Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hail and Monks and Nuns, Oh My!

Today we took a day trip over to Siena, about an hour away from our villa in Cortona.  It was overcast and drizzling when we left, but we were hoping the weather would clear up by the time we got to Siena.  These were our first views of the city:

As you can tell, the weather was not cooperating.  Not to be fair-weather tourists, we pressed on and faced the overcast, rainy, cold day. (It was drizzling off and on but we stayed dry for the most part.)  
Because of its location (on the north-south road to Rome), Siena used to be a major banking and trade center, in business with all of Europe.  It was also a military power in a class with Florence and Venice, and was bigger than Paris in population. When the Black Plague hit, (1348) the population was cut by a third, and the city was never able to recover.  Because of this, the city was somewhat frozen in time and was able to stay purely medieval.

We walked through the streets of Siena heading towards the main square.  The big tower in the background is where we’re headed.
We finally made it to Il Campo, or the main heart of Siena, and this is what we see:

The square and the buildings are the same color as the soil. (known as ‘Burnt Sienna” to all you lucky Crayola 100 count box owners (with a built in sharpener))  It is also divided into 9 different sections to represent the 9 merchants and city bigwigs who ruled medieval Siena.  You can count the 9 different sections in a fan-like pattern in the bricks on the ground. (Which you can see better in a later picture)

This is City Hall, which stands out as the main building in the square, and in medieval Siena, was the center of the city.  The entire focus of the Campo flows down to the City Hall building and tower, and the sections in the ground fan out from it as well, further marking it as the center of the square.

We did some sightseeing, took some pictures, and played around a bit.  Jameson especially liked the playing around bit.
After the drive and busy morning, it was time for some lunch.  Early, by Italian standards. (it was about 12:30 when we sat down)  Christine and Christer know the chef of a restaurant in Siena, so we were hoping to eat there, but, unfortunately, it was closed until dinner.  We ended up eating across the street at this super cute, eclectic, antique-artsy type place, and the food was amazing.  They had some of the best vinaigrette I’ve ever tasted in my good that Christine wrote down the name so we can try to hunt it down (and hopefully some can make it to my suitcase for the trip home).  It was produced in the Bologna area of Italy, which is known for its vinaigrettes, and isn’t too far from our house.  And yes, I’ve been rambling about vinaigrette for practically this entire paragraph.  It was THAT good.  My potato gnocchi with peas and prosciutto was pretty amazing as well.  :)  I took a picture of the inside of the restaurant just because it was so cute, but I was working with limited space and was trying to not disturb the other diners so it’s not a great shot.  Just note the cute art on the walls and the vintage light fixtures.

Jameson doesn’t sit still for long, so after he was done with his “lunch” (the bottle you see him working on in the picture), we took turns with him outside so he could run around and do what little boys do best.  I finished up my (amazing) lunch and headed out for my time with Jameson:

And this is what the Il Campo looked like:

And then this:

The picture doesn’t lie.  The skies literally turned black and started pouring buckets on us about 2 minutes after Christine and I traded places.  They were in the restaurant finishing their lunch and dessert, and Jameson and I were too far away to be able to make it back without getting completely drenched.  The rain was freezing cold and we had no umbrellas, so we just high-tailed it to the nearest covering we could find.  After about 15 seconds of that, I realized we were still getting soaked from the waist down, and Jameson realized that the rain was creating all these awesome puddles that he just HAD to jump in.  So we high-tailed it again to the nearest indoor, non-rainy, non-tourist cramped building we could find, which happened to be a bank.  And thank goodness we made it there because soon after, pellets of hail started raining down.  I managed to keep Jameson as entertained as possible when stuck inside an Italian bank with a dozen strangers during a thunder/lightening/hail storm, but really, he just wants to play with the ice balls, and how much entertaining can you do in a bank full of ATMs and tourists?  I was starting to run out of options when it (finally!) let up a little bit and we decided to make a run for it.  But where?  It had now been about 15 minutes since I’d left the restaurant.  Surely Christer and Christine would have finished by then, but would they wait out the storm in the restaurant or run through the rain to come find us?  I decide to just head for the restaurant and start the search there.  As I’m turning the corner, I hear Christine and turn around to see her splashing through the puddles with Jameson’s changing mat unfolded over her head as her “umbrella” running towards us.  They need to make a spinoff of the “You Know You’re a Redneck If...” series and title it “You Know You’re a Mother If...”  Christer had found the nearest souvenir shop and purchased us all €5 umbrellas for the remainder of our trip, which, while not worth the €5 in quality, definitely paid for themselves with the laughs we got out of them.

The 4 of us had just gotten back together, so Jameson wasn't in his backpack seat yet and was running wildman style through the square.  It was still raining quite a bit, but he really didn't care...he was just happy to be out of that hot, stuffy bank.  Christer decides to let him run around while Christine is getting things in the diaper bag situated, so he takes off after Jameson holding 2 umbrellas, one for himself, and one he's holding out over Jameson.  Just picture this for a minute. A grown man running around in circles in the middle of the Il Campo holding one umbrella over his head, and one outstretched in front of him about chest high.  This sight alone was hilarious, and then a gust of wind blew and Christer's China manufactured €5 umbrella flipped inside out.  Completely inside you see in movies.  Instead of pausing to fix his own umbrella, he continues to run after Jameson, covering him with the good umbrella so he doesn't get wet.  Let me just fill you in on something here.  The child could be covered head to toe in sand, mud, water, and snow and not care at all.  Since Christer is relentless on covering Jameson with the umbrella, he doesn't have an empty hand to fix his own (still inside out) umbrella, and keeps trying to fix it by shaking, pushing, you know, any sort of awkward maneuver that can be done with one hand.  Christine and I were literally crying tears we were laughing so hard.  It wasn't until this nice man held his umbrella out over Jameson that Christer finally fixed his own.  It was one of the funniest things I've seen in Italy.  Later on when we were leaving Siena, the rain had stopped and we were folding our umbrellas up on the walk back to the car.  We hear a crunching noise, and then hear Christer say "You've got to be kidding me!"  Christine and I turn around and Christer's umbrella is in 2 pieces; The handle in one hand, and the top in the other.  These things were serious quality manufacturing.

It was super wet and windy and COLD, so even though I laugh about them, I'm so glad we had the umbrellas.  The trip would have been miserable if we didn't.

After the umbrella fiasco we walked up to the Duomo, which is one of the defining medieval buildings in Siena.  It was built between 1215 and 1263 of black and white marble, and houses works by Donatello, Bernini, and Michelangelo.  We didn't go inside, but the church itself is so massive and outstanding, it really makes an impression.  The black and white marble is striped all along the outside of the building, and continues to the inside as well.

After all of this walking around in the freezing cold rain, we decided we'd had enough of Siena for one day and we head back to the car.  This was our view of Siena walking back to the car:

Just perfect, right?  As soon as we get all the way back to the car, the skies are crystal clear and there's not a rain cloud in sight.  It's all that Golden Karma Christer keeps preaching.

We drove back to Cortona, and it was still nice out and a little early for dinner, so we headed back into the city to see if we could find a few of the places that were recommended to us.  The first was a monastery called "The Monastery of Franciscans," or "Le Celle di Cortona."  We weren't sure we were at the right place, so Christine and I got out of the car to scope it out to see if it was anything worthwhile.  This little unassuming chapel sits on a gravel lot with a pathway leading to the side.  We walked 3 feet down the pathway past the church and both of us just stopped dead in our tracks.  This is what we saw:

We both were in awe.  We decide this place is definitely worth checking out so we go back to the car to get Christer and Jameson and we come back and see this:

Ahh!!  It's a real live monk!!!  That's almost as amazing as Italian firefighters!  Pretty much just sealed the deal on this place being bonafide awesome.

The monastery was founded in the 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi, and he preached there in 1211.  This is the view from the buildings.

I really wanted my picture with a monk, but I don't know if I'd ever be able to recover if one of them broke their vows of silence to (nicely) turn me down.  :)

Since we were in Cortona and it was so nice outside, we wandered up the road a bit to the Santa Margherita church, a beautiful 19th century church set back on a hill.

There was another monk outside, so, of course, I had to take a picture.  There was also a nun inside, but I didn’t want to be that tacky tourist snapping away while people were trying to pray.

While we were standing outside taking pictures we heard this massive-sounding singing coming from inside.  We thought the monks were singing, so we rushed inside to watch.  Christine and I looked around and didn’t see any monks or choirs anywhere, but what we did see was even more astounding.

Ok, well I had a movie to post but it has been taking FOR-EV-ER to load, so I'll see if I can find another way to post it tomorrow.  This random tourist was just standing at the back of the church (tulip umbrella in hand!) singing these AMAZING hymns in either Latin or Italian.  We stood there and just watched him for 4 songs, and after he finished, a bunch of people came up to talk to him.  He was from Holland, and he said he sings in all the churches he visits.  His voice was so deep and boisterous we thought it was an entire choir singing.
Even though it was rainy and cold, it was still a pretty stinkin’ awesome day.  Siena, Il Campo, monks, and nuns.  All in a day’s work.
Today my favorite thing about Italy is:  Vespas.  There were so many scooters in Siena it was ridiculous.  They’re so cute and Italian looking, and they save on space and gas!


  1. the picutres and views are amazing! and real live monks! I can not believe all you know about Itailian history - it's like you majored in it! Everyday I look forward to seeing the events that unfolded for you. What a young country America is-a baby- compared to the history/age of Europe. enjoy! till again...

  2. So I am almost 95% sure that I ate in that restaurant in Siena, it was pretty delicious! It sounds like you are having a great time, I am so excited for you. :O) And by the way your posts are awesome, I love reading them!

  3. Incredible posts, Kindie! You take incredible pictures of these incredible places you're seeing! Oops! Just realized I've overused "incredible" - but that's what it is! I love hearing all about your adventures!