Tuesday 19 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Twenty-Two - The Best of Tuscany

One of the tours I was set on doing was the Walkabout "Best of Tuscany Tour" which was based from Florence. When I was last in Italy I was only 13 and just remember snippets of Florence and Pisa. We didn't do much else in the surrounding Tuscan area and that was something I wanted to see on this trip. Initially I wasn't sure if we would be able to fit it in. This tour was a full day - 8:30am - 8:30pm - and we only had the one full day in Florence. I managed to find a solution by booking another day trip of Florence for Wednesday and selecting a later train to take us into Venice. It made for a busy Wednesday but allowed us to do the Tuscany tour on Tuesday.

The tour started at the Florence train station which was conveniently located close to our hotel. We were the first group to arrive meaning we got first choice on selecting seats! We met a few of our fellow travellers – a couple from Australia and another from Ohio so we made small talk until everyone else started showing up. It was almost a full bus but there were still a few empty seats allowing us to spread out a bit – maybe about 30-35 people total on the tour. The guide was really nice she was initially from Poland and now lives in Florence when she isn’t attending university in London.

The bus did a small loop around Florence and we were able to see a few of the other main sights, including a portion of the wall that used to surround the city. The guide gave us a brief history lesson about Florence and the surrounding area which was helpful. Florence was founded in 59BC by former soldiers given land from Julius Caesar which is why the city was built in similar fashion to an army camp. Over the next hundreds of years Florence was caught between various empires/rulers and was invaded and taken over numerous times. In 1861 it became part of the United Kingdom of Italy and was made the capital in 1865, however when Italy was officially unified in 1871 Rome became the new capital. 

The first stop of the tour was Siena, which was about an hour outside of Florence. Once we arrived in town the bus parked a bit outside the city walls and we met our local guide. The guide was an older woman who lived in Siena for most of her life.  She led us on a guided walking tour through the medieval city of Siena where many of the buildings were yellow-ochre with terracotta rooftops and green shutters. Something that interested me was that as we walked through the city certain areas had different flags on their buildings. The guide explained at these flags represented the “contrada” which are different districts within the city and that there were 17 in Siena that race in the Palio di Siena.  The Palio has been going on for over 600 years and is a horserace that takes place in Piazza del Campo (the main city square) two times a year on July 2 and August 16. Out of the 17 racers representing the various city districts only 10 ride in the race and jockeys are given a horse through some sort of draw. In the morning of the race the horses are taken to a church to be blessed by a priest and then over 50,000 people gather in the Piazza – however there are actually only 1000 reserved seats! It can be a dangerous race and often jockeys are thrown from their horse but whatever horse crosses the finish line first wins regardless of if the jockey is with them or not. The city is decorated in these various flags and the spectators wear clothes and colors that represent the wards.  There are festive banquets both the night before and the day of and it has become a tourist attraction that brings many people to Siena each summer.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo during the horse racing - not my photo!
The first place we stopped was at the Palazzo Salimbeni which was the oldest bank in Siena still in operation from the medieval period. At this point the guide spent some time explaining the history of Siena which was settled between 900-400BC. Over the years it was part of various counties and like many parts of Europe often under siege.  Afterward we walked up to Piazza del Campo where the guide pointed out the main sights and how they related to the Palio race. The square was interesting – with old beautiful buildings surrounding it. It was hard to imagine the square full off people and the horseraces, but the guide showed us some photos which were remarkable. Dad has decided at some point he wants to come back for the races one summer.

The building to the left is the bank 
The guide led us up to the Siena Cathedral which was a mostly uphill walk and was tough! I had decided to wear a long dress that day and was thankful I swapped my sandals for running shoes. We passed through a few small residences and it was interesting to see how the medieval buildings were now apartments.  It started to rain once we reached the Cathedral but fortunately we had tickets which allowed us to get immediate access. The cathedral was built between 1215 – 1263 and was beautiful. Inside we were able to see the marble mosaic floor which covers the entire cathedral. Forty artists contributed to creating the 56 panels and the floor was amazing! We were lucky to be able to see it as it is only uncovered for six-ten weeks each year. The rest of the time only a few panels are on display with the rest covered up.  My favorite part of the cathedral was the Piccolomini Library which has colorful frescoes that adorn the walls and ceilings. It was a wonderful room and I could have spent hours in it just walking around and looking at the artwork.

Piccolomini Library 

This is where our tour ended and we had some free time to see Siena. We walked back to the Piazza del Campo and had a coffee at one of the cafes. We spent a bit of time looking in the shops and I bought a few postcards. We met our group an hour later and our main tour guide led us back to where the bus was parked. This was another uphill trek and exhausting! I felt bad for two older ladies who really struggled with the walk, but the guide modified the rest of the stops for them during the rest of the trip.

We drove through the Tuscan countryside to our next stop which was Fattoria Poggio Alloro a Chianti Vineyard. It was an organic family run winery and farm which we got to visit for a tour, wine tasting and lunch. The tour led us through the vineyards, the barn and the room where the wine is produced. We learned the history of the estate which was formed by three brothers in the 1970’s and is still a family run business. Our lunch was delicious as it was a traditional Tuscan meal that included homemade pasta, homemade prosciutto, salami, local cheeses, a garden salad and biscotti. They served four wines – a white, two reds, and a desert wine. I didn’t try the reds but found the whites to be enjoyable. The olive oil served was also made on-site and dad enjoyed it so much he ordered 5 liters to be shipped home. The views from the winery were phenomenal and are ones that will stick with me forever as Tuscany is an amazing region.  

After our lunch we drove to the hilltop town of San Gimignano which was only 10 minutes away. San Gimignano is a small, walled medieval town that is famous for its medieval towers and buildings.  In 1348 the black death killed half the townsfolk and after that there was hardly any development which is why the town remains much like it was in the 1300’s. From where the bus dropped us off it was a 5 minute walk to the main city walls and then another 10 minute walk to the main city center. The guide recommended that we have gelato at an award winning shop which we did. The line was out the doorway and into the square and the staff spoke limited English, but Dad’s Italian came in handy! It was the best gelato I have ever tasted, and I was glad we listened to the guide.

The town is full of winding streets and squares so Dad took off to explore and Brian planned to climb one of the towers. I spent a few minutes in the square talking to some of the other people from the tour and one of the women decided she was going to stick with me. She wanted to find something for her daughter who was around my age and thought I could be of help. We spent our free time wandering in and out of shops before she was finally able to find something she liked. This meant my free time was eaten up, but I didn’t mind. I met Brian on the way back but we split up again because he wanted to look in one other store. We ended up being the last two to the meeting place but luckily the bus wasn’t there yet.

Once back on the bus it took us on a scenic drive through more of the Tuscan countryside which was gorgeous. We passed through a few small towns, including Volterra which was one of the settings of the Twilight books. That made me laugh as I can only imagine the amount of teenage girls who flocked there once the movie came out!

Our final stop was Pisa where we got to see the Leaning Tower, Cathedral and Baptistery. I had been here before when I was 13 and not much has changed – it is still leaning! The area in which you get into the Leaning Tower has been changed in recent years so buses aren’t able to park nearby. We were fortunate and were able to take a tram so that saved us a mile walk. We were given free time to explore the area so Brian and I took a bunch of photos including the typical tourist ones! In order to get into the cathedral or baptistery you had to pay, so we just saw them from the outside. After our free time we were able to do a tour of the main historic area of Pisa, which was different. Aside from the tower/tourist area there isn’t much to see – it’s a university town and seems very run down.

The drive back took just over an hour and it was just after 8:00pm when we arrived. The entire tour was 12 hours and it was definitely worth every penny. The guide was amazing, the scenery was fantastic and the sights/lunch were awesome. It was the best tour of the trip and I suggest adding it to the list if ever in Florence.

Once back in the city we walked over to a street vendor and bought an extra suitcase.... it was much needed at this point. We stopped at a restaurant across the street and had dinner which was really good, then we returned to the hotel. I had put in a sweater and a pair of jeans to be washed at the hotel and when I picked them up only the jeans were returned. The hotel had no idea what had happened to it and said they would call the laundry service they used in the morning. It was a little annoying but it was an older sweater so I didn’t worry about it.

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