It was pointed out to me that it's been a rainy day in Florence for about a month now. I'm sure it is still raining there. Sadly, the blog became quite neglected. It was just too frustrating trying to update using the iPad. I mostly focused during the trip in getting pictures on Facebook, which in itself was annoying and time consuming.
But, I will attempt again to blog about my trip to Italy. Let's go back in time...to November 20th. We'd spent two days in Florence and were now ready to depart for Siena. We would spend the night there and Wednesday morning we'd be driven to Montalcino where we would begin our tour.
I was a little sad to leave our super cute apartment. It had a few drawbacks (bar right across the street, but earplugs help with that), but had such charm and everything we needed. Except good water pressure. I think was the day I finally realized that the reason my hair felt so gross was because my hair was not being rinsed adequately. I'd been running around Florence with soap in my hair. I spent a good portion of the bus ride to Siena telling David, "Touch my hair. Doesn't it feel gross to you? Doesn't it?" He couldn't really tell, but he is a man.
Oh, the apartment also had a good selection of reading material...including the complete ouevre of Cesar Milan. Do Americans desire to read about dog training while on vacation, or is this a common misconception amongst Italians? I'll never know.
We packed up our bags, including some of the food we had not eaten (these little cookie things, some awful cracker/bread hybrid, a package of dates that we proceeded to carry all over Tuscany with us and never ate).
The bus station was pretty busy. Siena is a popular destination. The bus ride is less than two hours. You can also take a train, but the bus is recommended as it drops you closer to the center of town. Setting aside my memories of the horrible bus ride from Lisbon to Sevilla, we bought our tickets and had about a half-hour or so to wait.
Absolutely nothing interesting happened at the bus station. Several people were smoking despite signs that said not to. A bus left to some other city with only one old lady on it. I decided to use the restroom.
Of course...I was stopped by a rather gruff, older gentleman who informed me it would cost 60 cents to use the restroom. So, I found David and got 60 cents. When I handed it to the guy, he handed me back a small packet of tissues. Really? Am I paying for these tissues? Because I came to Italy stocked with like, 20 packets of tissues. In fact, there were like three of them in my purse already. I had learned my lesson at the bus station in Lisbon. Had I known this was what my 60 cents was for, I would have showed him, "I've got plenty!" But, I didn't want to get in a argument with the restroom attendant, so I just went on my way.
The bus ride was uneventful. We passed a lot of beautiful scenery, people got on and off and seemingly random places. Eventually, we got to Siena and I started to wonder where exactly we would stop. We actually passed our hotel, and the station was very close to the hotel. I was a happy girl.
Our hotel was lovely! All the hotels were booked by the tour company, and I was pleasantly surprised. We were in the "comfort" accommodations (the cheapest option), but really...it was lovely. We didn't linger too long...we had planned to get to Siena early in the day because we had heard it was wonderful and we should spend several days there. We had about half a day, so we quickly set off to the center of town and the Cathedral.
First though, we needed food. We spent a good 20 minutes trying to find some restaurant recommended by Rick Steves. We never found it. I think there was a fair amount of grumpiness at this point. Eventually we settled on a little cafe that was quite charming. In Italy, you always pay one price at cafes and gelaterias if you want to sit at a table and another price if you stand up at the bar or get it to go. That's just the way it is. We sat, but I enjoyed watching people come in, head straight to the bar, order an espresso, drink quickly, and be out of there within 10-15 minutes.
I don't really remember what we ate. Sandwiches. With some kind of cured meat. I'm sure they were good...but I think this particular cafe was sort of a local chain, so there wasn't anything overly spectacular about it. There is plenty of bad food in Italy, there is plenty of mediocre food in Italy, there is plenty of amazing food in Italy. If you go, just be aware of that.
Siena is lovely, and I hope to go back and be able to spend a bit more time there. Siena is divided into contrados, or neighborhoods, each with their own symbol (an animal). Each year there is a race at the Piazza del Campo and each contrade has one rider. From what I have seen, the Piazza is packed at this time of year. It was not packed when we were there. In fact, it was quite empty. As would be many of the places we saw. November - not the tourist season, which actually made for a lovely time to visit.
Okay, so we ate, and then headed to the Catherdral. The Siena Cathedral is really amazing. David referred to is as the zebra church.
For the history, I'll let you read the article at the link. The floor is covered with mosaics, telling stories both sacred and secular.
The Piccolomini Library was also stunning. The frescoes were all original...have never been restored. This particular room has tall, clear windows. This allowed for enough natural light that the frescoes were never damaged by smoke and soot from candles.
We had sort of a combo ticket thing that allowed us also to see the Baptistry, the museum, and the crypt which the cathedral was built on top of. We were also able to climb up to the top of some wall (aagh...I don't remember). We had am amazing view of the countryside. Ah, Tuscany!
This really took most of the afternoon. We then headed down to the Piazza, poked around in some little shops, got some gelato. The bell tower was no longer open to climb to the top, so we just sat in the Piazza and tried to imagine it full of people.
We headed back to our hotel, stopping at a little yarn shop along the way. I've been knitting on the trip...a wonderful pattern suggested to me by a co-worker. Despite its simplicity, I'd screwed up and before I went to far, I thought I should rip it back. But, I didn't really have anything to create a life-line with, so I went into this shop hoping to find some notions (specifically a tapestry needle) and some cheap yarn that could serve as my lifeline. No notions in the entire store. Not a single one. Sigh. Let this be a lesson to me to travel with some cheap yarn and a tapestry needle. I did buy some pretty grey fuzzy stuff. Made in Italy.
Back at the hotel, I was looking forward to an awesome shower! And it did not disappoint..for about the first minute. Almost immediately, the shower was full of water up to my ankles. Despair. Would I ever have a decent shower in Italy?
Of course, the big question of the evening was where would we eat. Now, Rick Steve's did recommend eating someplace on the Piazza, for the atmosphere, warning that the food would be mediocre and overprices. Had it been summer and the Piazza bustling with activity, we may have done this. He also recommended a place called Compagnia dei Vinattieri. It also had good Trip Advisor ratings (I love to read the 1 and 2 star ratings. Some of the things people complain about are absurd, "The menu wasn't in English!", or occasionally are written by people who didn't even eat there, "It was closed").
The real "problem" we had with dining out in Italy was knowing when to go. Typically, many places advised reservations and there were plenty of reviews for various places where they didn't have a reservation and missed out. Of course, this is from people who were there during the tourist season. We were there in the off-season, so we were never really sure. Did we need a reservation? Should we just show up? Honestly, there were times we were the only people staying in a hotel. So, we usually went to dinner "early", around 8:00...right when dinner service started. We never had an issue...there were a few places that got busy...but several places we went even by the time we left, no one else had shown up.
Okay, so back to dinner that night. This restaurant was cozy and charming. There was even a stuffed moose hanging out on the bookshelf. We started off with a little prosecco. This restaurant had a tasting menu that could be paired with wine selections for each course, so of course we went with that. I am now going to bore you with photos of our food.
First course, the antipasti. So, at the top you see a Cinta Senese mousse with chestnut crepes. Chestnuts were in season! Yay! Cinta Sense is a type of Tuscan Pig...so, they made some kind of mousse. It was very good. The red blob is a cardoon flan with a tomato puree. And next to that, crispy beef tongue! I would not have ordered this on my own, but it was amazing. Perhaps the preparation helped, but I didn't feel like I was eating tongue. It had an anchovy sauce.
We were off to a good start. Next was the primi course, which is usually pasta. We had picci (sort of like spaghetti only thicker...this was popular, we had pici just about everywhere we went) with bacon and chicory hearts. We do not like chicory. But, we would have never known that had we not tried it. The raviolis is stuffed with braised beef and in a cheese and saffron sauce. This we did like. Very much.
Our main course was, well I don't remember! Ha...I didn't get a picture of that part of the menu. Well for sure you see some steak here. This was very good. There were some roasted potatoes, which were the thing that didn't get eaten because they were roasted potatoes and very good, but we were getting full and I wanted room for that steak. I have no idea what that other thing is....some sort of moussey/flan concoction that I liked.
And of course we ordered dessert. We got the Grand Dessert which had a selection of favorites. Chocolate cake, a tart, and another sort of mousse thing. Lemon I think. All very good.
All in all, a very good meal. A little more upscale and fancy...not your Italian grandmother's cooking, but an excellent way to end the day.
After dinner, we walked back down to the Piazza del Campo to check it out at night. It was quiet. Many of the restaurants lining the piazza were closed, but a few were open and seemed to have a lively crowd.
But, it was time to head back to the hotel. We had a big day ahead of us! We would be picked up in the morning and then the walking tour would officially begin!