We had a quick stopover in Milan, highlighted by unexpectedly ending up at the finish line of the Giro d’Italia. We discovered that bike races are very fun.
We’re in love with our hotel in Siena, Palazzo Ravizza. We walk up four flights of stairs to our loft suite, which has a slanted roof, gigantic skylights and a dormer window overlooking the Tuscan countryside, as well as a huge bathroom decorated in white and crimson Italian tile. Our breakfast every morning includes fresh mozzarella and sliced tomatoes, drizzled with a hint of olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano, as well as freshly brewed cappuccinos. The front desk staff are incredibly friendly, especially Ario, who’s helped us rent a car, recommended restaurants, and suggested wine for us. I did the math. It would cost only slightly more for me to rent a room here on a monthly basis rather than to rent my apartment in San Francisco. Tempting.
The taxi dropped us off at a remote Tuscan bed and breakfast, weeds and wildflowers lining the driveway. As we got out of the car, we saw a tall woman in a pristine white chef’s jacket walking towards us, carrying handfuls of fresh herbs. She introduced herself as Gina and led us into an old mill which had been converted to a one room kitchen/rec room for the family that owned the bed and breakfast. Exposed stone and high ceilings greeted us. We introduced ourselves to the others: couples from Minneapolis, New York, and Austin.
We snacked on fresh lava beans and soft, fresh pecorino cheese while waiting for the class to begin.
Conversation flowed easily among us. We prepared dessert first, a “sweet salami” that contained crushed crackers (like animal crackers), sweet and unsweetened cocoa, butter, sugar, sweet wine, which we mixed all together and refrigerated. When we rolled it out, it looked like salami, though certainly didn’t taste like it. Each of us volunteered for tasks as we prepared what would turn out to be an amazingly delicious, yet simple, lunch.
Everyone had jobs –
There were enough tasks to keep people busy, but not too much work to prevent us from chatting and enjoying wine as we cooked. A few hours later, we sat beneath a covered picnic table and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
We awoke Thursday morning, our only goal for the day to see the Duomo di Siena and to wander throughout the walled city of Siena. We successfully accomplished both. Walking into the Duomo is like walking into the inspiration for Tim Burton’s movies. There are soaring columns of black and white striped marble reaching to the heavens.
It’s hard to remember to look at the floor, which is said to be the most impressive feature of the cathedral and contains dozens of inlaid marble scenes. My eyes continually were pulled upward, the majestic domes covered in blue and gold stars, the busts of over 500 popes flanking the edge of the ceiling. The library, with its colorful oversized choir books on display, mesmerized us. We were transported to a time well before the printing press was invented, staring at a few large notes calligraphied on each page.
We climbed stairs (one of my favorite things to do) to take in an expansive view of the area around the Duomo.
We viewed more religious artwork than either of us had seen in our entire lives combined. And we wandered. Turned down this street and that. Saw a small alley and followed it to its end. Suddenly surprised with a breathtaking view of the countryside as we rounded a corner and peered over the wall of the city. We stopped for lunch, dining al fresco at a restaurant chosen because it had orange tablecloths – what better criteria to choose a restaurant?
And then, gelato in the afternoon, a delightful combination of tiramisu and coffee (because she made a face and refused to serve me when I ordered tiramisu and coconut, saying they don’t go together).
We spent the late afternoon on the patio of our hotel, sharing a carafe of wine (and complimentary potato chips), writing postcards and learning more about the region. We really couldn’t have asked for a better first day in Siena.
Danielle missed her connection in Germany. The last message I got from her was “Trying to catch 12:15 plane. See you at train station in Roma.”
The cafe where we had agreed to meet at the Rome Termini had shut down. I decided to wait at the end of the platform, hoping she would choose to walk that way. A train arrived from the airport every half an hour. She wasn’t on the first. Nor the second. I wondered if she had made her flight, or would be arriving much later. The third train arrived. There she was! We had missed our train to Siena, so stood in line to see if we could either get a credit or rebook. The agent looked at our tickets. “No good.” “Okay. Could we rebook for a later train?” He pulled up a schedule, scribbled a time on the paper, and said, “Be on this one.” “Can we use these tickets?” I asked. He nodded. “Do we need to pay more?” He shook his head. We walked away, not really sure what had happened, but knowing we had an hour to pass before boarding the train to Firenze/Siena.
On the train, Danielle mentioned that it seemed strange that we were going to Firenze then back down to Siena. I thought for a moment. Yes, that was strange. We took out our tickets. Oh. They didn’t say Firenze. They said, Chiusi-Chianchiano. Then transfer to a train to Siena. We looked at each other questioningly. Were we on the wrong train? We pulled up the trenitalia iPad app. We googled train maps. We brought out guidebooks. We couldn’t figure it out. The ticket collector came by. I looked up at him, with what might have been a little bit of panic in my eyes, and said, “I think we’re on the wrong train.” He smiled and took our tickets. “Oh, no. You’re fine. You get off at Chiusi-Chianchiano. Three more stops.”
We relaxed and got our bags down from the overhead compartments. At Chiusi-Chianchiano, we waited for the train to Sienna, surprised when a single car showed up. We boarded, along with a handful of others, and started the ride through the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
We arrived to our hotel around 9:45 pm. Hungry from the journey, we headed to the closest restaurant after dropping off our bags in our room, a loft at the top of the pensione. Maybe it was because we were hungry, but I don’t think so. Each meal seems to be getting better and better. We started with a plate of salumi, mozzarella, rocket, and bruschetta, followed by two plates of delicious pasta. Danielle had a spicy gnocchi in tomato and meat sauce and I had a combo of our waiter’s two favorite dishes, gnocchi in a special green sauce, and rigatoni with meat sauce. The tables were close together and we bonded with the couple next to us over discussing the merits of amaretto vs. grappa (amaretto wins, hands down).
After dinner, we thought a short walk would do us good, before falling into bed. We stumbled down an alley and both of us gasped as we entered the piazza. It is enormous, flanked on one side by a city hall. Tonight there was a smattering of activity at the restaurants along the edge. I can’t wait to go back during the day and see it in all its splendor.
A friend recommended a restaurant to try in Rome, Ristorante Santa Cristina. I found it on Google maps and noticed it wasn’t far from my hotel. On Monday night I set out to eat there. After an hour and a half of wandering and turning down this small street and that, I still couldn’t find it. It was as though I was engaged in a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, but without anyone to guide me, “Warm!” “Cold!” I ended up eating at what I imagine to be the Italian version of a diner. The lasagna was good and the wine sweet, but I longed for the love of family style cooking at Ristorante Santa Cristina.
On Tuesday night I studied the map again and saw my mistake. I was determined to find it. I would. I set out and after an hour of circling, I found it. It was down a tiny alley with a street sign almost invisible. I walked in, the restaurant having just opened. “Table for one?” I asked. “Do you have a booking?” A frown began to form on my face. “No… But I’ll come back. I’ll take whatever time slot you have.” She looked at her book. “You can eat now, or come back in three hours.” I chose to eat now, knowing that I had to be out in an hour and 45 minutes so that they could prepare my table for the next reservation. I scanned the menu and ordered.
Primi: ziti with fried zucchini blossoms. The pasta was perfectly al dente, the zucchini blossoms amazingly crisp, in a light cream sauce.
Secondi: mixed seafood platter. Tasty morsels of grilled salmon, cod, sea bass, king prawns, and langoustine.
Side: mixed fennel, peas, and beans. Cooked just right. Washed down with a half carafe of the house red wine. It was well worth the two days of searching. Buon appetito!