Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Siena, the sun, lots of pigeons, and eating at a 45 degree angle.

Rain was promised today, and rain it did. I looked out the window this morning to see droves of students walking up the street with umbrellas, while a veritable river of rain water gushed down the steep road. So, it was immediately decided that we'd hang out in museums until the rain subsides.

We decided to go to Santa Maria della Scala, which is the former hospital across the piazza from the Duomo. It's a labyrinthine and eclectic museum, with several levels, that covers a lot of ground. The first level is a baroque church, and, more interestingly, the former hospital wards, one of which contains vibrantly restored frescoes that depict life in the hospital in medieval times. Given that one scene showed several people being treated for large, deep flesh wounds, while a dog and a cat are angrily facing off in the background of the same hospital room (!?), I'm glad I wasn't around back then. This room also featured a large, black and white photograph from when it was still being used as a hospital, showing rows of extremely narrow, closely spaced beds, with people in various states of anguish or pain. Lower levels feature an ornate, and strangely creepy, windowless basement chapel that is said to be where Saint Catherine hung out, and an archeological museum full of Etruscan artifacts, as wells as the original (very much disintegrated) pieces of Il Campo's Fonte Gaia.

Just as interesting as what was on display, were the dark, dank, maze-like passageways through the lower levels of this building. It really is massive, and some of these tunnels were strange and eerie. A cool and cheap museum, and we practically had the place to ourselves.

By noon, the sun came out, and Siena transformed into its lovely, glistening self. We did a lot of sitting and people-watching in Il Campo today, and strolled lazily all over town, through the winding, steep streets.

I recently discovered Siena still has all of its old fountains, where people centuries ago used to go to get their water. I've always known about Fontebranda, the most well-known one, but there are several others that are more off the beaten path, which slightly more ruinous and mysterious looking. The first one we visited was Fonte Nuova d’Ovile (built in the late 1200s), which is down the hill from where we're staying. The second was Fonte di Ovile (built in the 1200s, later replaced by the aforementioned one), just outside the Porta d'Ovile, tucked away in a little park. Both featured large, gothic arches, a couple of pools which collected the spring water, and lots and lots of pigeons. I don't know why these appeal to me, but I like that they're kind of dingy and in states of disrepair, and hidden away in random corners of the city. And they still have water pouring into them (hence all the pigeons).

Fonte Nuova d'Ovile
Fonte d'Ovile

Fonte d'Ovile
For dinner, we went to the cheap standby, Osteria la Chiacchera. It's a small place perched on a steep hill, with seating out front on the street. The legs of the benches and tables are fitted with special wooden, angled feet, so that they don't slide down the perilously steep street. The seating feels extremely precarious, but it works. The food is solidly good. This isn't the kind of place you go to for gourmet cuisine, but it's honest, simple, tasty, and well-prepared. I ordered the Pici ai Boscaiola, which is basically like very thick spaghetti (a Sienese speciality) in a sauce with porcini mushrooms and sausage. I thought it was really nice, and the porcini flavor, although on the subtler side, was more prevalent than the porcini dish I had the previous night at L'Osteria. Terezia had tagliatelle with chicken liver sauce (called simply, sugo antico), which could've had a bit more of that rich, liver-y flavor, but was still satisfying. For the secondo, we split a tasty lamb spezzatino with potatoes, and a salad. House red was cheap and drinkable. The poor waitress was working the busy place by herself, and was clearly frazzled. A good place to eat good food cheaply.

Terezia at Osteria la Chiacchera
I remembered to photograph the food after we'd already eaten half of it. 

Tomorrow - a day trip to Volterra.

Closing rant - I think I'm done with hotels/bed and breakfast places. Unless we're staying somewhere for only a day or two, we really prefer staying in apartment rentals. More specifically, I'm done with San Francesco, the place at which we're currently staying. The first two times I stayed here, everything was so nice and clean, the rooms were all cozy and inviting, and most importantly, the staff were extremely friendly and helpful. But I'm wondering if perhaps this place has changed ownership. The people here now are all new, and the three of them (an older couple and a younger guy in this 30s) smoke like chimneys. Sometimes they all sit in the tiny little office, which is the size of a closet, and smoke away like there's no tomorrow, without even cracking open a window. The smoke wafts upstairs and we can sometimes smell it in our room. And then there are issues like one of the toilet seat hinges is broken, so the seat slides three inches to the right whenever you sit on it; the grout in the shower is looking kind of nasty; etc... In summary, the place is going downhill. And of course, like I keep mentioning, we were given the room directly outside the communal breakfast dining area. Mind you, I feel like a complete jerk whining about such ridiculous and trivial stuff, when obviously this place would be an absolute luxury to people in countries where their daily concern is, do they take the shorter path to the market that's strewn with land mines, or the longer path that's dotted with rogue, gang-raping soldiers. Still, I gotta find an affordable and well-located vacation apartment rental in this town!

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