Thursday, August 30, 2012

Italia, Days 6-7: Siena

I arrived in Siena on the morning of August 5 and waited for my host, Wilmer, to pick me up from the train station. Soon, he came rolling up in his white convertible, waving. Wilmer is a young doctor; he is finishing his residency for a specialization in psychiatry in Siena. He is also very social. For four years he was president of the Erasmus program, which I mentioned at the end of my last post. He has also worked as a tour guide, and knows the history and sights of Siena very well. That first morning I threw my backpack in the trunk of the convertible, and we stopped by the grocery so he could buy things for breakfast. After that we went to his apartment, where he made some espresso for me in a cup with the buildings of Siena painted on it. Wilmer is also an artist; while I drank my espresso I looked around at his oil paintings, which hang on the walls of his apartment.

Siena espresso

A few of Wilmer's paintings

The first day in Siena Wilmer and I went to the pool. It was extremely hot, so it was nice to be able to get wet, although I hid from the sun, lying on the grass under some trees and applying lots of sunscreen. I'm sure I got a few looks from other people at the pool, as my butt was bright red from the beach the day before. I talked to Wilmer and got to know him a little better, learning about his family and his interests. I would say that Wilmer is a friendly person, but not someone I would normally hang out with. I think he just has some different ideas about things than I do, maybe. I do know that Wilmer is probably the world's worst driver. He drives way too fast, and in the middle of the road, making one fear for their personal safety. It seems his attitude is that since he is a doctor and a really "cool" guy he can do anything he wants without consequences.

In any event, Wilmer is very good at showing people around Siena. The Palio di Siena is a famous horse race which takes place twice a year in the summer. It has been a tradition in Siena since the Middle Ages. The riders in the Palio represent the contrade, the districts of the city. These districts have existed since the middle ages, although over the years they were consolidated from 59 to only 17 today. The people of Siena identify strongly with their contrada. Each contrada has its own symbol, some of which include Eagle, Caterpillar, Little Owl, Snail, Giraffe, Crested Porcupine and Panther. During the season of the Palio, the different districts have big parties lasting for days. While I was in Siena, The Nicchio (Seashell) contrada was having a huge 10-day party, which Wilmer took me to. As I said, Wilmer used to be very involved in the Erasmus program, and at this time of year Erasmus students from all over Europe come to Siena to study Italian language before their Erasmus year in Italy. Each night while I was there, we met up with a group of recently arrived Erasmus students in the Piazzo del Campo and went together to the Palio party in the Nicchio contrada. There was food and drink, music and lots of people. It was fun to meet the Erasmus students; I talked with girls from Germany, Holland, Poland and Estonia.

See more about the Palio:

Piazza del Campo - Siena's most famous "square" and the location for the Palio races

My second day in Siena was my sight-seeing day. I got up at the crack of noon after being out late the night before, and headed into the center. Riding into the city on the bus, I had seen a store that looked like it had beads and jewelry, so I went back to it. It was a little shop run by a Bangladeshi man, and he had excellent prices. I bought a labradorite ring and a strand of rubies for a song. After the jewelry/bead shop I bought a tourist map and commenced my sight-seeing adventures. I went first to the Duomo di Siena, where I bought the all-inclusive ticket to visit the museum, cathedral, crypt and baptistry. In the museum, you can climb the tower, where there are great views of the city and surrounding region. Tuscany is definitely best seen from a high place; there is nothing to compare to that green and gold quilt spread out over rolling hills for miles and miles into the distance. The interior of the Duomo is quite impressive, and includes the famous pulpit carved by Nicola Pisano. The best part of the whole cathedral, in my opinion, is the Libreria Piccolomini, which houses some amazing illuminated manuscripts. The room itself is covered floor to ceiling with bright and detailed paintings and adornments.

Duomo floor: 
The she-wolf suckling twin brothers Romulus and Remus is an icon both of Rome and Siena.
This motif appears over and over in both cities.

more on this legend: Romulus and Remus

Nicola Pisano's pulpit

Beautiful altars in the baptistry

San Domenico

Piazzo del Campo, Palazzo Comunale

After the Duomo, I visited the Santuario di Santa Caterina and the Basilica de San Domenico, then walked back to Piazza del Campo and had a delicious calzone-type thing for a late lunch. I walked around the city some more, found a pretty hillside with benches and a nice view of the countryside, and rested for a while until it was time to meet up with Wilmer again and go to the contrada party. This was Sunday night and the last day of the 10-day party, so it was really winding down and not as crazy as the night before. I had fun hanging out with the Erasmus girls, and then another horrifying ride home in Wilmer's convertible. There is nothing like flying through the Siena night with a crazy Italian man, wondering whether you might die at any moment...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Italia, Days 4-5: Assisi - Pisa

In the morning, I felt a million times better. The mountains of the night before had disappeared and I saw only rolling hills ahead. I ate the free breakfast and chatted with some travelers from Scandinavia, then headed up to see the Basilica of St. Francis. Again, I arrived at the church quite early, so it was still very empty, and I had some quiet time just to sit, meditate and contemplate where I was and what I was doing. Assisi was an important destination for me - it is a very spiritual place, and the St. Francis prayer is my favorite prayer, so I really took my time here. The basilica is famous for its frescoes by many of the big names of the early Italian Renaissance, including Cimabue and Giotto. Pictures are not allowed inside the basilica, but I found one good picture of the interior online that I will include here. It shows the upper basilica, where the ceilings are painted a bright blue with golden stars.

Assisi is my favorite place that I visited on my trip to Italy. While it is totally quaint and beautiful, with all the Medieval buildings of the ancient city preserved, it lacks the throngs of tourists I found everywhere else. Instead, there are many monks and nuns who come here to visit the city and the tombs of St. Francis and St. Chiara. Although I am not religious and know very little about Catholicism, it still feels very comforting and peaceful to be surrounded by so many people of faith. I had such a quiet and relaxing day here. In addition to the Basilica of St. Francis, I also visited Santa Chiara, the church and burial place of one of St. Francis' followers, as well as San Damiano, the monastery restored and used by St. Francis.

So many beautiful views

Sculpture of St. Francis outside San Damiano

One of many shops with religious souvenirs for sale

Late in the afternoon, feeling rejuvenated after a tranquil day, I returned to my hostel to collect my backpack, and headed back to the train station to catch a train to Pisa. I decided to go to Pisa not so much to see the Leaning Tower, but because it is only a 20 minute bus ride from Pisa to the beach, and I really wanted to see the ocean - I believe I hadn't been to the beach since I was in Hawaii ten years ago! I arrived in Pisa around 10 pm and went straight to my hostel, where I got ready for bed. My roommates were really nice - one girl from Austria and the other from somewhere in the U.S., good friends. The girl from the U.S. had studied opera in Vienna, which was where the two had met. They were very friendly and gave me some good advice, especially to wear plenty of sunscreen - one of the girls had a bad sunburn from their day at the beach.

In the morning, I again woke up early and walked through the city to the Leaning Tower. Unfortunately I was too early to enter the church, but the buildings were very beautiful from the outside, and I took some nice pictures. After that, I bought some groceries and headed to the bus station to catch the bus to the sea. I was a little confused about where I wanted to go (I wanted to take a bus in the direction of Lavorno but not actually go to Lavorno (which I did). I had to turn around there and go back in the direction I had come for 30 minutes until I finally reached the beach at Tirrenia around noon. The beach was very crowded and full of men who walked around trying to sell things, which was irritating. Still, it was wonderful to be able to jump in the ocean. Typical of me, I failed to adequately heed the advice of my friendly hostel-mate of the night before, and while I did put on sunscreen, I only used SPF 20 and not the SPF 50 I had available. I also hopped in and out of the water, neglecting to re-apply. Then, I proceeded to doze for long periods of time on both back and front, resulting in a nasty lobster-colored sunburn that lasted several days.

 Piazza dei Cavalieri, Pisa

Despite the sunburn, it had been another relaxing day. It was nice to just lie around after several days of marathon sight-seeing. When I got back to Pisa, I found a nice little restaurant, where I had a delicious pizza and gelato before going back to the hostel. That night, I had another very nice roommate, a girl from Germany who was heading to Siena ( I was also headed to Siena the next day). She was going to study Italian language for one month before beginning her Erasmus year in Italy. Erasmus is a program for European university students, in which they spend one year studying in another country. I would meet many of these Erasmus students through my host in Siena, who had been the president of the program for four years. But that's for tomorrow...