I normally travel solo and do not usually join tour groups. Getting around Tuscany, Italy, however, is not easy without a rental car. After doing some research online, I decided to join a tour by Walkabout Florence, which advertises Siena, San Gimignano, lunch at a farm and Pisa in a day.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but figured the adventure was worth the price.
February 4, 2013
I head to the front of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station and quickly see a minibus, along with a man holding a sign for “Walkabout Florence”. In February, tour groups are small and our group has a total of thirteen people from four countries. Our driver Stefano, and our tour guide, Elisa, are friendly and helpful. I am glad to see our group size is manageable and it’s also lucky that the skies are sunny and clear.
We head south and arrive in Siena, which is a town known for its banking history. Apparently there was a rivalry between Florence and Siena during the Middle Ages as Florence specialized in the wool trade, while Siena specialized in banking. We meet our guide, Donatella, who has lived in Siena for many years and is passionate about art.
Our first stop is outside Monte dei Paschi which has operated since 1472—the oldest operating bank in the world. This bank, which is an anchor in Siena, has unfortunately recently experienced financial problems due to the current Italian economy. The Italian government has arranged for a bailout, to the consternation of some Italians.
It is interesting hearing that the Gothic buildings of Siena were deliberately built to be discrete, with minimal decorations and ornamentation outside. With a banking history, the exterior structures were built simply to hide wealth inside. Even today a family from Rome owns an apartment with a balcony facing the main square, which they only visit briefly during the summer horse races!
Moving on from Monte dei Paschi, we walk to the Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square. At the top of three hills, the Campo (which means “field”) is unusually shaped and slopes at an angle. The architecture around the square is historic and stunning and I feel as if I’ve stepped back in time by several centuries.
We are told about the Palio, which is a famous horse race held twice annually during July and August. The horses represent the contrade or city districts and the race itself is over in less than two minutes! Locals apparently have to turn quickly to see the horses and their jockeys galloping around the square. Hollywood has also been attracted to this race as the Palio has been featured in films like James Bond’s “Quantum of Solace”. I found it interesting that only the horse needs to cross the finish line—not the jockey!
It happens that when I visit it is the middle of Carnival (Carnevale) and the Piazza is filled with the remnants of confetti. In the heart of the square is a brown shed which Donatella vividly describes as “…ugly to tourists but beautiful to Italians…”. The shed, Frittelle Savelli, sells a local delicacy of fried rice, which is only available until St. Joseph’s Day in March. I have to try the rice which looks and tastes a lot like a fried beignet or funnel cake, served piping hot and dusted with powdered sugar. The flavor is incredible and I could easily eat several bags. Portion sizes vary with beginning tastes priced at one euro. I had to laugh that the vendors take orders very seriously as they will not accept an order until the rice is freshly fried and removed from the hot oil. One vendor kept looking at me and saying “One moment signora”, as my rice was still frying.
From the Piazza, we walk through narrow lanes and alley ways to Siena’s Duomo. This church was begun in 1215 and is one of Italy’s first cathedrals. The outside architecture is delicate and ornate, while the murals are vibrant. I can only describe the inside of the Duomo as truly majestic and one of the prettiest churches I’ve seen. Throughout the cathedral, there is green striping (which now looks black) and no one knows the reason. The Duomo’s marble floor is divided into fifty-six panels, designed by a total of forty artists. In the Middle Ages, most people could not read so pictures needed to be used to tell a story. Sadly in February, most of the floor is covered to protect the artwork during mass but the plus side is the church is nearly empty. For visitors to Siena, the months of September and October may be the best times to visit, as the entire floor is revealed. Great artists, like Bernini and Michelangelo, have also contributed to the church’s interior.
Overall the visit to Siena is just a few hours. I love the Gothic architecture and my small taste of Siena leaves me wanting to see more.
Outside San Gimignano
After Siena, we head northwest to the wineries and olive fields outside San Gimignano. On the bus, Elisa starts giving some background on the organic farm we will visit for lunch, which is owned by three brothers who sharecropped the land in the 1950s. Working hard and having to overcome some landowners prejudices, the brothers were able to acquire the farm (comprising roughly 250 acres) in 1973. To my astonishment, as the farm, Fattoria Poggio Alloro (Farm Bay Leaf Hill but my hotel translates this as a farm with a hill and laurels), is being described, I suddenly realize that I know this farm. In Houston, there is a supermarket called Central Market, which offers cooking classes. One of the owner’s daughters, Sarah Fioroni, has taught a cooking class I have taken in Houston. I am shocked by how the world is shrinking and how small it can actually be!
We arrive at the farm and with the clear weather we can look in the distance toward San Gimignano. Originally, there were roughly 70 towers in the town and 14 have survived. The views from the farm are like stepping into a movie set and our group is hesitant to stop taking pictures. I feel as if I am really experiencing life in the Tuscan sun.
Lunch is delicious and includes bruschetta, rigatoni with meat sauce, meats, cheeses and salads, local almond biscuits called cantuccini (which are dipped in dessert wine) and lots (and I mean lots) of wine. I ask if Sarah happens to be on the farm that day and it turns out she is working in the kitchen. It is hard to believe I am meeting someone thousands of miles away from a class in Houston.
The farm itself mainly raises beef cows, saffron, grains and olives and also has substantial vineyards. There is even a farm shop where visitors can buy pastas, olive oils, cantuccini and wines. Sarah is working in the shop and is kind enough to introduce me to one of her uncles in Italian. I wish I knew more Italian and can say more than “buongiorno”.
Fattoria Poggio Alloro is located in a storybook setting. I would like to one day go back to the farm and stay, as rooms are available for guests. Italy has agricultural tourism called “agriturismo” where visitors can work on the farm. I am reluctant to get back on the bus and leave such beautiful scenery.
About three miles from the farm, we head to the town of San Gimignano.
The towers of San Gimignano can be seen from miles away as they rise spectacularly from a hilltop. One tower, Torre Grosse, can still be climbed.
In the Middle Ages, the higher the towers were built, the more wealth an owner had. The towers have few windows as the structures were built more for defense. Windows were used to watch for invaders on the horizon. Even fire and hot oil could be thrown from the windows at possible attackers. Our guide comments that the Middle Ages were a difficult time to be alive.
San Gimignano itself is a fantastic example of a medieval town. We enter through a portal at Porta San Giovanni and as it’s February, we are welcomed with a sign “Benvenuti al Carnevale” (welcome to Carnival). Confetti remnants are once again scattered through the streets.
Unfortunately, we have roughly an hour to spend in a postcard perfect town. Small shops line the streets selling everything from pottery, salami, linens to cheeses—all hidden in historic buildings. I am enjoying exploring the buildings around Piazza Cisterna with very few visitors in February. The town is actually very quiet with no one around.
I also get to briefly see the Duomo, now known as the Collegiata. I could spend weeks exploring churches in Tuscany as the interiors and designs are nothing like what we see in the United States.
Before heading to the bus, I find a vantage point across the Tuscan hills and vineyards. The vivid green landscape contrasts sharply with the sparkling blue sky and I know I will remember this scene for years to come.
We head northwest through picturesque farmland where porcini mushrooms, grapes, chestnuts and even hidden truffles can all be found. Italians use a special breed of dog to sniff out truffles, as while pigs can smell truffles too, they will also eat them.
As we arrive in Pisa, I am excited to see the Leaning Tower, as well as the Duomo and Baptistery, which are located in Pisa’s Field of Miracles. Sadly, just outside the entrance to all this history is a McDonald’s, which is definitely a contrast of the old and new.
I am surprised to learn that the Leaning Tower of Pisa has always leaned. Even when building began in 1173, with both poor soil and a bad foundation to contend with, the Tower was soon tilting at an angle. Looking at how the Tower leans, I’m surprised it is still standing.
By this time, it’s late in the afternoon and we are some of the last tourists purchasing admission tickets for the day. I have read in different guidebooks that it’s best to visit Pisa either first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. Not too many tourists are around but there are some. I opt not to climb the Tower with my fear of heights, but for those visitors who are braver, any bags (including purses) must be put in a locker for security purposes. Tickets are timed and the climb takes roughly thirty minutes.
I instead opt to visit Pisa’s Duomo and with no more than ten visitors inside, it’s a surreal feeling having the church almost to myself. I am also the last visitor to the Baptistery for the day. The outside of the building is impressive, but the inside is much simpler.
Before we begin a tour of the University of Pisa and a drive past the palazzos on the river, I duck into a gelato shop across from the Leaning Tower. I am embarrassed to find out that Italians don’t each gelato in the winter (it’s too cold!) and the more authentic gelato shops are closed in January and February. The shop across from the Tower is definitely geared more to tourists than locals.
We finish the day with a ride on a small train past the University of Pisa, one of Italy’s top universities, as well as past several historic houses on the River Arno. As the day is ending, the sun is setting over Pisa with vivid oranges, pinks and purples in the sky. Our group is exhausted but it’s a very happy kind of tired. It has been eleven hours through three cities plus a farm and one incredible experience.
The Best of Tuscany Tour
Via dei Neri 32
Florence, Italy 50122
(39) 055 2645746