Print Story Ah, Siena
By TheophileEscargot (Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 01:29:27 AM EST) Italy, Reading, What I Did On My Holidays, Photos, Florence (all tags)
Italy Trip: Part One of Two with Photos. Reading: "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."

Italy Trip: Part One
12 Dec

Arrived in Florence without any problems. Excellent flight: plane was only about a fifth full so had a row of seats to myself, plenty of space, and no screaming kids. If only all flights were like that.

Managed to forget my earplugs again. Have hotel room facing outwards rather than into the courtyard, but not sure that would make much difference. Will see what the first night is like.

Had a quick wander round the town centre. Seems like an odd mix of narrow medieval alleyways and busy main roads cutting through: makes it quite hard to get anywhere.

Weather about the same as London in the day. Not sure about the night, but people seem to be wearing ominously thick coats.

Hotel not bad, but a bit overpriced I think. Nice furniture though. And you get slippers and a dressing gown. I think the dressing gown might be a USian thing: they always have them in the movies but I've never stayed in a hotel that's had them. It was supposed to have Intenet access in every room, though I didn't plan to use it since it's a hefty 10 Euro. Doesn't seem to work though: nothing happens when I press the button.

Eating. Breakfast: soup, bread roll, cheese, pastrami. Supper: 3 course italian meal: smoked salmon, ravioli, veal. Snacks: apple.

Found it quit stressful going into a restaurant solo and with very little Italian. Seemed easier in Paris where they seemed to have more people going in for a quick bite after work as well as long late social meals.

13 Dec

Busy day today. Started off at the Uffizi. This definitely seems to be the right tine to visit the museums. The guidebooks are full of dire warnings about four-hour queues to get in: I arrived shortly after they opened (8:30)and had to wait about two minutes. Was pretty quiet inside, but seemed to be getting busier towards the end. Still had several rooms to myself.

Overall, it's a great museum but I think you'd be hard put to spend two days there as one guidebook suggests. It's not a mega-museum like the Louvre that overwhelms with the quantity and variety of content. It's smaller, about the size of Tate Britain, with a tightly focussed collection of Italian Renaissance art, most notable for the excellent quality of its exhibits.

Highlights for me: The Battle of Otranto, with its forest of spears. Seeing famous things like Botticelli's Venus on the half-shell and the portaits of the Duke and Duchess if Urbino. The Niobe room of ancient sculptures, amazingly lifelike with frozen rippled cloth. The sculpture of the wild boar, realistic enough to get Obelix salivating. And the long corridors with lavishly painted ceilings, lined with sculptures and paintings.

Finding it a bit hard to get to grips with Italy. Don't seem to be any supermarkets round here and I find it hard to buy stuff: had to queue for about 10 minutes to buy an apple and an orange at a grocers. In Paris I had even French people asking me for directions: here I seem to be instantly idenifiable as a tourist: a couple of people have even spoken to me in English before I've said a word, and not while I'm carrying a book or a rucksack. Maybe it's my short M&S black cloth jacket: they all seem to be in puffa jackets or crotch-length car-coat thingies. Or maybe it's the buzzcut: don't see many of those here. Also I suppose another advantage of Paris was that people ignore you, which is what I want and am used to. If I go into a shop here the assistant keeps trying to assist me. I don't want to get into a converation when I don't even know if I want anything.

Next up went into the Palazzo Vecchio, former seat of government. Surreally, the main office alongside elaborate baroque furniture has a modern phone and a couple of Biros: it's apparently still used for some major meetings. There are a few decent paintings on the walls, but the highlights are the elaborately painted ceilings and period decor. Also great is the map room, the kind of thing a 17th century Bond villain would have. There's a huge globe the height of a man in the centre, and the walls are lined with maps of the known world,

From there went to the cathedral, the Duomo. Looks strange from the outside: the building is medieval, but the outside is covered with a 19th century Gothic Revival facade, mostly white with intricate green trim. Looks quite nice I suppose, but kept thinking "Don't eat the green icing" for some reason. It's not like the Houses of Parliament though: I suppose neo-Gothic on paleo-Gothic makes sense.

Impressive on the inside, where it's a lot clearer and uncluttered. Some great stained glass windows, and the inside of the dome is painted. Went up to the top where there's a superb view over the city. Pretty hazy though: Florence seems to be in the middle of a pollution-bowl of mountains. Didn' think a city this small would be so polluted in tbe winter: seems worse than London and feel like I'm rasping for breath sometimes. Avoid the crypt if you go: it's another 3 euros for just a glimpse of an old floor mosaic. The museum is worth doing though: has a lot of the carvings and decorations from the interior; inlcuding Michelangelo's famous Pieta. Apparently he identified with it, wanted it for his own grave, but part-smashed it in a fit of rage when he discovered a flaw in the marble.

After that went South of the river to the Palazzo Pitti. Bigger museum than the Uffizi and a lot more diverse: has a "Modern Art" museum of mostly 19thn century stuff, and a more diverse geography with lots of the Dutch masters and French paintings as well as the Italians.

Eating. Breakfast: egg, bacon, ham, cheese, bread rolls. Supper: Pizza Fiorentina. Snacks: apple, orange.

Hotel has a free buffet breakfast, so stuffed myself there. Had a pizza for supper. Loved it, but I have notoriously bad taste in pizzas: I keep getting taken to "authentic" pizza places where you get a dust-dry discus of dough with a couple of smears of cheese and tomato, and hating it. This one had a nice crislpy base, but a fairly gooey topping of cheese, tomato and meat. I'm developing a theory that while cheap UKian pizzas are all-gooey, and posh UKian pizzas are all-crispy, Italian pizzas are intended to combine the two.

Not sure how authentic an Italian pizza can be anyway: I thought they where invented by Italian immigrants to the US.
View from the Duomo

14 Dec

Beginning to get to grips with things a bit better today. Wasn't sure whether to ask for a different room: this one's a bit noisy with traffic in the mornings, but not sure there's a better one: the courtyard is open on one side and they've got an odd habit of having the corridors on the courtyard and the rooms facing outward. Suppose it maximizes guest space while minimizing non-revenue-generating floor space. Anyway, ventured into a farmacia and managed to buy the earplugs I forgot to get, as well as some aspirina (as-pee-ree-na). Also discovered a 99-cents shop where I managed to get some cheap snacks and stuff.

Took it a bit easier sight-seeing-wise today: don't want to rush things. Went to the Museo Archeologico and had a look through their collection. They've got a fair amount of Egyptian stuff, though a lot less than the BM, and a huge selection of Etruscan, Greek imports and Early Roman ceramics and bronzes. Too much to take in, really. Presents the evolution of the styles very well, thanks to the usual useful comprehensiveness of the Medici.

Went through a lorra basicas today. Gobsmacked at how one tiny city can have so many places that would be grand cathedrals elsewhere.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo I thought was even better inside than the Duomo: slightly smaller but more tranquil, and with superb paintings and sculptures by Lippi, Donatello. Attached to it is the Medici chapel, with their tombs decorated by Michelangelo. The common exterior looks a bit tatty with exposed brick/stonework though.

Tried to go to the Santa Maria Novella but it was closed. For religion. Gah.

Did go to the Basilica di Santa Croce. Another beautiful one, calm and peaceful. Contains Michelangelo's tomb. Attached to it is a Refectory with some frescoes, now also used to display some frescoes. The cloister was a tranquil place to disappear from the noise and chaos of the city.

Lunch: got a slice of pizza from one of the lunch shops, which he warmed in the microwave: not actually that nice. Also had a packet of kind-of-Italian Pringles from the 99c shop. Not bad, but they haven't managed the excellent Pringles resealable packet. This looks like a Pringles tube, but you have to tear open the cardboard, and inside is a disappointingly small tray like the ones you get Jaffa cakes on, with the crisps sealed in with plastic.

Went for a bit of a walk along the river to the west of the tourist area. Interesting: there's a long park alongside the river, with quite a few people strolling, jogging and vespaing along it. Got a superb sunset view of the old town alongside the river. Didn't have the camera with me though. Have mixed feelings on cameras on holiday: always thought it kind of ruins the moment when every time you see something cool or beautiful you start fumbling for the camera and worrying about the light.

Had supper at the hotel, which boasts quite a posh restaurant, with a couple of pages of traditional Tuscan food.

Food was superb. Had a fish and herb starter. Main course: freshly-made pasta with a minced beef/tomato sauce and what seem like croutons scattered through it to give a crunchy sub-texture. Dessert was an allegedly trditional sponge cake/choc mousse / ice cream concoction: delicious.

Odd atmosphere though. Hotel is very quiet: saw only a few people in there last night, and today I was the only customer. Felt a bit like Naploleon with everyone at my beck and call. As I left, the waiter, bartender and chef were sitting at the bar together. Hope I didn't wreck their evening by giving them work.
Hotel room

15 Dec

Little bit scary with my minimal Italian, but took a day trip to Siena by bus. Fortunately he managed to understand my oono an-dant-ah ee ri-tor-no per see-en-a per fav-or-ay and I got a ticket. Went there on an express double-decker and got a great seat at the front with a floor-length windscreen in front. Got a good view of the castle-topped Tuscan hills. Still a little hazy though: reminded me a little of Northern California with its wooded hills and houses in the valleys. Trip back was a little different: wasn't sure if my ticket would work but the driver seemed to think it was OK, b ut Firenze Directo turns out to mean "inch your way through the crowded centres of every town in between stopping everywhere". Still took less than two hours though (hour and a quarter on the way there) and I got to see more of the countryside. Amazing site at sunset on the way back was a dozen vast swarms of birds (swallows maybe) wheeling in formation after insects,. Amazing that when the swarms came together head-on there didn't seem to be one collision.

Siena's a small, well-preserved student town, a little like York only hilly. And prettier. The centre is pedestrianized which I think is essential given the narrow winding medieval streets. Seemed like a much happier and more peaceful atmosphere than Firenze. The city was a rival of Firenze till the Medici's kicked their arses, so its art and architecture are kind of frozen in early Renaissance / late medieval mode.

Another great cathedral. The outside is colourful white, green and red marble, genuine gothic. The Firenze Duomo looks more authentic to me now: it's a 19th century neo-gothic attempt at the same look. I suppose faded paintings mean that you (that is, I) don't tend to think of the 13th century as as bright and gaudy as it was. The basilicas are beginning to blur together for me (bad sign) but this one had a wonderful inlaid marble floor. Also has a museum, a baptistry and a vault attached, with some interesting paintings. Also a lot of paintings in the Metropolitan museum: must be a fortune in gold on all those medieval alterpieces and church paintings. Some of them have been heavily restored and again they're astonishingly gaudy. Couldn't help wincing and exclaiming aloud at one particularly gruesome set of martydoms, with some poor bastard being skinned alive in cheerful technicolour.

Centre of the town is the idyllic-looking Piazza del Campo. It's kind of this huge sloping scallop-like redstone dish; empty when I got there but had quite a few students eating pizza slices and paninis on the sunny side at lunchtime. Another museum and a tall tower, but didn't go up that one since I'd already been up one almost as high at the cathedral.

The museum in the monks' hospital is unbelievably vast: a huge warren of about six levels of basements; you sometimes have to go through a dozen turns of empty, roughly-finished stone corridors to get to a display case. Kept waiting for Lara Croft to turn the corner but no such luck. On the plus side didn't have to dodge any rolling boulders. Some interesting archeological stuff, and another couple of chapels.

Had a panini for lunch: was nice but didn't seem much better than the paninis at home. had a pizza slice for lunch yesterday that wasn't particularly bad: he nuked it in the microwave, though not enough to make it soggy.

Yesterday went to the mini-gym at the hotel. Did my normal dumb-bell exercises. It was empty apart from me. Had a very quick go on the running machine for the first time ever, but felt pretty stupid. Seems like an odd arrangement and selection of equipment. There's two sections: the one with mirrors has the running/rowing/elliptical machines, but the dumb-bells and bench are in the other. So, you can't check your form with the free weights, but you do have to watch yourself puffing away on the treadmill. Very new, funky-looking machines: don't think it gets much use.
Siena plaza

Siena rooftops

16 Dec

Quiet day today. Have done most of the main attractions of Florence no: there are some smaller churches and museums I could try but I'm getting fine art overload. Oh look another old master, ho hum. Have one more day here, but might take a day trip to Pisa if the transport works out.

Got ripped off at the Museo del Bargello: short-changed for the ticket, but didn't realise too late. Not that much of interest in there, and large chunks were closed off. Recommendation: avoid.

Had a look for potential presents at the Scuola del Cuoio, the leatherworkers school. The decent stuff was hugely expensive though, and seems a bit crap just getting a knick-knack.

Went to the Galleria dell'Accademia. More great paintings, some Russian icons, an unimpressive collection of musical instruments not as good as that in the V&A, and Michangelo's David. Not too crowded. Had seen a couple of full-sized replicas of David before so not much different. Check out the plaster cast in the V&A if you're there, though it is slightly less shiny. On the controversies: didn't seem in any worse condition than the cast to me. Looked at the replica in its intended position in the square, and don't think the positioning makes much difference.(Apparently the proportions are subtly distorted to make it look better and more realistic in its intended position) but the space its in now is I think big enough to give you a realistic viewing position. Might be different if the place is packed and you can only see it from the front of the crowd.

Went up to the Piazzale Michelangelo that overlooks the city from the South. Great view, but the pollution-haze does damage it. The walk up isn't too hard, just some gentle ramps from the Piazza Giuseppe Poggi: guidebook oversold it.

OK, I'm an Internet addict. Couldn't resist going to a cybercafe and checking up on some things. Under a new anti-terrorism law though you can't use one without photo-ID though. Presumably that means it's all being monitored, and the Italian government is now up to speed on HuSi. The Train Italia cybercafe chain has Firefox, but I foolishly didn't check until I'd logged in everywhere anyway.

Other odds and ends. The Italian phrasebook has come in really handy, for looking up semi-obscure words and being able to form complex questions with simple answers. The language problem is more with listening than speaking: can't really ask questions with complex answers. Examples. At Siena the bus station's ticket office is underground and there aren't bay numbers, so didn't think I'd be able to understand any directions to the simple question: "where do I catch the bus".

Also it gets a bit grating having to play an aimiable moron to get helpfully patronized. I want to go back to acting like the bitter sociopath I am.
Piazza Michelangelo

What I'm Reading
Finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Mostly-autobiographical story of a spoiled rich kid who has to start acting as a parental unit to his younger brother after both his parents die of cancer. Has a huge load of meta-stuff with appendices, people breaking out of character to address the reader, and so on; but it's not too irritating. I really ought to finally plough my way through Tristram Shandy sometime (that's a book) so I can sneeringly point out that all this stuff is utterly derivative of this centuries-old masterpiece.

Strange experience: at one point someone I met seems to be mentioned in the text as going to the same high school. This is going through the description, not the name, she's pretty distinctive. In the book Eggers seems to play it down as a fairly typical high school, but she seemed to think it was an unusual case with lots of kids-of-celebs-and-millionaires going there. Kind of makes it less impressive when he talks about former classmate becoming megastar Vince Vaughn.

< Today. | BBC White season: 'Rivers of Blood' >
Ah, Siena | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)
Great diary, by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #1 Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 02:19:44 AM EST
thanks for posting it! I haven't been to Firenze in years, unfortunately. I seem to recall mostly eating in some sort of pasta version of McDonalds not too far from the river...

Excellent. by blixco (4.00 / 2) #2 Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 09:42:59 AM EST
Thanks for the diary.

Also, do you have a link to larger versions of your pictures?  They're quite wonderful.
I accidentally had a conversation in italian at lunchtime. I don't speak italian. - Merekat

Thanks! by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #7 Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 09:53:09 AM EST
I don't have any larger versions online at the moment: might put some on Flickr if I get around to it.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
Voted Diary to Front Page by MohammedNiyalSayeed (4.00 / 1) #3 Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 10:58:37 AM EST

Based on the strength of "dust-dry discus of dough", alone. Though the rest was good, too.

You can build the most elegant fountain in the world, but eventually a winged rat will be using it as a drinking bowl.
Italia by TurboThy (4.00 / 1) #4 Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 01:43:03 PM EST
Love the pic of the Arno - shame about the crane on the horizon, though.
Sommerhus til salg, første række til Kattegat.
Tristram Shandy by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #5 Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 09:48:16 PM EST
I've never read Tristram Shandy, but Uncle Toby's is the name of quite a common food brand (once company, now a part of Nestle) in Australia. They make breakfast cereals, muesli bars, and so on, all very wholesome family stuff.

I vaguely remembered this information coming into the rather funny Steve Coogan movie. I thought it was an obscure otherwise forgotten early comic novel - late 18th century pop culture; I didn't realise it was supposed to be one of the great novels in English. Still, it was a surprise to find it quite so full of dick jokes.

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

WIPO: by ammoniacal (4.00 / 1) #6 Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 08:53:42 AM EST
Lombardy: Good
Everywhere Else: Shite

"To this day that was the most bullshit caesar salad I have every experienced..." - triggerfinger

+1FP by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #8 Mon Jan 08, 2007 at 02:22:08 AM EST
Tons of info for someone who's planning on visiting one day. Might print it out actually - I trust you more than Lonely Planet anyway.

Interesting about the Italian food, they seem to eat almost as much crap as us but there's a lot of really good stuff as well. When I was in Genoa I consistently ate the best food I'd eaten anywhere, ever. It's quite famous for its food though and not a tourist destination, which might have something to do with it.

I think pizza was invented in Naples, and went to America with the high immigration from the area. Not totally sure though.

It's political correctness gone mad!

Ah, Siena | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)