A Day in Siena and San Gimignano

Last Saturday, we had our first class trip. We left Florence for the Tuscan countryside, stopping first in Siena. This town (city?) had been on my list for quite some time. In fact, just this summer I read two books that were centered here: a memoir, Too Much Tuscan Sun and a novel, The Italian Party. I was looking forward to seeing how the place matched the images in my mind.

In short, it went over and above what I had envisioned. The views were more magnificent, the Piazza del Campo much grander, the streets livelier.

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I wanted more time to wander (maybe I’ll pop back some day, since it’s only an hour or so by train). Still, we got a nice overview during our time, seeing the financial, political, religious, and social centers of town with a fantastic local guide. We happened upon a classic car show and tried a local treat, pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce.

 

Another highlight was the Basilica of San Domenico, which houses some important 13th century Catholic relics, like St. Catherine’s thumb and head on full display (no photos allowed, but view them here if you must). Apparently, it was common to divvy up parts of important religious figures for political reasons and to boost tourism (the rest of St. Catherine is in Rome).

Here’s the outside of the church, which you might prefer to gaze on.

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There was also Siena’s Gothic cathedral, made even more impressive by the fact that its marble mosaic floors were uncovered, which only happens a few times a year (I have no great photos of these, but click the link above to see some).

 

 

After lunch and free time, we rode the bus another hour or so to San Gimignano, which I’ve heard called “Tuscany’s Manhattan” because of its defining feature: 14 tall stone towers (there were once over 70). We climbed the tallest one and got quite the view.

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San Gimignano is pretty tiny, so after spending some time in the tower, we wandered, bought a bottle of the local wine (vernaccia) had a coffee, and headed back to Florence.

The weather was fantastic, spirits were high, we learned a lot, and it was a great day to experience Tuscany!

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Back in Florence, this week’s highlight (for me) was going with the art history class to Santa Maria Novella for a lesson in frescos, which called up long-forgotten tidbits from my Catholic education. Getting to go on these art outings with an expert professor is another perk of the job!

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Ciao, Firenze!

We’re a week into JMU’s Semester in Florence program, and I am fortunate beyond belief to be the FMIR (faculty member in residence) to 28 students. My job involves living in the 16th century Palazzo Capponi with the students, teaching a class on positive psychology, holding office hours, running weekly meetings, being on call one weekend a month, and taking the students on excursions to places like Siena, Turin, Naples, and Pisa.

The faculty flat here is huge, with pretty much everything a person could need. Including white noise machines to block out the street sounds. It’s near the students, but also very private. They keep asking me if I can hear them in the wee hours. Nope!

I’ve established some comforting little rituals, like making stovetop coffee in the Bialetti and going to the little nearby grocery store pretty much everyday (food here doesn’t last as long as our preservative-laden stuff, and it’s hard to carry much on foot). Also, running in a beautiful, tourist-free park in the cool mornings, and sitting on the terrace each night with a book and some wine. Speaking of the terrace, it’s quite possibly my favorite thing about this apartment. It’s all mine, with a view of the nearby Piazza Santo Spirito, cool breezes, amazing sunsets, and mouth-watering smells wafting up a nearby steak restaurant. The only downside is that I haven’t been going out into the world as much as I normally would, since I have pretty much everything I need for happy leisure time up here.

The first week involved a lot of settling in, figuring things out, filling out forms, recovering from jet lag, and getting reacquainted with the city. There were lots of runs and walks, getting a bit lost from time to time, and taking one fantastic bike ride into the Tuscan countryside.

Food highlights include gnocchi with four cheese and truffle oil, fried anchovies with sage and lemon, a few top-notch pizzas, lemon ravioli, a balsamic vinegar tasting, and gelato galore. And we are just getting started!

Thankfully, there are a lot of lovely, long walks to be taken to counteract all of this delicious food!

Stay tuned for more updates on this three-month adventure in la dolce vita!