I reached Firenze Santa Maria Novella station before noon and after some delay in trying to get directions and the right bus to my B&B, I managed to reach Via Dei Pepi, which was close to Piazza Santa Croce. Diana Pepi, one of the owners of L’Acacia, came downstairs to help me with my bags. Diana and her mother, Rosali, occupied the top floor, living in two of the apartments while renting out the third. My room was a pleasant surprise as it was large and comfortable, a contrast to the rooms I had stayed at in Torino and Venezia.
Diana mentioned that it was San Giovani’s day in Florence and therefore a public holiday. She added that there would be a 15th century football match at Piazza Santa Croce that evening due to which the road where the B&B was located would be closed and if I wanted to go out, to make sure that I took the L’Acacia visiting card so that I would be let back in the road.
Since I was feeling tired, even after having lunch, I decided it would be best to rest a little before going out again. It was around 5p.m. that I went downstairs to go on my walk around the neighbourhood. I heard loud noises from firecrackers and crowds coming from the direction of Piazza Santa Croce and I hesitated to go out. A group, all painted in red, ran past the gate screaming towards the Piazza. I seriously began to doubt if I should go out at all. However, after some time, the street seemed quiet, very quiet, so I thought I would venture out. I stepped out of the gate and saw the two ends of the street had been blocked and lots of medics and police, with shields and batons at the road blocks. It took me a few seconds before I decided that having come downstairs, I would at least go to the nearby supermarket to buy something for dinner. As I walked up to the barrier, the police looked questioningly at me. I said, “I want to go to the supermercato” and pointed in the direction away from the piazza. The police impatiently nodded and said, “preggo.” I walked past the painted, shaven heads of medieval football fans and walked down the street in the direction of the supermarket mentioned by Diana. The street was totally quiet and except for the football fans, there was no one else around. There was a very tense sort of excitement in the air about the place. I decided that that evening was not the right time to be going about exploring the city for the first time and that I should simply go back to the apartment after stocking up on snacks and water bottles at the supermarket.
After shopping, I walked back to the blocked street. When I approached closer, I noticed that there seemed to be verbal altercations between the police and the crowds. As I reached the crowd and said, ‘scusi,’ I think my face must have displayed my nervousness because the men who had been shouting at the police started making way for me and was telling those in front to let the signorina pass through. I was happy to reach my apartment and room and watched segments of some Italian movies and dubbed American TV series for the rest of the evening.
At breakfast the next morning at Rosali Pepi’s apartment, the friendly cat and the dog in the house came to greet me. After breakfast, I walked to the Santa Maria Novella station to the meeting point for the bus tour to Siena and San Gimignano. I located my tour bus easily and after the guide checked my name in the list, he noted that I had mentioned walking difficulties in my booking email to them so asked to let him know if the pace was difficult for me at any point. The tour operators were nice and the guide did check in to see if I was alright and comfortable occasionally throughout the day trip. The bus started on time and we left Firenze through Porta Romano passing the village of La Certosa, a nice area with a monastery on a hill. I think that would also be a nice place to stay at, the next time I visit.
Upon reaching Siena, the guide divided us into four groups: two English speaking groups, one French-speaking and one Spanish speaking and assigned us four local guides. My group’s guide was funny and informative.
Our walking tour took us through interesting, winding streets crowded with people until we stopped at a small square with a statue. She said that it was an important part of the city, where the headquarters of the Siena bank – Montei dei Paschi was located. This bank founded in the 12th century is the oldest working bank in the world. She mentioned a local joke about the three dreams that every Sienese had in their life, which also illustrated the importance of this bank to the Sienese, “to work at the Montei Dei Paschi, to withdraw or deposit money at Montei Dei Paschi, to retire and get their pension money from Montei Dei Paschi”.
Then, she pointed out an interesting wall tile, which had the mascot of the contrada. She added that Siena was divided into 17 contradas or communes and each had a mascot. The tiles were placed on the walls of buildings on the borders of the communes to indicate where the communes started and ended. She said within these contradas, there were friendly communes and enemy communes. She joked that though she was from the ‘porcupine’ commune, which was the best according to her, her son Filipo unfortunately was not of the same commune but that of her husband’s as the local practice was that daughters would belong to the mother’s contrada and the sons to the father’s contrada. Every year there was a contrada ceremony where every baby born that year would be introduced to the senior members of the commune and be given a certificate stating the baby’s full name and the parents name and provided lifetime membership in that particular contrada.
We walked on to another square where there was a statue of the legendary wolf and Romulus and Remus. The guide jokingly said that the Sienese who were jealous that the Romans had a legend with regard to their founders decided to create a legend of their own. According to the local legend, when Romulus killed his brother Remus, the two sons of Remus escaped and fled away from Rome. They reached this hilly area and decided to start their own city here and that the city derived its name Siena from the eldest son of Remus.
Our walk took us next to the entrance of the Duomo. The guide ushered us in, skipping the ticket lines. There were areas cordoned off and renovation work was taking place. She said that the entire floor was made of very old beautiful tile paintings and graffiti but that most of it was boarded up to preserve them. In two areas where renovation work was ongoing, they were visible to the public. We visited the library of the Duomo, where we were asked not to speak as the paintings would be damaged by moisture. However, the crowds which were in the tiny library did not seem to take heed and continued to speak as they went around the library and out.
After lunch, we resumed our journey and travelled to San Gimignano. After making sure I noted the time that I had to be back in the bus, I bought myself an extra rich chocolate gelato from a hand-made gelato shop and happily set off on my walk around the ancient and scenic town. I had read that its medieval residents had built the towers to show-off their status and that the families had competed against each other to build higher and higher towers as height was then equated to power, wealth and status. However, most of these towers were later destroyed by invading armies and only a few remain today.
The next day, I decided to go walking around the city in the morning. I walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore first. It was closed at that time in the morning and as I was asking when it would open for the day, some workers opened the door to go through and I had a glimpse of a beautiful ceiling.
From there, I walked to the San Lorenzo market and explored the market a bit before walking on to the Uffizi gallery area past the Republicca square. I didn’t go into the gallery as I was not in the mood to look at paintings or sculptures, despite the city being famous for its artwork, and preferred to be outdoors. So, I walked on until I reached the Ponte Vecchio and walked across the interesting bridge and back.
I had a spa appointment in the afternoon and as I found that Pisa was on the way to Montecatine Terme, I decided to get down midway at the Pisa station. I got my onward train tickets first so that I would not have to hurry back till the last minute. I assumed for some reason that Pisa would be within walking distance of the station. As this was an impromptu side visit, I had not read about how far the tower was or the route to it from the station before arriving there. The Filipino couple who had been standing behind me at the ticket counter and with whom I had been chatting while waiting in the queue said that they were planning to take the taxi and asked if I would be interested in sharing the cab with them. I said yes as I thought I might as well save time and maximize my time at the tower. However, there was a very long queue at the taxi stand that must have had hundreds of people waiting for a taxi. It was around lunch time so there were hardly any taxis around and the line did not seem to move. We considered exploring the bus stand but after waiting another half hour, we realized that all the bus drivers seemed to be on a lunch break.
I realized I had to choose between the thermal caves at Montecatine Terme and the leaning tower of Pisa. I decided to return to the station and continue as I originally set out to do. Wishing the couple a good visit to the tower, I got on my train bound for Lucca and had a lunch of grilled tomato and mozzarella sandwich. The grotta was a nice experience with the different thermal caves labelled heaven, purgatory and inferno. I returned to Firenze energized after my spa visit. I think at this point in my travel I did indeed need re-energizing than a hurried glimpse of a famous, ancient tower.
To be continued… Vatican city