Day 53 - San Gimignano, creepy Siena, and the stinky six person couchette from hell
We've wrenched our ticket from the toll booth and in a blindingly white, excruciatingly small rented Fiat 500CC, I realise something. "I don't think we're going the right way," I say to Rob. His eyes bulge a little. He's going 140 kilometres per hour on an Italian freeway and probably doesn't need this. I punch at the GPS and there it is; we're going the opposite way to San Gimignano. Even with the aid of a satellite launched into the atmosphere guiding our little Fiat, we're lost. We have to do a huge, wheeling circle back into Florence and out the other side. The toll costs 1 euro. I alarm Rob by thinking the door handle is the window control.
At first, the roads are standard; tunnels, wide lanes, slicing through nameless industrial areas. Then, that famed Tuscan countryside unfolds and my gasps getting bigger and bigger as we get nearer to our destination. It's fall and the grapevines are weaving gold, yellow, and maroon plaits through rolling hills. Squat, red-roofed country houses stand guard. The silvery leaves of olive trees, the spreading branches of the fig, and the spears of cypresses punctuate the horizon. Large flocks of birds whirl and swivel round the sky. Welcome to today's postcard, the Tuscan countryside.
We're in San Gimignano just as the restaurants and shops are opening. It's after 12.30 pm. The fourteen out of the original seventy-somehing towers that used to pockmark the town are imposing. Yet, there's enough open spaces, plazas, green spaces, and lookout-towers to make you think you're inside the walls of an enormous castle.
There's a touch of fairy tale in the air. You can see it in the red-leafed vine clambering up the stone facade of a tall building, the small market along the Piazza del Duomo where an elderly couple sell chestnuts they've foraged in the forest, and, along the preserved medieval walls, the winding stairs you can ascend to look down on a gorgeous countryside landscape. The town feels like a castle complex that Ludwig II might have built along the Romantic Road, full of potential Rapunzels swinging their braids down tower windows. We've even got a court musician on board. He's a creepy middle-aged man, straddling a giant flute. He plays it with his eyes closed and he rocks back and forth. A couple stand in front of him, enthralled, and even shockingly romanced by this weirdo humping his oversized flute. They kiss while he plays and clap rapturously when he finishes. They are the only ones to do so. Everyone else gives them a wide berth. I'm helpless with laughter a few metres away.
The road from San Gimignano to Siena thrills Rob. The Fiat is going like clappers; which is to say, sort of fast. In the rear view mirror, the Fiat farts out fall leaves in a flurry behind him. The trees lining the narrow road bend towards each other. "It's just like Gran Turismo!" Rob exclaims. If he could take his hands off the steering wheel, he'd be clapping.
The main sights of Siena is up a freaking great big hill. My knees fail a little just looking up at the zebra striped towers above me. But someone is looking after us. We've had the blind good luck of parking at Santa Caterina and just inside the gates, I hear the equivalent of angels singing; it's the sound of lumbering escalators, ready to haul us up the gravity-defying hill.
The Duomo itself is over-the-top, zebra-striped, and full of growling animals and faces jutting out of its facade. It's like a big, desperate one-up to Florence's duomo. That duomo may have scale but this duomo has stuff. Inside, the frescoes are simple, geometric stars on a midnight blue sky. No frou-frou pastel coloured frescoes by Vasari for this soaring Siennese church. Outside, a group of men gather on the steps along the side of the church and spontaneously start to sing.
As it gets darker and darker, Siena reveals its true self. It's a true Dark-Age, fire-and-brimstone kinda town. Towering buildings, dark passages, snaky streets, and gothic buildings that have won the fight against a good waterblasting. There's even stone stairs, climbing up into who-knows-where, down a street that is literally called the Road of the Malcontent. Later, I find out that convicted criminals sentenced to death were marched along this street. Nice one, Siena. Way friendly street naming.
Thankfully, the main tourist sights are well signposted, and strangely, so are the many different parking buildings. I've never been in a town that took such care to remind you where you've parked. Maybe that's because everyone likes to come to Siena for the day, but if you don't have a reason to be here after dark, you run outta there and hope the bad Gothic spirits don't follow you home.
Back in Florence, we drop the car off and we're on an unforgiving overnight train to Paris. After a we're given four minutes to change at Milan due to train delays, we're on the bottom bunk of a six person couchette. We're sharing with four stinky men. One is on the top bunk speaking Arabic. There's another who's lounging in the middle bunk and stares and stares and stares. I imagine sleeping in his line of sight and I hurriedly choose the bunk straight below him. Unfortunately, he is the stinkiest man in there and I have to spray my Cherry Batiste Dry Shampoo into the air because the stench is foul and I want to vomit. I grouchily recall my 2 person sleeper from Venice to Paris six years ago and Rob and I argue about exactly who it was that cheaped out and got this couchette from hell instead. The next morning, Rob informs me that I slept with a strange man's sock on my head. What a beautifully elegant way to exit Italy and enter France.