Thursday, January 18, 2007

Day 14 - Siena - Florence

Yesterday’s theme was “what a difference a meal makes,” but we left you without describing the difference making meal. If you recall, we finally arrived in Siena the previous evening after the sun had set, having endured a miserable day of driving, getting lost, adjusting to a new rental car and dealing with a much to early in the morning start. Our luck seemed to change when we arrived around the corner from the Grand Hotel Continental, however. After parking our car in an illegal space in front of the municipal building we slouched into the hotel and were greeted by a cheery “buona sera.” The staff seemed a bit surprised when we responded to their “how’s it going” inquiry with a torrent of complaints. They seemed determined to help us lift our spirits.

Why they thought that a good meal would do the trick is beyond me. Maybe there is something in the way we carry ourselves that says that food is our prime motivator and source of happiness. Perhaps it is the waistline that gives it all away. Whatever it is, the friendly manager suggested to us a dinner at the Osteria la Sosta di Violante and even made a reservation for us. We’re awfully glad that he did.

Siena is a lovely city. It is sophisticated, wealthy and important, but it lives in the shadow of its more well known neighbor, Florence. Strolling the wide stone pedestrian streets from the Continental to the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena where the annual palio is held, we were glad that the town was not overrun with American, Japanese and German tourists. There certainly were plenty of them, but not at the Florentine level. We stopped for a drink at a café on the Piazza del Campo, watching the passersby for a while and finally moved on to la Sosta.

Walking into la Sosta di Violante (via di Pantaneto 115, 53100 Siena, tel. 0577.43774) we knew that things had returned to normal. A single small room with perhaps 6 tables, nearly every one full and each with a group of people deep in conversation, smiling, eating, we felt as if we had come home. Our waiter cheerily showed us to our table, which we would occupy for the next three hours. Although he spoke only a little English, he was able to make himself perfectly understood and he seemed excited by our efforts to communicate in Italian and by our obvious interest in and appreciation for his cuisine. I won’t bore you with the details of what we ate that night (picci with pork ragu, picci with butternut squash and radicchio sauce, tagliata (sliced steak), chicken with a spicy mustard sauce, spinach, fagioli and of course grappa). It was a truly cathartic experience that cleansed the day’s earlier disappointments from our memories.

Waking up in Siena the next morning, the slate had been wiped clean. We open the shades and beautiful, bright sunshine streams into the large, high ceilinged room. Outside a beautiful countryside unfolds in the distance, while earthy terra cotta roofs frame the foreground. Although the early morning fog is fading, it wraps itself around the city’s duomo, an enormous cathedral of stone, adorned with black and green stripes in marble. We are anxious to begin our day.

We check out of the Grand Hotel Continental and leave our bags behind, asking that they bring the car around at 2:30 for our drive to Florence. We retrace our steps from the previous evening and then make a turn arriving at the rear of the duomo. We climb the steep stairs up and find ourselves standing where we had parked the night before on our first, aborted attempt to reach the hotel. Needless to say, the duomo is breathtaking, even more inspiring from the piazza than the view from our room.

We enter the cathedral for a brief tour, again overwhelmed by the scale of the church and its beautiful decoration. The floor of the cathedral contains an intricate series pictures in inlaid marble. We are particularly interested to find a design of deers that are on the floor somewhere in the massive cathedral, as that motif is used in the ceramic design Siena, one of our favorite designs that we sell at Bella Italia. After an exhaustive but unsuccessful effort to find the pattern, we head to the cathedral bookstore to find a book that describes the cathedral floor. There we find the location of the pattern and discover the reason we could not find it is that the floor is under partial restoration and the pattern we were looking for was covered with plywood. We settle for a few postcards and leave.

We wind our way through the little streets poking around and into a number of shops. We are interested in the ceramics stores, which feature a mix of ceramics from all over Italy, some of which we recognize, but the prices are sky high. We press on to the Piazza del Campo and sit outside for a small lunch at a touristy restaurant, pizza and pasta, as we watch American school groups embarrass themselves and their countrymen with their total lack of regard for their host country and basic manners.

We finish lunch, enjoying the sunshine and relatively warm weather, sad that our brief visit to Siena is about to end. Returning to the hotel, we find our car waiting outside, with the bags already loaded. We really love this hotel! We get directions to Florence, sure that we will get lost as soon as we back out of parking spot and sure enough, within two minutes the car is beeping, warning us again that the fog lights don’t work, and we have already made several wrong turns. Today, however, we are back in stride and within a few minutes we are out of Siena and on the connector highway between Siena and Florence. We arrive at the outskirts of Florence a short while later, preparing ourselves for the inevitable disaster that awaits – attempting to find a way through Florence’s maze of one way streets to our hotel in the very center of town. On several previous occasions we have circled the entire city a half dozen time trying to penetrate to its center but today, thanks to the mystical power of the previous evening’s dinner, the car wills itself directly to the doorstep of the Hotel Pierre on the very first try. It is only 4:00 and the sun is still high in the sky. We live a truly charmed life in Tuscany.

Check in at the Pierre is a breeze, as we have stayed there before and our passport information is already on file. We drop off our bags and head outdoors to rediscover the city where we first fell in love with Italy many years ago. For us, returning to Florence is like coming home, and when, several hours later, we arrive at our favorite restaurant in Florence and are greeted by the two brothers who run it with big smiles and warm handshakes, it is like coming home to family.

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