I woke up early at 4:30am and looked out my window to see the rain had stopped and it was starting to get light outside. I got up to use the restroom and decided to run out to the rooftop terrace to see if I’d be greeted with a breathtaking sunrise. I found it was still too early for the sun, and I, in agreeance, promptly returned to bed.
I set my alarm for 7:00am knowing, as a result of the storm, I would need to get up early if I wanted to enjoy what Siena had to offer before everyone else. After hitting snooze a few times, I finally drug myself out of bed.
I got dressed and packed and decided to leave my bag in the room and try to be back by 10:30am, when I was due to checkout. I headed out of the hotel and started downhill, following the signs toward Piazza del Campo. Down I went, meeting few tourists along the way. The streets were quiet and the city just apparently waking up. Without difficulty, I walked directly to Piazza del Campo and was relieved when the narrow street opened up to a wide and inviting piazza. There I found a few more tourists, but the majority of the piazza remained empty. I imagined what it must be like during Il Palio – the horse race that occurs twice yearly in the Piazza. It must be something to see. I snapped a few photos and then reentered the quiet shaded roadway to explore more of the city.
I passed a small courtyard with an old well that was part of a music school. I continued walking and saw a tall black and white tower that I’d been admiring since my arrival. I immediately diverted my pathway to follow signs to the duomo and headed toward the tower. Once I got there, I was even more delighted to find the base and surrounding structure was just as beautiful as the tower I was seeing.
I took some photos and studied the structure further. It was then I realized I was actually at the duomo. As I walked from the bell tower toward the piazza, I turned around to find one of the most elaborate and majestic facades I’ve ever seen.
I was completely awestruck and couldn’t help my eyes welling up with tears. This country has so many old masterpieces hidden from the person who is unable or unwilling to travel. I’m reminded daily how blessed I am to be here and see these beautiful things. Just when I think I’m getting used to what this country has to offer, I am stopped dead in my tracks and shown otherwise.
After admiring the duomo for some time, and not having anything else I was dying to see, I decided to go to the botanical gardens. When I got there I found there was an admittance fee. As I was running short on time and money, I decided to proceed back to the hotel to make sure I checked out on time.
I arrived back at Albergo Bernini exactly at 10:30am. The woman operating the hotel spoke excellent English and offered me the ability to keep my bag in the office area. Having not eaten anything yet, and having nearly 4 hours before my train left Siena, I took her up on her offer and asked a recommendation for something to eat. She immediately looked at me with a disconcerted facial expression and clarified that I wanted breakfast as restaurants would not be open for lunch. I assured her I would eat anything, but was indeed looking for breakfast. She directed me up the hill (of course) to a little market that sells croissants, but also hamburgers and hot dogs. She seemed very pleased with this fact, and clearly couldn’t discern the disgusted look on my face when thinking about having a hamburger or hot dog while in Italy!
After reaching the area she told me of, I had to turn a few circles before finding the small entrance to the little shop. I ordered a bottle of water and a chocolate croissant and made myself comfortable on the outside patio where I had a beautiful view of Siena’s city center. During my lovely breakfast, I couldn’t help but notice a gelateria just across the street. As the croissant didn’t fill me up, I decided I better top off with a gelato. Breakfast problems. I ordered dark chocolate (70%) and caffé made from Arabic coffee. It was unbelievable. As I quickly licked it away, I walked through a nearby park, and of course, took a few more photos.
I returned to Albergo Bernini to grab my bag and start toward the train station. I remembered the walk to my hotel taking a very long time and I didn’t want to miss my train. Once I arrived, I politely waited to say thank you and return my keys. A young couple were receiving assistance in placing a dinner reservation at a reputable restaurant. Meanwhile, two gentleman piped in to give their recommendations. These men, originally from New York and now living in Morocco were enjoying their usual trip to Siena. As frequent visitors, they had many recommendations. Soon the couple left and I continued speaking with them about their travel experiences. One of the men was fluent in Italian and it gave me hope that one day I might be able to accomplish that as well. I have a looooooong way to go!
I threw my backpack on, bid “Ciao’s” all around and set out toward the city wall. Typical of many of the Tuscan hill towns, Siena sits atop a hill and is enclosed by a wall which was built for protection from enemies. The men I had just spoken with informed me that it has helped preserve the medieval architecture and history I’d had the opportunity to appreciate during my morning stroll.
As I’ve frequently found, when you’re traveling to a place you’ve never been before, it seems to take a lifetime as you don’t know where you’re going. Once you’ve traveled it, it somehow takes half the time to get back. This trip was no exception. I got to the train station much earlier than I’d anticipated, and appreciated the extra cushion as I couldn’t find the ticket office. I finally discovered it hiding behind a corner and printed my non-reserved ticket. When I went to check the screen for my track, I realized there was a train just getting ready to leave which would get me to Florence more quickly and keep me from having to wait an hour or more in the heat. I jumped on the train and in no time I was in Florence.
This part of my trip was going to be a blast. Two of my good friends from home, Sarah and Malorie, would be joining me for a few days in Florence. I arrived nearly 5 hours sooner than Sarah and Malorie, and I knew just want I wanted to do with my extra time. I had been told about a restaurant just near the Ponte Vecchio. It was recommended to my friend by his Airbnb host when he visited the year prior. She told him to go to the restaurant and ask for Francesco. Once he met Francesco, he was to tell him he’d been sent by Clementina and needed a plate of food and a glass of wine. He followed her instructions and was rewarded with amazing food and wine, and an enjoyable experience with the owner. Armed with a photo of my friend and Francesco, it was now my turn to go and tell him I’d been sent by my friend who’d met him the previous year, and I needed a plate of food and a glass of wine. After a long sweaty walk, (some of which was in the wrong direction), I finally arrived at Mangiafoco. I asked if Francesco was in and was directed to the kitchen where I had the opportunity to meet him. I told him the story and showed him the picture, and he immediately remembered my friend! He brought me to a table and the food began to come! I first received a “snack” – a plate of breads and cheeses, with a glass of wine. I also received a basket of bread, typical at every Italian restaurant I’ve dined. I then received a plate of meats and cheeses with jam and honey. Following this course, I was given fresh ravioli with pesto sauce. It tasted like it had literally just been made. I’ve never had such fresh, homemade pasta. I was starting to get full and assumed that must be the end of the food. The server came to take my plate and told me I’d be receiving a dessert tasting plate with a dessert wine. On the cusp of feeling miserable, I was not about to decline dessert – especially after the dining experience I was having! Soon, set before me was a plate of panna cotta, carrot cake and tiramisu. All of these were also extremely fresh. I realized I have never tasted tiramisu… I mean REAL tiramisu. All the others? Simply imposters to what is one of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never really been a tiramisu fan, but having now eaten the real thing, I know I’ll never eat it back home again. It would only be a recipe for disappointment.
I got my stuff together and approached Francesco to ask him for a picture. He jokingly replied “no” and then grabbed my phone and gave it to my server to take the photo. They had a conversation about whether or not my phone was an iPhone, and then she took a few photos. Once we were done, he told her to get to work and he was going with me! He then told me he was joking, as the server was his wife. She just started laughing and told me it wasn’t true. What a jokester, that Francesco. As I settled my bill, Francesco grabbed a fruit spread for cheese off the counter and told me to take it home. It’s nearly 4 oz, so I’m worried it might get confiscated! Additionally, I’m conflicted with not being able to purchase souvenirs for myself or family, so purchasing an extra bag and shipping it home is starting to sound more and more appealing.
I sent a text to Sarah and Malorie, knowing they should be arriving to Florence soon. I told them I was going to attempt to check in to the accommodation, even though it was under Sarah’s name. I easily found the apartment and called Luca, my Airbnb contact. He answered right away and informed me his colleague, Nico, would arrive within 15 minutes to let me in.
Shortly thereafter, a friendly Nico arrived on a bike and let me in the front door, walked me through a gate and to the door of the apartment. With a little jiggle, he opened the door and showed me in. He showed me all the parts of the surprisingly spacious apartment. It was cool and clean and looked like a very comfortable place to spend the next 2 days. As he was showing me the kitchen, he realized the coffee pot was missing. He said it was unacceptable to not have a coffee pot in Italy, and made a note to bring a replacement. My kind of guy! We sat at the table and he drew a map showing me where all the best attractions were at, including those that only the locals know about. I made notes in my phone, excited to share them with the girls. In a hurry to get to the next property, (he manages 60 of them for Luca), he bid me farewell and was gone just as quickly as he’d arrived.
I sat down on the couch and my eyes became very heavy. I sent a text to the girls telling them to come straight to the apartment and I’d let them in. At nearly the same time I received a text from Mal telling me they were in Florence. I drifted off as I waited for them to arrive. I was startled by another text message from Mal telling me they were at the cafe across the street. I grabbed the keys and closed the doors/gate behind me to go meet them. I found them relaxing with a glass of wine. Still full from my late afternoon feast, I opted not to order one for myself. The owner approached us and let us know he was closing, so they quickly took a few last sips of wine, and we exited the cafe to go to our apartment.
We arrived to the front door and I unlocked it with ease, warning them to watch their step just in time to keep them from tripping – just as Nico had done for me. We arrived to the gate, and it was locked this time, so I inserted the key and unlocked it with ease as well. We arrived to the door of the apartment. I inserted the key and turned. The door didn’t open. I tried to turn it the other way, and it wouldn’t budge. Then commenced a five minutes episode of turning the key back and forth attempting to get the door open. I could feel the lock turn, but at this point I wasn’t sure which was was locking and unlocking. Getting increasingly frustrated, I offered the key to the girls to attempt to open the door instead. Sarah tried and made no progress, at which point Mal attempted and was equally unsuccessful. I finally decided to call Luca while they continued to try to unlock the door. Every time we heard the lock turn, we’d attempt to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Luca did not answer his phone, but instead Alessandro. This Alessandro was the complete opposite of Sorrento’s Alessandro. I told him the situation and he very condescendingly said: “You just unlock the door.” We explained the key was working – we could put it in and hear the lock turn, but the door wouldn’t open. This was reiterated multiple times. He finally agreed to send someone over but informed us it would cost €20 to have him do so if the person was able to unlock the door with our key.
None of us really wanted to pay anyone €20, especially knowing whoever it was probably had experience with the door and knew how to open it. I asked if he had any tips or tricks and he rudely replied: “There are no tips and tricks. You just open the door.” I again emphasized that the lock wasn’t the problem, it was the door. He advised he would send someone over and while he was still insulting our ability to unlock a door, I hung up the phone. About 2 minutes later, Nico returned. I was so happy to see him! He grabbed my keys, and I realized he was equally frustrated with us, although he was saying: “I was sitting there hoping it wasn’t you guys.” It was as if he knew he was about to open that door and charge us €20. Sure enough, he put the key in and opened it right up. With the door open, I immediately grabbed the key to attempt locking and unlocking it myself. As it turns out, when you close the door, it automatically locks. When you lock it (as any recently victimized American who just had her credit cards stolen would do), the lock moves further and locks a second time. In our attempts to unlock the door, we had managed to lock it a third time. Evidently, in Italy you can lock a door multiple times versus the simple “lock” and “unlock” to which we Americans are familiar. I explained this was foreign to us, and he insisted no one ever has problems unless they’re Asian. Yikes! These guys are something else. He then asked for payment. I’m not going to sugar coat it. I was pissed. I stated to Nico that I’d specifically asked if there was anything we needed to know about the lock, and Alessandro said there was not. I further pointed out that the lock is finicky and often has to be jostled in order to get it to turn. None of these statements were acceptable and he demanded payment. We stood in disbelief and handed over a newly agreed upon amount of €15. We are looking forward to writing the review for this property.
Before Nico left, I pointed out there was no trash can in the apartment. He searched high and low and agreed there was not one. He stated he would notify Luca they needed to purchase one and would bring it in the morning. We never got it… or the coffee pot.
Irritated and tired, we settled our things and decided to find a restaurant for dinner. After walking a few blocks, we arrived at a small piazza off Borgo degli Abizzi. We studied the several available patios and finally decided on the only one with an open table, I Ghibellini. Still full, I decided on a bowl of minestrone and a glass of wine. We spent the next couple of hours eating and discussing our Italian adventures to date.
Although we were enjoying our conversation, our lengthy dinner was attributed largely to a busy server who didn’t spend much time at our table. In fact, this is typical in Italy. The dining experience isn’t meant to be hurried. It’s not unusual in the US to be pushed along so the server can get another table and more tips. In Italy, it isn’t customary to tip, and the server will let you stay there until closing if you’d like! In most cases, I have had to ask for my ticket, and this evening was no different.
With excitement, I pulled out my newly received credit card!!!!! (It, of course, was safely packed away in my money belt). We paid for dinner and went back to the apartment. On the way back, Sarah wanted to grab a beer to keep at the apartment. She brought it to the counter when the lady, in Italian, said something indicating she couldn’t take it and took it away from her and put it on the floor under the counter. We were very confused! Did this mean she couldn’t purchase it and carry it on the street? Did it have to be opened by her? Sarah tried to reason with her for a few minutes. She and Malorie looked at me for help with translation, but I could only pick out a few words and was no help to her! Soon the woman picked it up, wrapped it in a bag and stuck it in Sarah’s purse. Of course! What did she think Sarah was going to do with it?
With the beer safely stashed away in Sarah’s purse, we returned to the apartment. Having practiced unlocking the door multiple times before leaving, we were able to get right in. I took a shower, went to bed to blog and…. passed out instead.