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Viva Tuscany

Red Bologna
We were both feeling surprisingly sprightly after two nights on the turps and could well have stayed at the Oktoberfest longer, but we'd only had accommodation for two nights and as there was no other accommodation available it was time to move on. In 2004 we'd briefly visited Bologna for a couple of hours while we waited for a train to Verona. We had been very impressed and always talked about going back for a proper visit, so we decided to stop off on the way to Rome.
We arrived at Bologna about 4pm and headed straight to the tourist office at the train station. The girl there was very helpful and provided us with a tourist brochure "The sights of Bologna in half a day." Clearly not that many people linger. Unfortunately she couldn't help us with accommodation but told us the tourist office in the central square could, so we jumped on the bus for a cramped ride during peak hour to the centre of town. The central square of Bologna has a fine collection of fourteenth and fifteenth century buildings all built in Bologna's distinctive red brick, which gives Bologna its nickname, "Red Bologna."

The tourist office shares the ground floor of the old council house with a distinguished cafe/gelateria and a library and it provides an accommodation booking service. But once again luck was against us - there was a bathroom & plumbing industry trade fair town and almost every hotel was fully booked. We had a choice of one room near the square for 120euro or a hostel room back near the train station for 100euro. It seems like a bit of a no-brainer now but at the time it led to an argument about the cost of accommodation and we ended up taking the cheaper option. The upshot of all this debate was that we wasted our last hours of daylight making our way to and from the hostel, which was in a pretty ordinary part of town.
One of Bologna's most impressive sights is the Basilica of St Peter. Construction started on the brick built cathedral in 1392 . In the spirit of the time, the Bolognian town council wanted it to be bigger than St Peter's in Rome, but the plague intervened and construction was never completed, but the half finished marble facade is quite appealing. The interior is lavishly decorated in marble and features a sundial calendar built into the floor. When we visited a chamber orchestra was performing a free concert. The acoustics are marvellous.
We wandered around Bologna's colonaded streets in the evening and enjoyed wine and tapas at couple of bars before we settled in at a pleasant restaurant that spilled out across the street to enjoy Bologna's specialty, Bolognaise. It was lovely of course but as it's such a staple of Italian cuisine everywhere it wasn't particularly adventurous.

"It looks like a wasp!"
The next day we set off for Siena early, but with a detour to the little Tuscan town of Pontederra. Pontederra is the home of Piaggio the industrial engineering company that manufacture the iconic Vespa scooter. Piaggio got into scooters by accident. The company started in the late 19th century building engines. They later became one of Italy's pre-eminent aircraft manufacturer, building fighters and bombers for the Italian airforce. During the Second World War the factory was bombed and pretty well destroyed. After the war they were banned from making aircraft and so needed to find a new raison-d-entre. Like most of post-war Europe, Italy was beset with transport problems - there was a desperate shortage of motor vehicles and Italian roads were bad; what people needed was a cheap, simple and rugged vehicle. And so the Vespa ("wasp") was born. Thanks largely to Piaggio's skillful marketing the Vespa became a phenomenon all around the world.
Here is link to some of the photos we took:

Ahhh, Siena!
It was only a short stop at the Vespa museum so we arrived in Siena about 4pm. You could say Siena it the classic Italian hill town. The city sprawls across a number of hilltops and is surrounded on all sides by its impressive 15th century walls. Vehicle access into the old city, even for scooters and motorbikes is limited to the outskirts. Public buses run from the train station to bus stops on the southern and eastern edge of the old city. We had booked an apartment online but it was situated at the far northern side of the city, which meant we'd end up having a long walk with our bags whichever stop we chose. We crammed onto the bus, but the missed the southern stop. The bus then turned out of the city and proceeded to drive north around the outskirts. For a moment we thought this might actualy work to our advantage we were being taken closer to our destination, but as the bus had almost completed its circumnavigation it turned west away from the city and off into the countryside. We should have jumped off immediately but we stayed on until we reached a recognisable village. We were horrified to realise when we got off that there was only one bus heading back to Siena that afternoon and we'd have to wait an hour. Damn!
That little detour cost us more than an hour and got us only as far as the southern bus stop. For the next half an hour we dragged our bags through Siena's winding, hilly, cobblestone streets until we reached the office our "apartment." Only it wasn't an apartment but the office of a rental agency. The agency hired out vacant rooms around the city. You can imagine our delight to discover that the apartment was in fact all the way back across town, a few blocks from the bus stop. Damn!
But it was a great room and the agents were very helpful. They told us that tonight there were celebrations all over the city for the Palio, the famous horse race that is run in the centre square every year. The Palio has been run in Siena since the 15th century. All the districts of the city have their particular teams and rivalries are fierce - neither politics, religion or football come close to the passion Sienans' have for the Palio. The whole city was hung with the team's banners and decorative street lights. That night, in the 'il campo', there was a formal dinner and presentations for the winning team. We even got to watch a video of the race projected on huge screens before the award ceremony.
On the far side of the city, near the rental agency office the streets were decorated for a full on street party. Free drink and concerts provided to the residents (they wouldn't serve us as we were foreigners and this was a very local celebration). But the atmoshere was great and we had great fun. We stopped for a while a restaurant and were served the largest glasses of wine I have ever seen in my life. We were both horrified at the size of them and were expecting a bill of 12-15 euro each. You can imagine our shock when the bill arrived for 4 euro a glass!!

The Best Italian Restaurant in the World
The day we arrived in Siena in 2004 it was pouring with rain and we got absolutely soaked by the time we found accommodation. After we got settled and cleaned ourselves up it was early evening so we set out to get something for dinner. Shelly thought she had seen a cute little restaurant during our search but we'd been wet and pre-occupied at the time and neither of us could quite remember where it was. Eventually we came across a place that Shelly thought looked familiar so we settled in. I had pasta with wild boar sauce and it was lovely. Shelly was a bit stuck with the menu though so eventually chose spagetti carbonara - a rather safe fallback really - I mean, who hasn't had spagetti carbonara a million times. We did not expect much of the dish and I must say when it was presented it looked even less inspiring - but, the taste! It was extraordinary - it was so unlike any carbonara we had ever tasted, anywhere. The flavour just blew us away. We determined then and there we'd come back again the next night and have it again.

But the next night we couldn't find it. We walked and walked and tried to retrace our steps, but it was though the restaurant had disappeared. With great disappointment we opted for a very average pizza. Then, wandering home later, we stumbled across the restaurant again. It was closed on Tuesdays and with the windows shuttered we'd walked right past it earlier without even realising. The next day we left Siena and we never made it back. Damn!
For the next five years we talked about how amazing that meal had been and swore we'd go back one day. Now we were back, but we still couldn't remember where the restaurant actually was. You can imagine our delight when we walked out of our apartment, turned around the corner and bang! - there was the restaurant 'Resto Antika Siena.' Shelly wouldn't believe it at first, but I pointed out the very same surly waiter who served us five years earlier, still there. Of course we had to have spagetti carbonara again but I'm sad to say it didn't quite live up to the meal we had remembered. That's not to say it wasn't good, it just wasn't the same.

Scooting around Tuscany
After visiting the Piaggio museum I had to ride a Vespa in Tuscany. The hire company was pretty casual about the whole affair. "Do you have a license?" "Yes, I have ...." "That's fine, sign here!" I took a relatively new Vespa 125LX. It was red and new and modern and much more reliable than my 1963 Vespa VBB back home. But it still wasn't plain sailing. Firstly, I was pulled over by the police as I tried to negotiate my way back to the apartment. I had unwittingly crossed over a 'pedestrian only' street (what can I say, I was just trying to be like all the other Italian riders and doing whatever I wanted - I guess I stood out because I looked unsure of what I was doing). The policeman wasn't at all happy and sent me on my way with a stern warning. I ended up parking the scooter in a side street and walking back to pick up Shelly.
About lunch time we set off on our scooting adventure. We decided to head south from Siena towards Asciano but got stuck on the wrong road quickly found ourselves heading north. Whoops! We ended up in the delightful little hill town of Montoriggiori.
We had a pleasant lunch is a cute little restaurant before we set off to Colle da valle d'Este. It was kind of a random destination choice really. It was a beautiful little town but as it was Sunday everything was closed, so we set off back towards Siena. Unfortunately we got a bit lost travelling on the local roads, which at times were pretty rough, but eventually made it safely back in the late afternoon.
I must admit, there were so many motorcyclists in Germany that I had been longing to get on a bike and cruise along the autobahns - but after four hours of tandum riding on the Vespa we were well and truly over it! Both us will attest that it's not very comfortable.

The next day we did a final round of sight seeing. We visited the amazing and enormous Siena Duomo. The main part of the catherdral was built in the 12th century. The exterior is composed of alternating rows of black and white marble, while inside it it a riot of marble cladding and mosaics (there is even a moden shrine decorated with a profusion of motorcycle helmets - something of a lesson there!).
In the mid 13th century the city planned to extend the cathedral to make it grander than rival city Florence's amazing Duomo. In order to make use of the existing construction, they decided to build the main isle of the new church at right angles across the centre of the old cathedral, effectively turing the cathedral into the two naves (think of the letter 't' - the naves would be the cross bar of the 't', which gives a pretty good idea of the scale of the extension). Once again, as in Bologna, the plague put paid to such grand designs, but the scale of the two walls that were built are breathtaking. You can even take a tour up through the hollow wall section to get a view from the top.

In the afternoon we packed up our bags, dragged them to the bus station, waited an inordinant amount of time for the bus to the trainstation (45 minutes late) and arrived 10 minutes after the express train to Rome had left. Hmmm. But not to worry, all roads do eventually lead to Rome.

Posted by paulymx 07:06

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