Saturday, June 14, 2014

Touring Tuscany: Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa

How do you pack nearly 9,000 square miles of history and art into a single day? With a big bus and a couple of very animated guides.

Not me. But what I was afraid of.
Friday we signed on for a bus tour of Tuscany with Walkabout Tours, a small tour company that has carved a niche with very entertaining people and out-of-the-box ideas.  One of their other tours assigns people to tiny pre-1970s Fiat 500s. The guide drives in front and the tourists zip through Florence in line behind them, ala The Italian Job (with cuter cars).

We have been avoiding bus tours here and elsewhere for years.  We had a vision of a mobile geriatric ward of ornery old folk.  OK, so I'm an ornery old fart now -- but I didn't want to live the stereotype.

As it turned out, the tour drew people of all ages, from kids to a few older than us. Lots of 50-something couples. And an incredible on-bus guide, Elisa. (If we didn't like her, she said to write about her as "Christine."). Elisa was Florentine, but spent years in London with her Spanish husband (I got lost there, too). She managed to weave textbook history into a multi-cultural patter that kept smiles on every face. During the last few miles of the trip, she walked up the aisle to talk to each passenger about the trip.

The tour went from Florence to Siena, then to a winery and farm near San Gimignano for lunch, a pop over to San Gimignano and then on to Pisa.

Siena is often considered the most beautiful town in Italy. Especially by the Sienese -- and never by the Florentines. Florence was the capital of the wool trade and then went into high finance.  Sienna skipped the sheep and went straight to banking. Allegedly, they took their money-changing skills to London, where they asked passing Brits to come over to their banco -- workbench  or counter.

Olivia explains Sienna
That's one of the many stories told with eye-rolling gusto by Olivia, our Siena guide. I could be happy skipping the antiquities and just watching Olivia for the day. Her hands pumped more air than an aerobics instructor's.

Sienna's cathedral and inside its dome.
Siena won the major military battle of the medieval age, but lost the commercial war in the 19th century. Between those dates they put together a city that makes even major art museums look second class. The order of the Siena-Florence wars gets some credit. Siena had hundreds of years as the wealthy victor in which it could lavish its riches on the art world.  When it finally lost, there were no bombs or pillaging -- just deficits in those work benches.  That left the opportunity to recoup by inviting tourists and their euros into town.

The cathedral
Siena is picture perfect. Not just in the postcard way, but as if a team of designers who would later work for Architectural Digest had control of the town. Every bit of the artwork seems to fit exactly with every other bit. Stepping inside of the cathedral is like watching a great scene in a Francis Ford Coppola film.  All the lines converge perfectly and every color merely accents all the other colors. Look up inside the dome and you would swear you see hundreds of carved and gilded panels -- yet it is really a tasteful illusion,  painted with masterful 3-D perspective.

Onward! Better yet, onward to lunch.

We wound through the Tuscan hillsides to an organic farm/winery within sight of the San Gimignano towers.  The old town once had more than 70 tall towers -- a sign of wealth in medieval days.  Even with the 14 left, its skyline lives up the its nickname of "The Wall Street of Tuscany." We had a hillside view of that skyline as we ate fine pasta and cured meats and drank wine.  Lots of wine. A San Gimignano-local white, a chianti, and Tuscan red and finally sweet Vin Santo into which we dipped our cantuccini cookies.
San Gimignano.  Cecile has become a wiz at panoramic photos with her iPhone.  I just have to stand still and wait.
A very happy crowd boarded the bus for the short ride to San Gimignano.  Its tiny by tourist-town standards (pop. 7,000) and all contained within massive stone walls.  It's pretty, but I think all of those 7,000 people are in the shops and stalls along the medieval lanes, selling ceramics, leather, artwork and trinkets for every budget. We spent more time than usual inside those shops because a sudden thunderstorm dumped a deluge on all the folks with expensive cameras.

Finally, a longer trip to Pisa, with scenery unremarkable enough the we could take naps without guilt.

A little to the right.  No left...
Pisa is a gritty manufacturing and maritime city with white marble heart that is instantly recognizable in the western world.  It's tourist central.  Your bus parks on the outskirts and you board a German-made Tschu-Tschu "train" that carts you through the streets to the epicenter of leaning monument land.

I did it.  And yes, I'm proud...
Elisa reassured us that it was not only OK, but expected that we each take a "cheesy" photo of ourselves holding up the tower.  She even gave us photo hints. Once we got to the central piazza, there were hundreds of people on lawns and walks, holding their hands up, kicking a leg up karate-style or leaning into nothing.

I, of course, couldn't resist.  So here is my Pisa with extra cheese.

There are two major surprises about Pisa.  First, almost every building leans. The cathedral square is on squishy ground, so it looks a bit like Bacchus drew the blueprints.

Pisa cathedral for all artistic tastes
Second, pizzas taste good, but Pisa isn't big on good taste.  This has been a hustling commercial city for centuries (the Roman's called it the "old city.") It has the same new money feel of Dallas -- "I've got cash -- what can I put my name on."

Unlike in Siena, the cathedral in Pisa is a mishmash of millennial styles. The nave has a Byzantine back dome surrounded by Renaissance paintings overlooking a 21st century abstract altar piece.  And there is a saint in a glass coffin over to one side. Maybe it is the leaning, but it also seemed that none of the lines in the church matched up.

So I've seen Pisa.  'Nuff said.

We had a pleasant ride back to Florence, where we walked from the bus station to Piazza della Signoria for a light supper at an outdoor cafe near the Medici's sculpture garden. A street musician played classical guitar while the Palazzo Vecchio loomed over us and the nearly full moon rose.



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