Monday, July 14, 2008

Heads, Thumbs, and Wood-fired Pizza (A Very Long Italian Sory, Part Eleven)

Our next long drive took us northwest, to the Renaissance rival of Firenze, Siena. The drive, on a sort of state highway-type road, was a bit frustrating (as are many a drive on state highway-type roads), since the road was two lanes, and many large trucks were also heading toward Siena. We spent a lot of time behind trucks. Now, the traffic laws in Italy are more suggestions, I think, than actual "laws." And the ones that apply to passing on the highways and byways seem even less than suggestions. The typical Italian driver (it seems) does not know what tailgating is, or, if he or she does, he or she does not recognize it as a hazardous driving activity. In addition, the typical Italian driver (it seems) does not trouble himself or herself with waiting for a straight section of road with good visibility before passing. Their cars, after all, are relatively small, so, perhaps the drivers assume that they need little space in which to execute the passing maneuver. In all fairness, even the most harrowing example of disregard for the personal safety of self and others was executed successfully, but, this sort of positive reinforcement of negative behaviors must catch up with the typical Italian driver on occasion. Yet, we saw no evidence of this. I was able to distill my traffic observations into the overarching principle of Italian driving: when in doubt, speed up. This also led to a corollary: never brake. If you can remember these two rules of Italian driving, then you are well on your way to a successful Tuscan road trip!

Once we arrived in Siena, we discovered that this was no little Tuscan town. We had so much trouble figuring out where we were (not a very good map of Siena) and then finding a parking space, that we may as well have been in an international metropolis, like Rome or Paris. But, after (I kid you not) about an hour and a half of driving around the winding streets of Siena, with the occasional unanticipated 180 degree turn (which is not a U-turn, it's an intersection that sends your car not on a new track 90 degrees opposed to your previous track, but, somehow manages to spin your car in such a way that you begin travelling in the opposite direction from which you were just travelling (It's not magic, by the way, it's just a screwy street layout.)) we found a parking spot, that another random old woman (not the same one from Montalcino) assured us was legal.

There are a lot of old people in Italy. Not that there aren't any young people, but, it seemed like there were more older folk than one typically sees on an American street. I wonder two things about this: one, is it actually true, or was I simply somehow more attune to the "ancient" in a country that has been in the throes of some form of civilization for 2000 years (and left ample evidence of it behind); and, two, why might that be?

The former wonderment needs no discussion. It may be true, it may not. I don't see how it could be demonstrated one way or the other, so , let it be. The latter, however, is an interesting thing to ponder, maybe. Are there more old people in Italy, or are they more active, or more public? Or, do young people just age amazingly quickly in Italy, and the preponderance of the aged was merely a preponderance of thirty year-olds with graying hair, poor posture, and a penchant for brown suits and patterned mid-length dresses? Now that I have begun this discourse, I find that this is an unsolvable mystery, as well, so, let us move on.

Siena. A lovely town, really. We will spend some part of tomorrow here, as well. Our first stop today was a church (go figure), San Domenico, which holds a few creepy relics of Saint Catherine of Siena (a local virgin who lured the pope to Rome (I am guessing not by using here feminine guile, but then, who knows...)). The town is big on Cathy, and her home is still standing and open for visits (however, nearly every square inch of it has been remodeled into a chapel (Here's the chapel where she received her stigmata! Here's the chapel where she cooked the polenta! Here's the chapel where she used the chamber pot!). San Domenico, which dates from the 13th century, is proud of its connection to Catherine. Here in this church, she made her vows of chastity (I think), and, while her body is interred in Rome (where we will catch up with her later), the Catholic church decided it would be only right for the church of Catherine's beginnings as a saint to have her head and her thumb, which are proudly on display in her chapel (along with the scourge that she used to use to purify herself each day--you think it's easy being a saint?). It's reassuring, I must imagine, to the devotees of Catherine to see her, eight hundred years after removing the "mortal coil," to be grinning at them and giving them a detached thumbs up (And we thought "Buddy Christ" was just irreverent comedy? Truth = stranger than Kevin Smith).

Moving on, there is also the Piazza del Campo, a massive and beautiful, semi-circular town plaza, with the Fonte Gaia as its shining white centerpiece, and the Duomo of Siena. Apparently the medieval and Renaissance competition between Siena and Firenze was fierce, and, more than once, the rivalry descended into a shooting war. That spirit of rivalry is clear in the edifices of the respective towns. The piazzas, the Duomos, within them one can see how each city tried to outdo the other. In the long run, posterity recognizes Firenze as the center of the Renaissance world in Italy, and, with the Uffizi, the Bargello, and the Accademia, Firenze has many of the greatest hits of the 1300s-1600s within their ancient walls, but Siena is a hell of a town. You take away Firenze's museums, and I think Siena is the better of the two. It's larger, it's somewhat prettier...I think I liked it a bit better than Firenze (just on a town-wise basis). Anyway, Siena was cool.

We had to get going after a while, because we were meeting some folks outside another little town about a half an hour north of Siena. Monkey's yoga teachers from Columbia were finishing a week-long retreat in Tuscany, and they had invited us to dinner, wood-fired pizza. So, we left our hard-won parking space, and headed still more north to Monterigionni, a tiny walled town. A few hundred yards north of there, we turned off onto a gravel road and proceeded to the farmhouse where the festivities were to be held. The matron of the farmhouse was not aware that we were coming, but, as she ushered us into the porch yard, she summed up the quintessential Italian attitude (if you ask me), "Whatever."

It was a great pleasure to see some acquaintances in our travels, and even more enjoyable that they were folks that we don't see very often. The pizza was fabulous (especially the rosemary and olive oil), the wine flowed, and, as the sun set low on the horizon, we sadly made our goodbyes, and headed safely to our distant home away from home.

1 comment:

La Fashionista said...

Yay, Siena and Ebbio!

I'm having a good chuckle as I recall your strict adherence to the double yellow. This less rule-bound driving adventure was good for you, methinks.

Anon AMVB