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All roads lead to Florence, specially if you’re lost


Today started out the same nutso way that yesterday did. We knew where we needed to go, we had directions, we just couldn’t put all the pieces together. Driving through the beautiful southern end of Tuscany we headed for Siena with great anticipation of arriving in Tuscany’s second most (Firenze [Florence] is first) desirable city. I knew we didn’t want Firenze so followed the signs to Roma, occasionally mentioning Siena. No way! We ended up on top of a hill on a dead end road with nothing resembling old Siena in site. It seems I had forgotten the cardinal rule, in Italy all roads lead to Florence; even roads that go away from Florence. Alas, ‘tis true, following the signs to Firenze got us to Siena.

After about 10 minutes of driving away from Siena we decided we’d better check directions again. Our hotel was actually in More di Cuna. At a nearby garage the mechanic originally said he had no phone, only a fax. Ah, early technology, the fax has a phone bro, thanks. We pulled into the More di Cuna around 1 PM.

Now we can drive back to Siena, about 10 kilometers away, but I know that is not going to work out well, parking not being either easy to find or convenient so we opt for plan B, the bus. Now, I don’t normally do buses, but this time it made sense. For 1.50 Euro each we’re in Siena in half an hour, minds and bodies relatively intact.

 

Siena is bellisimo, bella, bella! The Piazza del Campo, site of the great Palio horse race in July and August each year attracts crowds but we arrived about two months late for that. Every tour book says you have to climb the Torre del Mangia. That was easier said than done; 440 steps take you to the top through passageways that I JUST fit through. Tired but happy, we viewed all of Siena and the beautiful Tuscan countryside beyond.

On to Il Duomo, the other must see in Siena. It’s different because it is totally gothic, totally cool, in a real Renaissance country. Sadly, every town has at least one crane and a boatload of scaffolding as they re-face and renovate. Here, it’s at the Duomo; not good for photos.

The next morning we took a stroll up the hill across the road to a small castle in Cuna. La Grancia di Cuna is in disrepair even though it appears to be a no star hotel of sorts. Complete with flea-infested cats and fig trees, it was interesting nonetheless; a good example of what everything would be like in Tuscany if no one owned it or took care of it.

In the afternoon we headed out on a Chianti wine tour. Just as the van arrived it cooled down and started to rain. The first we’d seen since we arrived in Italy. Interestingly enough, we had been given an option of doing this tour privately with a driver for 120 Euros each, or with a group for 30 Euros each. We chose the group which it turned out was just Karen and me; sweet.

The first stop was Leonina, an area just south of Chianti. Our guide explained that Chianti is the area within the triangle marked by Gaiola, Radda and Castellina in Chianti. He wanted to show us Leonina because it has been used by Hollywood numerous times to depict Tuscany. It is the villa on the hill with the long cypress-lined laneway.

The presence of Hollywood has created a bit of a paradox as the farmers accept large amounts of money for the use of their land for a few weeks and decide to stop farming in favour of this easier route. There is great controversy as it is brought to their attention that if they give up farming and looking after the land that in 10 years there will be no Tuscan scenery to attract the film companies. Life’s a bitch!

Built about 1000 AD, Castello di Brolio is the essence of Tuscany with its unparalleled vineyards and gardens. Our guide explained that in medieval times the word of mouth communication system they had was nothing short of amazing as they were able to get a message from Florence to Brolio, a distance of about 30 kilometers, in about seven minutes. It was also explained that this speed was totally unnecessary as by the time the watchman in the tower spotted the enemy they had about two weeks before they would reach the castle walls. That is why they used the highly respected elders of the time as watchmen. It didn’t matter. I don’t know, for some reason I had views of Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail about now.

The Etruscan tombs discovered outside Castellina in Chianti about 50 years ago were an amazing archeological tale. The site, at the time, housed a garbage landfill, when one day while cleaning up the look of the area, they stumbled upon the tombs. Unfortunately, the media leaked the discovery and tomb raiders pillaged the treasure instantly. Even though the site was protected, the raiders managed to find two vertical tunnels, jumped down into the tombs and made off with a king’s ransom.

After a stroll through Castellina in Chianti we were off to Monteriggioni, one of Italy’s best preserved fortifications. It was about this time as the sun set that our guide in his t-shirt, sweater and ski jacket looked at Karen and me and basically asked, “What the hell is with you two? You’re in shorts and bare feet (sandals), aren’t you cold!?” We explained that it really wasn’t that cold to us, although it was probably around 15 degrees C, we may have been a tad under dressed – but, c’mon, a ski jacket!

Monteriggioni was basically a garrison to house thousands of soldiers just outside of Siena. They all lived and slept in the open while stationed there. It’s no wonder the Black Plague wiped out so many under these conditions. One guy sneezes and all of a sudden 12,000 soldiers are dead.

The villa on the hill behind our hotel had intrigued me since the day we got there so we decided to try to get to it. The desk clerk had mentioned earlier that you really needed to know the back roads to find it. Undeterred we asked the weekend guy how to get there. He explained you take the road to Monteroni then follow the sign to Asciano (pronounced Ashano). I immediately corrected him by saying, “Oh, okay, Ass-ci-ano.” He didn’t notice my faux pas and continued with his directions. Well, we never did get to the villa in question but had a fabulous drive through the arid hills of south Tuscany.

A final trip to Siena late in the afternoon, but by car this time; it would be just too weird for me to use the bus twice. We saw a lot more of the city on this visit. There are about 21 churches inside the walls and they are all very worthy of a photo. We ventured inside the San Francesco and Karen laughed as I knelt at the altar – to take a photo. Several of the churches had Saturday evening services which we observed respectfully – no flash. Siena is even more beautiful at night but a trip to this Etruscan city is worthy any time.

Much more travel writing by this author in his book, That Road Trip Book.

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