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March 3, 2002
San Gimignano e Siena (Russell)

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Overlooking some of the towers of San Gimignano

Now that we are happily settled into our villa outside of Castellina in Chianti, we have a week to explore Italy's lush and scenic Tuscany Valley.  While the World Trippers have one tour book, the Miller/Schaefers have brought an entire bagful.  As a result, we are following their lead as schedulers and tour guides.

On March 3rd, our first full day here, Dawn and David wanted to get an early start and leave the villa by 8:30 AM.  Unfortunately, they mentioned this to us at 8:25 AM.  Because Cameron and Joss weren't even out of bed yet, we decided to take a slower morning and meet them in Siena at 2:00 in the afternoon.  As a result, we were able to have breakfast, the boys were able to play outside on the playground (which consists of two swings, two slides, and statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in a standing circle) with their swords, and Joss was able to feed the cat (Dawn and David had bought him some cat snacks when they went grocery shopping the evening before).

We packed some water bottles and sandwiches of peanut butter & jelly and peanut butter & nutella (a chocolate spread that Joss fell in love with in France), and finally left the house at 11:00 AM.  Our first goal was San Gimignano, following Dawn and David's itinerary for the day.  We drove directly west from Castellina on windy country roads through lush hills of olives and grapes on a beautiful sunny day.  After passing through Poggibonsi we arrived in San Gimignano and parked our car outside of the ancient city walls.  As we were on our way into the city, we actually saw the Miller/Schaefers zoom by in their rented minivan on their way out of the city, but they didn't see us.

San Gimignano reached its peak back in the 13th century, when each clan or family had its own building topped with a tower.  During times of conflict, families would lob things at each other from their respective towers (think of the Montagues and Capulets from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet).  Of the 72 towers that once stood here, 14 are still standing today -- the most of any old city in Italy -- so San Gimignano is a favorite destination for tourists.  Even in the off-season, the old city was full of tourists today, and the main cobblestone lane was lined with artsy souvenir shops that easily rivaled those in Carcassonne.  Instead of paying an admission fee to climb one of the towers, we ascended to the Rocca (castle) behind the church for a splendid view of the towers within the city and the vast Tuscany valley surrounding it.  We topped off our meager lunch of sandwiches with some coni di gelato, poked around in the souvenir stores, bought a new international telephone card (our last one ran out of minutes in Roma), and finally hit the road again at 1:30 PM.

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Guess who!  Guess where!

Our next destination of Siena is 37 km away from San Gimignano on windy country roads.  We had made plans to meet Dawn and David in Siena at 2:00 PM, leaving us less than half an hour to get there, park, and make our way to the Piazza il Campo in the center of town.  Gail asked Russell to take the wheel as he "would drive more aggressively" (yes, she questioned these words even as they left her lips).  Russell proceeded to comply with her request; and sure enough, we arrived in Siena just after 2:00 PM, minus a few of Gail's fingernails.

Once we arrived in Siena, however, we ran into difficulties.  As with every large Italian city so far, the direction signs are abominable.  Siena is a vast, sprawling city combined with a compact, mazelike old town.  We followed tiny and intermittent signs towards "Parking: Piazza il Campo" and ended up on narrow cobblestone streets filled with pedestrians.  Several times, we found ourselves going the wrong way on one-way streets that were not marked as such.  (The universal Italian gesture for "you're going the wrong way down a one-way street, you idiot" is for people to wag their fingers at you disapprovingly, as if scolding you.)  At one point, a police officer walked alongside our car as we slowly backed out of a narrow lane until we could find a place to turn around.  (He didn't actually help us to navigate or get pedestrians out of the way.  We think he just wanted to ensure that we didn't continue going forward any further.)  At 2:20 PM we still hadn't found the non-existent parking lot, so Russell dropped the rest of the family off a block from Il Campo and proceeded to find parking by  himself.  Gail, Cameron, and Joss descended into the piazza, where luckily they found Dawn, David, and Keegan just finishing their lunch at the Ristorante il Campo at the edge of the piazza (actually, David spotted Cameron and Joss running around the piazza chasing pigeons).

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Il Campo -- miraculously, all three parties of our family were able to find each other here

Siena holds very fond memories for Russell.  Twenty years ago when Russell was in Europe, Siena was still "undiscovered" by tourists (much as the Cinque Terre was just a few years ago); and Russell took a train there for his last excursion before returning to the US.  On the most gorgeously sunny day he had seen in Europe in six months, he had finally splurged on his best -- and only -- gourmet meal in six months (coincidentally at the Ristorante il Campo,  which at the time was the only restaurant on the piazza).  Today, Siena is still described in tour books as an ideal destination in the Tuscany Valley, but the city bears no resemblance to Russell's memories.  Siena has spent the last 20 years being "discovered" by tourists, and today it abounds with restaurants, hotels, souvenir stores, automobiles, and crowds.

Nevertheless, our reunited families proceeded to take a walking tour of some of Siena's more famous sights, including the Duomo (domed church).  We had gelato for the second time in the same day, which thrilled Cameron and Joss to no end (as Joss recently declared, "Doesn't gelato make you feel like you want more?").  In the late afternoon we separated again; Dawn and David went to do more sightseeing, while the World Trippers returned to the villa for some rest.

Russell had just put some water on to boil for pasta when Dawn and David returned at 6:30 PM on their way out to a ristorante for dinner.  We decided to join them in honor of Dawn's birthday, and the seven of us drove to nearby Castellina.  Our first choice, La Torre, was closed, so we settled for Tre Porte down the street.  Dawn and David prefer to eat only at Italian restaurants whose menus do not display any English -- a sign of non-touristy authenticity.&nbbsp; This makes things a little more difficult for the World Trippers, who are not carrying a comprehensive Italian dictionary.  Luckily, the waiter here spoke English very well.   Everyone had a good appetite; Cameron and Joss each finished off a full 13-inch pizza (with a little help), while the adults enjoyed a full multi-course Italian dinner with antipasto, pasta, main course, dessert, and wine.

We returned to the villa late, tired, and happily full.  Tomorrow's itinerary calls for a two-and-a-half hour drive to Assisi, and we are not looking forward to the early wake-up call.

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Dawn's birthday dinner

 

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