May 10-24, 2014

Roman Collosseum

    We flew from Denver to Charlotte (NC) and on to Rome where we stayed near the Colosseum for five days. We took a train (and a bus and another train) to Siena where we settled into La Flora B&B just outside the city and rented a car to visit as many hill towns in Tuscany as we could in the next six days. We returned to Rome by bus and spent another night before flying back to Denver via Charlotte. In all, we flew about 10,000 miles, drove 1,000 miles across the Tuscany landscape, and completed about 60 miles of urban hiking. It was our second trip to Italy (our first in 2007 to Venice, Florence, Milan, and Cinque Terre)  and we could happily return for a third visit to this beautiful and historic country.


Inside Collosseum    Our grandson had spent the spring semester living in Rome studying history, art, architecture as well as traveling to historic sites from Venice to Sicily. His last day was May 9, so we tagged along with this parents and sister to celebrate completion of his studies and take advantage of his knowledge of Roman history and art. Unfortunately he did not study the language—he is majoring in Classics and his languages are Latin and Greek—nor did he have the luxury of spending time in fancy restaurants. As a result, we stumbled along with gestures and a few key phrases, and confined our dining choices to surprisingly fine neighborhood trattorias and small restoranti.
    We based ourselves for five nights at the Hotel Capo D’Africa just a few blocks from the Colosseum and near a metro stop in a quiet urban neighborhood. Each day we explored new areas of this historic and beautiful city of nearly three million people.

    [Note: The history of Rome allegedly began in 753 BCE as a kingdom ruled by Romulus, then became a Republic in 509 BCE, and finally an Empire in 27 BCE (Augustus is the first Cesar) which lasted until 476 CE when the last Cesar, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown by Germanic troops led by Odacer, who is proclaimed (by his troops) King of Italy. Of course people lived in the area before Romulus and Remus, and have continued to live since the fall of the Empire. Hence, the nickname “The Eternal City.” For more, I suppose you might read Edward Gibbon who can fill in lots of the details.]

•The Colosseum

    Our first stop was to the nearby Colosseum which we could almost see from our hotel. We tried to beat the crowds by getting there before 9:00 am, but school groups and guided tour groups, each with their easily identifiable colored hats or scarves or badges or T-shirts had clustered here and there waiting for the 9:00 o’clock opening. [Note: Admission is €15.50, about US$21.] The souvenir sellers were already set up and doing business. In spite of the early crowds, we never felt rushed and with the help of our recently graduated grandson, we learned some of the history of what is officially the Flavian Amphitheatre. It was built on the site of the palace of the much hated Nero; construction began in 72 CE and was completed eight years later. The huge arena seated an estimated 50,000–70,000 and was used to host spectator “entertainments” featuring combat between gladiators—usually slaves, prisoners, condemned criminals, including a few women—plus animals, Christians and non-Christians. During the opening days in 80 CE, over 9,000 wild animals (exotic and dangerous ones trucked in from across the Empire, especially Africa) were killed. Massacre was the aim, blood on the ground was the objective, and the audience got what they paid for. As the Empire became more Christianized, the death of humans gradually came to an end. But not animals.
Inside the Colosseum
    We were surprised to learn that naval battles also were held in the Colosseum using real ships which required flooding the stadium. Once the galleries in the basement areas were built, such spectacles were moved to other, smaller stadiums.

    Like much of the rest of Rome, the Colosseum is undergoing massive renovation as befits one of Rome’s many World Heritage Sites. In fact, since the decline of the Empire, the building has fallen into disuse and disrepair. For centuries it had been literally falling apart and ignored along with so many other ruins in this ancient city. Marble slabs were removed from the exterior (which accounts for the large holes in this and other ancient buildings), the arena became a muddy swamp, earthquakes shook loose stone blocks that were scooped up and taken to other parts of the city for private use, and for generations thieves and prostitutes are said to have squatted throughout the tunnels and galleries.

    Not until the mid-19th century was there any enthusiasm (or money?) for renovation. Parts of the structure today are off-limits, perhaps because they are unsafe or undergoing reconstruction. Scaffolding is big business in Rome and there is probably more work than there are funds and fewer workers to do what needs to be done. However, major restoration is clearly underway to save the city’s most famous symbol.

    Adjoining the grounds of the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine commemorating the victory of Constantine I at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 315 CE. It’s actually made up of three arches decorated with scenes of the battle etched in the marble face. Statues representing Constantine I and, it is said, of some unnamed prisoners stand on pedestals than adorn both sides of the Arch. The Arch is complex and deserves more than a passing glance to fully appreciate the history, the art, the architecture, and the beauty represented in this huge structure.

Columns in Forum
•A Walk Down the Roman Forum

    The Forum was a place where people gathered, to talk, to do business, to share gossip, to give or to hear speeches—in short, it was Rome’s town square or Central Park without the joggers and drug deals going down. It was the central area of the city around which the town grew. The Forum spreads out from the base of the Capitoline Hill, the smallest of Rome’s seven hills but perhaps the most important: it was here the first nucleus of the city grew. The Capitoline was a ceremonial center and a religious center. Here were temples to the Roman Gods, especially the Temple of Jupiter, to keep an eye on what was going on below in the Roman Forum. Today the star attraction is the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century.

    The forum grounds in time were surrounded by large public buildings that confined the forum to an area about 450' by 160'. Walking from the Arch of Constantine through the rubble and ruins of once beautiful structures, we saw where the Temple of Vesta once stood until 1549 when it was demolished and its marble recycled in other palaces and churches. What’s there today was reconstructed in the 1930s.

    Many of the oldest and most important buildings in Ancient Rome were located in or near the Forum, though most are rubble or mere fragments scattered about. The remaining three columns of Temple of Castor and Pollux stand proudly and starkly against the apparent hodgepodge of what used to be the center of a huge and powerful empire.

    Continuing our walk through the Forum led us to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, the tallest and arguably the most distinctive building in the city. It is perhaps the whitest structure in the city, often referred to as the “wedding cake.” Two bronze quadrigae (chariots) stand atop two corners of the building that houses a museum dedicated to the unification of Italy in 1861 with Victor Emmanuel II as its first king. A huge equestrian statue of himself as “Father of the Nation” stands prominently in the front.

    [Note: Walking from the Colosseum to the Victor Emmanuel II Monument can take the better part of a day. You have to visit a side street for a meal or refreshment or to visit one of the few very hard to find public WCs. (There may be a charge, so be sure to have a Euro in change ready to buy your way in.) We did the walk without lingering very long at any one spot and felt we had seen enough marble statuary and other ruins for one day. You may decide to dedicate yourself to a closer inspection of the area by spending two days in the area. We had time constraints, like most tourists, and we had a reservation at the Vatican in the morning. We kept moving on.]

Dome of St Peters
•The Vatican

    If the Colosseum is the symbol of (Ancient) Rome, the Vatican is, well, the Vatican. It is the head and heart of this smallest independent country/city state and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. Its buildings take up 90% of the 110 acres that comprise what seems like a tiny “neighborhood” surrounded by the megalopolis of Rome. The Pope, church officials, librarians, postal workers, Swiss guards, groundskeepers, and everyone that has to do with running church business works there. Only 840 people live in Vatican City State (the official governmental designation) so most who work there have to commute.

    The usual tour taken by most visitors includes the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel [Note: Tickets are €16.00 = about US$22 which may be purchased online to avoid lines] though there are additional options: e,g., Vatican Gardens, Barberini Garden, et al.) Before you go, you can prepare yourself with a visit the Museum’s collections with a Virtual Online Tour.  

    [Note: The last Sunday of each month the Museum is open to the public for free. Lines are long and so is the waiting time.]

Agnes and Tour Group    We went one step further, thanks to our daughter’s foresight and good planning: she hired a guide, Agnes from England, to lead our tour of five through the Museums and into the Sistine Chapel. Agnes works with Context Travel and she was terrific. She did not show us everything, but focused on what she thought was most interesting (or what she knew the most about or what she thought, based upon previous groups, we might be most interested in.) However, she answered all our questions about anything we wanted to know. She kept a good pace to maximize our time (about three hours), had a good sense of humor, and showed us, we believe, the highlights. It was a good tour and we recommend this way of getting the most from the experience. You could opt for a recorded tour (and many people obviously did), but Agnes was stimulating and provocative in a way a recorded tour can’t be.

    There are several collections within the Museum that span the ages from early Greece and Egypt to the 20th century, and, with the changing of special exhibits, represent virtually all cultures from Faberge eggs and icons to Aboriginal art forms. These special exhibits are free with the regular museum tickets.

    It would be difficult and unfair to single out any one or two works of art from the thousands within the collection. However, it is safe to say that Michaelangelo’s Pieta and his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel draw the largest and longest standing crowds. That said, Giotto’s Stefaneschi Altarpiece is worth a long and careful study, and Laocoon and his Sons shows how a sculpture can come alive before your eyes. While most folks’ eyes glaze over passing through the map gallery, fortunately there is room for those of us who wish to study each of them carefully without blocking traffic.

    The small gift shop we passed by when we finished the tour has all the usual books and souvenirs (including Pope bobblehead dolls!!). We bought postcards and went next door to the Vatican post office and bought stamps and mailed them. [Note: A postcard stamp to the USA is €2.00 = US$2.75.] The few stamps left over we learned could be used to mail cards from outside the Vatican, though we don’t know how far away they will be accepted.
St John Lateran

Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano

    Grandson Griffin was especially insistent that we should visit this most ancient church in the world (built in 311–314 CE), just a short, but uphill, walk from our hotel. Since it was the first church built in Rome (first church in the world?), it was and still is Rome’s cathedral and the residence of the Bishop of Rome. Originally a first century mansion belonging to the Laterani family, Nero converted it to a military barracks. Constantine razed the barracks and rebuilt the church on that spot. The church was, in fact, the residence of Popes until the papacy returned from exile in Avignon in 1377. Over the years invading Visigoths ravaged the building, as did the Vandals in the 5th century; earthquakes did damage as did great fires in the 9th and 14th centuries. Each time disaster struck, the church acted promptly to repair and restore the building and the art treasures within. The result today is an outstanding representation of Baroque architecture completed in 1735.

    We found St John Lateran beautiful in all respects. The first thing you might notice on the exterior of the east entrance are two huge bronze doors that were taken from the Imperial Forum, and across the top of the entrance eleven figures with Christ in the middle, with co-patrons John the Baptist and John the Evangelist on either side.

    [Note: Who the remaining eight statues represent is in some dispute. Some sources say they are important church figures, other sources say they are saints, and others claim they are apostles, though that brings the total number of apostles to ten.]

Interior of St John Lateran     The interior is imposing and lavishly decorated; it compares well with St. Peter’s, though without as many major art pieces as found in the Vatican. Magnificent larger than life statues of the twelve apostles by various 18th century sculptors fill niches in the walls surrounding the nave. Tombs of early popes are placed around the edges of the nave, the ceiling is beautifully complex and richly decorated, the patterns in the floor are reminiscent of those in St Peter’s, and sitting along on the back wall of the altar is the Pope’s marble throne to be used only by him. The church claims to house two significant religious relics: the cedar table said to be the one used at the Last Supper, and a sample of Christ’s blood.

    Only Griffin and Julia visited the Cloisters which are the remains of an early 13th century Benedictine monastery. The quiet garden-like setting is surrounded by double columns of inlaid marble. A porphyry slab within the cloister is believed to have been used by Roman soldiers casting lots for Christ’s robes.

    When the papacy returned to Rome from Avignon, the city was virtually deserted and they moved into St. Peter’s instead of the Lateran. However, St. .John Lateran remains the Cathedral of the Church of Rome, the mother church among all Roman Catholic Churches, ranking even above St. Peter’s Basilica. An excellent online virtual tour of the church highlights and explains many of the specific features of the building.
Papal  Throne
    [Note: We kept reading about churches, basilicas, and cathedrals and wanted to clarify the differences.
       •Church. Any house or place of worship by any Christian denomination.
        •Cathedral. Home church of the bishop of the diocese and the location of the bishop’s throne, usually set on a raised platform. The Latin word for raised chair or throne is cathedra, hence the English cathedral.
        •Basilica. This is a bit more complicated since a church and a cathedral may be a basilica but under only under certain conditions. A basilica may refer to a church built in a particular style, or to a hierarchy of churches identified by the Roman Catholic Church: Major basilicas, of which there are only four, are all in Rome and are granted certain vaguely defined privileges; and Minor basilicas, about 1600 around the world, are granted certain other privileges of a more specific nature.]
Sitting on the Steps

•Other Major Sites (Briefly Noted)

Spanish Steps. Why did this become a must-see location in Rome? Granted it’s a good place to sit for a rest, if you don’t mind sitting with the trash that collects daily; if you don’t mind the noise of hundreds of other folks sitting, smoking, necking, or eating; if you want to ogle pretty girls or good looking guys. We thought it a waste of time except it gave us all a chance to check it off our list of places to visit.

Bernini’s Elephant Statue. In the Piazza della Minerva just outside the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, is an unusual statue of an Egyptian obelisk standing upon a marble elephant designed by Bernini in the 1660s. It’s interesting to look at, but not to linger over. (Despite graffiti everywhere in Rome, there is none on this sculpture—maybe none in over 350 years!)

The Pantheon. This downtown landmark was originally built as a temple at the command of Emperor Hadrian between 118–125 CE and dedicated to the Roman Gods. Unlike its Greek counterpart, the Parthenon, Rome’s Pantheon is enclosed with great bronze doors that were originally covered with gold. Students of architecture especially will appreciate the geometric design of the building with walls of varying weight supporting the dome of intersecting arches. Today it is used as a church; Italian kings Emanuele and Umberto are buried there as well as painter Raphael. It is definitely worth a visit. Dan Throwing Money Away

Trevi Fountain. Remember the gaggle of looky-lous at the Spanish Steps? Sometime during the day they all moved en mass to the Trevi Fountain where they took as many selfies as they could before their batteries ran out. To be sure, the Trevi is the largest and one of the loveliest fountains in Rome. Created by sculptor Nicola Salvi who based his design on one by Bernini, it was completed in 1762. The prominent figure of Neptune rides a shell-shaped chariot pulled by two sea horses. The origin of the tradition of throwing a coin into the fountain (tossed with your right hand over your left shoulder, or vice versa, without looking back; we don’t know what happens if you throw the coin with the same hand as the shoulder!) is lost in the fog of history and revived in the 1950s movie “Three Coins in the Fountain” and the popular 1960s Italian movie “La Dolce Vita.” An estimated €3,000 winds up in the bottom every day, which is reportedly given to Rome’s needy people.

    Another impressive fountain that isn’t surrounded by quite so many visitors is the spectacular Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona. Designed by both Bernini and Borromini, it is considered one of the finest Baroque Sculptures in Rome. We lingered over cappuccinos and wine at the Caffe Domizian (see photo below), enjoying the fountain while watching the parade of locals and tourists passing by.

BorgheseBorghese Gardens. This 148-acre park is an oasis of quiet beauty surrounded by the hubbub of the city. It is used by runners and bicyclists, folks with picnics or books, and those who simply want to relax under the shade trees that cover the grounds. Originally a vineyard, Cardinal Scipione Borghese began developing the garden in the early 1600s and informally opened it to the public. The city of Rome purchased the grounds in 1903.

    Several villas remain within the Gardens, the most prominent being the Villa Borghese (on left) which houses an excellent collection of paintings (Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, and Rubens among others) and sculptures (many by Bernini, including the magnificent “Apollo and Daphne,” “Rape of Proserpine,” and his rendering of “David,” and Canova’s masterpiece “Pauline Bonaparte”). [Note: Tickets run about €11 (US$15) and well worth the investment.]

The Ara Pacis Museum. This modern building was constructed especially to house and preserve the Altar of Peace built in 9 BCE. The altar itself is surrounded by marble walls with friezes depicting historical figures. On a hot day, the air conditioned building is a comfort. Avid historians may appreciate the displays. [Note: Tickets are €8.50 = UD$11.50.]

National Etruscan Museum. Though the Etruscans left their name on the map (Tuscany) before they disappeared, not very much is known for certain about this early civilization that settled central Italy. Their art seems very much indebted to the arts of Greece. Ancient history lovers will appreciate the many important artifacts shown and described in this collection. It is housed in another of the villas in the Borghese Gardens, the Villa Giulia. [Note: The price of admission is €4 (US$5.50)] If you know your Etruscan history, you’ll enjoy your visit.
Scooters in the Streets
•Geocaching in Rome. Before we left on the trip, we downloaded to our GPS locations of ten geocaches in Rome and found nine of them. Some were easy pickings, some were downright tricky, and one was likely muggled. In fact, with all the visitors and relatively easy access, it’s a wonder any were left for us at all. Each of them was a micro so we were unable to leave a trackable at any of them. Too bad. Builder Bob came home with us and we’ll have to place him around here. We did take photos of him at most of the geocache sites so there’s a record of his travels.

    [Note: Many people deal with Rome’s horrific traffic by using scooters and smart cars.]

•Eating, Dining, and Drinking in Rome

    When in Italy, eat Italian. This sounds self-evident, but some tourists are tempted by MacDonald’s fast food joints, a handful of Chinese restaurants, even an Irish pub/restaurant. Some of the swanky spots likely offer high priced French cuisine and other exotic foods. But why bother when every neighborhood restaurant/trattoria/pizza place serves up great pasta dishes, roasted veggies, pizza, meat entrees, and tasty desserts at very reasonable prices? To our delight, we had a dozen or more small neighborhood eating places from which to choose. Two were memorable: Taverna Dei Contrari and Hosteria Isidoro, both near the Colosseum, both offer excellent food, both had fine service, neither needed a reservation, and we would go back again. (In fact we did eat twice at Taverna Dei Contrari and they welcomed our return like family. We reviewed both restaurants for TripAdvisor.)
Street Cafe  
    We tasted wines from various regions (Chianti, Vino Nobile, Brunello, etc.) but found that for €2.50/glass, the house reds wherever we ate were much more to our liking that the €20/bottle. The beers, almost exclusively Peroni and Moretti, are superior to Bud, Miller, and many handcrafted American beers. And cheap.

    Almost any break in the morning or afternoon or evening is a good time for a cappuccino, that flavorful, frothy expresso and milk drink that tastes good wherever you find it. (In the photo left, we are relaxing with a cappuccino across from the Four Rivers Fountain after a long day of urban hiking.) Every cafe, restaurant, and bar in Italy must use the same recipe and ingredients. It’s wonderful.


    We purchased one-way tickets for Siena at the Rome train station. We had no difficulty making the purchase from a machine.

    [Note: We did not run into any panhandling, pickpocketing, or any real dangerous activities the entire trip. However, there are a few common annoying scams practiced all over Rome. There’s the guy who wants to give you a rose—”Free to you because you’re so beautiful” and then hounds you to give him some money. How much? We don’t know since we never took one. At the train station we bumped into another scam: When you’re getting your ticket from the machine, a guy comes along and says he can help work the machine. Where are you going? Do this, do that, and out comes the tickets. He did it. No problem. Thanks very much. Then his hand goes out for some sort of vague payment—a tip? a donation? a gesture of appreciation? There was some change left over, less than one or two euros, which Judy gave him. He looked at it and gave it back. Not enough, apparently. How insulting. Jeez!! It’s better to say, “No, grazie,” politely but firmly and move on.]
La Flora
    The train left on time (you can count on that happening in Italy) and took us as far a Grosetto (we think) where we had to get off the train—”This is as far as this train goes!”—and waited for a local bus which took us via some rural roads (nice scenery, but slow) as far as Buonconvento where we had to get off and wait for a three-car local train to Siena. We don’t know if we could have found out beforehand if there was another scheduled train-only trip. We took an express bus on the return trip to Rome.

    We learned that afternoon that there are very few taxis in Siena, a city of about 55,000. We waited a good 30-40 minutes at a fairly busy corner in town before we were able to flag one down to drive us about eight miles to our home for the next week: B&B La Flora. Valerio welcomed us and showed us our bedroom and the dining room, with a refrigerator and table spread with pastries and crackers. We unpacked and strolled outside through their olive orchard and their vineyard to an overlook of Siena to the north and west. It had been a long day and we were tired. We had not let Valerio and Elisa know in advance that we would like a dinner that evening, so we ate our cheese and bread and drank wine in the grassy patio. We spent the time before it got dark planning our week in Tuscany. It was a very pleasant way to finish off what had been a day of surprises and minor frustrations.

    We talked with Elisa when she came home that evening from work (they both work full time for technical service companies in Siena: Valerio for the city, Elisa for a private company). She welcomed us and before our conversation was over, we had some good ideas for day trips, where to eat in Siena, and an offer, gladly accepted, to take us in the morning to pick up our rental car which, it turns out, is not far from where she works. Breakfast was cereal, fruit, yoghurt, pastries, toast, and coffee or tea. We joined the other four guests who were from Italy and spoke limited English, though one couple stayed four days and we got to know them pretty well; Claudio understood more English than he spoke, and Serena spoke English, but not as well as her German and French and Italian. Our limited language skills were a trifle embarrassing.
Across from La Flora
    We left with Elisa in the morning to pick up our car and began our day trips of Tuscany.

•The Chiantigiana Road

    Just north of Siena, route SS222 is a scenic drive through the heart of Chianti wine country. It is a loop that we began in Siena, then north to Castellina in Chianti, on to Greve in Chianti, then south to Radda in Chianti and Gaiole in Chianti, and back to Siena. It is certainly one of the most beautiful regions of Italy and the drive was as good as the travel guides described. It’s unlikely a month goes by that some travel magazine doesn’t write a feature this area of green, rolling hills, attractive hill towns that beckon you to stop, and wineries inviting you to come taste their particular Chianti Classico. The rural roads are strictly two-lane, twisty in some places, well lined, clearly marked with roadsigns, and smooth. It’s as though the highway department intentionally tried to provide comfort to the drivers as well as slow down traffic so that we could truly enjoy the scenery.

    [Note: While we were on our trip, the 2014 Giro d’Italia, one of the three premier bicycling races along with the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana, started this year in Belfast and moved to Dublin before transferring riders to Giovinazzo in southern Italy. The route passed north through the heart of Italy, into the Dolomites and ended in the Trieste three weeks later. Oddly, we saw little about it on Italian TV or in newspapers (soccer remains by far the most popular sport) but we did notice many groups of local bike riders, and some touring individuals and pairs, on the back roads every day.]
Tuscan Vineyards
    In many respects the major towns along the route are very much similar to each other in size, layout, and services. In Castellina we stopped to shop in a local outdoor day market that featured fresh produce, clothing, hardware, and household items. We found the same sort of market spread out in the central piazza in Greve where we shopped a bit more and then enjoyed a light lunch and cappuccino at Caffe le Logge on the square. We completed our loop south through Radda and Gaiole and returned to home in the early evening.
    There are, of course, vineyards everywhere—except where olive trees grow, though often we found them almost together—and many tasting opportunities throughout the region (reservations recommended). There are many estates that offer for winery tours, classes and seminars on the wines of this and other regions and to learn how to be a more discriminating wine drinker. Strictly on our own we tried several Chianti Classico wines (i.e., premium Chianti wines from a particular subregion of Chianti and designated by the gallo nero [black rooster] logo found on these select wines. Standard Classico is labelled with a red border; Riserva Classico has a golden border and identifies wine produced from the best grapes and aged at least 27 months.) Perhaps our taste for wines lacks sophistication and sensitivity, but we were not persuaded to purchase any bottles at any price, and the range of prices seemed to have no upper limits. A class on how to judge, what to look for, and how to overlook how the wine tastes would have helped. We continued to return to the house reds when we had choices. No matter. We loved the countryside where the grapes are grown and where the wines are produced.
San Biagio at Montepulciano

•Hill Towns South of Siena

•Montepulciano. We drove south out of Siena to Asciano, through Trequanda where stopped for a cappuccino at a small cafe across from the church and explored some of the narrow streets and wondered what life would be like living here.
    About 12 miles further we came to Montepulciano, which turned out to be a charming medieval/Renaissance town of about 15,000, strategically placed on a hill overlooking the Val di Chiana (Valley of the River Chiana). The walls date from the 14th century and there is a 360° view of the region. It was first settled by the Etruscans at least as early as the 4th century BCE before Rome dominated the region. After the fall of Rome, the town was conquered alternately by Siena, then Florence, then Siena and back again, with city-states Orvieto and Perugia getting into the action on behalf of Montepulciano. The cathedral is from the 17th century based upon a Latin cross design with a massive, if plain, exterior of travertine and brick. The interior features paintings, sculptures, and a monumental triptych by di Bartolo. The Church of St. Augustine with its sculptured exterior and bright interior is also worth visiting.
    The narrow cobblestone main street passes by attractive shops, the duomo, a clock tower, and other places of business. This car-free mile-long street is known as “Vino Nobile Montepulciano Wine Route” because of the many stops along the way where visitors may sample different versions of this “noble wine” as well as local cheeses. We stopped at the wine store of Amado, who was a delight, and more interested in meeting and talking with people (mostly in Italian) than in selling the wines he had out for tasting. He was happy to have us sample several of his wines and tour the cellars where he kept the barrels of aging wines.
Montepulciano Tower
    [Note: On the last Sunday in August, a barrel rolling race is held in which eight men, representing the eight town districts, roll wine barrels weighing 80 kilos (176 pounds) up the steep, twisting, narrow streets ending in the main square where prizes are awarded followed by a feast for the town lasting late into the night.]

    On our way out of town, we visited the Tempio di San Biagio (Sanctuary of San Biagio), a spectacular church below the town and outside the walls of Montepulciano. It was constructed in the 16th century in a Greek cross plan using designs from St. Peter’s and the Brunelleshi’s dome in Florence. The interior seems smaller than the outside would indicate and there was a good deal of renovation and construction going on both outside and within.

•Montalcino. West from San Biagio we passed fields not only of grapes and olives, but of sheep who don’t know how good they have it, surrounded by lush green fields and protected by dozing shepherds from marauding village dogs and cats. It should be acknowledged that the tastiest cheese we had in Italy was sheep cheese, something we don’t find often here.
Sheep in Field
    Montalcino is a hill town is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino wine, something we sampled here at home before we left and did not particularly care for. Of course there are several varieties and estates and, therefore, different tastes. Given its reputation, we thought we should go to the source. The reputation and popularity of the Brunello wine has kept this town financially afloat: eleven producers in 1960 has grown to over 200 estates today that produce this award-winning wine.

    While we still didn’t love the samples we tried, we discovered a beautiful medieval walled town of about 5,000 folks whose ancestors held off both Florentine and Sienese armies longer than expected and finally caved in to the Florentines in the mid-16th century. The town has also prospered as a destination for tourists, both local and foreign: the beauty and culture of the town, the many festivals held here in an authentic medieval atmosphere, as well as the fame of the Brunello wines, keep visitors coming. Like each of the hilltop towns in Tuscany, the greatest pleasure we had was walking leisurely through the narrow cobblestone streets enjoying the feeling of neighborhood and the play of light and shadow on the buildings and side streets.
Judy in Narrow Street
•Murlo. It was first thing in the morning when we visited this tiny, walled hill town recommended by a friend who had traveled to Tuscany a few years ago. She said she so enjoyed her visit to Murlo, which is out of the way but worth the side trip. Like Montalcino, Murlo is small (all sources say there are about 2,000 residents, but it seemed to us more like 200), protected by imposing stone walls and isolated atop a 1,000' hill. It was founded in the 12th century, but with its origins going back to the Etruscans who left evidence of their presence in statuary and artifacts that go back some 3,000 years. The Antiquarium Museum contains Etriuscan statues, tools, and other evidence from excavations that continue.

    Murlo is certainly not a tourist destination, though there are some buses that go there. We were early getting to the town which seemed almost deserted at 10:30 am. There were a few restaurants, though none open at the time we were there, and we felt as though we had the whole town to ourselves to explore and find out what was around each corner. This really was a step back in time to the Middle Ages (if you ignore the satellite dishes scattered about the buildings and the two cars we saw) and we’re glad we made the trip there.
St Benedict
•Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Serena and Claudio, fellow guests at the B&B, recommended we visit this secluded abbey, and we’re glad we did. Off one of the rural highways near Chiusure, we followed the signs directing us to the abbey, which was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and dedicated to St. Benedict.

    From the parking area we crossed a drawbridge that led to a fortress-like building with a massive square tower. Built in the late 14th century, it was restored in the 19th century and now appears a fairly modern complex with apartments, offices, and a cafe. Beyond, we walked down the hill through the woods a few hundred yards to the well hidden Abbey with a sculpture of St. Benedict in white marble in front to welcome us. The abbey complex houses a monastic library of more than 40,000 works (which was not open to us while we were there), a pharmacy of herbs and spices, a portico with beautiful frescos depicting scenes from the life of St. Benedict, a refectory where the monks dine, and a late Gothic church, later redecorated in 1772.

    In addition to a small book and souvenir store, a wine cellar is located in a lower level accessed from the outside where locally produced wines are available for tasting and purchase. We did buy a bottle to share with the rest of the family when we met up with them again in Rome.
XOrvieto Cathedral
•Orvieto. Further south we drove just across the border of Tuscany into Umbria to this dramatic town built on a large volcanic butte. The walls of this former Etruscan center are of the tufa, making the town virtually impregnable and strategically important on the road between Florence and Rome. Thomas Aquinas taught at Orvieto’s studium (a school of theology, one of the first in Europe) in the 13th century. Along with Viterbo and Avignon, Orvieto was only one of three papal palaces where popes could escape conflict in Rome. Over the years, Orvieto was also the scene of many important meetings of the Curia. Politically the area was under control of the Catholic Church until 1861 and Italy’s unification.

    The close ties to the Church in Rome helps to account for the spectacular duomo or cathedral in the heart of this thriving town (population about 23,000). Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone in 1290. The green basalt and white travertine striping is similar to the design of the Siena cathedral which was built during the same period. The exterior is decorated with friezes and sculptures representing biblical scenes, huge bronze doors, a large rose window, and gold mosaics. Equally impressive is the spacious interior consisting of a nave with six bays and two aisles. The columns are striped with alternating rows of travertine and basalt, repeating the pattern of the exterior. The elaborate baptismal font is from the 15th century. Frescoes by many of the finest artists of the 14th and 15th centuries contributed to the cathedral’s overwhelming beauty: Giotto, Fra Angelico, Signorelli, and many others.

    Entering the church we were treated to beautiful, almost ethereal music, sacred but not from the Middle Ages, modern yet in soft harmony with the setting. The effect was soothing and raised our tour of the cathedral from an art/ architectural study to a spiritual experience. It was the only place where we heard music used to enhance the visit.
Civita Bridge
•Civita di Bagnoregio. Probably the most spectacular hill town we encountered was this tiny collection of stone buildings huddled precariously on the remains of a volcanic plateau overlooking the Tiber River Valley. It is connected, literally, to the rest of Italy by a walking bridge about half a mile long from its former suburb of Bagnoregio. Today the population is 84 according to one resident with whom we spoke; we read other estimates that varied from a dozen to more than 100, depending upon the season of the year. The Italians refer to it as il paese che muore (“The town that is dying”) Tourism may help provide a financial lifeline, but earthquakes and gradual erosion may bring the whole town crumbling into the valley below.

    Civita was the home of St. Bonaventure who died in the 13th century, but his boyhood home dropped off the edge of the city well after his death. The town built by the Etruscans over 2500 years ago was on listed on the 2006 World Monuments Fund’s Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. Like the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, we’re glad we saw Civita before it disappears.

    We walked slowly through the town, looking down short alleys and in the few shops and cafes that were open. At the end of town the cobblestones turn to a dirt path that leads to a shrine at the mouth of a small cave. Flowers were in bloom almost everywhere and the streets were spotless. The people of Civita and those who work there obviously care very much about their town.

•North and West of Siena
    Within an hour’s drive of northwest of Siena are at least two equally interesting hill towns:
Arch in Volterra
•Volterra. The approach by car to Volterra crosses a scenic landscape of vineyards and grassy fields before the road starts its steep, winding 1,000' climb toward the fortress and the walls that have defended the city for centuries. Volterra has seen several rulers come and go since it was founded in the 8th century BCE by Etruscans, who were followed by the Romans, the Florentines, the Medici family, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until unification in 1861. We entered through the well-preserved Etruscan Arch built in the 3rd (or 4th? or 8th?) century BCE. that was saved from Nazi destruction by the citizens of Volterra (who, it is said, secretly dug up the cobblestones in the road beneath the arch and filled in the arch to the top to convince the Nazis that the advancing Allied Forces could not get into the city and there was no need to destroy the arch. When the Nazis left, the townsfolk replaced the cobblestones to their original patterns.)

    The city is surrounded by high stone walls with a mighty fortress at one end that marks the start of the uphill walk to the main part of town to the oldest town hall in Tuscany, the 13th century Palazzo dei Priori. Signs of the Florentine period are everywhere (e.g., stone winged lions). The original Cathedral was destroyed by the Florentines in 1472, and the bishop’s seat was moved to the present Cathedral soon after. The exterior is a featureless massive stone wall that gives no hint of the rich decorations on the interior, much of which was restored in the mid-19th century. Leading artists from the 12th through the 19th century created a masterwork of frescoes, paintings, sculptures in the 15 chapels off the nave that span nearly 900 years of Italian art history.

    The presence of the Roman Empire is easy to see in Volterra. A first century BCE Roman theatre sits just below the medieval wall. There are clear remains of an ampitheatre seats, and the marble Corinthian columns are grander than many of the remains of similar structures seen in Rome. Roman baths were uncovered in the 18th century and date back to the 3rd century CE. They are currenly being stored.
San Gimi
    The number of shops in Volterra is blessedly small, especially compared with other hill towns. Since the town has made much of its reputation on alabaster objets d’art, it is appropriate that many stores display and sell alabaster objects, such as the store of the Societa Cooperativa Artieri Alabastro, a cooperative of alabaster artisans, where a local artisans show and sell their work.

•San Gimignano. This medieval hill town is touted by many tourist guides as one of the Top Ten Places to Visit in Italy! But who would know? It’s true, people come here by the busloads because outside of town is a massive area for buses to park and let out their passengers. Most groups come from nearby Florence, but many also are from other parts of Italy. The result is a small town of about 7,000, a World Heritage Site, that is overrun every day with hoards of tourists who clog the streets licking gelato cones and dashing in and out of the scores of souvenir shops in a hurry to get back to their bus before it leaves them behind. The best times to visit this still well preserved Gothic-Roman town is early morning or evening.
    [Note: UNESCO created the concept of a World Heritage Site to protect important human or natural resources from extinction or destruction. In the case of San Gimignano, the town’s status as a World Heritage Site may be doing more to cause its rapid destruction than help to preserve it.]

    The story of San Gimignano is much like that of Volterra and other Tuscan hill towns: the Etruscans were followed by Romans, Florentines, and so on. However, over the years feuds between Guelphs (who supported the Pope) and Ghibellines (who supported the Holy Roman Emperor) resulted in a rivalry to see which group could build the tallest and most tower houses. For two centuries 72 towers were built up to as tall as 230' until the city council capped the height of any building to be no taller than the adjacent to city hall (Palazzo Comunale). Today 14 towers remain creating a memorable skyline and giving credence to the nickname “Town of Fine Towers.” Visitors can climb the Torre Grosso (tallest remaining tower at 177') for a great view of the village and surrounding countryside [Note: Access to the top of this tower costs €7.50 (US$10.25). There are 218 steps each way and an elevator is not included.]

City Tower in Siena


    Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus of Romulus and Remus fame and is considered by some to be Italy’s loveliest medieval city. It central plaza, Il Campo, is located where the Roman Forum used to be when the Empire ruled the area. Today it’s still a gathering place surrounded by restaurants, cafes, shops, businesses, and public buildings. It is known world wide as the site of the famous Palio horse race run twice each summer (see the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace”).

The Siena Duomo was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier cathedral. Black and white marble layers make up the exterior walls, a feature of other churches of the period (e.g., Orvieto Duomo). Sculptures of prophets and apostles by Giovanni Pisano (who is buried within the church walls) decorate the lower levels. The huge bronze door was installed after WW II to replace the original wooden one.

    The interior walls and columns of this striking cathedral continue the striped black and white motif. Busts of popes and emperors decorate the walls and moldings. The ceiling is painted in blue with golden stars; Bernini’s gilded lantern in the top of the dome completes a representation of heaven. Paintings and frescos are by Donatello, Bernini, and Michaelangelo, among others.

    Perhaps the most impressive feature of the interior is the ornate and magnificent floor of inlaid marble mosaic that covers the entire cathedral. The sections of the floor represent different artists, different biblical scenes, and many different techniques and subject matter. Giovanni’s “Slaughter of the Innocents” is remarkable for its scope and size and complexity. Some sections are available for viewing for only six to ten weeks each year and then covered to preserve them.

    In addition to two chapels, Chapel of St John the Baptist and the Chigi Chapel, the Piccolomini Library is a remarkable room that features displays of beautiful illuminated choir books. The frescoes around the room portray ten remarkable events in the life of Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II (1458–1464). The artist, Pinturicchio, is said to have borrowed his designs from Raphael, who is represented in some of the panels along with Pinturicchio. The colors in the frescoes appear as fresh as when they were painted in the early 1500s. The same is true for the ceiling panels which use subjects from mythology. In all, this is a part of the Duomo not to miss.
    Head of Ste Catherine
    [Note: A ticket to the Duomo only is €3.00 (US$4.00), but a combined ticket option for €12 (about US$16.50) permits entrance to the crypt (not very interesting); the baptistry (the bronze and marble font with sculptures by Donatello and Ghiberti are surrounded by frescos by Vecchietta that make this small section of the Duomo an important stop on the tour); the museum (which includes an opportunity to walk along the top of one of the outside walls for a panorama of the city), and the Piccolomini Library. In all, this is an impressive site and worth at least a half day to explore.]
•St. Catherine. We briefly visited the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico out of plain curiosity to see the mummified head and the right thumb of one of the holiest and active women to work on behalf of the church. Saint Catherine was born in Siena and lived from 1347–1380. During her short life, she traveled widely encouraging church reform and preaching repentance and dissuading anti-papal beliefs. She also wrote letters to political leaders urging peace among the city-states in Italy, and to church officials, including several to Pope Gregory XI, urging him to return from Avignon, which he did in 1377. Upon her death, her body remained in Rome where she died (she is buried in the cemetery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva across from Bernini’s elephant statue), but her head was smuggled to Siena and is displayed in a reliquary in the Church of her Dominican community in her hometown of Siena, and, it is said that one of her feet is in Venice. This remarkable woman was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461.

•Il Campo. The Piazza il Campo is the main square or public space where people sit at a cafe and look out at the people wandering across the open area, or sit on the stone surface, eat their gelato and look at the people sitting at the cafes. (We did not sample any gelato served up at any of the highly rated and highly touted gelaterias, one of which boasts they make the “best gelato in the world.” Others would certainly want to make the same claim. Let it be said that gelato is king in Siena.)
    It is fun to imagine what the il Campo is like when it is transformed into a race track for the Palio Horse Race, held every July 2 and August 16, a Siena tradition going back to the 17th century. The central area is packed with spectators who, like those watching the Indianapolis 500 from the infield, can’t see much of the race squashed in as they are with 28,000 other people, while ten horses, representing the 17 contrades (sections or neighborhoods of Siena) are ridden around the crowd on a temporary track of earth spread on the square’s brick surface special for the event. Mattresses are placed against the walls at dangerous corners. More than 33,000 other spectators pay for bleacher seats or hang out windows and balconies around the square. It must be quite a scene.

    [Note: If taxis are scarce, the same is true of visitor parking. Watch the color of parking spaces: yellow means not a chance; blue means pay; white means free parking. There are not many white lines in Siena, so planning and timing are critical. Thanks to Valerio, our host at B&B La Flora, we found a good area of free parking around the northwest side of the Fortezza (fort) and in the neighboring residential area. There are many white lines in this area and the walk to city center is less than a mile.]

•Dining in Tuscany

    We had only a few dinners out while in Tuscany, so when you see us don’t ask us many questions about Tuscany cuisine. We probably missed some amazing dining opportunities, but we tend to eat more simply with whatever is at hand. We did enjoy an outstanding dinner at the Monalbuccio Restaurant and Pizzeria not far from Siena. We went at the suggestion of our B&B host Valerio and with the guidance of our GPS, since the route was convoluted and the location fairly isolated. The large menu featured, we are sure, every traditional Tuscan dish available and each delicious. We ate antipastos (starters), primos (a pasta dish served as an appetizer; soup or polenta could be ordered instead), secundos (the main course), contornos (side dishes usually vegetables or salad), and dolce (dessert). Plus they served an excellent house red and a cappuccino to finish off the meal. You can read our review at TripAdvisor.
Claudio and Serena
    [Note: We purchased a chip with maps of Italy for our Garmin Nuvi GPS which we use when traveling in this country. We could never have had such a stress-free week of driving without it. We were never lost, always knew where we were going, which exit to take out of a roundabout, where the closest gas station was located, where the Monalbuccio Restaurant is located, etc. Without our GPS, we would have wound up in Croatia. It was the best $30 investment we made for the entire trip. We should have had one for our trip last summer to Cornwall and Devon. It would have made that trip so much more enjoyable. We love maps, we read maps, we have lots of maps, but we will never travel/drive, especially outside this country, without a GPS. Our advice: Don’t leave home without it!]

    We traveled to Buonconvento for dinner at Restorante Da Mario, a small restaurant in a non-tourist town at the suggestion of a Nederland friend who traveled there some years ago and remembered having a good meal there. We did also: the house red was excellent, the lamb was very tasty and nicely spiced, the pasta fresh and the roasted veggies just fine. We’re glad we came and sat with the locals who have kept this neighborhood restaurant prospering since 1971.

    Our B&B host Valerio is also a fine cook and will serve dinners if guests request them. He will post the menu in the morning and guests will indicate if they will be staying for dinner (at 8:00 pm). We had two meals there with Serena and Claudio (See photo above), and enjoyed Valerio’s fresh made pici, raviolis, and frittatas with roasted veggies and a selection of sliced cold meats and sheep cheeses. For dessert each night he served biscotti slices which we dipped in small glasses of Vin Santo, a very strong, sweet late-harvest wine. Now that’s a Tuscan tradition!


    We returned the car to Eurocar drop-off office in Siena and walked a few hundred yards to a bus stop where Valerio had arranged our tickets for us to board the bus to Rome on the edge of town rather than backtrack to the main bus station in downtown Siena. The bus ride was comfortable, smooth, without any delays and got us to Rome in about three hours. The Metrebus Roma (the Metro) took us to the Colosseum station, just a short walk to the Hotel Capo d’Africa for a reunion with Dan, Debra, Griffin, and Julia for one more night before we left for home. Actually, Griffin left within an hour of our arrival for his flight to Paris and a train to the southern French city of St. Jean-Pied-du-Port (probably) near the Spanish border to begin 500-mile trek on the Camino de Santiago. This traditional pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Jerome has many roads leading to the town of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. As of this writing, Griffin had completed about half the trip. He has a ticket home on July 2, so he has allowed sufficient time to make the journey.
Moirs and Buddes
    [The 2003 movie “The Way” starring Martin Sheen tells the story of a father who makes the trip to gather the remains of his son who was killed in a freak storm while making the journey. It was filmed on location and shows the terrain and scenery along the route. It’s an excellent movie and a moving story.]

    We said good-bye to Griff and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and completing our final packing for an early getaway to the airport for our morning flights home. We gathered on the rooftop patio of the hotel to enjoy the bottle of wine be brought from the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore before walking to our second dinner at Taverna Dei Contrari, where we were welcomed as though the waiter and chef truly recognized us.


    It was a perfect ending to a wonderful trip: Good wine, good food, good friends. For two weeks we were moved by history and scenery we would not see anywhere else. Best of all we shared it with part of our family whom we don’t see often enough and, with the grandchildren about to embark from college into their adult lives, we may not see together again for quite a while. We’re lucky parents and a lucky family to have had this opportunity. We’ll work hard to create another opportunity in the future.

Judy and Hughes Moir
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