Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A German diversion

It’s a beautiful sunny, and rather warm Wednesday morning in Siena. Quite a change from the very cold and rather rainy weather we had in Germany on our quick trip up to Giessen (north of Frankfurt) to see Glen and Christina. Christina is Joyce and Carl’s oldest child and her husband Glen is a captain in the army presently stationed in Germany. They had originally planned to come and see us around Thanksgiving but had to cancel their trip at the last minute because of some military nonsense about missing equipment. Anyway we decided that since we were flexible right now and had the time we would fly up and see them.

So Saturday morning we took the train from Siena to Pisa airport, boarded a Ryanair flight (based in Ireland they are one of the big discount airlines in Europe right now) and flew to Frankfurt’s secondary airport, at Hahn which as it turns out is apparently somewhere in France. (Just kidding you ole Germans you.) Glen and Christina showed up just a few minutes after our flight arrived and we piled into their Chevy Equinox (rather Blazer-like I think) and headed off to Giessen.

It took us about an hour and a half to drive to the base. This post was at one time quite large but has since been broken up into smaller areas. What wasn’t sold off to the Germans (many of the old on-base housing for example are now apartments for the locals ) has been turned into “baselets”.

It was certainly a relief to know that the military has maintained its dedication and commitment to being one of the dumbest organizations in western civilization and the base at Giessen is an example in strength. What they did was create little pockets of fenced areas around the remaining pockets of existing military buildings so that the streets are themselves not even on the base but cut through all these pockets. For example, in order to walk from Glen and Christina’s apartment complex across the street to the mail box you have to leave one security checkpoint, enter another, leave that one and return to the first one, all the time being stopped and having “your papers checked”. The PX (post exchange) is also this way and even the little gas station requires you to check in through security! And of course since 9/11 they have placed all kinds of ridiculous cement block barriers at each entrance (in and out mind you), which adds to the marginal chaos.

And speaking of security. How secure is the base under such rigorous circumstances? Well there are no MPs (Army military police) and in fact the security has been outsourced to a huge security company, Pond Security, which employs mainly local Germans, Turks and the occasional American who has gotten out of the service and opted to remain in Germany for one reason or another. How secure is it when those guarding the base do so not out of honor or duty or commitment to their country but only for a buck? Moreover, how much respect can one have for a cop who is essentially no different that any rent-a-cop at Wal-Mart? It would be quite sad if it weren’t so frightening to know that our men and women are being protected by such dubious elements.

OK enough of that; let’s get back to the story.

So after we were checked in we drove to their apartment and relaxed before dinner – which was chicken in the crockpot with carrots and onions, accompanied by mashed potatoes. Afterwards we headed into downtown Giessen to check out the local Weinachtsmarkt (“Christmas market”). Things were pretty much closed up though by the time we got there but tomorrow we were going to head to Alsfeld (?) to see another of the many Weinachtsmarkts going on in Germany right now.

The next morning Glen went to a local “backerei” (bakery) to get some of the local breakfast treats and we had a leisurely morning before heading off to Alsfeld. The village is pretty cool – fairly typical I suppose of what much of the small pre-war villages must have looked like at one time or another and we enjoyed strolling with the holiday crowd, sampling bratwursts (twice for Glen and I), crepes (Glen) and the traditional “gluhwein” (which loosely translated means “glow-wine” I think)., which is essentially red or white wine warmed up with spices added. You pay a deposit down on a cute little ceramic mug and they keep the deposit if you keep the mug (we turned ours back in, sorry folks). Pretty tasty and given the cold air and even colder cobble stones of the old street it was almost a necessity.

And speaking of cold we were all very surprised at how many of the kids and even babies went around without gloves on – perhaps part of the “acclimate or die” strategy developed by such aboriginal peoples as the Yanamamo of South America.

We left Alsfeld and headed back to Giessen and on the way we stopped at a local castle, “schloss Schiffenberg”, which was originally constructed sometime in the late Dark Ages, and strolled about spending a little time in the art gallery there which featured some rather risqué erotic imagery in large scale. But it was good to get out of the cold and into the warmth for a bit at any rate. We also made a quick stop at the commissary where Susan was able to buy a couple of things that we can’t find in Siena – brown sugar and Puffs tissues.

We then headed back to the apartment where Glen and I sampled a delicious winter German beer and we all relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. We headed out to dinner at a local place “Alt Giessen” and settled in for a wonderful meal of schliebtrockenhaufengerlagenfuhrerndickelminersfuhrstuckenfahrengeliben accompanied byfahrstruckenglaubeschliefentrappengruppenfuhrer
Finished off with a bottle of stieffenhauptbaunhofergetrinken.

Seriously folks the food was outstanding even if the names were pretty goofy. In fact the German food we had on our short trip north was all pretty outstanding, from the “brats” at Alsfeld to baked goods from a Giessen bakery to the scrumptious meal at Alt Giessen. Thanks again to Glen and Christina for showing us such wonderful sights and great food! The singular issue we had with the German restaurants is, like London but worse it seemed, smoking is RAMPANT everywhere.

Monday morning Christina drove us to the Giessen RR station and we took the train into Frankfurt in order to get a shuttle bus out to Hahn airport later in the day. We spent a few hours strolling about downtown/old town Frankfurt and browsed through their huge Weinachtsmarkt. We also caught a glimpse of the Main river before heading back to the train station. Along the way we stopped for a bite of lunch and then caught the 4 pm bus out to Hahn airport.

After a rainy, foggy drive of a little less than 2 hours we were back at the airport terminal and then grabbed the shuttle to our hotel, which was close to the airport. In fact it was located on an old abandoned US air base – many of the barracks which had remained deserted for over 30 years were still standing and made for an eerie ambience on our walk to dinner. We checked in and then walked to a nearby restaurant – La Piazza – where we decided against their Italian dishes and opted for one last fling of German food.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, got a shuttle back to the terminal and by a little after 1 pm were airborne and on our way to Pisa.

By the time we landed the weather in Pisa had turned quite nice, warm and sunny. We walked out of the terminal and a few minutes later walked right onto the train for Pisa Central. From there we took a train to Empoli and changed for Siena. We were back home a little before 6 pm, and it seemed as if we had just left. Which of course we had.

It was the first time I had spent any time in Germany and the first time in some 30 years that Susan had been in Germany so we appreciated the chance to go and the opportunity to go to see family.

Thanks again Glen and Christina!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Treno Natura, Nature Train

Lousy weather today. Actually even worse than lousy, it’s downright frustrating to be out: the cold rain driven by a wind which roars down some of the streets destroying umbrellas – the trash cans here are full of them this afternoon – makes one less apt to go out for any reason.

Yesterday though was nice, although cold and bit overcast in Siena. The day before (Wednesday) Patti Bechi sent me a text message giving us the particulars of whom we needed to call about the “nature train” which was scheduled to leave Friday morning. This is part of a series of special trains, which provide local tourists with access to particular festivals around southern Tuscany and at the same time providing transportation in vintage trains. Pretty cool we thought. So we called and put our name down on the reserved list and were told we needed to meet at the Siena train station no later than 9:50 am.

We got up had a bite of breakfast and headed off for the station. The first thing we noticed as we were walking to the station was that there was absolutely no traffic anywhere – and hardly any people. And it was after 9 am. Odd we thought. Did something happen and we weren’t told?

So we arrived at the station around 9:30 – it’s only a 30-minute walk from our apartment -- and we thought we would try and find out exactly where this train was or at least where we were supposed to be in order to get aboard.

After a few moments of confusion we actually did speak with a couple of people who appeared to be in charge (of something involved with our train at least). We learned it was coming from Florence and would pick up the Siena tourist group on it’s way south at a little bit before 10 am.

That’s right – you heard correctly – tour group.

And not just your run-of-the-mill group but a group of some 100 Italian tourists of all ages packed into a train made up of about 5 reproduction vintage carriages from the early 20th century, all heading down to southern Tuscany and to the Olive Oil festival in San Quirico d’Orcia.

Anyway, we had a leisurely ride aboard the “Treno Natura” down into southern Tuscany all the way to Monte Antico where we stopped in order to bring the locomotive around to the other end of the train so that we could head back north. We headed off northeast up through part of the Val d’Orcia – for those of you who have read any of Iris Origo’s work you will know that name well – and eventually stopped at Torrenieri, not far from Montcalcino. We then boarded a couple of busses, which shuttled us all into San Quirico. Located about midway between Montalcino and Pienza San Quirico is a beautiful typical Tuscan hill town with one long main street running the length of the town and tiny streets coming off of it here and there ending in spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately much of the surrounding countryside is becoming covered with the all-too-typical sprawl.

Shortly after arriving in town we “experienced” lunch rather than just eating it: it was held upstairs above one of the small tratorrie along the town’s main street and one would never have expected such an enormous room – which could easily accommodate 300 or more people – with a stage and enormous kitchen – in such a seemingly small location. Anyway it was a wonderful meal including typical Tuscan dishes with antipasti, zuppa, pasta, and a “secondi” of roasted, thinly sliced pork with veggies and salad. We both enjoyed the two hours or so it took to eat, all the while listening to a cacophony of Italian voices!

Afterwards we all strolled about the town spending quite a bit of time tasting a variety of different oils – the latest harvest of course was the rage and virtually all that we could see was unfiltered. What we sampled was delicious – but we discovered a little thing the Tuscans do with their bread and olive oil: they put salt on it. Some of the tasting booths were grilling or toasting their bread and rubbing garlic on it but also putting salt on it as well. Tuscan bread is notorious for being made without salt rendering it quite bland.

The Tuscans argue, however, that the bread should be a vehicle for the rest of the food, be it soup, pasta or whatever; the bread should take on the flavor(s) of the rest of the dish. Sort of the same idea at work in tofu? Anyway we found the same phenomenon later that night when we ate at Cantina in Piazza and Aimone offered us some of the new oil from Castellina in Chianti – which by the way was also very good and a bit peppery. He too suggested putting salt on it along with the bread.

As we were wandering about San Quirico we caught a bit of local flavor when some of the townsfolk came out dressed in a variety of clown-like costumes and performed a sort of street parade for a half hour or so, entertaining everyone with their goofiness and music.

A real find though was the Horti Leontini, a small garden just inside one of the town gates that had a sculptured set of hedges much like a small English garden but with truly fantastic terra cotta statues scattered throughout, mostly nudes but several relief works as well. It would be nice to come back and photograph this during a really sunny day and with the big Nikon.

At about 4:30 we found our way back to the meeting place to pick up the bus back to the train. The train got back to Siena at a little after 6 pm and we found it raining of course. But it was a light rain and we opted to walk home.

We dumped our stuff off at the apartment, grabbed the computer and headed off to the internet to check emails, etc. Afterwards we stopped at Cantina in Piazza for our evening meal. We had hoped to cook but many businesses normally open in the evening – like our fruit and vegetable stand – were in fact closed. It turned out that Thursday was indeed a major festa day: the festival of the Immaculate Conception. No matter we had a delicious meal and also got a chance to work on our Italian and spend some time with some nice folks in the bargain. Not a bad deal at all.

So Friday has been, as I say, lousy. Roberto had car trouble so we couldn’t do any exterior shooting today – with the bad weather it would have been a wash in any event. We did meet him at his cousin’s place, Peccati di Gola – where they make the absolutely best Ricciarelli in the city. I had decided that I wanted to put up a web page on his confections and pastries much like I did for Aimone and the Cantina and wine in Siena so we finally got a chance to see some Ricciarellis being made and I shot some video footage as well – why I have no idea but ya never know.

Oh and Susan tried her first batch of Ricciarelli the other day – they were delicious but different in texture, very much like an almond macaroon and not like the Senese Ricciarelli at all. I dubbed them Susanelli and I can’t wait for the next batch!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Holiday schedule of events in Siena

Selected schedule of events in Siena for the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season:

25 November-12 December - “Leggere e’ volare” (“To read is to fly”) – Market of children’s books, La Lizza gardens (by the fortezza).

25 November-5 March 2006 – “Siena e Roma” (Siena and Rome) – exhibition of the work of Raffaello and Caravaggio, Santa Maria della Scala – see

2-17 December – “Mercatina di Natale nel Tartugone” (Little Christmas Market in the Piazza Mercato, also known as the “Tartugone since the top of the pavilion looks like a tortoise shell); 16 December, a gospel choir will also perform here.

8 December-6 January 2006 – Mercatini di Natale (Christmas Market), Piazza Matteotti, Piazza Gramsci, Viale XXV April by the fortezza.

9 December – Music of Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Berg, at the Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Via Di Citta 89. See

12 December – Passage of the Olympic Torch through Siena; Piazza del Campo. See

13 December – Festival of Santa Lucia – crafts and local products for sale, Pian dei Mantellini.

16 December – Chigi Talent 2005 – Music of Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel et al. See

17 December-14 January – Ice skating in the La Lizza gardens.

18 December – Music of Franci, Beethoven. Santa Maria della Scala, Piazza Duomo. See

18 December – Antiques market in the Piazza Mercato.

20-23 December – Market and exhibition of art from the Congo. Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Nevi, Via Montanini.

28-29 December – The Little Prince, performed at the Teatro dei Rozzi, Piazza Independenza. See

30 December – Marching Band of Nebraska, a procession from the Porta Camollia to the Piazza del Campo.

31 December – concert by Carmen Consoli and Goran Bregovic, Piazza del Campo

1 January – Gospel concert with Michael Marshall and the Alabama Chorale, performed at the Teatro dei Rozzi, Piazza Independenza. See

Holiday season in Siena

It’s been rather quiet here for the past few days. I suppose it’s probably been because of the lousy weather that we have stayed pretty much close to home. It’s been pretty much rain for the past few days with occasional breaks of sunshine. Aside from the daily passegiata, or Sunday stroll down to Peccati di Gola for caffe we have really spent most of our time working on projects.

Susan brought along several bears to work on and is presently completing a design all her own: a candy cane bear made from – you guessed it – red and white mohair strips pieced together. It is really cute of course. Too bad she can’t get plugged into the craft community here this Christmas!

Although I’m presently without the big digital camera I’m managing to take a few photos now and then with my (lousy) little Nikon S1. Yesterday (Sunday) there was a unique demonstration put on by the local fire department (“vigili del fuoco”) on the Piazza del Campo.

They showed off their skill in falling from heights onto a large air bag, rather like Hollywood stuntmen I suppose, and also demonstrated their teamwork setting up a ladder and climbing it just about anywhere. In this case in the middle of the piazza! I did take some video of that and hope to use it to continue my practice on Apple’s Final Cut Express video editing software.

So little else is new but that is changing. There is a little market (“mercatino”) set up in the old market place for the holidays, just behind the Piazza del Campo. Some of the vendors appear to be from northern Europe, selling local food items (Germany and Austria) and holiday trinkets (Poland). It’s really quite nice actually. There is even a family down from Germany (we think) who run a Thai restaurant there and who are serving Thai food! Delicious! (Actually they serve Thai at one end and German at the other.) This little market will be replaced on 18 December by a market selling little pieces of antiquarian objects.

Another, much larger holiday craft market kicks off this Thursday at the other end of the town, and will stretch along Piazzas Matteotti and Gramsci on into the fortezza. Naturally we’ll check this out and get back to you.

In fact there are quite a few things going on in Siena this time of year., music concerts throughout the city as well as markets selling a wide variety of local items for the holiday season. There will also be ice skating available at the La Lizza gardens from 17 December through 14 January. I plan to put online here on the blog as well as on my website a complete listing of what is exactly going in Siena this holiday season.

And the lights are on in the city and it makes for a wonderful late evening stroll down the quiet streets, water glistening off the stones and showing the reflections of the overhead lights. Anyway, it’s pretty cool to be here really, bad weather (“maltempo”) or no.

Speaking of Germany, this weekend we head off to Germany to visit Christina and Glen in Giessen, just north of Frankfurt. The plan is for us to take an early morning train to Pisa, fly Ryanair to Frankfurt’s Hahn airport (a smaller satellite airport I’m told) and they will pick us up. We’ll spend a couple of nights with them and then on the 12th head into Frankfurt proper where we will try and catch all of the world-famous “frankfurter” attractions and stroll a bit before taking a bus to Hahn airport and spend the night at a nearby hotel. We’ll be ready to go for our return flight back to Pisa on the 13th. Should be a blast – I’m already getting geared up plenty of schnitzel.

Today the sun is out in bits and pieces so thought we’d take off for Florence on the bus. We’ll leave midday and spend the afternoon and early evening there, window shopping and enjoying their lights. We will probably have a bite of lunch somewhere off the main tourist track and then take an early bus back home. It is really quite the way to go, particularly when traffic inside Florence is now strictly limited, parking can be a real headache and you just never know about the weather right now. So hey sit back, relax and leaving the driving to, well, somebody else.

We hope to catch the Nature Train (“treno natura”) on Thursday and do some videtaping of this old steam locomotive as it wends it way through southern Tuscany. Friday we link up with Roberto to do videotaping of some exteriors for our Tuscan Voices project. We also hope to meet with his cousin Antonio Betti who owns and operates Peccati di Gola. Susan’s goal is to see how all those wonderful sweet things are made. My goal is to do for his shop what I did for Cantina in Piazza on my website. In fact my eventual hope is to turn my Siena site into a highly personalized and specialized guidebook of our experiences in Siena: that is on our experiences in wine, food, sweets, and unique handcrafted items.