Italy

San Galgano e Siena

Day 26 – San Galgano e Siena

Daily Wrap-Up

One Word
  • Barb: Outsized
  • Mike: Views
  • Jen: Gullible
Two Words
  • Barb: Beehive church
  • Mike: Winding roads
  • Jen: Pear ravioli
Three or Four Words
  • Barb: Sword in the stone
  • Mike: Another fabulous tower view
  • Jen: Saint Catherine’s head
One Sentence
  • Barb: Siena’s a great town—too bad a million other people think so too.
  • Mike: What a shock it was to go from the pastoral peace of San Galgano to the madness of Midday Siena.
  • Jen: Italy must be hollow after extracting so much stone for 2,000 years.

Our day began with a lovely country drive to San Galgano.

Galgano (1148-81) was a knight who renounced war and the material world and turned to God, becoming a hermit and living in a hut on a hill in a remote area. In declaring his intent to give up fighting in wars, he struck his sword against a rock, and the rock “swallowed” the sword. Galgano saw this as a sign of God’s approval.

A humble, beehive-shaped chapel was built here where Galgano lived in his hut, and in this church is Galgano’s sword, still stuck in the rock.

The exterior of the chapel at Montesiepi

San Galgano: The Chapel at Montesiepi. See the stripes on the outside of the circular part of the building? These are repeated inside. It’s lovely!

The embedded sword under a plexiglass dome.

San Galgano’s sword embedded in a rock, on display in the chapel in Montesiepi under a plexiglass dome.

In 1218, Cistercian monks built an abbey in the valley below the hill where this chapel stands.The monks avoided contact with the outside world, devoting themselves to prayer, poverty, and hard work, cutting and selling wood from the surrounding forest. Their hard work and frugal living led to unexpected wealth which led to corruption and the decline and eventual dissolution of the abbey. The building now stands in ruins.

Abbey ruins and the chapel in the background.

The abbey ruins stand in the foreground with the chapel at Montesiepi in the background on the hill where Galgano lived as a hermit.

Circular windows in the back of the Abbey.

The back of the Abbey.

We left our peaceful morning in the country there in the country where it belongs and entered the mayhem that is midday in the city of Siena.

Dear Siena,
Build a *%$#*! parking garage already!

I’m afraid I did not make the mental shift required to fully appreciate what Siena has to offer. The traffic, lame signage, and the need to circle the square half a dozen times as if we were in the Indy 500 rather than merely looking for an open parking space did not help me want to tolerate the crowds we had to contend with on foot. Once again, hats off to Barb for her even temper and speedy processing of city stimuli. She whipped our car into a just-vacated parking space before Mike or I registered it as a parking space, let alone an empty parking space.

We headed straight for the Palazzo Pubblico in the Piazza del Campo. This Gothic town hall has the second-highest medieval tower ever built in Italy, Torre del Mangia.

The Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.

The Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) in Siena.

Nothing like a bird’s-eye view from a tall tower to put things in perspective, right? So what do you say we climb it? Signs were poor and information lacking, but we found a line and stood in it. It worked.

Looking up the tower stairs.

Looking up the tower stairs at Torre del Mangia in Siena. I love this picture.

The views from the top were, as we have all come to expect, grand.

Siena from the top of Torre del Mangia.

Siena from the top of Torre del Mangia. See the long wall out there?

Huh. Maybe all those nobles in San Gimignano built towers so they could have views like this. Maybe the towers weren’t for safety at all.

The tops of Siena's Duomo and campanile.

Siena’s Duomo as seen from the Torre del Mangia.

Siena’s Duomo, built between 1136 and 1382, was the next stop. It is a fine cathedral, but after rival Florence built Il Duomo, the people of Siena decided their cathedral was too small. It was, after all, smaller than Brunelleschi’s Duomo, and that simply wouldn’t do. They decided to alter their cathedral, adding a new ginormous nave that would outsize Il Duomo. One of the long walls and the facade were built, and then the plague of 1348 hit, halving Siena’s population and devastating the economy. The project ended there, and Il Duomo in Florence outsizes Siena’s still-fine cathedral.

Siena's Duomo exterior

Siena’s perfectly respectable, not at all inadequate Duomo.

Barb and I studied and contemplated exterior details while Mike took pictures. The details were stunning in their number and quality. I saw nothing to criticize, yet I recognized that I didn’t love this exterior the way I loved others. These delightful carvings just weren’t registering as high on my Wow scale.

Carvings and statues on Siena's Duomo.

Exquisite details on the exterior of Siena’s Duomo. There’s lots to love here.

When I shared this with Mike he immediately said, “Well, you know why, don’t you?”

I confess I didn’t.

“There’s no color; it’s all white.”

I do believe he hit the nail on the head. So you see, medieval Sienese people, it’s not size that’s lacking, it’s color.

But that is only on the outside. There is plenty of color on the inside, particularly in the frescoes in the Piccolomini Library that tell the story of Pope Pius II’s life. Here is where we found Lexi’s “sassy cherubs,” images that tickled her no end when she visited with her class earlier this year. She posted a picture of these very cherubs on her own blog. They are sassy, aren’t they? And they are all over this room, always in sassy poses.

Frescoed cherubs in sassy poses

Sassy cherubs in the Piccolomini Library in Siena’s Duomo.

The cathedral was stripey with a heavenly blue ceiling dotted with gold stars.

Striped pillars and a blue, starry ceiling.

Vibrant stripes and a blue ceiling with gold stars create a colorful backdrop for paintings, carvings, and statues.

The last stop on our way back to the car was San Domenico, the church where St. Catherine’s head is preserved and displayed. We saw her foot in Venice and thought it was fitting to make an effort to see her head, too.

The barn-like exterior of San Domenico.

The austere exterior of San Domenico in Siena.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside (sorry, no mummified saint’s head for you), but I suspect this church’s reason for the rule is unique: Unlike every other church we’ve seen in Italy, including tiny ones with nothing to boast about but perhaps a single painting, the interior of this church is just plain ugly. In addition to being boring, the architecture is sloppy and off. Two arches are set on the left two-thirds of a wall. The third arch is…what?…missing? Did they run out of money? Time? That can’t possibly be a design choice. Why aren’t the two arches centered or spaced evenly somehow? A circular window is centered in the wall but looks random in relation to the arches.

The decorations are all over the map in terms of style, a little baroque here, a little something else there. There is either too much decoration or too little, take your pick. Poor Saint Catherine. She deserves better.

Next stop: Florence. We had a date to meet Lexi for dinner. Finally, we went out to dinner! We expected to eat out more than we’ve been doing, but it’s never convenient, and it’s never a priority. However, Lexi was introduced to a restaurant when she first arrived, and she wanted to share it with us. We needed the motivation and direction she provided.

We ordered several dishes from each of the course menus—antipasti, primi, secondi—and shared. The highlight was, as Lexi promised, the pear ravioli. Mmmmmmm! Sweet mashed pear mixture inside the ravioli, topped with a gorgonzola sauce. Delish!

Lexi and I also shared some smoked swordfish that was thinly sliced and cold, like lunch meat. It was part of a salad with arugula and pine nuts. Not what I expected, but yummy. Mike and Barb each got a pork dish, and Mike got a mountain of spaghetti carbonara.

For desert, we went to the gelateria near Lexi’s apartment to confirm that it does, in fact, provide top-shelf gelato. It does.

I failed to get pictures of the food, but we got some nice shots of nighttime Florence. We’re not out much at night, so it was especially nice to walk about after dark.

Il Duomo and the Arno River illuminated at night

Nighttime Florence.

Categories: Italy, Travel