July 2002by Anne-Marie & Glenn
After a week in Umbria, it was hard to say good-bye to the rolling hills and misty valleys of Italy's Il cuore verde - Italy's green heart. We departed Perugia with our hearts heavy Saturday morning, but we knew Tuscany, with its own medieval towns, vibrant people and coastal villages, lay ahead.
Glancing around the packed Piazza del Campo, we realized there might be a slight problem with our plan...
The drive from Perugia to Tuscany's enchanting city of Siena had taken us most of the morning and we had arranged to meet Anne-Marie's sister Patricia "in the main square." Much to our surprise the 1,000-mile "Mille Miglia," a classic auto race from Brescia to Rome and back, was in high gear, in the middle of the city! The competition was drawing to a close near Siena and the square was packed with nearly 2,000 cheering, clapping fans. "Well, when in Rome…, or in this case, Siena," we thought and shouted with the crowds as the vintage cars with their dashing drivers decked out in leather helmets thundered past.
We somehow spotted Patricia and after a happy reunion the three of us climbed the stairs to a second-story Trattoria overlooking the square. From our new vantage point above the crowds, we ordered lunch then peaked out through the window boxes of bright pink geraniums and sat back to enjoy the scene. Busloads of French school children explored the shell-shaped city center and gathered at the square's magnificent fountain. Peachy-pink, white, green and red Gothic and Romanesque buildings from the 11th and 12th centuries, several with striking marble facades and priceless frescos, frame the square. Medieval walls still surround the town and the history held within could capture any visitor for weeks.
Siena, south of Florence in the center of Tuscany, is one of the region's most fascinating medieval cities. The city is made up of 17 contrattas, or neighborhoods, which one enters through an elaborate gate. Earlier, on our way to the main square, we passed through the porcupine gate, the dragon and the white goose gates. We discovered that in Siena, a person's contratta defines who you are, and it used to be that few people married outside of their neighborhood. The Sienese live very close to their history and we found that they were some of the proudest people we met during our two weeks in Italy.
Anne-Marie's sister, who lives on a farm one hour south of Siena, treated us to a small taste of the region's history over our typically Tuscan lunch. The region is known for its use of fresh local produce and local cheeses served in simple dishes with olive oil and fresh herbs. Our delicious lunch of antipasto and vegetable ravioli was a perfect fit to our first Tuscan afternoon. Patricia lives in the Grosseto area where she and her Italian husband have worked their family farm for 20 years. They keep about 35 goats from which they produce goat cheese they sell at the region's artisans markets. Patricia presented us with a wedge of the delectably pungent cheese and after a wonderful afternoon together, we sadly said good-bye.
Outside the city gates, the land quickly opened up into ancient vineyards and olive groves. After a short drive, we reached the tiny villa where we were to spend the next two nights, then walked down the hill to the nearby village for dinner. Although we should have been surprised when the proprietor of the small restaurant embraced us, kissed us and led us to a table, we found we were getting used to this sort of hospitality in Tuscany. Dining on a dish of simple roast pork cooked in rosemary, along with pasta, we imagined we could feel Tuscany pulsing through our veins like the robust Tuscan wine.
If it's Sunday, it must be San Gimignano. Early Sunday morning we headed for the hilltop town of San Gimignano, arriving just as the rain let up and sun broke through the clouds. The ancient town seemed kissed with the early morning light and sparkled with leftover raindrops. Thirteen towers rise above San Gimignano's medieval walls like ancient skyscrapers and a labyrinth of narrow streets wind haphazardly around them. We climbed up the hill to the main plaza, the Piazza del Duomo, to get our bearings then set out to explore every street in the fascinating town. For hours we popped in and out of local markets that sold salamis and multi-colored pastas, drifted into leather shops filled with shoes, coats and bags and searched through art shops offering brilliant paintings of cypress- and poppy-laden landscapes. Glenn couldn’t resist a beautiful watercolor of the Italian countryside that she spotted in one of the shops and bought it straight from the artist.
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