The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Ruby Tuesday: Red is for Fun

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Ever since I started participating in the Ruby Tuesday meme I can’t walk past anything red without stopping to take a photograph. While window shopping in the Italian town of Lucca, these cute red spectacles by Agatha Ruiz de la Prada just called out to me and I had to snap a shot. They are meant for kids but I wouldn’t mind owning a pair myself – they are so vibrant and look like so much fun.

For more shades of red from around the world go to Work of the Poet hosted by Mary the Teach.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Medieval Manhattan

A short drive away from Siena is the small walled town of San Gimignano (pronounced San Giminiano) .
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Known by some as the medieval Manhattan, San Gimignano boasts 15 spectacular towers which were built by rival noble families during the 12th and 13th centuries. In its heyday there was a total of 72 towers. Being on the major pilgrim route to Rome , San Gimignano prospered during the middle ages. However, the Black Death and diversion of the pilgrim route resulted in a period of decline from which the town never fully recovered. San Gimignano has remained mostly unchanged, its towers attracting visitors from far and wide.
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Via San Giovanni, the main street of the town, is lined with interesting shops selling, amongst others,  pottery, paintings, linens and objects made out of olive wood.
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It is not a very long street but the wares on sale are too tempting to ignore and each shop lures you in with the promise of a new little treasure you just have to buy. The street winds itself towards Piazza della Cisterna, the heart of the old town. The well in the square is still a meeting place for the townspeople.
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This square in turn leads to Piazza del Duomo, dominated by the modest 12th century Romanesque church known as La Collegiata.
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While most visitors tend to stick to the main street and square, I found that wandering through the quiet back streets was a more rewarding experience since they were mostly deserted and I could stop and admire the old buildings and, of course, the towers.
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However, I was also intrigued by a number of very interesting door knockers and house bells made out of wrought iron.
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The streets at edge of the town provide a wonderful spot from where to stop and admire the Tuscan countryside.
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Small wine bars and restaurants abound in this little town and it is also home to Gelateria di Piazza. It’s owner, Stefano Dondoli, lovingly creates delectable ice-creams which have impressed visitors from around the world. His chocolate ice-cream once won the title of the world's “best ice-cream of the year”. Having tasted his Fior di Nutella and Frutti di Bosco (forest fruit) flavours, I can attest that these ice-creams are amongst the best that I have ever had the pleasure to eat.
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In some strange way, San Gimignano seems like a benevolent grandfather; an old town with a gentle soul. Perhaps it’s because everything happens under the watchful eyes of the towers, their strength and longevity emitting an aura of security. Gazing up at their towering height I couldn’t help but marvel at those builders of long ago, at their sheer tenacity and marvelous feats of engineering.
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We left San Gimignano as the sun started to set over the Tuscan countryside. In the fading light, all detail was lost and all we could see were silhouettes. It was almost surreal, like a land out of a fairytale. In the stillness of the night I felt like we were intruders in a magical land that had cast a spell over our hearts - a spell that will not easily be broken; a spell which, I believe, will last a life time.
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Friday, 13 November 2009

Seductive Siena

I have never been so completely enthralled by a place as I was with Siena . Built on three hills surrounded by olive groves and the famed Chianti vineyards, its origins date back to the Roman era. However, Siena was not prosperous under the Romans since it was too far from the major trade routes. It was during the Middle Ages that Siena enjoyed a measure of good fortune. From the moment I entered Siena , it was like I had stepped back in time.
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The streets are narrow, the buildings of sombre dark-red bricks. Decoration on the houses is minimal. There is none of the frivolity and extravagance of the later Renaissance and Baroque periods. In Siena what you see is what you get. Austere and simple; aloof and mysterious – a town of winding streets and steep hills.
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Then, surrounded on all sides by these brick houses, a square, in the midst of which is a cathedral like no other I have seen. For in contrast to the simplicity around it, the duomo of Santa Maria dell’Assunta is like an exotic orchid. Seeing its dazzling whiteness for the first time took my breath away.
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All the artistic effort of the city seems to have been focused on this one building. It is built in the Romanesque style and there is not one small nook or cranny that does not boast a work of art whether it is a carving, a statue, a mosaic, a painting or a stained glass window.
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The façade alone is worth a thousand pictures and the interior is as flamboyant as the exterior had hinted. Few churches have made me gasp at their sheer beauty. The duomo of Santa Maria dell’Assunta is one of them.
Walking away from Piazza del’Duomo and delving once more into the narrow, winding streets we walked towards the world-famous Piazza del Campo.
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Shaped like an enormous sea-shell, this piazza hosts the Palio horse race every July and August. In the race the different contrade (districts) of Siena compete for the coveted Palio -  an embroidered banner bearing the image of Mary. The jockeys ride the horses bareback at break neck speed around the piazza and fatalities of both horse and rider are not uncommon. Animal Rights activists have been lobbying for an end to this race for a number of years, but, like bull fighting in Spain and fox hunting in England , this tradition is too deeply rooted in the culture of Siena for anything to change anytime soon. Piazza del Campo, or simply, Il Campo as the Siennese call it, is dominated by the tall bell tower adjacent to the Palazzo Pubblico.
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The Torre della Mangia is the second tallest medieval tower in Italy and one of the most recognised landmarks in Siena . The climb to the top of the tower is not for the faint-hearted but the view from the top is well worth the effort and the breathlessness. From the top of the tower, Siena spreads out on all sides in an intriguing mesh of houses, streets and churches.
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In the distance, the vineyards and olive groves for which Tuscany is so famous and, at the foot of the tower, Il Campo, filled with tourists, locals and the ubiquitous pigeons. At the northern end of the piazza, is the Fonte Gaia.
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Wandering again around the streets of Siena , it was the little details that caught my eye: carvings on a door; a Gothic window here or there; a splash of colour and, of course, the exuberant pottery of Siena – all of it lovingly hand painted.
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Saying goodbye to Siena was hard. Its medieval beauty is captivating; its allure is bewitching. Siena is not a place that embraces you in a flamboyant expression of welcome. Instead it draws you in gradually, revealing itself slowly and seducing your soul. Perhaps that is what makes it so dangerous.


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