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G Adventures operates on the principle of using local metro and buses, whenever possible, to get the local flavour. So, on our first day, we headed for a bus station to hop a bus to Siena, our first stop. The bus station was populated almost all by Romans (Italians), not by tourists.
After our relaxing bus ride through the Tuscan countryside, we arrived in Siena, a medieval city of great beauty. My first impressions of Siena were that it was a very old city – all of its architecture is medieval or Renaissance style. I caught a glimpse of a bank sign that proudly proclaimed that it had been a bank since 1472
But Siena retains a fresh modernity. Its medieval cobblestone streets are lined with high fashion boutiques, perfumeries, lingerie boutiques, and gourmet food stores: this is a very wealthy town, it appears.
Our first stop in Siena was the church of Saint Catherine, the most famous native of Siena: Catherine of Siena was both a saint and an influential clergywoman to the medieval popes. She has been canonized, and the church in Siena keeps her head as a relic. You can actually see the head. It's behind a grill, ensconced as part of the main altar. I couldn’t take photographs in the church, but trust me, it was a little eerie. The rest of Saint Catherine’s body is in a church in Rome.
I would have to say that the most breathtaking landmark in Siena is the Duomo, a gorgeous cathedral made of white and green marble. The cathedral is, for the lack of a better word, striped, yes, striped like a zebra! From afar, the Duomo looks stunning, rising like a white and green tesseract above the brick medieval houses. Inside, it is even more visually amazing. The walls and pillars are striped, almost black and white in the dark cathedral
Attached to the Duomo Cathedral is the Baptistery, which I found beautiful for the frescoes that covered every inch of the arched ceilings.
Our last stop before lunch was the Piazza del Campo. It’s the main centre of Siena. It’s not a level piazza, but slopes like an irregular and shallow bowl, which allows all the rainwater to collect and drain to a central location. As the main centre of Siena, when the sun shines in the afternoon, groups of Italian teenagers fan out in the Piazza, sunning themselves (and snuggling with each other), just like teenagers in Vancouver do on the beach.
After a great lunch at a family-owned restaurant (fabulous ravioli!), we split up as a group. Three of us wandered to the south of Siena to view the Franciscan church, but it was closed. Right next to it was the Economics department of a local university, formerly a cloister. I found it amusing that the students there look like the students anywhere, chatting, smoking, and hanging out under gorgeous Renaissance arches in a courtyard that looks right from Dante’s allegories. I mean, how many students can say that they study in a 15th century Renaissance cloister?
Our wandering through the south of Siena also brought us some wonderful views of the Tuscan countryside and of the houses in Siena itself. I love how the houses are just piled one on top of the other, visually.
After we met up again in the late afternoon, we went to a wine tasting at an amazing wine cellar, with over 1600 different wines
I like doing all the touristy stuff, like wine tastings and wanderings, but I also enjoy the prosaic matters as well, such as taking care of laundry. So, in the afternoon, while a few people in my tour group were eating gelato, I bought some laundry detergent from a local supermarket, then hauled my laundry to a local Laundromat. I hadn’t done laundry since London, and the clothes needed a wash! The Laundromat was 3 euros for washing, and 3 euros for 20 minutes of drying. That Laundromat was populated by several old men (one of whom thought I had taken over his washing machine, but I didn’t), a middle-aged woman, and college students. One girl argued with her boyfriend over the phone while doing her laundry. She was a long-legged creature in baggy sweaters and tights and big sunglasses: students are students everywhere! I felt so accomplished and happy doing my laundry and getting every article of clothing clean. I wished I could have stripped and done laundry on the clothes I was wearing as well! It was a self-serve Laundromat with instructions in English. Doing my laundry just gave me the small sense that I was really functioning at a basic level in Italian society: I could get around on the metro, do laundry, and buy food.
And I’m happy to be part of the G Adventures tour group. After spending 9 days completely on my own, handling all the logistics of booking hotels and using public transportation, I caught a cold
One of my goals on this trip to Europe was to find beauty. I wanted to get out of myself, my own self-absorption, and seek out whatever was beautiful, pure, and faultless in the world. And there is much that is beautiful and pure in the world: art, sculptures, paintings, landscapes, and even plants! What is more touching is that in church after church, I see evidence of entire communities devoted to expressions of purity and beauty. That’s so refreshing and different.
Tomorrow, we head for Florence, the centre of Tuscan society, and the birthplace of the Renaissance. I can’t wait.