Awake once more at dawn in my 400-year-old room, I’m eager to get into Siena. The shimmering city on three hills that has been enticing us from the infinity pool at Podere la Strega is now on our agenda.
Our guide Enrico will lead an optional ride in the afternoon, but we are free to spend the day as we please. Early risers Jo and Dan were first to leave for Siena since they want to be back for the ride to the Abbey of San Galgano in the afternoon.
Karen, Danette, and I pile into Letizia’s Volkswagen as Italian music wafts from her radio. The proprietor of Podere la Strega and Enrico are cooking our evening meal themselves, so she offered to drop three of us in Siena on her way to picking up fresh ingredients at the market. Fresh food is an obsession of the Italians that I share.
Women On Wheels® in Italy
Danette, Karen and Jo are members of the international motorcycle club Women On Wheels®. I originally met Danette at one of its events three years ago. Jo and Karen are my “Italian friends” since we met through this tour.
Danette retired from a career with the US Army in public relations and journalism after traveling the world extensively in her uniform. While she is too modest to call herself a linguist, she can navigate the written and spoken word with impressive accuracy. She has a great eye for detail and an inner compass that helps us navigate the winding vias (streets).
Karen is Kansas City, Missouri born and bred. After a career with the Internal Revenue Service, her new mission in life is putting as many miles on her motorcycle as possible, at home and now abroad. She carefully noted the beginning and ending kilometers on her bike so that her Italian mileage would count for a club contest at year end.
Siena’s monumental cathedral complex
Karen researched our itinerary in depth, especially Siena, and she shared some of what she learned over lunch. The three of us concur that the cathedral is our must-see of the day. Its white marble facade and the grey- and white-striped bell tower, (campanile) contrast with every other “sienna-colored” structure in the walled city.
Everything about the cathedral is over the top, but I can’t keep my eyes off the floor. We were fortunate to be in the cathedral during one of two seasons when the floor coverings are removed to reveal its magnificent mosaics.
Crafted by about forty artists and artisans between the 14th and 16th centuries, the 56 mosaic panels vary in size and shape. My favorites are the oldest:
- The Wheel of Fortune (Ruota della Fortuna), laid in 1372 (restored in 1864).
- The She-Wolf of Siena with the emblems of the confederate cities (Lupa senese e simboli delle città alleate) is pictured here, and said to date from 1373 (also restored in 1864).
- The Four Virtues (Temperance, Prudence, Justice and Fortitude) and Mercy date from 1406.
There are several tour options on the cathedral complex menu, and Danette and I buy the “full monty.” This means we climb at least a mile on spiral staircases (that were no doubt sufficiently wide for Medieval folk) before the afternoon is finished. No worries about making my goal of 10,000 daily steps!
Karen decides that instead of joining us on the equivalent of a mountain hike to the Gate of Heaven, and another to the overlook at the Museum dell’Opera, she will be gentle with an old leg injury. She people- and pigeon-watches in the Piazza del Duomo, and although Danette and I wave and call to her from the panoramic terrace of the Duomo Nuovo, the human voice cannot carry from over 300 feet above. The views are spectacular.
The Museum dell’Opera is filled with original art pieces from the cathedral and neighboring churches. I’ll leave the architectural and art critiques to those with the right credentials; to my unschooled eye it is both breathtaking and overwhelming. By the end of the day I can’t look at another Madonna, crucifix or nativity scene, even those fashioned by Donatello and Michelangelo.
Piazza del Campo
Danette and Karen still have an appetite for more religious art, so I tell them that I’ll meet them in the town square—called the Piazza del Campo, or il Campo for short—while they enjoy the embarrassment of Siena’s riches in the cathedral complex.
Merchants selling commemorative souvenirs around the perimeter of il Campo do a brisk trade, including the postcards and Tshirts they sell to me. I always ask friends and social media followers if they want postcards from my travels and for this trip I had over 100 takers!
The center of historic Siena hosts world-famous bareback horse races in an event called the palio di Siena. If you saw the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace you’ll remember the famous horse race scene. The horses each represent a contrada—a neighborhood—of Siena. Ten of the 17 contrada usually enter the Palio.
Here’s that Bond scene:
Siena’s Gaia Fountain
I get a gelato and find a seat at the Fonte Gaia (“fountain of joy”) opposite the town hall. The fountain’s sculptures were originally produced by one of the most celebrated sculptors of the 1400’s but the only thing I notice about them is their role as minor players in the pigeon show. Jumping from the laps, heads, hands and noses of religious and mythical characters, the pigeons bath, drink and squabble to my delight. I could watch them carry on for hours.
My gaze drifts to the others enjoying the square. Children chase pigeons; couples hold hands or lie on the sloped brick ground; millennials in backpacks make dozens of attempts at the perfect selfie stance and face. I’m embarrassed on their behalf and avert my gaze, wondering, why don’t they just ask someone to take a shot for them?
Okay, old-fart rant over.
Al fresco dining
After another sumptuous al fresco meal cooked in the outdoor kitchen, our merry band of motorcyclists feels bittersweet about moving on to Orvieto in the morning. But move we must.
Funny factoid about the phrase “al fresco.” While it originated in Italian, they prefer to say “fuori” or “all’aperto” when describing an outdoor meal. The expression “al fresco” usually refers to spending time in jail. Who knew?
I’ll tell you more stories from Italy this year, since I’m returning to ride my motorcycle through Tuscany, Corsica, and Sardinia in 2017. Subscribe in the purple button below and you’ll never miss an installment of the story.
Here is the beginning of the series. The next installment will include our encounter with the lunar landscape at Crete Senesi en route to Orvieto.