Under the Tuscan sun… All sorts of wonderfully cliqued images are conjured up for me when I think about Tuscany. Rolling green countryside with golden vineyards dotted in between, long lazy lunches on beautiful patios sipping chilled white wine and eating delicious breads and cheese… My imagination runs wide! Taking the opportunity to escape some of hustle and bustle of Florence meant that we were able to see more of the Tuscan countryside, on a day trip jam packed with the best of Tuscany.
Siena… The first stop of our tour and quite possibly my favourite town of all. I loved the phenomenal history of this medieval town that still follows so many of its traditions today. The one that struck me the most was the Palio, a historic horse race that takes place twice a year on 2 July and 16 August and has been since the 1600’s. As our guide (a local Senese) explained to us, it’s hard for outsiders to understand the passion, pride and dedication attached to this horse race. Twice a year, the town prepares for this incredible event where 10 of the 17 contradas (districts) come together in an enormous spectacle where there is no second place or third place – you either win or there is nothing. On the day of the Palio the riders are assigned their horses and dressed up in the colours of their cantrada, they race bareback, three nerve rackingly tricky laps of the Piazza del Campo (square). Thousands of people cram themselves into the square to watch the 60 seconds it takes for the race to be run and the first horse, rider or no rider, wins the race! The horses are the stars of the show and also attend a Mass held in each contrada where they are blessed and sent off with the words “Go out and return victorious!” The prize is the sacred Palio, an embroidered tapestry in honour of the Virgin Mary and of course, pride. The victorious district will celebrate for a month or two and decorate their streets with their flags and colours as a sign of pride in winning the cherished Palio.
Siena is a breathtakingly beautiful town and the little cobbled streets are fit for a postcard. As part of our tour we were able to visit the Gothic-style Duomo di Siena, a beautiful cathedral built in 1215. The floor of this cathedral is a masterpiece, decorated with 56 magnificent mosaics etched and inlaid in marble to create a beautiful story. Only a few of these panels are on display all year round with the very precious ones only being uncovered for a few weeks in September. As the Palio has just been run, we were lucky enough to see more of these masterpieces as they are uncovered in honour of the special event.
Top Tip: If you plan on visiting cathedrals, be sure to take something to cover your shoulders with (I was sporting a very sexy paper poncho for our visit!)
After building up an appetite in Siena, we stopped at Fattoria Poggio Alloro wine farm where we enjoyed tour of the farm, followed by a true Tuscan style lunch with delicious breads, cheese and pasta paired with wine while overlooking the countryside and our next stop, San Gimignano (a name I still struggle to pronounce!) The best part of this lunch was the biscotti and desert wine and the trick is to dip the biscotti into the wine to let it soak up all the delicious sweet flavours before eating it 🙂
After lunch we headed to the Manhattan of Tuscany, San Gimignano, famous for its towered skyline – with each tower serving as a symbol of a family’s wealth and prestige. Only 13 towers remain but in the 14th century, it’s thought that there were around 72 towers and as these cost a great deal of time and money to build, the higher your tower the more important you were! Walking through the streets of this town is like stepping back in time as so much of the original medieval architecture still stands. We were promised the “world’s best” gelato here so despite our indulgent lunch, we could not resist trying this highly sort-after treat – but after finding a less than desirable addition to my ice cream, it didn’t quite live up to award-winning in my book!
Our third and final destination for the day was Pisa. It was also the longest leg of the trip and after a big lunch and a fair amount of wine, it was a good opportunity to take a nap! Despite the heat it had been threatening to rain for most of the day and we arrived in Pisa just in time for a torrential downpour. By the time we dove for cover on a tiny ledge of the Cathedral, we were soaked – a welcome treat after the humid heat though! I don’t want to say that I was disappointed by Pisa or the Leaning Tower – it is a truly phenomenal piece of architecture – but I do think that photos can often tell a very different story and I think what I had expected what quite different to the reality. I think this is the only time on our travels where the reality didn’t exceed my expectations. What I did learn that I never knew, was that Pisa is actually a bustling university town (it reminded me of Stellenbosch) and that Galileo Galilei was a student and then a professor at the university. Pisa has a little ‘road train’ that took us on a quick tour around the town while our guide pointed out points of interest. To be honest, I didn’t realise Pisa was a whole town – I thought it was just had the leaning tower (please do excuse my ignorance here, history and geography are generally my strong points!!) and was quite impressed with it’s size!
Top Tip: Wherever you go in Italy you have to pay to use restrooms, be it in a restaurant or the public toilets so since you have to pay the 50c or Euro anyway, buy a coffee or a water from a cafe and use their bathroom – that way at least you are getting something for your money 🙂
All too soon we were back in Florence and strolling the streets for the last time. It was such a bitter sweet feeling leaving this beautiful city – the excitement of heading to Venice in the morning but a little sad that we were on the final leg of our holiday.
P.S. The hardest part about blogging my holiday was sorting through the hundreds of photos I took to find the gems and then deciding which ones to include! This post was particularly challenging since we did SO much in one short day!