Ben and I got married 15 years ago, twice. Our first wedding was a grand affair, with all the trappings, in Annapolis, Maryland. The following weekend we got married again, this time in Belgium, in front of his family and friends who couldn’t make it to the United States the weekend before. A bit more understated, I, thankfully, had no involvement in the planning and, after having my hair done by a friend of my new sister-in-law who rolled his eyes at me when I told him just how boring I wanted my hair to look, had only to show up in my dress at the right place and time. In between the two ceremonies, we had a week to kill. So, we spent four days at the beach. In Belgium. In November. And that was the last time we had a vacation alone in Europe. In fact, it was the last time we had a vacation alone anywhere in the last ten and a half years. Until last weekend.
Ben’s mother, who works in a school, had one summer weekend left and agreed to spend it with our two kids so that Ben and I could take a long weekend, together, in Tuscany. So last Thursday we got up before the sun. quietly crept out of the house, and hopped on a Ryanair flight, landing in Pisa, Italy. Then, in our rented Fiat, we headed out into the Italian countryside to explore some of the famous hill towns.
Our first stop was in the town of Volterra and our first stop within Volterra was at a café, to fill up on sugar and caffeine because a 4:00 am wake up does not lead to an energy filled day. Then we got to climbing. They aren’t called hill towns for nothing. And then, once we got to the top of the town, we decided to climb to the top of the bell tower. Hence, the sugar doughnut.
Volterra was where we encountered our first striped building. Considered part of the Pisan Romanesque style, stripes of either white and black or white and dark green seemed to show up wherever we looked, in Volterra, Sienna, Florence… though, oddly, not in Pisa.
Our next stop was in San Gimignano, another hill town. While Rick Steves seems to be put off by the town, due to its constant stream of tourists, I liked it. There’s a reason why tourists flock to certain places. They’re nice to look at. And San Gimignano (or San Jimmy-Jammy, as it became known to us) is very nice to look at.
The town is known for its towers. Built mainly in the 12th century, those families who could afford to added huge towers to their homes for both security and showing-off purposes. Of the original 72 towers, only 13 remain. And the best place to gaze at the leftover towers is from a café, with a glass of wine.
Our home base while we were in Tuscany was Siena, a city Ben and I both decided that we love. While the area was first settled around 500 BC (BC!), its architecture is truly medieval. Etruscans, Romans, Charlemagne, Black Death, history, history, history, and here we are.
The city is still broken down into wards, leftover from medieval times. Different neighborhoods, called contradas, have distinct boundary lines, animal mascots, and fiercely loyal residents. The best time to notice them is during the Palio, a horse race held twice a year with riders from each neighborhood representing their district. The race has been going on since the 14th century and, while following its own traditional rules, it doesn’t follow any modern rules. The riders sit bareback, the horses are only chosen three days in advance, riders are not only allowed, but encouraged, to harass each other and other horses. The winner is the horse who crosses the finish line first, whether the rider stayed on or not. The loser is whoever finishes second. We missed the race by one week but locals were still celebrating, wearing their colors and contrada scarves around town. We even fell into one district’s final celebration as we followed the sound of music and noise one evening. I will miss the European way of keeping up with traditions and folklore when we leave here.
Every town has it’s own duomo, or cathedral, and Siena’s is quite a sight. From the marble stripes to the mosaic floor to the works by Michelangelo and Bernini to the 172 sculpted pope heads, it’s almost hard to concentrate with so much going on. The floor itself is only uncovered one month of the year in order to keep it preserved, and that month is August.
And there was still so much of Tuscany to see!