Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Our Italian Adventure: Part Tre - Trailblazing in Tuscany


Wifey's lunch: large chunks of porcini mushrooms!
   What Tuscan holiday would be complete without a trip to the university town of Pisa? Pisa is a convenient train ride away from Florence. No prior planning is needed. Purchase a ticket at one of the ticketing machines at the Santa Maria Novella station and you'll be on your way. We arrived at the Pisa station and made our way across the Arno River into the historical part of the city. Stopping for lunch, it is here that the wifey had her first taste of cantuccini. This consists of twice baked (to harden and dry the dough) cookies (also known as biscotti) which is dipped into sweet desert wine and eaten as a desert. We were expected to finish the wine as well. However, even the wifey, who usually could down a few glasses, found it tough to finish the alcohol.
    Pisa is in fact a quaint town worth spending some time exploring. However most people would head straight to the it's main attraction - the "leaning tower" in the Piazza del Duomo. The attractions in the Piazza include the Cathedral, Baptistery, the Campo Santo (walled cemetery), and of course the leaning Campanile (or bell tower). Don't bother fighting for space to take pictures immediately when you reach the Piazza. A better vantage point can be found behind the tower, in front of the ticket office and gift shop. In fact, this little piece of meadow doubles as an excellent picnic spot.
View from the 2nd floor of the Baptistery.
     The entrance to the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St. John) directly faces the cathedral. It has been suggested that this symbolized the welcome of the initiate into fellowship with the rest of the congregation after the ritual of Baptism. A fact that many tourist would miss, is that every half an hour, a guard will demonstrate the excellent acoustics of the Baptistery by calling out from the center of the monument. It was indeed a eye-opener (ear-opener?) when his voice traversed around and around the vast interior. It was as if a choir of angels were present - yet all originating from the vocals of one person.
Guard demonstrating the excellent acoustic quality.
    We spent the rest of the day walking through the town, enjoying a cup of cappuccino, and dog-watching (the dogs here are more entertaining than the humans). 

    Choosing Florence as our base was a strategic decision. This allowed us to venture out to the rest of the Tuscan countryside (besides Pisa). We duly booked a day trip to explore the rest of this picturesque region. On the way out we even traveled through the Carrara region and witness the white mountains where Michelangelo sourced his marble. I'll let the photos speak for themselves...

San Gimignano

    This walled medieval town is famous for its towers. It is not surprising that San Gimignano is also known as the Manhattan of the medieval world. Wealthy families sought to outdo each other in this extravagant show of affluence.
Towers in the background.
View from the fortress at the top of the town.
Raw white truffles. And they are REALLY CHEAP!
We'll go truffle hunting next time.

Chianti Region 

    We were introduced to the region of Chianti and it's wines (the Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, and the Super Tuscan). The best Chianti wines are labelled with a Black Rooster. Legend has it that in the 13th Century, rival cities Siena and Florence decided to end their war with a race. Two soldiers were to race at dawn (when their rooster crows) from their respective cities. The meeting point was to be the border. The Florentines kept a black rooster in a box for days without food. On the appointed dawn, this rooster sang out much earlier (supposedly from hunger). Thus the Florentine soldier set off much earlier. In fact, the two met only 20 km from the Siena's walls, handing a resounding victory to Florence.


Flags of the 17 Contrade.
    This city has been a long-time rival of Florence. Besides militarily, they competed for influence over trade and culture. Unfortunately for it, it lost out eventually. Nevertheless, I feel that the Duomo here (although never completed according to the original grand blueprint) beats that in Florence. Siena also has something that Florence will never have - the annual Palio de Siena. This is a bareback horse race dating back to medieval days. Riders representing seventeen Contrade (city neighbourhoods originally formed as battalions for defence. Reminds of the "districts" in Hunger Games) vie for a trophy (a painted banner with the image of Virgin Mary).
Town hall and Piazza del Campo in front of it.
The Duomo
Grand interior.
Siena - centre of Italy (or so it fancies itself)
Besides the Palio, Siena is also known for its art (i.e. the Sienese School)


    This was our final medieval town of the day. We first spotted the town from a distance. It's imposing walls rose from the horizon like something out of the Lord of the Rings. The coach pulled into the parking lot and we had to make our way up a somewhat winding road to the top of the hill. This was where the town of Monteriggioni sat. When we finally reached the town walls, it didn't look that intimidating. In fact, the town proved much smaller than we thought at first. The little piazzas that dotted this place gave it a fairy tale-like atmosphere. It was almost "dainty".
Last stop.
    Here ends our adventure in Tuscany. Next, we were on to Milan. Stay tune...

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