Horseback Riding in Chianti

Our Friday started kind of sketchy, because we couldn’t find the group of people we were supposed to meet by the McDonald’s (it’s truly a travesty that there’s a McD’s in Firenze).  Then our drivers found us and led us over to a van in the train station parking lot.  We rode with a woman who was taking a Vespa tour through Chianti.  Nicole, Emily and I were the only people going horseback riding.

The people at the stables were so sweet.  They let us walk around the barn area and pet the horses.  They had Friesians, the big black horses with the long, wavy mane and tail, and they were so beautiful.  We ate some Italian snacks out of the vending machine in the locker room and then got ready to ride.  I never caught my horse’s name, but Emily’s horse was named Brutta.  Which, by the way, is Italian for “ugly,” so poor Brutta.  She was actually very pretty.  Em was kind of nervous about riding because she hadn’t done it as much as me and Nicole, but her horse was very sweet.  Brutta liked to stop in the middle of the trail and start munching on the tall grass, and Emily would laugh and try to pull her back in the right direction.  It was so peaceful, weaving around the grapevines and walking through forests with songbirds in the trees.

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Afterwards, we were taken to Monteriggioni, a 13th century castle in Chianti.  From a distance it looks like a crown, and a Medici lady wore it as a crown on a stamp or something, so it’s called the crown of Italy.  We had a wine tasting in what was apparently the oldest room in the city.  It felt so private, since it was just the three of us.  The lady leading the tasting was so nice and informative abou the wine.  (That’s what I wrote in my journal, but there’s no more detail.) A lot of the wine came from a nearby winery called Monte Chiaro: Terra della Grigia.  Anyways, it was really good.  The lady had white, pink and purple hair, and I really wanted to take a picture of her for the portrait project in my photo class, but I was too nervous to ask.

We met up with the Vespa people for lunch.  It was a huge lunch with bread, oil and vinegar, bruschetta, two kinds of pasta, and pie and gelato for dessert.  And more wine.  I was so full! Image

After lunch we walked around the castle, but we weren’t feeling that great and were all kind of cranky, like trail riding really takes it out of you.  Monteriggioni is so pretty, with olive groves everywhere and these panoramic views when you stand outside the city walls.

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Siena and San Gimignano

In a spur of the moment trip, Erica, Nicole, Sylvia and Natalie and I went on a Bus2Alps day trip to Siena and San Gimignano.  I had wanted to go to Siena over the summer–ten days before I got to Italy, Il Palio was held in Piazza del Campo.  The Palio is a huge bareback horse race dating from the Middle Ages.  It is run twice every summer, once in July and once in August.  Ten of the city’s 17 contrade, or districts, compete (the contrade are rotated every year). Each contrada hangs a flag with its colors and symbol, usually an animal.  The seventeen contrade are Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Turtle), Torre (Tower), and Valdimontone (Ram).   The winner of the race wins the palio, which is a painted silk banner, as well as fame within the city.  Emotions are high prior to the Palio.  Even the horses must have protection, because there have been occasions when the horse favored to win, or a horse from a rival contrada, has been drugged, or even stolen.  There are feasts and celebrations, and the horses are treated like royalty.  In the end, it all comes down to the horse.  There are a couple of turns in Piazza del Campo that a pretty dangerous.  Horses and riders go down hard.  It doesn’t matter if the rider makes it across the finish line–whichever contrada‘s horse gets there first wins.

Palio flags:

Palio flags

Okay, so enough about the Palio.  We met our Bus2Alps group at the train station, and took a bus about an hour out to Siena.  We stopped at a parking lot for tour busses outside of the city, and we walked to this lookout where you could see the whole city.  The skyline is dominated by the Duomo, which is unique not only because the dome is blue but because it is in the middle rather than at the end of the cathedral.

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Then we walked over to Basilica di San Domenico, where we found something amazing!  I don’t remember much about the church, just what we saw in it.

There was a head.  St. Catherine’s head.  I don’t know much about it.  I read that she experience at lot of visions of Christ and received her stigmata in this church, in the Cappella delle Volte.  I’m not really sure why they only have her head though…

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That’s literally the creepiest thing I’ve ever posted.

So then we got a walking tour around Siena.  I would love to spend some time in that city, if only to be able to find my way around.  The streets wind all over the place.  We walked up to the Piazza del Duomo.  We didn’t have enough time to stand in line to get at ticket and go inside, but I looked at pictures on the brochure, and I really wish I had been able to go inside.  The interior of the Siena Duomo is black and white marble, which is pretty unique among Gothic churches in Europe.  The outside had the most intricate masonry I had ever seen–the marble was like milk, and there was also pink marble in the entrance archways.

Siena Duomo

We waited in the Piazza de Campo, where the Palio is held, and walked around the courtyard inside the Palazzo Pubblico, which is the Gothic-era town hall that was finished in 1342.  We also watched pigeons playing and drinking water in the Fonte Gaia in the piazza.

After the rest of our group showed up, we went to Tenuta Torciano for wine tasting.  The tasting room was beautiful, and had a bunch of tables set up for our group.  The walls were gold and there was a table with several bottles of wine on it.  There were two glasses of wine in front of each spot, one for white and one for red.  The white wine was Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the first red was Chianti, which was my favorite.  Our first plate of food was salad, prosciutto and some kind of cheese.  Second was gnocchi, and last was lasagna.  The man in charge of the tasting was so passionate about wine, and he called all the girls principessa.  The other red wines that we tried were Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Cavaliere and Bartolomeo.  They got drier as we moved up the list.  We also got to smell truffle oil, which was put by my nose when I wasn’t looking, so I turned towards it and yelled “What?!” when I saw it there.  There was a bucket in the middle of the table where we could pour the wine when we were done tasting it.

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After the wine tasting we all got to go out to the garden, where there was a willow tree and a little arbor with a bench under it.  Nicole was a little tipsy and said she wanted to bring the pomegranate tree home with her but she couldn’t.  After a few minutes of consideration, she turned me and said, “I’ll put a ring on it.”

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time in San Gimignano.  It is best known for having 14 of the original 76 medieval towers still standing throughout the town.  The towers served as both fortresses and watchtowers as well as symbols of their owners’ wealth.

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There were tiny streets–more like alleys, and no cars.  We walked up the street from the main entrance to the town and into the Piazza della Cisterna, named for the well in the center.  There, two tiny shops sold “the best gelato in the world.”  (Sorry, but the stuff in the Oltrarno was better.)  We got gelato and walked around the edges of the town to see the views from the top of the hills.  San G has amazing views of Tuscany.

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There were also, inexplicably, these guys all over the place:

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