On our third day we were on our way through the hills of Tuscany—wine country! As we waved goodbye to our flat in Fiano Romano, navigating through the streets we were now familiar with, we welcomed our first big experience on the highways of Italia. Every few miles we saw cypress tree-lined roads with villas that stacked high among the clouds; each one more beautiful than the one before it.
After a couple hours we were beginning our descent into the hills we kept passing. Climbing higher and higher, the views just became more incredible. But it wasn’t long before I could no longer focus on how far my eyes could see and instead was riding white-knuckled watching the edge of the road get closer to the tires on our car. The roads are SO SMALL! Just like their tiny cars. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we were going a reasonable speed. But you see, Italians like speed. And they drive these roads every day. While we would putz along at a modest 30kph, the Italians would line up behind us, not so periodically honking their horns demanding we get out of their way. The second they could, they’d whizz around us at 60 or 70kph – never to be seen again.
The climb into the hills was so worth it though. Eventually we made it to our next stop, a magnificent villa tucked deep into the vineyards of Tuscany. It was down a dirt road so steep that when we arrived we contemplated for a minute to just stay put until our time here was over. But after a bottle of wine, made on site, and some fresh honey, also made on location, we were feeling better about everything. The jitters had worn off and we explored the grounds. Beautiful views as far as the eyes could see, misty fogs covering the landscape with tiny vineyards popping out above them. This location made for one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen in my life.
I had done some research for nearby villages to explore and Certaldo caught my eye. It was quaint but flavorful; the Italians who reside here were some of the nicest we’d meet on our entire trip. We arrived the next day toward the end of siesta to find everyone just beginning to open their shops for the day. We found a nearby cafe and ordered some wine and bread snacks to enjoy the scenery. The doors of local meat and cheese shoppes were spreading wide with a fresh scent carried through the streets. Flowers were placed on outdoor tables, preparing for the night’s meals, and music began to bellow through the alleys in all different tempos. It was this moment I wanted to bottle up and send directly to my sister, fortunately it wasn’t too late back home so we called her immediately to dine with us while we enjoyed our last sips of wine.
It was in Certaldo that I bought a wooden hand carved top and a magnet to remind me of its quaintness. A shoppe had just opened and fantastic Italian music was barreling from within it. Inside was a young Italian woman who was born in San Francisco but came “home” to visit and live with her aunts and uncles. She was able to translate our conversation and recommend where to go for dinner. L’antica Fonte Taverna Degli Artisti is the cutest little place to eat by candlelight in the entire medieval town.
It was here, at this little hole in the wall with ancient stones lining the wall and tiny pockets of space dedicated to resting wine, that I had the best gnocchi of my entire trip. It didn’t look like much, but the flavor packed a punch I’m still reeling for today. We were the only two in the restaurant when they opened, because we hadn’t gotten the hang of Italian dinnertime yet, and it was a wonderful experience to drink wine by candlelight and listen to the soft guitar playing in the background against the clanks of pans in the kitchen.
The following day was our last in this picturesque villa and we decided we had enough liquid courage from the night before to attempt the curvy roads back toward a destination I’d been dreaming of. Siena. I’d been looking forward to this part of our trip because I’m a sucker for architecture and it was here the beautiful and well known “Beetle Juice Church” resided.
We packed our things early, hoping that we’d have the roads to ourselves as the Italians slept in – we were right. We were able to take our own pace and felt like heroes as we descended down the mountain back to the main roads. Before we knew it we were parking just outside of the city center to make the trek into the ancient city.
It’s not difficult to see the beautiful church from anywhere in the city. We were strolling along small corridors admiring the plants that hung from the windows, and the laundry that were on the line to dry. Shutters pummeled open scaring pigeons from their roost, flying overhead. Soon the sound of bells barreled down these alleyways and as we turned a single corner, she was there in all of her beauty.
The magnificent feat that was ancient building stood before us, different types of marble and gems adorning the intricate facade. I literally gasped because she took my breath away. It was this cathedral, the one of Saint Mary of the Assumption that had a special lantern that was affixed to the top of the dome by an Italian artist I have admired my whole life. Gian Lorenzo Bernini was an artist and Italian sculptor who had played in architecture. When in college I envied his sculptural skills when I studied the Rape of Proserpina closely to follow his carve marks to make just the tiniest indentation on skin made of marble.
Quickly my mom and I ran to the queue to grab our tickets so that we could explore the entirety of this magnificent place. We had planned to see the city from the duomo, explore the crypts, and learn from the place where worship was still held at times today. There was a separate part of the cathedral that had begun construction many years ago, that was halted by the Black Death. Construction never resumed and it’s an incredible view to see where it stopped, the outlines of work that were next, and the objects that lay in strange places waiting for the person once working to pick them up again.
Black and white was used symbolically through Siena as a remembrance of the city’s coat of arms, and to mark the black and white horses of the protectors of the city. There are 172 busts of popes covering centuries looking down into the main space, watching over everyone who walks inside. The dome is a hexagon and is fixed with the gilded lantern by Bernini, symbolizing the sun. Everywhere are glimpses of the astrological symbols of the day: stars, moons, crescents, darkness. Everything gilded in the highest quality materials back in the day. They weren’t always here, though. Originally there were frescos but they were replaced.
At the end of our day, having spent most of it in the cathedral, we explored the city and found a few trinkets to bring home with us. I have a ceramic letter B that I shipped home, knowing it came just a few feet away from the magnificent structure I still have difficulty putting into words. We ended our day with fresh gelato nearby, and waved goodbye to this beautifully quaint city as we head back into the hills of Tuscany. The next day we would have an adventure attempting to return our rental car in the metropolis of Firenze (Florence) and start our stay in the single spot I knew I wouldn’t be able to pull myself away from. If I were ever to move to Italia, Firenze would be where I’d live.