Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Desiccated heads, and the balsamic conspiracy - a day in Tuscany

For our second day in Siena, we decided to do something a bit different.  Having planned all our adventures so far, we thought it would be nice to let someone else make the decisions.  And drive us around.  In an air-conditioned bus.


So we booked a wine tasting experience in the Tuscany countryside that also included a visit to the town of San Gimignano, which we had heard good things about.  This was an afternoon trip, so we started the day with wander towards the Fortezza Medicea, via the Basilica di San Dominico.

This particularly imposing church was visible from our hostel window, and in comparison to the marble-laiden facade of the Duomo looks boxy and boring.  However, it houses some exciting artifacts we wanted to see: bits of dead people.

San Caterina, or St Catherine of Siena, was a bit of a child prodigy.  She had her first vision of Jesus at the age of six, and swore chastity at the age of seven.  As a teenager she managed to avoid marrying her sisters husband by refusing to eat or drink until her father relented.  Later on, she conveniently became sick when her mother banned her from becoming a nun, and when her mum gave in, she made a miraculous recovery.  She joined the order of San Dominico, but remained living with her parents and (as legend has it) her 24 siblings, ignoring her family but giving away all their possessions to the poor.  Later in life, after travelling the country saving the needy, she developed anorexia and died.  Miracles were said to have occurred at her grave, and she was later canonised.

Inside the Basilica are St Catherine's head and thumb, which looks pretty creepy (images available from Google if you want to see).

After freaking ourselves out a little, we headed up the hill to the Fortezza Medicea, or Medici Fortress, built by the Medici family to prevent the Sienese people from recovering their independence.  Nowadays it holds a winery, a jazz club and a dance troupe.  The walk up afforded us with some very impressive views over Siena, and then we headed back down to Il Campo for some pizza bianco with salami and olives.  Then it was time for our coach trip!

The bus was a very nice reprieve from the hot sun.  In a group of about twelve people, we set off through the gorgeous Tuscan countryside to our first stop: Castellina in Chianti.  This was the birthplace of the chianti classico, the original Chianti that we now enjoy with fava beans and liver.

Immediately upon entering Castellina, we entered the Via del Volte, a medieval street that was originally just a normal street until people started building over it, creating a tunnel.

We wandered through and back out into the blazing sun, taking in the gorgeous colours and sights of this countryside town.

After Castellina, we headed to one of the many wineries in the area, Casanova Sant'Agnese.  Here we were greeted by a British ex-pat with a confusing Cockney-Italian accent.  She has been living in Italy so long she had forgotten lots of English words, like massage.  She showed us around the vineyard, then we headed down to the cellars.

Sant'Agnese is not a big commercial winery, and only has two small cellars.  The first housed barrels of wine, but the second housed barrels of balsamic vinegar.  The smell as she opened the door to the latter was just wonderful!  We also got to taste some of the vinegar they produce there, which was like heaven.  I cannot describe how good it tasted.

Turns out, the 'balsamic vinegar' we buy in the shops in the UK is not true balsamic.  Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena is made from a reduction of white grape juice, and has been made since the Middle Ages.  This was the one we tried in the winery, and had been aged for thirty years.  In comparison to this, the balsamic available in the UK, misleadingly named aceto balsamico di Modena, and lacking the key word tradizionale, is a cheap modern imitation made of wine vinegar, colourings, thickeners and sweeteners.  Imagine the taste of a decent quality UK balsamic, that you got from Sainsbury's or M&S or somewhere.  If that is pleasing to the palate, the 30 year old tradizionale is like an explosion of ecstasy in your mouth [insert innuendo here].

After having our minds blown by the balsamic cellars, it was time for our wine tasting experience.  I wasn't too fussed about this - I choose my wine based on strict criteria:

  1. Does it cost about £5?
  2. Was it previously more expensive, and has been reduced to £5?
  3. Does it have a nice picture on the label?
The wine they gave us was lovely, but I certainly wasn't getting hints of rosewood and hazelnut.

What was more exciting to me, however, was the food.  To go with our wine, we had beans with eight year old balsamic, bread with olive oil, crisp bread with truffle oil, chestnut honey with cheese, and ice cream with the 30 year old balsamic.


After tearing ourselves away from the exciting but expensive products, it was time for the trip to our main destination: San Gimignano.

Sat right in between Siena and Florence, San Gimignano is full of tourists on coach trips from either destination.  Often called 'San Gimignano delle Belle Torri' ('of the fine towers'), it is famous for just that: towers.  It is a medieval walled town, like many in Tuscany, and during it's prosperous years it was full of rival families.  One guy built himself a big tower, then a rival family built a taller tower, then another rival built yet another tower...and so on until there were 72 towers dominating the skyline.  One guy finally recognised it was getting ridiculous, and passed a law preventing anyone building a tower taller than his own.  No one did, but people continued the tower competition by simply building two shorter towers instead of one.  Nowadays fourteen towers remain, more than in any of the neighbouring cities.

San Gimignano flourished during the medieval period due to it's location on the important Via Francigena.  This was an ancient road connecting Canterbury, in England, to Rome, via France and Switzerland.  Unlike the traditional Roman roads, this Via Francigena wasn't a set, defined road.  Rather, it was a recommended route, which may change slightly depending on the political situation in the regions it passed through.

We walked through the winding roads to the Piazza Duomo, with ongoing commentary from our tour guide.  He showed us some frescoes in the La Collegiata, the town's main church, that we wouldn't have found otherwise.  Then he left us to wander, so we walked up to the Rocca, what is left of the fortress.  From here we were awarded with a view of the famous skyline, while a woman played the harp in the olive grove just below.

After the climb up the Rocca, it was definitely time for some gelato.  We were spoilt for choice - one shop boasted 'The best gelato in the world', which the other claimed to have won lots of competitions.  We decided on the former, and were rewarded with the creamiest, richest pistachio gelato.  I also had the saffron option, which was delicately flavoured to perfection.

The trip back to Siena was a quiet affair, all of us enjoying the slight wine buzz and the happy gelato-induced slump.  We lounged around for the evening, then set off to find this little restaurant we had come across the day before when we got lost in the backstreets.  The waiter didn't speak English, the menu was only available in Italian, and we were the only tourists in the place.  I had a starter of crostini with a topping made of, we discovered later, spleen.  I followed this up with gnocchi made with truffle oil, which was easily the best dish of the holiday.  B went for bresaola with rocket, tomato and pecorino, with gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce for main.

Happy, sated, and about half a stone heavier, we were asleep from the moment our heads hit the pillow.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Siena, and our failure to see cultural events

Siena is a beautiful Tuscan city, a UNESCO world heritage site dominated by Gothic architecture.  It is perhaps most well known for the Palio, a frantic horse race around the central square held twice a year.  On July 2nd and August 16th.

What day did we go to Rome?  July 2nd.

What day did we go to Siena?  July 5th.

Really should have planned that better...

Despite missing the cultural event of the year, this was my favourite city we visited.  After the madness of Rome, stepping off the bus onto narrow cobbled, winding streets was very refreshing.  Siena is still a tourist trap, but a beautiful, historic one so it is worth it.

Legend has it that Siena was founded by the son of Remus, Senius, though in all likelihood it already existed by Roman times, and was named after the Etruscan family Saina.  Regardless of it's true origins, the image of the twins suckling the she-wolf is as ever-present as in Rome.

There is an intense rivalry between Siena and Florence, and this has gone back to the 12th century AD, during which several wars broke out between the two provinces.  In 1230, Florence lay siege to Siena and catapulted donkeys over the walls!  When I read that I recalled that Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene with the cow and the chickens...I imagine it was similar.

Siena passed between many rulers over the years.  It prospered under the Council of Nine in the latter half of the 13th century, which was when the majority of the great public buildings sprung up, and became important as a money lending city.  It also enjoyed a good period in the 16th century, under the Petrucci family.  However, the family that left the most lasting impression was the Medici family, despite this takeover prompting a decline in prosperity and power.

The Medici were a banking family; the Medici Bank was widely known throughout Europe, and the Medici family themselves became the richest in the continent.  When they took over Siena, they banned the city's residents from operating their own lending services, and when the Medici Bank fell, Siena fell too.

But this was a blessing in disguise.  Unlike in other, wealthier cities, Siena could not afford to undertake any major construction or demolition works, and the city's historical buildings remained untouched.  During World War II, Siena was unable to mount a strong army, and the French were able to take it without causing too much damage to the town centre.  This has resulted in an almost entirely preserved walled city, complete with pristine Duomo and intact churches.

After dropping our bags in the excellent Casa di Antonella, we set off to see the sights, but first we had to make a very important stop: it was espresso o'clock.

If you want coffee in Siena, the place to go is Nannini's.  This pasticcerie is a Sienese institution, serving excellent espresso and wonderful cakes and traditional spiced Tuscan panforte.  The Nannini family are an important family in Siena - not only do they own the oldest pasticcerie, but one of the family members is a rockstar, and another previously worked for Gucci (before coming back and taking over the family business, obviously).

Having knocked back our espresso in authentic Italian style (hot, strong, and with at least one sugar), we set off to the Duomo.

Built in the 13th century, the Duomo di Siena is a magnificent black and white striped affair, reflecting the black and white flag of the city.  Inside, the entire floor is covered by a mosaic (many of which are kept covered at various times of the year to preserve them.

Then, it was lunchtime.  We felt very refreshed after a salame toscane di pecorino sandwich and some panna cotta and straccitella gelato, while we sat people watching in the Piazza del Campo (more on that later).

Our ticket for the Duomo also gave us access to five other sights in Siena.  Unlike the other major Tuscan towns, the Battistero de San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) was built in the same construct as the Duomo, though it does have a separate entrance.  After that, we went to the crypts, the walls of which were covered in 13th century frescoes depicting Jesus's life, and only discovered within the last decade.  Finally, we walked through the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana and hauled ourselves up the narrow 131-step spiral staircase to the Panorama del Facciatone, which offered fantastic views across the city.

After our allocated ten minutes at the top of the cathedral, we walked/fell back down the staircase and headed back to the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo) for some grub.

Il Campo is the centre of Siena.  The building at the bottom is the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall), with it's 100m high Torre del Mangia, and the paving of the square in front is split into nine, to represent the Council of Nine from the 14th century.  This is the site of the aforementioned Palio race.

Surrounding the edges of the piazza are various restaurants and bars, with menus and prices aimed at visiting tourists.  However, we decided to dine here to soak in some of the Il Campo atmosphere, which is almost carnival-like.  I chose some of the local delicacy - pici all'aglione.  Pici is a thick spagetti-style pasta, so even when drenched in sauce the pasta taste comes through.  It is rich and intensely satisfying.  We washed this down with a half litre of bianco toscano while some local kids marched around the square banging drums, waving flags and, inexplicably, sucking dummies.  We never did work out what that was about.

Then it was back home to bed (via the nearest gelateri, of course!).