Let the weekend trips begin!!
This past Sunday, I went with a group of my friends and classmates on a day trip to the Tuscan hillside cities of San Gimignano and Siena. I was very excited to explore more of Tuscany and see what they had to offer. San Gimignano is about an hour outside of Florence by bus, and the drive itself was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I’m so accustomed to cities like New York and Los Angeles, where the suburbs sprawl far beyond the city limits, a model that does not hold true in Florence. After crossing the bridge and getting through the other side of the city, there really were not many towns to speak of, save for the occasional villa or group of homes.
Upon arrival in San Gimignano, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I couldn’t see into the city because it is completely surrounded by a 13th-century wall and lies at the very top of a particularly steep hill. Nearly every building in San Gimignano seems as though it has not been altered since its creation centuries ago. Our professors, who served as tour guides for the day, led us up the hill and through the town to a tower in the castle courtyard, where we got our first true panoramic glimpse of the Tuscan countryside. After taking in the views, we were given some time to explore the small artisan shops and beautiful little streets. San Gim is also home to Gelateria Dondoli, one of the most critically acclaimed gelaterias in the world. I, of course, had to have some for breakfast, and after taking a good fifteen minutes to decide, settled for the venere nera, a blend of summer blackberry and Tuscan lavender. It was definitely worth the hype and I think I got about half of the other students on the tour to also try the flavor.
The little shops of San Gimignano were also a definite highlight. I couldn’t help myself from going into nearly every store on the street, including the Tuscan lavender stores, wineries, and leather workshops. There are many similar stores in Florence, but instead of seeming like tourist traps, the off-the-beaten-path nature of San Gim made everything seem so much more approachable.
An hour long bus ride through countless vineyards took us to our next stop, Siena. Siena is much larger than San Gimgnano, but still smaller than Florence. As soon as we left the bus, we entered the Basilica of San Domenico, home of the shrine of St. Catherine of Siena. The shrine is beautiful and incredibly ornate, but the centerpiece was not really something I was expecting; the real, disembodied, 600-year-old head of St. Catherine of Siena, complete with her Dominican habit. Not far from the basilica was the home of St. Catherine herself, now transformed into a sanctuary and tribute to the city’s beloved patron saint. The chapel was small but extravagant, housing the crucifix from which St. Catherine of Siena received her stigmata.
Walking in Siena was a workout all on its own, so if you’re going to visit, your shoes should be able to withstand something like the Appalachian Trail or an Everest summit attempt. I kid, but there was a girl in heels in our group and she was constantly behind everyone. Perhaps the most treacherous segment of Siena is the stunning Piazza Del Campo, a shell shaped Piazza that funneled downwards towards the Palazzo Publico, a giant town hall with a medieval tower. Our professors educated us about the Palio di Siena, an event that occurs at the beginning and the end of every summer in which the seventeen wards/neighborhoods of Siena race horses around the perimeter of the Piazza del Campo. If that’s not medieval tradition, I don’t know what is.
At this point, we were getting pretty hungry, so we stopped at an osteria on a side street for some classic Tuscan food. What I’ve come to admire about Italy is that food remains very regional; Italian restaurants will only serve what they’re good at, if you’re in the mountains, you’ll never be served seafood. I chose the pici al ragu Toscano, a pasta dish consisting of pici (a thicker variation of spaghetti native to Siena) with a Tuscan pork and veal meat sauce. It definitely paid off to get the local classic, because it was so flavorful and fresh.
After lunch, we headed to our final stop, the Siena Cathedral. Due to our time crunch we were unable to go inside, but the outside was definitely beautiful enough to keep us interested. Completed in the 14th century, the black-and-white striped cathedral is like nothing I’d seen before, completely different from its high Renaissance Italian counterparts. When you think of a medieval cathedral, you don’t necessarily think of a beautiful facade, but the Siena red embellishments really make the front stand out.
Both San Gimignano and Siena are great day trips for someone looking to venture outside of Florence, especially if you have any interest in history or food!! This is going up a little late so my post on pecorino romano and balsamic vinegar in Modena should be up within the next few days, and then it’s off to Cinque Terre and Pisa on the ninth and the tenth.
Since I haven’t been able to successfully get my very Italian wifi to work as fast as I’d like in my apartment, I’ll once again include all photos in a separate photo diary. Ciao!!