On a Friday morning we packed our umbrellas and piled in a hired van, setting off for Sienna. At this point in our trip, I had been overcome with an attack of allergies. I was sneezing frequently and plagued with sinus pressure and a headache. I would not be deterred from going, however. I had not come to Italy to sit in a hotel room drinking tea and blowing my nose. No, I would come along and make everyone else miserable.
It was pouring with rain as we walked along the streets of Sienna. We went to the Monte dei Paschi di Siena– a bank currently at the center of a large scandal. While standing by the bank, we were actually caught by a news camera and later that evening, saw ourselves on the Italian news. Mostly it was just our umbrellas, but we recognized ourselves. It was a big moment.
We moved on to Santa Maria Assunta, Sienna’s duomo. It has a pretty amazing facade. The building wasn’t completed however. The original portion that was intended to be inside the structure is outside. In fact, what would have been the central congregating area is now a parking lot for the building next door. The baptistry is located under the dome instead of being housed separately as in many basilicas. We climbed the tower and had a great view of the town before the rain started driving in even heavier.
After our drenching time in Sienna we clambered back into our van and found ourselves being twisted and turned along narrow roads in the hills. I quietly moaned that I was dying, as my head lolled against the back seat of the van. “I don’t think you’re dying,” one of my fellow travelers said. I disagreed. The pressure in my head, the post nasal drip, and the ocean like movement of the van all spelled a rare case of motion sickness for me.
When we finally arrived at the vineyard, Stefano, our charming local guide held his umbrella over me as we ran ahead to meet with the vineyard owner. I was just happy to be out of the van, the heights of my ambition for the afternoon had been reached by this alone. When we stepped out of the rain and into the dining room where we were having lunch, everything changed. Our bedraggled party was overcome with the scene before us. A long, polished wooden table with seating for twelve was placed in the center of the room. Candle holders made of iron twisted to look like grape vines decorated the table. Suspended above was a matching chandelier about three feet in diameter. The white candles were lit. On the walls were black and white photographs. The atmosphere was incredibly cozy and welcoming. We settled in, trying to take photos to capture the experience of earthiness and peace around us.
After an incredible lunch of three courses (one of which was wild boar– surprisingly nice), each complemented by wine, we found that the rain had stopped for the moment. We were shown to the cellar where the wine sat in great barrels, patiently fermenting. We found the little chapel on the grounds as well. Perhaps it was due to our desperation for dryness and food, but we were greatly charmed by the whole setting and proclaimed it an excellent spot for a wedding.
We put our tipsy selves back in the van once more, the wine making us laugh at things that weren’t that funny in some cases, while others of our party dozed.
We then arrived at our final destination of the day: San Gimignano. The tiny town is within the walls of a medieval fortress with steep towers sprinkled across the skyline with a large well in the one of the main centers (Piazza della Cisterna as it would happen). It was one of my favorite spots on our trip to Italy. There was something so quaint about the way modern homes and businesses fit into medieval brick.
Stefano took us down an alley and we ended up at what he described as one of the best outlooks around Sienna. I don’t doubt it. As we stood, looking out over the wall, we could see the Tuscan countryside sprawling languorously before us. Waves of green hills, little clustered houses, and the cloudy sky that had finally stopped spewing on us at last. “This is Italy,” I murmured dramatically through my stuffed nose.
We were all a bit wearied by the day’s excursion. Between moaning and sneezing, I had made an enemy of our entire group. I tried to refrain from both as the sun set and we returned to Florence. It was worth the physical discomfort, however. If I ever become a famous and reclusive writer, you’ll probably be able to find me hiding out in a tower in San Gimignano.