Week 10 in Italy: Siena, Thermal Baths, Cortona & Wine Tasting
This week in Italy: I go on a weekend trip to Siena, relax in the thermal baths in Rapolano, and then visit Cortona, a hilltop town east of Siena.
The weather could have been better for the start of this trip. It was early Saturday morning, and we were getting off the buses, ready to head into Siena with our tour guide. It was overcast and raining, so I left my good camera on the bus – you’ll have to deal with sub-par photos for today. The first stop was at the Basilica of San Domenico. On the right wall of the nave, were some relics of St. Catherine of Siena. Protected in small metal cases, was her finger in one, and her head in another, dating back to 1380. Let’s just say that it looked over 600 years old.
The Siena Cathedral was another memorable landmark. Approaching from the rear, there was a set of doors on this side, in addition to the front. Walking up a large staircase around the side brought to the main façade. The design of this cathedral was different than most others I’ve seen because of the use of black and white marble. Off to the side, remains of a planned extension can be seen, with one side wall and part of the eastern façade completed. Construction was stopped in 1348 because of the Black Death and other building errors.
Besides the main cathedral, the Piazza del Campo is the other main attraction in the city. Located in the historic center, it is a large open piazza, with a brick center, and outer road of stones. Twice a year, a horse race takes place in the piazza along the outer road. Ten riders representing the different city wards race around the track three times, with many of them getting tossed off in the process. When the tour ended, I broke off with a group of friends to find lunch. We found this small restaurant off of a narrow street next to the Piazza. They had a limited menu, but all of the dishes were made with fresh ingredients, including the pasta, which was made to order. Afterwards, we all regrouped, and walked back to the buses, to head to our next destination.
The dreary morning was contrasted by a visit to the thermal baths of Rapolano. By the time we arrived, the sun had come out, and the temperature had gone up a bit. The baths had several pools of varying size and temperature. The first one I went in to was one of the hottest outdoor ones, and was connected to a cold pool, in a circle-configuration. You are meant to walk around, going from hot to cold and then back, but I went over to the cold side once, and that was enough for me. After spending another hour in a pool with fountains in the middle, we started getting cold and moved to the indoor pools, which were the hottest. In these pools, the center of the pool was about 8 feet deep, so I could actually swim around without touching the bottom, which was nice. We were in these pools until it was time to head to the hotel for the evening.
Cortona is a typical medieval hillside town with narrow streets. On the bus ride up, it was clear that the road leading up to the town wasn’t designed with tour buses in mind. In the city, the streets were stone, and steep in some areas; small cars only here. If you don’t like walking up or down steps, this place is not for you. To add some addition floor space to houses, the 2nd floors could be cantilevered out over the streets by several feet (image below). Above the house below, there was an outhouse built over the roof, as an extension for the neighboring house.
The most beautiful part of Cortona was the overlook, facing south towards a distant mountain range and Lake Trasimeno. While we were at this overlook, and group of almost 100 motorcycles had gathered in the small square and one by one, they all rode down the winding roads below us.
The Castle of Verrazano is an ancient Etruscan settlement, and is home to a wine-making cellar started by the Verrazano family, dating as early as 1150. Giovanni da Verrazano, a famous navigator and discoverer of the bay of New York, was born here in 1485. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York was named after him in 1964.
We started our tour with an introduction to the history of this wine cellar by a very enthusiastic man. He went on to talk to us about his son who was studying abroad in the United States. In a way he was just like us except on the opposite of the Atlantic. Then, we were led around the castle, going from one room to another, where different vats and barrels of wine and olive oil were stored. The room in the image to the right looked like it hasn’t been touched in years, since all of the bottles were covered in cobwebs and dust.
After the tour, we went inside for some wine tasting. Along with two different kinds of red wine, we were served bread, bruschetta, prosciutto, salami, and a few other antipasti. I didn’t care much for the wine, but the bruschetta was the best I’d ever had, but maybe that was the effect after having a glass of wine.
I think this has been my favorite program-related trip out of them all. Rome and Venice were both fantastic places, but there was something about this trip that just made it unforgettable. It could be the views, the food, or the people I was with, but when I come back to visit Italy, I know I’ll have to see more of the Tuscany region, since this weekend only exposed me to a small selection of the unique towns in this region.
See all of my photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ddbrown/sets/72157640640691544/.