Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A Tale of Two Tuscan Towns

From La Spezia we headed to the capital of Tuscany, Firenze (Florence).

Ponte Vecchio, famous bridge of jewellery shops - Firenze
We usually don't plan too far ahead and today was no exception; after reading about all of the hotels and hostels we didn't think we would need to book anything. The guide book pointed us in the right direction and off we went, walking two kilometres in the heat from the train station to the south of the old city looking for a hotel that, for kicks, has its own tower. We were a little surprised when we were told it was full. No problems, on to the next place. But it was also full, and so was the third and fourth options. We finally found one place that had a room, but at 360 euros it was well out of our price range. Then there was the dingy hostel room with shared bathroom for 150 euros – are you for real?! We were starting to think that we might have to skip town as none of this was looking promising, when we tried a tenth place. It was full as well, but here we discovered what the problem was – it was Fashion Week in Firenze, and fashionistas had booked out all reasonable rooms months in advance. And I thought Florentines just dressed really well. We were kindly directed to the beautiful cool courtyard of Piazza Strozzi that had free WiFi and again with the help of the internet we found a place just out of the main drag that had a room in our price range.

Setting up for fashion week  - Firenze
All this walking around with backpacks on in the heat after a massive Sentiero Rosso walk in Cinque Terre the day before, and we were really worn out. So before making our way to the hotel we wandered into another beautiful cool courtyard of Palazzo Tornabuoni. This one not only had free WiFi but also a trendy mozzarella bar called Obika. We nibbled on boards of antipasto misto with organic vegetables and a variety of mozzarella cheeses, munched on a yummy pizza topped with melting Campanian mozzarella di bufula, and cooled down with a few bottles of acqua frizzante. After a good couple of hours relaxing in the shade, we were refreshed enough to tackle the heat once again.

Amazing DOC Campanian Buffalo Mozzarella, Roast Tomato and Basil Pizza - Obika Restaurant, Firenze
I was impressed by Firenze's beauty. Everything had that “this was built a long time ago” feel, and the “they put a lot of effort into making this look good” effect. Although not something that I'd put in my own house, every piece of architecture had to have something special about it. Doors could not be simple doors, they had to be huge carved doors surrounded with amazing stone sculptures, probably done by some famous sculptor. Speaking of which, we also checked out one of Michaelangelo's Davids too. In the Palazzo Vecchio it was a copy, but the details were all there, so we could still tell the difference between the right boy-face side and the left man-face.

Reliefs on Church Door - Firenze
And then there was the Duomo. Tia, smiling mildly since she had seen it all before, asked me, “What is the opposite of minimalist?” and all I could think of was “over-the-topalist”. It had it all. Intricately detailed stone-carved reliefs; red, green and white marble (lots of which seemed in need of a good scrub to remove sticky black pollution); a massive dome and huge bell tower; and gold everywhere. From any angle, this building was intensely over-the-topalist.

The Duomo at Sunset - Firenze
View of the Duomo - Firenze
View of the Duomo - Firenze
Ok, I'm not big on art galleries, and I managed to avoid them so far in Europe but this time Tia really insisted on checking out the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) as she missed out on her last trip to Firenze. We arrived early and there was already a queue, so I opted to do the usual coffee and pastries run. It didn't take us long to get in after that. I surprised myself by making it through the whole gallery, and although it I didn't take the whole four hours recommended, I do believe I obtained some form of appreciation of the Renaissance masterpieces and a smattering of history. From Giotto altarpieces to Piero della Francesca's famous pair of portraits of awkward-looking nobility; from early Renaissance works by Botticelli and the beginnings of Leonardo da Vinci genius, to high Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael, one could say there was a lot to see.

That afternoon we took a train to Siena. I was not looking forward to the massive hill we would need to walk to to get to our hotel from the train station, but someone had been kind and built a series of escalators all the way up. Grazie!

Looking up at the bell tower of the Duomo - Siena
If anyone were to ask which one I'd prefer between Renaissance Firenze and Gothic Siena (which was apparently the tendency of most travellers to do) I would say Siena won easily. Not necessarily because of aesthetic artistic opinion, but simply because it was quieter. We walked around the calm back alleys and cobbled streets in relaxed mode.

Streets - Siena
Quiet back streets - Siena
Tia enjoying and evening stroll - Siena
We dined on more delicious pasta, and continued our routine of two scoops of gelato everyday (I snuck in another two scoops, much to Tia's envy).

Ben enjoying his pasta - Siena

We spent some time in the Tuscan countryside, attempting to find il dolce far niente. For our last night in Tuscany we came back to Siena to discover it was St John the Baptist Day and various contrade were celebrating with colourful flags, fanfare and parades through the streets.

For a Feast. St John the Baptist Day - Siena
We climbed the bell tower, Torre del Mangia, in the Palazzo Comunale, for terrific views over the city and surrounding golden hills.

500 steps stairwell of the Torre del Mangia - Siena
Rooftops and Narrow Lanes - Siena
View towards the Opera della Metropolitana di Siena, from Torre del Mangia
The Palazzo itself was undergoing a conversion with truckloads of temporary dirt being laid down for the annual Il Palio wild horse race, at which many of the contrade would compete the following week.

Relaxed Shadows - Piazza del Campo, Siena
If this wasn't enough we went to an amazing restaurant for dinner and ate the best meal we had in Italy, at least in the top ten of our lives so far. First there was the setting of an underground carved out cave-like cellar.

Cavernous Dining - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Then there was the meal, or should I say meals. What we ordered was one antipasto (entree), one primo piatto (first course), one secondo piatto (second course) and one dolce (dessert). With that in mind, here is what arrived at our table (washed down with an amazing bottle of Montalcino Brunello of course):

A delicious pre-antipasto gazpacho soup appetiser.

Complimentary Pre-Entree Soup. Delish! - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Four different types of homemade bread.

Selection of Fresh Breads. Creative - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Finally our antipasto arrived.

Duck Carpaccio. Sublime - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
My primo piatto, the best lasagne I have ever had, the pasta sheets were so thin and beautifully crispy on the edges.

Lasagne al Ragù. The Best I've Had - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Tia's primo piatto was a tasty wild boar ragu pici, a local speciality.

Wild Boar Ragu Pici. Handmade Comfort - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
My secondo piatto was one of my favourite meats, rabbit, cooked perfectly.

Stuffed Rabbit Thigh with Potato Gratin. Tasty - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Tia's secondo piatto was a well presented tender rack of lamb.

Roast Rack of Lamb with Fennel Cake. Juicy - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
This was what I called a pre-dessert which appeared just after we finished our mains.

Complimentary Pre-Dessert of Something Berrylicious - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Compliments for the Complimentary Pre-Desserts - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Our actual dolce were very impressive and absolutely delicious.

Coffee mousse with Crème Brulée Heart in a Caramello Net. Divine - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Compliments for the Divine Dessert - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Then, siamo arrivati alla frutta! When we thought we'd had more than enough, along came what I could only call post-dessert.

Complimentary Post-Desserts with Limoncello. Beyond Our Abilities - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
We finished every meal but the post-dessert, we could not even eat one – our stomachs were in too much pain that it was an effort simply to walk out of the restaurant.

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