Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Tuscan Hills - Italy

Tuscany. It means so much to so many. Whether to be under it's sun or to eat it's cuisine is a fulfilling life moment. It definitely has the top spot of my favorite European destination. 

We started out from our hotel in Pisa straight into the heart of Tuscany. My goal was to see some of the traditional scenes that I had to see to feel my trip to Tuscany was complete. Scenes that have been drilled into me by menus from places like The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill. Golden, rolling hills. Serene beauty. 

Did I find what I was looking for? Oh yeah.

Our first stop was the medieval village of San Gimignano. A small, walled village famous for it's towers that the residents built to out do one another starting in 1199. It's currently called the Manhattan of Tuscany for the lofty heights achieved by the towers.  By 1350, plague had wiped out 75% of it's residents. The village looks much the same as it did in the 14th century. San Gimignano was well off any main highways and we had to take small country roads to it for the majority of the drive. We passed a group of bikers a few minutes into the trip. As we passed them, they shouted out Ciao! So we rolled down our windows and shouted it back. As we climbed higher and higher in the Tuscan hills, every curve and corner brought new vistas into view. Matt and I kept pulling over to get out and enjoy the scenery and take a picture.

During this time pulled over, the bikers would pass us, so when we got back in the car and started up again we would have to pass them. And so would start the whole Ciao! scenario over. Up and up we went, until at last San Gimignano came into view. 

You can make out San Gimignano on the right of the picture on the last hill in the background. Upon arriving in San Gimignano, the first thing we noticed was that it was so clean. No trash on the ground, no abandoned buildings. And it was warm. Warmer than Pisa. Love that Tuscan sun.

The second thing we noticed was that we had been saying San Gimignano completely wrong. We had been saying it with two hard G's. San Gi-mig-na-no. Just like it's spelled. We asked a local how to pronounce the name of the town and with a smile he said San Ji-me-nya-no. First lesson in Italian. 

We wandered around this adorable little hamlet. Taking in the sights, the smells (because it was clean), the people. It was a little piece of Tuscan paradise.

We walked by an apartment that had laundry hung out to dry. There was an assortment of panties and bras on this line. My boys snickered. I just remarked, "Even the laundry is beautiful in Tuscany." Much eye-rolling from these boys above.

We then went on to have some thin crust Tuscan pizza. What makes Tuscan pizza better than other non-Tuscan pizza? Because it's Tuscan, that's why.

The famous San Gimignano towers.

Even the building are art in Tuscany.

We climbed to the highest point in the village and looked out at this land that was virtually unchanged for 700 years.

Except for the parking lot and cars off to the left.

Serene San Gimignano.

Goodbye San Gimignano.

Next on our list was Siena. Siena has a much darker past than the playful light hearted San Gimignano with their tower building to impress. If you can forget that whole plague thing. Siena is a larger, historic city south of San Gimignano out of the rolling Tuscan hills (no, typing that will never get old). Siena has an impressive 20 foot wall that surrounds it. Which brings me to a point here. Every village or city that we saw here had thick, fortified walls around it. Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, Siena. Why? Because apparently early Italians didn't get along so well. The city-states that existed for hundreds of years (before the idea of the country of Italy was even thought up) fought ruthlessly and relentlessly against each other, and what's a better offense than a good defense. Hence, the great, big walls.  I wonder what was these early Italians problem. They lived in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Ate some of the most delicious food, pasta, pizza, tomatoes and cheese. Drank some of the most sought after wine. The region of Chianti borders Tuscany to the east. Come on Italians. Get over it!

We parked outside of Siena and hiked around the great wall and came to this.

This is a typical Siena street. Or should I say alley because there were really no "streets" like you or I would be familiar with. Siena is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the epitome of a medieval city. When the feud between Siena and Florence was at it's height, Siena was struck down by the plague in 1348 killing 60% of the inhabitants. This culminated in Siena being handed over to a rich Florence prince who barred the citizens of Siena from operating banks, a major source of income in medieval Italy. Siena was stuck. They had no way to make more money, so Siena has stayed basically the same for around 650 years. Maybe except for the lights and wires strung across the street. 

Not only is Siena a major tourist attraction, it is also a busy city with many businesses and shops. We were there right around 4:00 pm as people were getting off from work. We wound ourselves around and around Siena. I had one destination in mind. A bakery that I had read about in not one, but two books that offered the typical Siena dessert. Panforte. It's a type of dense Italian fruit cake. Upon arriving at the bakery, we got the one cashier who spoke no English. No problem. We could point and she could hold up selections. We left with a delicious bag full of an assortment of panforte flavors. After walking around and getting ourselves completely lost we finally came to the center of town.

Notice how the stones slope down? That's because this is a giant drain. Most cities are built with the highest point in the center. Not Siena. It's built around basically the town toilet. Because  no drainage system was ever put in place (don't want to mess with that UNESCO rating), the same system that worked a thousand years ago is still in place. Gravity. When it rains, all the water from the street flows here to a giant grate just to the left of this shot. Because the ground was so wet and soggy here, they were unable to ever build on it so it stayed open. Those smart early Siena citizens used this to create a city center. At least they gussied it up a bit.

The Palazzo Publico, or in other words, the building above the drain.

We looked in shops and noticed a lot of souvenirs with black roosters on them. Wanting to know the significance of the black rooster, we looked it up. It would seem after a particularly bloody battle between Florence and Siena over land, both sides wanted peace. But where to draw the border? They came up with a plan. A knight from each town would set out for the other one when the rooster crowed first thing in the morning and where they would meet would be the border. A fine idea, if everyone plays fair. Naughty Florence then took a black rooster and put it in a dark room for three days without food. When they took it out in the middle of night it crowed out of desperation and off the knight went. He got within 12 kilometers of the Siena walls. To this day, the border still stands. Oh, you Italians.

We were growing tired and we had a bag full of panforte to go back and eat. We searched the streets/alleys for a way back to our car. I rounded a plain, brick building and saw this beauty.

Known only as the Siena Cathedral, it is a white, pink, and green majestic monument to French Gothic architecture. It was built between 1215 and 1263. I sat and stared at it. I was in awe. With all the white and pink marble in it, it looked like it should be in the game Candy Land or on top of a wedding cake. 

Look at that pink edging. Looks just like frosting.

The inside was just as beautiful.

The ceiling in the dome.

One of the alcoves.

Our time in Italy was drawing to a close, but I feel a need to discuss a few points that didn't come up in my post. In no order of importance:

1. Italians are the worst drivers on the face of the earth. Having only seen a big section of the United States and Central Europe, I'm not sure if I can really call them the worst. They however pass you on the shoulder on tiny one-laned roads. They obey no speed limits off of the freeway. I don't think any of the cars are equipped with turn signals, or the science on how to use a turn signal hasn't made it's way to Italy yet. On a freeway with two lanes going the same direction, they drive right in the middle. That's right. Right over the dotted white lines. Okay, I am going back to my first conclusion. They are the worst drivers on the face of the earth.

2. Italian gas is expensive. We payed around $10.50 a gallon after the conversion from Euro to the dollar. Plan ahead.

3. Gas stations are hard to find. They hide them. 

4. Like a lot of Europe (except Germany which is looking better and better all the time), the freeways operate on a toll system. However, they don't make it easy on you. In Switzerland, you buy a 45 Swiss Franc toll sticker and you are good for the year. Not Italy. You have to pay a toll at a toll stop every time you get on a freeway, get off a freeway, or merge freeways. After the $10.50 gas, we were feeling a little sucked dry by these greedy Italians.

5. It's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. If the opportunity to move there ever comes up, I will say no grazie.

6. And don't forget about the garbage and the crime. See Italy, Part Uno - Pizza In Pisa .

Although there are definite challenges to visiting Italy, it is worth the effort.

Can't you just see yourself standing in the rolling, Tuscan hills under the golden, Tuscan sun?

I know I can.


  1. So, so gorgeous. I love the the Tuscan hills under the golden sun! Nice to know places like this really do exist. Thanks for sharing! The eye-rolling with the laundry made me smile.

  2. I loved Siena. We were there in August 2000 and got to see the horse lottery for race positions for Palio.

  3. Wow, Tuscany is so breath taking! I love following your adventures in Europe...is it too late for Kris to join the army? Ha ha!!

  4. What is the name of the bakery you went too in Siena?

    1. The name of the bakery is Nanini. It's listed in most travel books. I can post address if you want.


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