The Heart of Italy
Tuscany and Umbria are what we non-Italians think of when we think of Italy. Oh, sure, we think
about Rome and her 50 cc Attack soot covered
ruins and Venice and her soggy floors, but when we think of Italy, we are thinking of Tuscany
and Umbria. Green rolling hills, red tile roofs, little medieval towns perched precariously on
hilltops, great, simple food, wonderful wines unique to each town, friendly people and a slower
paced life are all hallmarks of this region.
Now, isn't that what you think of when you think of Italy?
I spent nearly a week in this area and grew to really like Siena and Perugia especially.
Florence is the only city in this list that is not a hilltown; the other three are most
"What is a hill town, exactly?," I hear you asking. Simply put, it's a town on a
hill. Medieval life was tough all over. One way the cities had to defend themselves was to be
at the top of a gravity well. That way, all they had to do was just heave something over the
walls and let physics do it's thing on the hapless enemy below. They put themselves at the
top of the well by building on the tops of the hills in the area. Yeah, sure, they had to haul
all the materials up the hill, too, but at least when they were done they had a
difficult-to-defeat walled town.
Along with the general medieval societal disarray was the nastiness of the plague. These two
factors combined in several cases to preserve a lot of these hilltowns in their medieval state
into the 20th century and beyond.
Visiting a hill town often times requires a true physical committment by you, the wide-eyed
tourist. Since it is literally on top of the local hill and the train station is down at the
base, you have to either walk up or figure out the busses. I figured out the busses. Further,
once you get up to the top, the hill isn't flattopped now nor was it flattopped when they
started building. The streets follow the grades of the hillsides and you hardly ever walk on
The Tuscany and Umbria regions are truly wonderful and should be enjoyed at a slow pace. When
you go, make sure you can spend at least a few days there.
Siena's buildings and streets must have been the inspiration for Crayola's "burnt
siena" color. Browns, golds, brick reds and dark oranges dominate Siena's
architecture. It was a regional
power in the 13th century and then was crippled by the plague in the 14th. Siena's city
layout is unusual in that the main piazza is not centered on the cathedral but rather the city
hall. The cathedral is on the highest hill, though.
The main square is the scallop shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The piazza is surrounded by
palazzi built from the 12th to the 15th centuries. The centerpiece of the square is the bell
tower, Torre del Mangia. Apparently it's named after a famous bellringer named Giovanni di
Duccio, who was nicknamed "il mangiaguadagni" - the profit eater - and
"mangia" for short. Apparently he ate so much he "ate the profits" of his
paycheck. OK... whatever.
Piazza del Campo is also the site of the twice yearly Il Palio. Ostensibly, the Palio is a
horse race that consists of riders picked from the surrounding area's farms on horses that
represent one of the seventeen Sienese contrade (neighborhoods). Ten horses participate; only
ten neighborhoods are represented each year. Siena is truly a madhouse for the week or so
leading up to the races. Roving bands of neighborhood drummers and singers wander the streets
and sing songs with obscene lyrics about the other contrade, each contrade's horse is
brought into the contrade's church for a blessing by the priest (and if the horse takes a
dump during the blessing it is a sign of good luck for the horse, but not for the church
The Campo is packed with people and the horses race around the outside of the dirt covered and
mattress-lined piazza. It is a free-for-all race; there are no rules. The riders can and often
do whip each other as much as the horses. Three laps and roughly ninety seconds later the race
is over and the winner gets... well he gets nothing, actually, except the glory of victory. The
neighborhood council gets the palio itself, which is a large banner. The residents of the
winning contrada get to brag about how "they" won the race for a year or so.
It truly is beyond my comprehension. One of the local movie houses shows a film of the Palio in
English every hour or so in the daytime. The guy there gave me a special showing just for me,
since I had missed the last one by about 5 minutes. "Don't tell anyone", he said.
"OK, I won't." The Palio is run on July 2 and August 16. The August date has the
longest history; back to at least the 1200's. The July race is newer; it's been run
since the mid 1600's.
The cathedral in Siena is a wonderful layered marble Italian Gothic building, striped inside
and out in black and white marble. It has some spectacular floor inlays that are usually kept
covered. The church displays one at a time and rotates the displayed one every month. I saw the
"Slaying of the Innocents", which managed to show quite graphically that Bible story.
The cathedral is perched on top of the hill at the town's highest point. The plans called
for a church of a certain length. Unfortunately, the hill wasn't that long, so in order to
accomodate the church on the hill the Sienese had to build a 4 story high foundation on the
northern side. They use part of that space for the baptistery, but the steps up from the street
on the backside is long indeed.
Further, early in the 14th century the town decided to expand the church. They managed to build
the new nave'outer walls and entry arch, but then in 1348 the darned plague hit the town
and wiped out at least half the population. Construction on the church expansion project was
halted. The part of the nave that was roofed has become the City Museum. The photos of the
piazza with the bell tower and of the tower growing out of my head were taken from the top of
Europe was in the middle of an election season when I was in Italy and I managed to see two
political events while in Siena. First, a candidate for the European Parliament (who I later
learned is Rutelli, the mayor of Rome) visited and gave a speech in the Campo. He was pretty
boring really, even though I couldn't understand what he was saying for the most part. He
just droned on and on. I was struck by the lack of security for him, though. Just two or three
assistants and security types, not the legions of security guys I've seen with candidates
here in the US.
Later that night on the main street about 300 meters from my hotel was an Italian Communist
Party demonstration, complete with shouting local party demagouges, bullhorns and large red
flags. I didn't stay too long. One of my greatest disappointments on this trip was the lack
of interest I encountered as I walked by the tables set up by the Rutelli faithful the
afternoon of his visit. Not once did any of the workers shove a leaflet at me. Waaaaahhhh!!!! I
guess it's pretty obvious I'm not a local.
The passagiata every night was a lot of fun. One night I noticed a group of older men hanging
out in a small square pretending to play cards, but they were really girl-watching. It was
hilarious to watch them try to watch their cards and the girls at the same time.
Siena was also the birthplace and home of Saint Catherine of Siena, who was a 16 year old girl
when she had a vision of becoming the bride of Christ. She persuaded Pope Gregory the XI to get
back to where he was before (Rome) from his hangout in Avignon. Catherine is credited with
restoring the Papacy to Rome and ending the Great Schism, whch was that period wherein the
Anti-Popes ruled from France under the watchful eye of the French monarchy. To honor her, the
Domincans in Siena built a church and then put her head in a vessel in a special chapel. I saw
it. It's not lit; in order to see her, drop a L200 coin in the box and you see what looks
like a brown paper bag with a few teeth hanging out. She was made a patron saint of Italy in
Siena was truly a charmer of a town. A wonderful small city with a meandering streetplan,
perfectly preserved from medieval times that is car-free in the center. My hotel was no more
than 200 meters from the Campo, which put me right in the center of things every night. My
first night I ate on the Campo itself as the sun set and the residents began to filter in from
their early evening passagiata. Sometimes a pizza and a litre of acqua naturale are all I need
to have a "great" meal.
Florence is the Mecca for all Renaissance art fiends, but you can count me out. I liked
Florence but the six or so hours I spent there was enough for me. I saw the duomo, the
baptistery, the outside of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, "David" in the Academy
(and snapped the obligatory photo) and the Ponte Vecchio. I am sure there are other things in
Florence to see and that my mere skimming of this intense city will shock, dismay or annoy some
readers of these page, but in truth I was over with Florence as soon as I got back on the bus
I did enjoy the relatively new facade on the duomo and was awed by the mosaics in the
baptistery. I spent several minutes looking at Botticelli's "Primavera" and
"Birth of Venus", especially since the latter has some personal significance to me.
Perhaps this is a weakness in my education and something I need to fix with myself, but I am
becoming less interested in the artworks than I was when I was younger. Part of the reason is
that the symbolism of many Renaissance and medieval paintings elude me and part is that I can
only see so many 14th century Madonna and Child tryptich panels before I am bored. The boredom
sets in because of my lack of vision, which in turn is because of my lack of education, I
believe. When I was younger I was satisfied with simply looking at the paintings and admiring
them at the "Wow, the talent required to create that is awesome!" level, which is not
a bad way to look at art, I think, but neither is it a complete way. Later I grew to learn that
many times there are reasons for the objects in the paintings. Knowing that but not
understanding the symbolism is driving me crazy now. Note to myself: take an art appreciation
class at the local JC this Fall.
San Gimignano is a Disneyland-like preserved medieval hilltown about 90 minutes and one bus
change west of Siena. It's a recommended stop by Rick Steves, but I think he's got it
wrong in this case. The skyline is quite spectacular, but the town itself seems to have
succumbed to the weight of the tourists that utterly swarmed it the day I was there.
The town is clearly proud of itself and its history. They have spent a great deal of money
keeping the streets well-paved and having facilities available for "us." Its skyline
is dominated by 14 cloth drying towers, all that remain of the original 72. The towers also
served as convenient gravity well extensions when the town had to battle the neighboring towns
or, more often the neighboring neighbors. Apparently the folks in town didn't always get
along too well. Make no mistake, this is a small town. I walked the main street from the large
portal in the wall to the other side in less than 10 minutes. If the town was fighting itself
hiding was impossible.
Getting there was more of a challenge than getting around the town. Tuscany is served by a very
efficient bus system, but, like any other similiar system anywhere in the world, it is designed
for the locals. They know how it works and the rest of us have to muddle through as best we
can. My brain trust in this affair was Rick Steve's Italy 1999 book, which meticulously
detailed the necessary steps to catch the bus from Siena to Poggibonsi and then from Poggibonsi
to San Gimignano. Unfortunately, as detailed as they were, they were wrong. Rick told me to
cross the street to catch the bus. In fact, the bus was waiting for us at the same stop, a
small bus terminal. All I needed to do was walk about 20 feet and hop on board. Instead, I
walked across the street and read the departure board above the stop and realized my stop
wasn't listed. Right about then the bus I needed pulled away. I walked back across the
street, saw that my bus had just left and quickly determined I was stuck waiting for another 75
minutes for the next one to arrive.
I was annoyed to say the least, but I got over it. I went for a walk, bought a little snack
from a hole-in-the-wall alimentaria and waited.
Perugia is a 3 000 year old cultural layer cake with a 60's pop culture cherry on top. It
has a history of adolescent-type rebellion, whether against Rome, the neighboring medieval and
Renaissance city-states or the Pope in the 1860's. It also has a famous candy factory
nearby. The city is built on Etruscan foundations, fortified by Rome, built upon by medieval
warlords and preserved for millenium-style tourists. You can meander along the cramped, dark
streets, walk under the Roman arch or stroll on the converted aqueduct. You can take the
escalator down the hill to the bus station, stopping midway down to explore the underground
city. You can wonder at a huge Roman mosiac floor, preserved in the lobby of an medical office
tower. You can visit the museum and gaze at ancient Etruscan tombs or sit on the steps of the
church and watch the Perugian world go by.
I did all of those things; you should, too!
Perugia was a delight; my hotel was in a vintage 16th century building on an even older street.
I was just a few minutes' walk from the main pedestrian area, where the passagiata occured
every night. I walked nearly every square inch of Perugia and found something amazing nearly
every moment. The sheer age of this town was mind-boggling, never mind the notion that people
simply live here as they always have, amongst all of the history.
The area near Lake Trasimeno, of which Perugia is a part, has always had a reputation for
trouble. It was in the valley near the lake that the Carthaginian Hannibal (he of the
Alp-crossing elephants) defeated the Roman army in 260 BCE. Perugia contracted the
troublemaking bug as well and it shows in some ways. The main church, while quite large and
very imposing is unfinished. It is only partially covered in marble. The majority of it is
still in bare stone and brick because the marble they wanted to use they stole from a
neighboring town as part of the victor's spoils of war. A few years later the original
owners won another skirmish and took the stuff back.
The Perugians imprisoned St Francis of Assisi, poisoned two popes and used to have a festival
called La Battaglia di Sassi - the battle of stones, wherein the men of the town would
throw rocks at each other until enough injuries or deaths had accumulated to let everyone leave
During the 1530's the Pope decided the folks in Perugia were just a bit too uppity and
decided to put his foot down. The typical messiness ensued and unfortunately for the Perugians
il Papa won. If that wasn't bad enough he built a good-sized palace at one end of town that
looks out over the Lake Trasimeno Valley just to rub it in. Three hundred years later the
locals overthrew him and reclaimed the town for themselves. The palace still stands, though.
I spent two delightful and enjoyable evenings on the grand terrace overlooking the valley. I
walked over after dinner each night and wrote in my journal or just watched the various shows
while sipping a beer. The first night we all were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm which
luckily passed to our north, but not before hundreds of lightning bolts struck the far
hilltops. A little warm rain refreshed the air and us, too. At 10 pm, the movie started. It was
free and amusing; "Easy Rider" in Italian. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack
Nicholson on screen, some Italian guys on the soundtrack. I felt like jumping up afterwards and
saying, "OK, so, did you people actually understand that movie's message??" and
then I'd launch into a psuedopsychobabble-based, overly and overtly pretentious exposition
of the theme of the movie and why it is a snapshot of an America undergoing social upheaval and
class turmoil, with a little generational warfare thrown in, too. Anti-heroes and cinematic
cynicism would have been discussed too.
But, alas, I merely chuckled, grabbed my journal, said "Buona note" to my waitress
(who was none too impressed) and went back to my room for a well-deserved sleep.
The second night was slightly less spectacular meteorologically but just as amusing culturally.
No lightning, but the movie was "Yellow Submarine". The songs were in their original
form but the dialog was in Italian (with Liverpudlian accents, of course!). The waitress was
much nicer to me, too! What a cutie she was and we became pals pretty quickly. Of course, it
was my last night in Perugia and my second to last night in Italy so I had to simply say,
"Ciao!" when the movie was over. A "Ciao!" and a wistful smile was the
response. Ah, well.
Link to the pictures