Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Rainy days still

Rainy pretty much all day Tuesday so it was a good day for us to stay in and work on projects. Sue is working on a new teddy bear design using fur cut into strips like a candy cane and promises to be really cute. In the meantime I’m working on my before and after photos for Aimone at the Cantina in Piazza as well as trying continuing the steep climb up the Final Cut Express learning curve. (FCE is a digital video editing software program from Apple.)

We had a break from rain on Monday and thought it was a good time to head back to Florence to pick up the additional documentation necessary for Sue’s visa application. Shortly after we returned from the US last week we contacted the school and explained our recent ordeal with the clerk at the Italian consulate in Boston. The response and probably an accurate one was “he doesn’t sound like he was a very happy man.” Yep just what we needed: An unhappy bureaucrat holding our lives in his clammy, cold, dirty little hands (sorry for the slip into Dickens but it just seemed so relevant here).

Anyway we took the bus to Florence, arriving a little after 10 and then went to school to meet with Valentina who provided Sue with the necessary (!) documentation for our December appointment at the consulate in Boston.

Since it was such a nice day we strolled around the city’s historical center. One of the places we wanted to visit was the Central Market (“Mercato centrale”) located not far from our apartment and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. It will definitely be the place where we will buy our fresh foods: meats, grains, spices, vegetables and fruits from all over the world. The first floor is mainly fresh meat and fish and lots of fried fruits with the fresh produce on the second floor.

We then strolled over to the Arno and couldn’t help but notice all the holiday lights strung across the streets. In fact all along the Via dei Calzauoli between the Duomo and the Piazza Signoria the lights are hung rather like draperies. Beautiful – and they were all on too even though it was daylight. And down the side streets lights were hung like falling waters twinkling. Pretty cool. (By the way Siena too has recently strung lights through much of the historic center but they have as yet to be turned on at night.)

We started to cross the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio but about midway across the bridge we came upon the statue of Cellini. The small wrought iron fence surround the statue was covered in locks with names and dates on them. This seemed to be a favorite spot with the tourists and many were having their photos taken with the statue and locks around it. I thought maybe it had something to do with political prisoners somewhere. Sue seemed to think it looked a bit too much like the notes and gum all over the doors at “Juliet’s house” in Verona.

Sure enough we found out later that lovers are leaving these locks as tokens of their “eternal love” but the city of Florence has a somewhat different view of what exactly constitutes eternity and frequently orders the locks cut off. But they keep reappearing and so now the city is reportedly considering putting signs up (as many as 4 mind you) prohibiting the placing of locks. That should really deter love I’m sure.

What would Dante think?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Rainy days

Rain today. It started out as a sunny morning and we decided to walk down to Antonio Betti’s caffe for well, caffe and dolci of course! We strolled back and about two hours later the grey clouds rolled in followed by the cold rain. Not quite the snow and freezing temps they are getting farther north here in Italy and of course Europe but still, it’s supposed to be sunny Italy! Anyway it’s a good day to relax and just hang out doing laundry and contemplating the future.

We’ve had a good week since our return to Siena Monday. We spent the first couple of days getting ourselves back to some state of normalcy; it just seemed we had lost our rhythm somewhere along the line. Thursday we met up with Anna Maria and Guy, both from New Jersey and who were traveling together in Italy. Some time back we had arranged to meet them for Thanksgiving and here we were the four of us together at last!

We met them at their hotel on Via Banchi di Sopra and strolled to Nannini’s for aperitivi. We then headed over to Cantina in Piazza for dinner at 8 where Aimone had prepared a wonderful dinner of antipasti of zucchini slices with balsamic vinegar, marinated onions, crostini, zuppa di ceci (chickpea soup), tripe in tomato sauce (very tasty but with an odd, off-putting texture for us), ossobucco and for dessert a selection of tortas. We also left it to Aimone to pair the food with wines and began with prosecco when we arrived, followed by sauvignon-chardonnay from Tuscany and a blended red also from Tuscany with the tripe and ossobucco. A wonderful meal and great company!

We walked Anna Maria and Guy back to their hotel and then strolled back to our apartment – something very spoiling about living inside the walls where everything is just a 15 minute walk from everything else.

Originally we had planned to see our niece Christina and her husband Glen on Friday and they were going to spend the night with us before heading back to Germany where he is stationed. But Friday morning Christina called and said some goofy thing had happened at the base where Glen is stationed – some missing equipment needed to be accounted for or something – and so they were all in lockdown on the base. As a result they had missed their flight so the trip was a wash. We hope to see them at some point before we leave here for Christmas and we might just make the trip north ourselves.

Friday morning turned rather nasty and it rained off and on all day so I suppose from that standpoint it was just as well our guests called and said they couldn’t make it. It also turns out that Frankfurt had some nasty weather and flights were cancelled there, as well as in other parts of Northern Europe.

Saturday morning we got up and began our prep work for the Thanksgiving Feast with the Bechis and their friends out in Asciano. Susan made a (gluten-free) pumpkin pie and I followed her in the kitchen by making a fennel-tomato dish roasted in the oven.

Patti had arranged for us to get a ride to Asciano with another couple living in Siena. Kate and Val, from New Orleans by way of California, met Patti online (like everyone else probably) and she had helped the two of them plan their trip to Italy for their 20th wedding anniversary. Anyway they were just finishing up a week staying in an apartment in Siena owned by a friend of Patti’s and so we would all ride together. Yeah! Val called and gave us directions to their apartment and so we met them at noon and the four of us headed off to Asciano.

It turned out we were going back to Bartolo’s farm – we had interviewed him this past spring, he raises chianina beef – and by luck we happened to remember the way since, well we had no directions! But Italy being great and the Italians even greater this tiny adventure was worth every minute of the drive through the spectacular “clay hills” south of Siena. Even the drab, overcast day could not dim their uniqueness one iota.

So we got to Bartolo’s farm and discovered no one else had arrived yet. At first we thought, naturally, that we were in the wrong place. But no we had been here before and a quick call to Patti confirmed this. Soon afterwards Roberto drove up with the turkey, wine, his daughter and various implements for the table and we were off and inside the huge old barn beneath the house which Bartolo and his wife had turned into a wonderful dining space. And there was a roaring fire in the huge fireplace, which determined where the tables were going to be for sure.

Not long afterwards Patti arrived and so did everyone else: Stephanie and Daniele and their kids, Ruth and her husband and their children, and eventually Donald and his two kids came from Florence.

We worked on getting the food out onto the serving table and everyone went at it – eating standing up, sitting, crouching or anyway that seemed appropriate for the moment. It was just like the many family reunion dinners I recall from my childhood. People talking about everything, kids running around and playing, all intermingled with eating. And the food was very good indeed. Patti’s turkey was roughly the size of a VW beetle and was obviously genetically modified to feed a platoon of marines for a week. We had beans, salads, potatoes (2 kinds), and even gravy! The one thing that made it unique to this place was the wine and the fact that half of the language used was in Italian.

We watched a video of Roberto and some of his friends from Asciano who had been on Italian TV recently – a program called Weekend in Italia, and afterward we cleaned up and headed home.

For a few photos click here!

Naturally we had leftover turkey for dinner later. It’s a tradition after all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Latest news

Well it’s certainly been an interesting week. As many of you know Susan enrolled in a professional pastry program in Florence, Italy, beginning the end of January and running for two semesters. We subsequently arranged for an apartment as well, just about a five-minute walk from school and ideally located in the historic center of the city. But she had to apply for a student visa so we hopped on a flight back to the states, and utilized the time to do so more packing up at the house, get the car serviced, and have my permanent crown put on.

Everything went well until we got to the Italian consulate the day before we were scheduled to return to Italy. We had an appointment for 11 am Friday, 18 November, and were there in plenty of time, in fact we arrived early. Susan was informed, however, that her visa application materials were insufficient, and that she needed additional documentation from the school. Naturally this was a major let down since the whole point of this trip was to apply for the visa and pick it up upon our return in late December.

So back to Italy we went on Saturday, 19 November. But the misadventures were going to stay with us.

Friends of Susan’s brother Dick and his wife Dorothy were kind enough to drive us to get the shuttle bus to Boston’s Logan airport Saturday afternoon and we had a pleasant and uneventful flight to London. We landed at about 5;30 am in very heavy fog and soon afterwards our troubles began.

We were informed upon arrival in the terminal that some flights leaving Heathrow were cancelled, ours to Rome being one of them; curiously other flights were taking off and would continue to leave all morning. Upon checking in at the flight connection desk we were told that we could take an Alitalia flight to Rome leaving at 9:35 am but they could not guarantee our bags would be with us.

OK so when was the next BA flight to Rome?

There were no available seats until the 2:15 pm flight so we took that and spent the next 8 hours, tired and weary hanging out at Heathrow, having coffee and croissant, sitting and reading, walking around and window shopping (these terminals these days are like malls), napping as best we could, having lunch compliments of BA food vouchers, and finally getting on our flight to Rome.

The flight went smoothly, we napped en route, and had an uneventful landing in Rome. We reached the baggage carousel and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited some more - well, I think you see where I'm going with this. NO BAGS!!!! We had to go to passenger assistance and fill out forms for missing bags, and, at that time, no one seemed to know exactly where they were. Many passengers were in the same boat, including a group of Italian travelers who started clapping in unison and chanting "nostri bagagli, nostri bagagli" (“our bags”) and yelling and screaming at the poor passenger assistance fellow. Needless to say, the time involved in this meant that we weren't going to get a bus or train back to Siena that evening, so we debated our course.

We ended up calling the Hotel Alpi near the Termini train station in Rome (a place I had previously researched for another stay), and they gave us a wonderful room for only 100 Euros, which is pretty darned good for Rome. We took the express train in to Termini from the airport, found the Hotel Alpi without difficulty, checked in with a pretty friendly and funny desk clerk, then proceeded to a restaurant nearby for a delicious meal of pasta, carciofi (artichoke), scamorza cheese, and local red table wine. It was a true find, being a very busy, obviously very popular trattoria with homemade pastas on the menu. We were certainly ready for bed Sunday night and slept soundly, not waking until almost 10 am Monday morning.

Once we were up and around on Monday, I called the toll free number we had been given to check on the status of the baggage, but they still didn't know exactly where things were. We decided to head back to Siena and hope our bags would be delivered in the not too distant future. We took the train back to Siena and met a lovely Italian woman with whom we chatted during our ride from Termini to Chiusi where we then changed trains to Siena.

As an aside for those of you traveling by train through Rome’s Termini station if you use the machines to get your ticket remember to count your number of tickets. They will give you a receipt AND the actual ticket itself. In our case since we had to make a connection we were supposed to have gotten three separate ticket-looking pieces of paper when in fact we only got two – they came out of the machine slowly and we probably left the actual ticket in our machine. In any case the conductor on the train took pity on us and didn’t press the matter.

Once back in Siena we had to get groceries for the week, check emails, buy some wine at our favorite local cantina, and had a light supper of fresh green beans and roasted potatoes.

We slept well Monday night, waking about 9 am Tuesday. At 2 pm we received a call from the delivery person who arrived here around 4 pm with our bags! At 11:30 that night we received another call from someone at the Pisa airport and our other two bags had just arrived and would be delivered the following day. We cannot praise the efficiency and speed with which the Italians have handled this whole thing; clearly not the case with the British in London. In any even we can only hope that the other 2 dozen or so passengers on that same flight fare as well.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Urban trekking in Siena

I spoke the other day about the urban trekking series of walking maps the Siena tourist agency has put out and which are readily available in the bus station (beneath Piazza Gramsci), in the tourist office itself on Piazza del Campo and by the escalators at Porta Fontebranda.

You can see accompanying photos by clicking here.

At that time we had completed one of them and since have done the other two. There are three in the series, each corresponding (roughly) to one of the city’s terzi. The historic center (inside the walls) of Siena as many know is made up of 17 contrade, or “neighborhoods”, although they re certainly much more than that in both a physical and spiritual sense. The city is also divided into thirds, or ‘terzi” (the Italian word for third is terzo) and each “terzo comprises a certain number of contrade.

Whew. Anyway each little trek takes you through roughly one-third of the city inside the walls: the Alleys and Gardens in the shadow of the Torre trek follows much of the Terzo di San Martino, the Breathtaking Views trek takes you though the Terzo di Camollia and the Between Art and Nature trek leads you through the Terzo di Citta’.

Aside from one or two glitches in the maps and directions (see below) we can strongly recommend these little walking tours. The brochures are easy to read handy to carry and do help you find some largely unrevealed treasures (at least they were unrevealed to us).

For example, we discovered the views from the Villa Rubini on our first day in the Terzo di Camollia and walked beneath an absolutely fantastic grape arbor with the grapes still clinging to the vines.

In the Terzo di San Martino we walked or rather got lost walking through the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital but did eventually find out way down into one of the beautiful little valleys still inside the walls where an organization has created a typical medieval kitchen garden.

And in the Terzo di Citta we found our way to a largely unexplored old fonte (fountain), which was used by the nuns of a nearby convent and where you can still see how they got to the multi-tiered fonte to wash their clothes virtually completely underground. It was absolutely beautiful there and we had a truly unique view of the city walls – we also discovered a typical Tuscan rosemary bush at one of the entrances to one of Siena’s “hidden fountains”.

Wear sturdy shoes, carry some water and pack a light lunch. For example there is a beautiful spot on the Between Art and Nature Trek where there is a lovely little park just outside the walls of San Marco and you can sit and take in some of the spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside. There is also a nice sitting in front of the fountain On Viale Vittorio Veneto) next to the fortezza where you can have your lunch as well as a small park next to the church of San Francesco.

Problems with these tour maps are few but can be a bit exasperating. My only general complaint is that it would have been nice to include opening/closing times in the stop descriptions particularly of the churches they recommend you see.

Specifically, on the Breathtaking Views tour under stop no. 6, we could not find the Vicolo del Fontino let along the newly discovered fountain.

On the Between Art and Nature tour we thought the best stop on the walk was very difficult to find, the Fonte delle Monache: you actually have to leave Via delle Sperandie and walk through the gate of the provincial police barracks and then look hard for the footpath which takes you down to the fountain complex (none of which is mentioned in the description). Still the search is worth the effort we thought. Also on that same tour they misplaced stop no. 2; they have it on Via E. Bastianini and it should be back on Via del Fosso di S. Ansano. One wonders if they meant to number both of these stops since they have placed view symbols at each.

Finally on the Alleys and Gardens tours we found the walk fine until we got to the psychiatric hospital grounds, which is (and has been for some time) undergoing major renovations. As a result we got lost several times trying to find our way through the maze of old buildings, new buildings, buildings being built, well you get the point. Still it was a beautiful day for a walk and it’s not as if you’re going to be lost forever. And since both of us did attend university we eventually found our way out of the maze and back onto the tour. Note also on this walk that stop no. 7 is actually where stop 8 is listed and stop 8 should be just beyond where the little eye symbol is located.

We found these tours to be between 2 and 3 hours (tops) for us but then we have been down many of these streets although we thought suggesting all day for any of these tours is a bit much. Still when you add in potential stops – like for pranzo – and for just relaxing and seeing the city maybe spending a day on each one of these isn’t such a wild thought after all.

Buon viaggio e buon divertimento!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Unusual sights

Although we have walked many kilometers inside the walls over the past seven years we decided to take one of the “urban trekking” tours suggested by the local Tourist Office (Piazza del Campo 56).

These “urban trek” walking tours inside the historic city center are presented in a slick collection of handy brochures produced in a variety of languages (they are also available online for download as PDF files). Each “trek” consists of a walking plan with handy map and description of the major sights to see along the way.

We decided to start with the “Looking at Breathtaking Views” trek and headed out about 10:30 or so Tuesday morning. I won’t bore you with all the intricate details of a beautiful morning walk through parts of the city we have never seen before (yeah!) but I do want to mention probably the most unusual thing we saw.

Over the years since we’ve been coming to Siena we have seen some changes to be sure: reconstruction and renovation of course and more cars even inside the city walls. Still the city has lost none of its charm, at least for us. But what we saw yesterday was maybe a good change or maybe a bad one but it certainly is a strange one. So what were they?


OK, actually two escalators. Big deal you say? Well I’m talking ESCALATORS. They reminded us of the London tube station escalators. But these were or rather are designed to take one from the bottom (or top) of one of the three hills of Siena to the top (or bottom).

For those of you who have been to this city you know it is mainly an up-and-down thing here, with very little flat anywhere. So I suppose escalators would be a godsend if they were located in such a way as to make them valuable for people to use. Which is apparently not the case here.

The first group of escalators is located at the Porta Fontebranda where there is no parking although there is a new group of buildings designed we were told to be sort of an artisan’s set of workshops but little seemed to be going on when we were there. There is also a cooking school there as well. One positive note, there is a brand-new set of very modern bathrooms located just beneath the first set of escalators, which might make the trip worth the effort.

Anyway the six sets of escalators take you to very near the Duomo and just a short walk from the Piazza del Campo so it certainly has potential.

The second escalator system was on the other side of the city inside the walls at the church of San Francesco and next to a major complex for the University of Siena. We took the 5 sets down outside the walls to street level where we saw a cashier (“cassa”) for paying for parking – and people we paying for sure – but we couldn’t see where the parking was. But it had to be somewhere nearby although there was no signage or directions to an underground garage or anything else for that matter.

We have spoken with a couple of people who live here and they said both these escalators were and remain controversial particularly the newest one by Fontebranda which some seem to think serves no purpose. The eerie thing was virtually no one was using it when we were there.

The escalators are designed to speed a person or group of persons from one point to another quickly and easily. For the person living in Siena this may very well be important. But for the tourist, at least for this tourist, the whole idea about this city – indeed the whole point of these urban treks I should think – is to get you to explore the city’s backstreets, to get a sense of the medieval Siena. The escalators enclose you in a cocoon of concrete and steel and whisk you from your car (or bus I suppose) to the Duomo, the first of the BIG ATTRACTIONS, before moving on to the next BIG ATTRACTION. I’m not sure this is a good thing.

Anyway after we rode the escalator at San Francesco (the church was closed) down and back up we headed to the Piazza Provenzano where there is a wonderful little church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to a set of miracles believed to have happened there in the 16th century. (The July Palio is held in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano.) And just across the piazza was a little pizza place called Il Cavaliere Errante where we had the best lunch of this trip so far. The house wine was delicious and the pizza made with a wafer thin cracker-like crust with a tasty topping of local sausage and salami and cheese and tomatoes. Man it makes me hungry again just thinking about it.

But along the way we also visited the main street in the Bruco contrada which won the July Palio (our contrada, torre won the August race).

So today (Wednesday) we are going to take on the next urban trek, called “Alleys and Gardens in the shadow of the Tower” (the tower being the great Torre del Mangia which watches over the Piazza del Campo).

This should be really fun.

It is in our own neighborhood but we will be walking in areas – like yesterday – which we have never seen before: such as the old dirt road to the Porta Giustizia (Gate of Justice) where the condemned were led to be hanged on a small hill just outside the walls. It will also take us through the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital which began as a 14th century convent and was turned into a hospital in the 19th century and was a veritable city with streets, workshops, kitchens, etc., all designed to provided occupational therapy for the patients. So this should be another great day for some more “unusual” sight!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Rainy day for photos

Well it's a pretty dreary day here in central Italy. Sue just finished her herbal course DVDs this morning and is in the process of completing two teddy bear projects she brought along.

Good day to stay in and get caught up on stuff like . . . putting hotos online! You asked for 'em and we got'em.

For our photos of Luigi the cheese farmer in Pisa province click here.

For a random selection of images from Siena taken during the fall of 2005 click here.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Just three weeks

Three weeks ago Friday evening we arrived tired and worn inside the walls of Siena -- Patti and Roberta and her father Mario met us at the Porta Romana and helped us get our things settled into this new and wonderful space we now have here in the Torre contrada. We have done much and seen much and cannot wait to see what the future days and weeks ahead hold for the two of us. So much is unknown but yet exciting to see it unfold. And it also makes us appreciate all the more those adventures each of you are embarking on: moving, changing, exploring and experiencing life.

Thanks for sticking with us so far. In the next day or two I plan to upload a large number of images to the Apple website and will post a link here so stay tuned!

"Have a happy life"

Thursday and Fridays were quiet days for us just going about the business of living in Siena and getting on with our lives.

Friday we strolled down to try the caffe and pasticcerie owned and operated by Roberto’s cousin, Antonio Betti. This place quickly won us over: the quality of the building materials as well as the imaginative design and layout not to mention what has to be the coolest and most fashionable bathroom in the entire province of Siena alone make this worth a stop. It is located just outside the Porta Romana – and parking is a bit of a problem here I’m afraid – and is only a 15 or 20-minute walk from our apartment or about 5 minutes by bus. The pastries, confections, Panforte (reportedly the best in Siena) are simply delicious as is the caffe (Hausbrandt I believe). I can attest to the fact that they have the best Ricciarelli (almond cookies, a specialty of Siena along with Panforte) – at least of those I have tried so far (some hundreds of thousands according to Susan which I believe to be an exaggeration). The texture and straightforward almond flavor will certainly win over even the most finicky of Dutch bakers!

Friday evening we returned to Boccon del Prete for our Don Soper Memorial Dinner. It was just a year ago today that my dad passed away and yet it so much has happened since then. I like to think he would have approved of what we are doing. After all his last words to me were “Have a happy life, Steve”. That’s what we are doing here right this very minute. Thanks Pop. I sure do miss him.

Sue and I also recalled that it was seven years ago that her father Tunis passed away. We would have loved to have seen the expression on his face when he saw the photo taken of Sue and I sitting at the edge of the very same fountain in Cerignola, Puglia in April of 2005 that he once sat on in 1944 when he was a navigator on a B-24 stationed at the US airbase at Stornara!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

An apartment found


Over the past week or so we had been in contact with four different rental agencies in Florence in our search for apartments for next year. Unlike in Siena where one deals either with a tourist agency and their exorbitant rental prices or with an Italian agency (and their nearly exorbitant rental prices) who is almost impossible to find online and in any case are unused to catering to foreigners. In Florence things are a bit different. Because of the sheer number of foreigners seeking long and short-term rentals in Florence there are presently several companies – at least online – providing just such services to the non-Italian. After looking at the properties available, at least those online, we contacted four of them and heard from two: YAIF (Your Agency in Florence) and Milligan & Milligan. We set up appointments for Wednesday morning at 11 with Luca at YAIF and at 1 pm with Francesca at M & M. As things turned out we were most fortunate in the way we had arranged our meetings.

At 11 am we met with Luca at the offices of YAIF located along the fashionably chic street of Via Nuova Vigna and after several minutes of Luca looking seriously at his computer monitor he found 5 places that would fit our budget. (It should be pointed out that in my original note sent out to all these agencies I had made it clear what we were looking for in an apartment and what we could afford. A waste of time as it turned out.)

Luca sent us off to look at apartments with a nice young American man who was working in the office – he had in fact attended Apicius, Susan’s school, for a semester. As we neared the first apartment the tenant stopped our guide in the street and said his refrigerator was “exploding” and he was on his way to the office to see what they could do. Apparently he was unable to contact anyone by phone. We turned into the apartment building nonetheless and walked up to the top floor – no lift – what seemed to be several thousand steps. Although clearly it was being lived in by a college male it was very nice, very modern and light and airy – sort of like an apartment the Jetson’s might have had. Anyway we headed off to the second apartment on the list where either the lock didn’t work or it was the wrong apartment, no one seemed sure. So it was off to no. 3. We knocked and nobody answered so in we went, or almost in as a young American girl came to the door and said “Hey we’re still sleeping here”. I mean hey it was still early! No evennoon yet! So that one was out.

After returning to street level I asked our guide to call the office and check to see if there was anyone in the next apartment before we walked there and barged in. He called and they told him, sorry but they didn’t have a phone number for that apartment. I said let’s just skip it and we headed to the last apartment, which was quite nice but had no oven! Once we learned that it was nope, thanks but not this one.

We returned to the office where Luca sat us down and began staring intently at his computer monitor. For all I know he was playing Quake. The problem was he said money (isn’t that always the case?) but if we were willing to bump up our budget and oh by the way “I’ve found a couple of places that you could see today! Yes today!” For only 1800 euros (our budget was 1200 mind you) for only 1800 euros we could have this place with a garden, etc., etc. Could we see it at 3:00 this afternoon? Since it was almost time for us to meet Francesca at M & M I said we really had to go now, but said sure we would look at the apartment and gave Luca my mobile number. “Call me to arrange where we can meet to see it.” He said he would call by 3.

We trotted over to meet Francesca at the offices of M & M on Via Degli Alfani and we walked right around the corner from their office to the apartment. I had found this particular unit online and thought then it had real potential. When we saw it we felt it was just right for us.

It is solid, well reconstructed and in a great location. The Duomo is two blocks one way and the Accademia is two blocks the other way and Susan’s school is maybe a 5-minute walk. One enters through enormous front doors up one of those cool little iron mesh lifts to the 3rd floor, through another door (locked) down a hallway of about four flats and lined with statues and subdued light, very nice feeling here as we walked to our door. Out comes another key (the 3rd one) quite long and after some jiggling we got into the apartment. Click here to see the apartment online.

It has everything we need for six or seven months, fits right into our budget and the people at the agency were also part of the selling points. They were nice, friendly and easy to deal with, comfortable in Italian or English.

So we returned to the office and they printed up the rental agreement and said just think about it and fax it back to us in a couple of days. We’ll hold the apartment. We left, walked around the block, and after talking for about 15 minutes concluded we really liked this apartment and asked ourselves are we going to find something better for less money? And after our experience with YAIF in the morning we said we didn’t want to do that sort of thing again – and anyway we really didn’t have time to keep returning to Florence day after day looking at places, so we said let’s just sign, put our deposit down and get on with it.

We returned to the office and they were a bit incredulous perhaps, saying that was a quick decision. So now we had ourselves a great little apartment in Florence.

And that‘s what I meant earlier when I said we were starting to see this place in a different light. Of course it’s not Siena. . .

Oh and Luca? Never heard from him.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

New sights on a rainy day

Tuesday. All Saint’s Day and a national holiday in Italy

Well our doorbell rang at 8:45 and it was Patti and Roberto at our front door asking if we were ready! They had driven into the city to pick us up and we were in fact just about to leave to walk to the Porta Romana. So we were off into new territories for all four of us.

The weather was overcast and it was foggy in Siena – fairly typical of our recent weather patterns in fact – and by the time we got to our first destination, an organic cheese farmer in the Province of Pisa – it was starting to rain. But getting there was half the fun. We drove for what seemed like forever on the back roads of Siena province, crossing briefly into Florence province before entering to the province of Pisa, twisting and turning with sweeping vistas of Tuscany in the Fall. Most of the ground was covered with grapevines, white grapes by and large and the leaves were a beautiful yellow, golden color set off in nice contrast to the green of the surrounding hilly terrain. Very striking.

As we neared our first stop we had to stop and ask several locals where our Luigi, cheese farmer was located exactly – his directions on the mobile phone continued to remain vague and unclear – we found his place at last.

And what a place it was! His parents had bought this empty 17th century villa about 16 years ago after spending a life collecting art and antiques. The villa was enormous and came with its own chapel (which also served as the church for the little village which had once been located there as well) and he showed us the wooden grate near the top of one wall behind which the noble family sat to hear mass. We eventually saw the same little sitting box from the other side with a bench running along the base of the grate for the nobles to sit on. In the same room where the entry to their box was located was also a rap door, which led down into the sacristy of the church as well.

The villa defines in fact what a real villa was and not as it is generally used today in Italy which almost describes any freestanding house or home. This structure was enormous with five or six levels, although the structure itself is fairly shallow it was in fact quite long.

After our host showed us the cows which produced the milk for his cheeses – no pecorino here this is all cow’s milk based cheese as well as the cheese making facility which is all stainless steel and appeared very up-to-date. I had in fact tasted his cheese the Saturday before in Siena where he was part of an organic farmer’s market organized by Roberto in the La Lizza gardens next to the fortezza.

We viewed the chapel and then went into the house through the main entryway. I should point out that across from the main entryway was a large hillock which served as a park for the noble family and their guests and which was accessed by an elevated walkway from their floor and beneath which was a huge cave cut out of the rock for their wines. The main (ground floor) level of the building is furnished with furniture of a variety of periods but many of the pieces just seemed to fit in the particular space. We then explored upwards of three other levels (and I even went up one level to what appeared to be under the eaves yet the staircase continued up farther and I thought it best not to go any further). We stopped at the level on which the servants would have lived. Interestingly, they probably had the best views of all. Anyway, most of the rooms had little or no electricity or heating. Originally the important rooms would have been heated by wood. One can only wonder what it would be like in deep winter.

We ended in the basement level, which was also the kitchen, and indeed had been the original location for the kitchen as well. It was very warm and cozy particularly since their cook, one of the two Romanians, had been baking bread all morning. Our host surprised us by having a lunch ready for us, locally produced grape juice (not wine), cheeses of course, bread and wheat germ which had kneaded over and over again, mixed with parsley and olive oil, which was in fact quite tasty.

It continued to rain well into the afternoon as we head back south and to the west of Siena, to visit the ancient castle at Spannochia located near San Galgano abbey. The rain was pouring down very hard as we found the entrance to the castello and began the climb up a steep and twisty track of a road to where the castle sits.

At first I assumed we would be visiting another 9th century edifice to get a bit of the historical flavor of the surrounding area, another “sight” as it were. No, oh no, this was in fact much more.

The original castle and the keep, which is all that remains of that structure, were constructed in about the 9th century on an Etruscan site and it eventually became a monastery in the 13th century and by the 20th century a noble’s villa. And in the little chapel attached to the villa one can see the wooden grates in the walls behind which sat the nobles to hear mass, sitting apart from the common folk. They even had their own little window into the priest’s confessional in order to give confession. Today this site now houses a most unusual retreat of sorts. It does provide traditional hotel facilities – the ambience is absolutely charming, the rooms quite nice, and the prices are reasonable. While we didn’t taste the food or wine the menu look very well planned out as well. Indeed, much of the food on their table comes from their own gardens. For one other thing Spannochia does is to provide a place for young people, mostly Americans I think, to come and spend time working in the fields, in the kitchen, as staff to help offset costs and to also help promote the organic way of agriculture and at the same time enjoy a most unique experience. It should be noted that the staff rooms appeared to be in the old monastery rooms so they tended a bit to the more Spartan side of living.

After a wonderful afternoon of touring – leaving Patti and Roberto with new ideas and new adventures for their clients to discover for themselves, they dropped us off back into the city.

Not a bad holiday at all, I’d say. In fact every day we learn something new and fantastic, often about something we have never seen before but occasionally about ourselves and yes something new and different about a thing or place we thought we already new, like Florence.