2015 European Adventure travel blog

Buildings in the main plaza in Siena

Facade of the Gothic Cathedral in Siena

No rules about clothes drying here!

Lunch and wine tasting.

A view of two towers in the fortress at Montalcino.

View from the fortress.

How's this for a bottle of wine?

At 8:45 this morning we met Salvatore in the foyer with our bags. He placed them all carefully in a spot to be picked up by our driver later in the day and we set off for a tour of the city. Salvatore gave us a good commentary about the history of Siena which is built on three hills (contrast with the 7 hills of Rome). Our first stop was the Palazzo del Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena which is the oldest surviving bank in the world. We next moved back to the Church of the Assumption and this time the chapel with the 'Holy Head' was lit and we were able to view the 800 year old head in all its glory.

Moving on we came to the magnificent Pizza del Campo in which the famous Palio horse race is held twice a year. The race is between horses from among the 17 contrade or city wards, 10 of which are chosen by lot each year. Those that miss out get to race the following year with three contrade getting to go a second time. The jockeys ride bareback and it doesn't matter if the first horse across the line has a rider or not. It's the horse that wins not the rider. Apparently chicanery, bribery and doping are all expected and accepted and there is great competition between the contrade. The winning contrade has a great celebration of colour and feasting.

Our last stop was at the main Cathedral which was built in Gothic style and completed in 1358. The outer facade is quite spectacular. At some point prior to 1358 the Sienese decided to build an even bigger Cathedral to compete with Florence. They started a new front section with the intention that the present Cathedral would just be a transcept for the new one but they ran out of money. The only thing left of their grand plans is one wall of the nave and what would have been the main entrance.

After our tour we walked to a meeting point near one of the public fountains of Siena. It has three arches where people used to get drinking water at the upstream arch, do their laundry at the centre arch and the leather workers and artisans did their stuff at the downstream arch. Not very hygienic I think. Even Dante commented that this fountain explained the madness of the Sienese. Our driver was waiting with a large Mercedes minibus and we checked that all our luggage was aboard, it was. I had the impression that there was more than expected but didn't make any comment.

We took a longish drive towards our next stop at the famous hilltop town of Montalcino. On the way we stopped off at the Casato Prime Donne which is the only winery in Italy, so they say, which is managed and run entirely by women. The owner, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, inherited two vineyards an wineries from both sets of parents and has turned them into a thriving business. The main wine they make is the Brunello di Montalcino which can only be made in one of the 221 wineries which are found in the 16 square kilometre region surrounding Monalcino. After a tour of the winery we got to sample some wines and also have a light lunch. I am happy to say that these wines were much nicer than the Chiantis we sampled a few days ago and which cost heaps more.

Finally we arrived at our hotel in Montalcino at the top of a 600m hill. It was here that we discovered that there were three bags that didn't belong to any of us. Amazingly the hotel had not called Salvatore and we wondered if the bags had been meant to be picked up for a transfer and if some poor person was arriving at their next hotel without luggage. Our driver took the bags back but ......!!! Montalcino, which means mountain of oaks, is very strategically placed and was besieged at least four times by various dukes to try to make it part of Florence or Siena. Nowadays the town seems to exist solely for selling wine. Every second shop seems to be an Enoteca (wine store) selling Brunello and many other varieties of wines. I didn't notice any Jacob's Creek though. Most of the wine stores also offer meals of some sort so the number of eating places is quite amazing. We took a visit to the fortress which defended the town where we walked the walls and admired some paintings by an artist who uses only Brunello wine to make her images. Later we found the local museum which has a display of sacred pictures, statues, vestments and church objects. A second display which we found almost by accident showed some of the archaeological finds from the area. Maree particularly likes anything to do with the early settlers in a region.

Dinner was in a nearby restaurant where we shared some bruschetta a the Maree had pasta with a creamy rocket and nettle sauce while I had braised beef with spinach and roast potatoes. I also ordered some unnecessary roast vegetables. For dessert we had an apple tart with a creamy lemon sauce between us.

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