in doing so you are likely to again slam your hip or elbow into the plumbing fixture, or worse…..important mid-section body parts. Since the shower doors rarely close completely you have likely sprayed water over the same four square feet of bathroom, including the bath mat and your clothes thrown where you thought they were outside the bathing zone. The hot water is again gone by this time and you usually finish with a bracing blast of cold water. If you are male you are, by this time, speaking in a high-pitched voice and glad you have fathered all the children you wanted. Honeymooners beware.
The third classification is the “STUCK-IN-THE-CORNER SPARTAN CLASS”. This is the classification which confuses North Americans because there is nothing that resembles a shower or a tub in the bathroom and you begin to open closet doors looking for the real bathroom. You soon realize that the bathing receptacle is basically a corner of the small tiled bathroom, with a hand-held hose or (again if you are lucky, a fixed shower nozzle that frees up the use of your hands), and a floor that theoretically is sloped to allow the water run to a drain but invariably does not. Lacking any confinement you actually might be able to shower in a time efficient manner and may thus finish your bathing before the water turns icy cold. Your body parts are also usually safer because you won’t bang into anything. However, if your Wife happens to be putting on her make-up at the sink adjacent to the Corner Class bathing area, you may discover that you have inadvertently drenched your better half who now has mascara streaking down her face, with hair matted to her face and looks that could kill. Since there is no separation between the bathing area and the toilet, sink or your wife, every square inch of the bathroom and its contents are now covered in water including the roll of toilet paper, your undies, your bath mat and the tissue-sized towel. It will matter very little, since your Wife, as pay-back, has removed anything from the bathroom that would allow you to dry yourself. Sitting on the toilet immediately after bathing, with the Stuck-In-The-Corner Class of Bathing Receptacle can be hazardous to your health (and embarrassing) as your wet backside may slide off of, or worse, into the middle of, the wet toilet seat.
To be fair, (despite my attempt at humour), there was almost always lots of hot water at Alma Domus, and the bath towels were nice and big for drying off (as long as you didn’t leave it in the bathroom when showering). Our shower was a tiny example of the Stuck-In-The-Corner Spartan class – but with a shower curtain.
After depositing the luggage and freshening up we were off to explore Siena.
Let me say from the outset – Kathy and I fell in love with Siena. We had thoroughly enjoyed the Renaissance art and history of Florence during our week-long visit in February, and weren’t sure what to expect from Siena by comparison. The Sienese and Florentines have been fighting, arguing and warring over which city is best for centuries so in would behoove little ole’ Kathy and David to throw their two cents into the debate. Our conclusion, nevertheless, was that there WAS no comparing them. They are two very different, beautiful, art-filled, culturally unique Tuscan cities, but Siena has a very different flavour and atmosphere.
First, it doesn’t take long before you notice the very medieval character of the city. Beautiful narrow streets, most closed to traffic, meander here and there, seemingly without any pattern, but radiating from the Campo towards the city walls and the city gates. The streets are cobblestoned, lined with beautifully preserved historical buildings with every manner of architectural elements – arches, balconies, buttresses, columns, decorative stone work, and detail imaginable. And all without graffiti. That horrible hooligan spray-painting blight defacing so many lovely historical buildings (so common in Florence, and many other Italian cities by comparison) is not to be seen in Siena! The Sienese strong sense of neighbourhood pride and the ingrained social/organizational contrada system, where each Contrada proudly preserves their traditions, evidently does not tolerate the ugly pastime of scrawling ugly spray-painted crap along the facades of 600 to 800 year old buildings. (More about the contradas later). Also noticeably absent are the annoying hawkers and peddlers of Florence persistently selling their cheap trinkets. The strong sense of civic pride and traditional mores really comes across if you stay a while. As a result, entering Siena is stepping back in history and enjoying a small sprawling city as it was originally built in the middle ages and through subsequent history.
One of the things that surprised us is that Siena is very much a hill-town – or a “Hill City”. Perhaps because of the size of the old city, I expected that like Florence, or Pisa or Lucca – Siena would be fairly flat. Not so. Siena is a cacophony of elevations, there is hardly a step taken that isn’t on some gradient – many of them quite steep. Even the Campo is on a serious slant. Despite looking at dozens of pictures before hand, I thought the Campo was more or less a flat Piazza, but not even close. Like an uneven bowl, you enter from any number of side-streets going down ramps and steps and slopes of every kind. I now have even greater respect for the riders of the Palio – careening around the Campo, not only at death-defying speeds, with 90 degree turns, but on crazy slanted elevations no less. We walked the Via Della Galluzaa, a narrow alleyway/street extending from above the campo towards Santa Dominica not less than eight times a day. We discovered one means of accessing the “upper” areas of the city from the west, below San Domenico, entering from the Porta Fortebranda is up an interesting series of steps, ramps and escalators. During the course of the week we covered most of the old city, circling around on back streets, sometimes leaving by one gate and entering through another. In the course of doing so, we must of covered hundreds of feet in elevation changes, and had calves and shins of steel by week’s end.
On our first day we decided to get our bearings by heading to the Campo and the Duomo and simply exploring. An important part of the initial exercise was staking out the Gelato shops – which was fairly easy considering the number of them. In Siena, you are never more than a few feet away from a supplier to satisfy your daily “fix” of Gelato. As we neared the Campo, it was later in the day, so the crowds were somewhat light in the Campo and in and around the small Piazza del Duomo. We realized through the week that the vast majority of tourists in Siena come for a day, descending on the Campo and the Duomo (a short distance from each other) in massive hordes by mid-morning and leaving by late afternoon. At this time the Campo, (and especially the “touristy” cafés and restaurants lining the Campo) the Duomo, and the various “corridors” linking the two can be a sea of wall-to-wall people. Stray just a little from this area – in some cases just one street away, and the city become quiet, atmospheric, and even peaceful. In the late evenings Siena is actually magical, as the locals, and the fewer number of tourists staying a while, reclaim the neighbourhoods as their own. Which is why taking it slow, and enjoying Siena for a week is (and was) a fabulous idea.
After a full day of traveling, we were a little bushed, and it was raining steady. We had dropped in to Taverna di San Giuseppe but all tables were taken. We made a reservation for the next evening. Through the week, we fell into the habit of dropping in to places during the day to make evening, or next-day, dinner reservations. At most restaurants, this was almost essential for a table. Lunch or afternoon meals seldom required reservations, as there was always a table, with minimal or no wait in May. We enjoyed a terrific first meal in the small basement restaurant a few steps from the entrance to Alma Domus, Osteria Carroccio. (Restaurants and the joys of eating in Siena are covered in a separate Post later on).
We arrived back in our room and stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the black and white striped beauty of the Duomo, bathed in light stretching across the hill across the valley. It was quiet as a light rain fell on Siena, and you could hear a pin drop in both inside and outside the convent/hotel complex.
We collapsed into bed that evening, planning on an early start the next morning.
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7 Days in Siena – A Convent, Body Bits, Feasting,Wine, Gelato, Art, & Geese
PART ONE – Train Travel, Tiny Bathrooms, Holy Accommodations, and First Impressions - Wine, Gelato and Feasting