One Night in Siena…

…is not enough. That’s what happens when you set up a trip in ignorance, which seems pretty much a given when you are in fact ignorant about your destination: things that look great on paper suddenly don’t make much sense. Oh, well. I’d been planning  my second trip to Italy before I departed for this one, so no big deal: Siena is alive and well and in my future.

We took the high-speed train from Rome to Florence (I really believe I should be saying Roma and Firenze, but for some odd reason using the proper names seems precious) and then a plain old train to Siena. Taking pictures from a vehicle of public transportation always makes me cringe: I feel like my father with his Instamatic, excitedly shooting photos of clouds outside the airplane window.

But for heaven’s sake! This isn’t just clouds, this is really Italy. Cloudy plastic windows or no, I’m really in Italy! It’s nice to know as I embark on my seventh decade, I can still be completely awe-struck.

The train station in Siena could stand alone as an example of why you should pay close attention to the travel experts who suggest you pack lightly. Since you arrived by train, we’ll grant that you were able to hoist your luggage onto the train, down a narrow aisle, and perhaps even up onto the overhead shelf. It seems you were even able to get your luggage off the train. Yay, you!

But I don’t remember reading anything about the 934 escalators that lift you up up up and more up to street level in Siena. It was as if you took escalators to the top of a mountain to ski. Just when you started to think this must be it, you’d look up and there would be yup another escalator.

Eventually we ended up on a very quiet street in a very quiet part of town. There was no taxi queue here and nothing that looked like a phone booth. Where exactly were we, and how would we get to our hotel? For all my exhaustive pre-trip research, I hadn’t thought to figure out this little piece of our journey. Since Floyd and I have a running contest as to which of us is the shiest, neither one of us was inclined to enter a store and ask directions we doubted we would even comprehend. Time for the gps.

Like most things on a gps screen, it looked quite simple and straightforward: a kind of < shaped route to our hotel. Like many of the places we were to visit in Italy, Siena seems to exist on ridges leading down to chasms. Not the nearly bottomless chasms we would see later, but steep enough and deep enough that you can’t walk a straight route from here to there; you have to take routes that look like <.

We made it to the hotel by sweat and guesswork, pulling two suitcases and hoisting a backpack apiece. Nothing like arriving in a lobby that looks like this when you look and no doubt smell like you just dug your way out from under a rock.

Buongiorno, I panted to the man behind the desk. Abbiamo una prenotazione. 

In true Italian fashion, the man behind the desk was extremely gracious about my attempts at his language, and led us to a very sweet room. Before we could even take advantage of a bathroom twice the size of the one we had in Rome, hunger and thirst drove us out the door, and we made for a ristorante I had already visited thanks to Google Street View.

Here’s a thing about Italy: we were sitting in this place that had the worst reviews of any restaurant in Siena. I’d done my homework; I knew these things. A suicide move?

The food was fabulous, the wine was wonderful, the tiramisu (in the form of a little pudding in a bowl, not the cube of ladyfingers & cream one encounters here in the states) delectable. Okay, then! Worst food in town!

Siena is a town of little narrow streets, of course, and a truly wonderful, famous piazza that somehow hosts a horse race in the summer. Glad to miss that.

Here we encountered one of the first glitches of our trip: the bancomat, having just issued me a few euros, swallowed Floyd’s debit card and refused to spit it back up. First-world problem, indeed. But it was in Floyd’s account that most of our $$ resided. Left to my account, we’d be eating our meals from the side of the road. (Note: although my mastery of Italian prepositions is famously, even laughably inadequate, in English I do know the difference between on the side of the road and from the side of the road). It would be several phone calls and a few days before all complications were resolved, but hey, what is travel without adventure?
Despite such unfriendly treatment by the bancomat – perfectly predictable, I think, when you visit Banca di Firenze in Siena for Pete’s sake – we found Siena a very warm, family-feeling town. There was a very noisy carnival happening on one end of town, and the usual weekend revelry in the famous Piazza del Campo – the sloping one with the horse race. The local ragazzi were walking arm-in-arm, laughing, flirting, smoking, teasing like ragazzi the world over. We saw lots of teeny kids with their grandparents, a pattern we observed everywhere we went in Italy.
I can’t really explain why I don’t have more photos, except to say that at the time I wasn’t thinking of some kind of illustrated diary. I was often trying to keep my head from exploding with the sheer amazement of it all. I’d go around for hours with the camera, pulling it out of the backpack over and over again to capture what seems now like every doorway and alley; then I’d just leave the darn thing back at the hotel. I wanted to experience Italy more than I wanted to take pictures of it.
Then there’s the problem of not being a very good photographer.
At some point during our one Saturday evening in Siena, a very nice, very talkative young man arrived at the hotel with the bicycles that were going to ride to our next destination. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Marco would reappear later in our narrative; for now, he had lots of enthusiastic suggestions about our route (which was typed out for us kilometer by kilometer so we could judge by the bike computer exactly how far off-course we had wandered), our Tuscan destination, and – more importantly! – where to get the best food in Siena. Never mind that we had consumed a full meal, a bottle of wine, and dessert as a late lunch. Let’s go find dinner!
Sunday morning in Siena is church bells.
Church bells, and an okay hotel breakfast, and bike shorts.
Ever since I’ve known Floyd, nearly eleven years now, I’ve found myself signing up for various endeavors that seem like brilliant ideas at sign-up time. Then, when the actual day presents itself, another story altogether. (I am thinking of various skating and skiing episodes from which I may never fully recover.)
In theory, biking from one Tuscan town to another seems idyllic. To judge by the Internet, everybody in the world goes biking through Tuscany! I’d read one woman’s account of biking 21 kilometers, of which she was very proud; and so I’d been biking through our flat neighborhood for weeks, translating miles into kilometers and talking myself into the idea that I could absolutely do this. Siena to Buonconvento? I’m there! What’s 40 kilometers? Not that many miles!
Here is Floyd at the main gate as we departed from old Siena:
If he looks pensive, it is because he is wondering how in the world he is going to get me all the way to Buonconvento without oxygen tanks or a tow rope. While a ride of 60 hilly Austin miles may be his idea of a really fun sufferfest every Saturday morning, Floyd knows I avoid hills like the plague. In addition, we were about to dive into some automobile traffic that was less voluminous than Rome’s but ten times as enthusiastic about getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.
Across the street from this ancient Porta San Marco, a view of our future:
I’ll just say we had a few busy miles and only one roundabout to deal with before we reached the outskirts and the roads became peaceful. And I never want to hear the word “roundabout” again, okay?
We were pedaling ourselves into a stretch of our journey that stuck me then and strikes me now as one stereotype after another.

Inevitably we reached a very long hill I could not conquer in a seated position. Up, up. up, push, push, push, keep in mind that the dozens of Vespa daredevils on the road this morning will make a startling noise with some frequency, push, push, keep in mind that walking is exercise too… May I take a moment here to say that, no matter how many times I begged him to leave me by the side of the road to die, my dear sweet spouse stayed with me the whole time? And while I was push-push-pushing up the sides of these hilly roads, he was riding right behind me? At about .25 miles per hour? He’s a wonder, that Floyd.

Enough of that brand of fun; let’s eat instead. But we are in the middle of (a lovely) nowhere. Wait, is that a sign for a restaurant? Let’s go look.

As we were eating our lunch, the extended family whose place this is were eating at a long table behind me. We were the only ones there: Floyd and me, and the grandparents, parents, and two little boys who were – like certain grandchildren I know (not that I’d name names, but Marty, Ray, and Marion) – doing more running around than eating.

Meanwhile we had this view from the patio:

I like to think that not everyone could rise from such a lunch table and get right back on the bike. It’s probably best that we had no choice.

Marco had mentioned a little detour we ought to take, and as tempting as it was to get to our hotel, we took the turn to Murlo, “a tiny medieval borgo and one of the oldest settlements in the area.” What did an extra couple of kilometers mean to mildly intoxicated powerhouses like ourselves? We went.

Murlo really is just a little walled town out in the middle of the countryside. Although we encountered a number of tantalizing aromas wafting from the windows on this Sunday afternoon, we only saw three other human beings. Two were on a motorcycle, arriving as we arrived and leaving almost as soon as they’d parked. The other was a man moving his car into the parking lot alongside actual Etruscan ruins:

I take it that in this little dugout, bronze forms were made – pour in your clay and, after a suitable period, remove the mold to reveal your amphora, or statue, or whatever. This is the kind of tourist experience that causes books to multiply on shelves once you’re home: I found myself wanting to read about every place we encountered.

We now had only about ten kilometers to go. A number of them were vertical. And while one nice thing about wheeling yourself uphill is the inevitable downhill, two complications: one, these were pretty major hills for me, with some mildly intimidating downhills. I thought, as I have done many times in the past, it would be a terrible thing to struggle through such a long climb only to be killed on the descent.

And two, our hotel is located on top of a hill. I should say, on top of at least three hills outside Buonconvento. I may not know technically where the term “16% grade” comes from, or what it means; but I know I can’t do it on a bicycle. (Up, up, up, push, push, push…)

It is very handy to have a camera. You can stop and take photos, saving a little face while struggling to breathe and get your heart rate down from the red zone.

We made our way at last to Agriturismo Pieve a Salti, where we were given absolutely a room with a view:
We’d become so accustomed to splendid weather – all that golden Tuscan sunshine and those fluffy white clouds creating shadows here and there across the landscape – that we hadn’t given much thought to the gathering darkness. Twenty minutes after our bikes were parked, the storm arrived.
And that, I have to say, was beautiful too.

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