The Athena Hotel was a dream from the start. The views from our room and the terrace of the hotel were spectacular and everything you’d ever imagined about the Tuscan countryside.
Our first night we sank into smooth crisp sheets and basked in the luxury of a bed after our overnight flight on the previous day. Breakfast was a surprise with more than the usual Italian fare that we’d experienced before. There was scrambled eggs as well as the thin sliced meats and cheeses and pastries that we’d had in previous stays in Italy. And most importantly, the coffee was good.
We walked to the Piazza del Campo in the middle of town and found the office of My Tours that we’d seen advertised at our hotel and I’d found while researching TripAdvisor. We signed up for three tours, a walking tour to start at eleven and then a tour the next day to a walled city and after that a dinner at a winery in the country.
Our walking tour guide for Siena was Maria who happened to be from South America with some family connection to Australia but was married to an Italian. She spoke very good English and we were able to understand her quite well.
She began the tour by talking quite extensively about the horse races that take place in the Piazza del Campo twice a year. I had done a post on them here previously so I knew quite a bit of what she was talking about. I had no idea however how small the area was where the races took place. As she talked, I tried to imagine 30,000 people squeezed into the center area of the piazza and the horses trying to make the small curves and inclines as they raced around with or without riders. You see, even if the rider falls off, the horse is still in the race.
Further along in our tour, she took us to one of the stables and explained how each horse had their own place in one of the seventeen sections of the city. They were heavily guarded when chosen to run and the rider and the horse would be led to the race course several times to practice surrounded by “guardians” who would make sure nothing happened to either of them. All of this ceremony and work twice a year just to win the privilege of having the banner in their section’s museum. I’m assuming there is probably a little horse betting on the side although that wasn’t mentioned.
Along the street by the stable we paused to look out over the city to the Basilica of San Domenico, the church where the relics of St. Catherine lie. The head of the saint was on display as well as a thumb. There was some discussion about how the head came to be separated from the body but it seems it was not that she was beheaded but rather it occurred naturally after her death. The thumb was on display because at one point in time it was said her hands bled spontaneously in the same spots where nails would have been put into Christ’s hands.
We continued on to the Duomo which is the overpowering structure of Siena. A huge black and white striped tower can be seen from most every point in the city. When we reached the Duomo, Maria got our tickets for entry as well as tickets for those who wanted to see the crypt. Of course Bob and his brother did.
Maria explained that it was fortunate our visit fell when there were no services in the cathedral because we would be able to see the marbled artwork in the floor. During services it is covered to prevent wear.
The Duomo courtyard had on one end a wall that signified where the original cathedral was to end. We were actually standing in what should have been the sanctuary if the cathedral had been built to the size originally intended. Because of wars and money, the original plan was resized in order to actually finish a building. Once inside though, I could not imagine how it could have been any more spectacular.
There were all sorts of colored marble making up the mosaics and the columns in the Duomo. The green marble Maria said would actually look different at different times of the day as the light played on it. She took us around pointing out other places inside we could explore if we wanted to stay longer and then she left us to go our own way.
We decided it was time for lunch and found a little restaurant on a side street and had some unusual but apparently quite common soup. It was a tomato, basil, garlic soup that was thickened with bread—thick enough that you could have eaten it with a fork rather than a spoon. It had a good taste and was very filling. By the way, most restaurants will affix a cover charge to your bill. We assumed that meant a tip was not necessary.
Fortified, we went back up the steps to find the crypt and the museum of the Duomo. The museum had quite a lot of religious paintings of the time but what I found fascinating was the display of huge books of hand copied music with all the beautiful and delicate painting to accompany the writing. Painstaking work.
The crypt was not what the boys expected it to be (no bodies) but it was quite interesting. Ancient frescoes were well preserved on the walls. We wandered around and peered through the glass covered holed in the floor that showed that the excavation of the crypt went down several more levels.
The baptistry of the Duomo was an interesting place as well. You had to be baptized before you could worship in the cathedral so it was a separate building but attached to the Duomo. People were using large mirrors provided on the pews to look at the paintings on the ceiling but a few were standing behind the baptistry and looking at the wall with the mirror. We never did figure out what we were supposed to see there if anything.
Up and down the streets of Siena, we wound our way back to the hotel for a rest. The walking was not easy for those of us who normally walk on level ground. To our dismay, we found that most of the restaurants did not open until seven for dinner so we were quite prompt when we arrived later at the place the guys had chosen to eat. It turned out to be one of the best meals I had during our stay. My gnocchi was potato based and stuffed with a very mild sausage. It was accompanied by a nice sauce and veggies and some deep fried kale that I absolutely love. I need to find out how to make it.
By the time we made our way back to our rooms, we were ready for bed. A little jet lag and a lot of leg work—I only hoped our late dinner wouldn’t keep us up. It didn’t.