On to Siena

Towered Towns – San Gimignano to Siena

On this trip we traced our way from towered hilltown to towered hilltown. Twelve-mile days left little time for exploring our destination, but at day’s end once inside city walls, it seemed necessary (to the trail boss) to climb at least one tower and retrace our route through the patchwork of field and vineyard covering Tuscan hills.

San Gimignano’s towers were fortresses connected by wooden walkways in medieval times; now just 14 of the original 72 remain. From a distance tower silhouettes unmistakably identify San Gimignano.

The old, the high part of Colle Val d’Elsa at the top of a hill is narrow and walled, the lower and newer part is at the base of the hill. (On a freezing, rainy night we had a terrific dinner in Colle Alta and descended to Colle Basso for dessert  in a swift elevator that operates all night.)

Monteriggioni, a 13th Century castle caught often in battles between Siena and Florence then, is now a walled village with 85 inhabitants. It’s the stuff of a castle lover’s imagination – and Dante’s. He wrote of “horrible giants” on the edge of hell resembling Monteriggioni, “crowned with towers.”

And Siena – the perfectly preserved walled city – pictured here on a panforte package.



At a tiny grocery store during morning provisioning we were offered panforte as “typico” of Siena and “good for walking.” The paper package contained a tinfoil-wrapped cake made of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and dried figs in a little paper cake pan. Also included was a packet of powdered sugar, which, at an afternoon break, the sweet bride carefully sprinkled on top of the cake before dividing it in four.

Like so many things in Italy – soap wrappers, paper placemats, museum and bus tickets, paper packaging on sandwiches – it’s not necessary that the enclosure be beautiful, but it is.

Fava Beans and Beer

Once long ago my husband and I tried to follow the directions in a book suggesting walks around a medium-sized town in Italy. But getting out of the suburbs tested good natures with confusing roundabouts and astoundingly fast Italian cars whizzing this way and that.

Because it is larger and a real city, I couldn’t imagine that the approach to Siena could be anything other than difficult. But the ATG route led us through farms and small houses on a ridge that looked across at Siena. While stopped for a break by the side of a small lane, we watched a woman working in her abundant garden. Finished, she closed her garden gate, smiled as she called buon giorno and offered us handfuls of fava beans, indicating with gesture that we needn’t to cook them – just peel and eat.

So we did, and walked down the ridge on a track to a road, crossed it at a crosswalk, walked a few hundred meters along a busy road on a sidewalk, and found ourselves at a gate to Siena. We also found a little bar with tables outside and, with beer and chips, toasted the end of the walk and Siena above us.

And a sign for escalators! We rode with great modern pleasure up into the ancient city, walking the narrow streets to the center to emerge on the tilted, clamshell-shaped Piazza del Campo (where the famous horserace, the Palio, is run) – filled with tourists, scattered at tables in cafes, and sitting cross-legged on the piazza bricks.

28/29 May 2013 Siena

     The trail boss led us on a Siena walk after a big hotel breakfast, through neighborhoods to the Museo Civico at the foot of the campo and a stop for coffee and tea and pizza.

     It’s crazy to just spend a little more than a day in this place – but wonderful. In the museum, Lorenzetti’s amazing frescoes (14th Century), the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government and Their Effects on the Town and Countryside.” Things haven’t changed much – while the scenery in “good government” is Tuscan countryside full of prosperity and bounty and a bearded old man surrounded by virtues (including a comfortably reclining Peace), the “bad government” panels (much decayed) show sad scenes – citizens robbed and fields without produce.

     While the others climbed the 503 steps up the Torre del Mangia, I walked up fewer steps to an open-air loggia with views out and over the walls.

     After another break for tea and food we visited the black and white Duomo, Siena’s cathedral, at a late afternoon, very mellow time. Enjoying puzzling out the mosaic flooring of inlaid marble panels, finding Bernini’s sculptures in a small chapel dedicated to Mary. In the crypt below saw newly uncovered frescoes in vivid colors.

     We made good use of time. My favorite moment an unexpected climb to the top of a part of the Duomo that didn’t get finished, a long skinny parapet with incredible views in all directions – of Siena and countryside.

     The trail boss been so much fun – as always – led us to Siena’s orto botanico – a teaching institution – and told me how much he loves plants – looking surprised.

     Wonderful time at dinner in a little place recommended by hotel – talking and laughing in conversation ranging from Jesus to Facebook.     




Summer Reading

Never enough but all of it good! Hilary Mantel’s unforgettable Thomas Cromwell accompanied me on airplanes as I devoured “Bring Up the Bodies” – the second book in Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy. You know how it all comes out – what happens to Anne and even Jane, the next in Henry’s lineup. That doesn’t make any difference to the utter pleasure of reading Mantel’s recreation of the moments and manipulations of Henry VIII’s wife exchanges. I stalled, paused in my reading often, because I didn’t want the book to end.

And on takeoffs or landings, or in bed – I enjoyed another of Vicki Lane’s Elizabeth Goodweather mysteries (“In a Dark Season”). Elizabeth, Katherine, Anne, Jane – such classic names – such different characters.

Two other books occupied August. Since Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes recommended it, I read, near gobbled up, after a visit with Lady Baby, John Medina’s “Brain Rules for Babies.” I wish I’d read this book when I was a young mother – it’s full of wisdom about babies and about negotiating married life in the company of babies and children.

Medina’s basic rules are twofold: Start With Empathy and Focus On Emotions. He describes two simple questions to ask that help create an “empathy reflex – your first response to any emotional situation.” Because he is a scientist, a developmental molecular biologist, he uses numbers and the results of modern research to back up what often seems common sense – explaining why parental time and attention matter and that spanking isn’t a good idea.

It’s a great book for parents and grandparents. Toward the end, he writes: “You may think that grownups create children. The reality is that children create grownups. They become their own person, and so do you. Children give so much more than they take.”

The other book, the most unusual, is by Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire. I’d ordered “Swimming Studies” for my Kindle app by mistake, and read it in one Anchorage-to-Seattle sitting. Luckily, my husband got the hardback. It comes with no dust jacket, end flap material printed where endpapers might be, and an embossed bathing cap on the water-blue cover.

The book is Shapton’s memoir of her life as young swimmer training for Olympic trials, her continued fascination with water and bodies in water, and her eventual turn toward art. She’s brave and honest, and her descriptions transport – you feel the squeeze of a bathing cap, the atmosphere in a bus full of young athletes on their way to a competition, the chlorinated air of swimming pools, her elation, and her exhaustion.

Her book isn’t a sport memoir so much as a meditation on her journey (often a watery one), as Shapton figures out how her former swimming life inspires her life as an artist.

Because I’ve been thinking about people’s thoughts and plans for participating in The Workroom, it resonated when Shapton quoted “The Nuts and Bolts of Psychology for Swimmers,” by Keith Bell. He writes about training discipline, the nonnegotiable commitment to practice. Words that apply equally to working on a creative project, once you have set a goal: “It doesn’t make much sense to have to decide whether to take each individual step in a trip you have already decided to make.”

I love Shapton’s watercolor portraits of fellow swimmers, rectangles of pool water, and gallery of vintage swimsuits – in both digital and paper forms (and it was fun to compare the illustrations) – the book is a treasure!

In Search of Counter Space

A few weeks ago we went to California for a long weekend to visit our younger son and his sweet friend. We tagged along on a surfing morning, then hiked in the Santa Monica hills up a steep canyon trail past burned out houses – dreams gone awry – nothing left but flagstones and chimneys of stone and brick.

Another day we toured the Gamble House, a well-preserved Greene and Greene house, dark inside with shut-out sunshine, but rich with wood, and generous in shapely rooms and sleeping porches. The old-fashioned but really appealing kitchen has a big wooden table in the middle that provides great workspace for the cook and helpers.

The authors of “A Pattern Language,” whose pronouncements are backed by research in how people live in houses, say “Cooking is uncomfortable if the kitchen counter is too short and also if it is too long.” A Goldilocks declaration. Do you know anyone who has the “too long” problem? The book advises that a kitchen striking a balance would have a total counter length, excluding sink, stove, and refrigerator, of at least 12 feet (but the 12 feet can be made up of shorter bits – and tables and islands).

Our son’s house is a little California bungalow – the layout of the rooms the same as when it was built in 1919 (with a small guest room and bath added on beyond the kitchen.) Perhaps the kitchen was once bigger, a wall separates a space for washer and dryer now, but wouldn’t have in 1919.

Our son’s sweet friend is a terrific cook – also an effective juggler and balancer because the kitchen is seriously short of workspace. Dish drainer and appliances occupy much of the limited countertop landscape, and a warped plastic cutting board testifies to the understandable use of stove top as extra acreage.

The kitchen cried out for an island along an available blank wall – a long narrow one, with shelves underneath. After the hike, even though tired, hot, and a little reluctant, we tackled the legendary blue and yellow box store, trudging through the furnishings maze to find the right “work station.”

What I always forget is that you have to put those purchases together. And that’s where the good-natured husband comes in. Even though the wordless instructions test good nature, he spreads everything out in an orderly way, and patiently deciphers puzzling diagrams, interprets silent motions of stick figures, counts and successfully identifies parts, hardware, and fasteners.

By evening, (with just a little help from his friends), the island was assembled, placed in the kitchen, and soaking up mineral oil into its butcher-block top.

Three and a half feet of counter space gained! A good California visit.

Poets Make Places

A vacation allows me to throw away all my usual rules about reading – no novels in the daytime being the most affected. On our long airplane flight to Italy, I began “Niccolò Rising” – the first novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s series “The House of Niccolò.” (Long ago I read Dunnett’s other big series – “The Lymond Chronicles” – delicious historical novels.)

Flying toward 21st century Europe, I walked the streets, adventured with characters from the 15th. When we arrived, the imaginary world in my head was in perfect step. I pictured tiny streets and squares filled with festivals and people of yore, and looked past tourists in tank tops standing by Roman gates to see Niccolò in velvet breeches. Dunnett’s tale is of a young man – a little rascal and a lot goodhearted – rising from poverty in Bruges as part of the new merchant class, and of women smart and brave.

Before I left home I read Frances Mayes’s, “Everyday in Tuscany,” and learned about Vernon Lee. I ended up reading only “Niccolò” at night, on trains, or one happy morning at the villa, but I took Lee’s book “The Spirit of Rome” on my iPad. These home weeks I’ve been loving her book (written in 1898, it’s available in reprinted editions and free on any electronic book).

Lee writes about the Italy of the century before last, in the throes of unification when much construction revealed historical underpinnings – buildings and ruins so accessible to Lee’s wanderings. Reading the book, I’m forever turning to Wikipedia to comprehend her references, but I understand when she says: “Poets really make places.”

Mayes must like that statement. In her first book she wrote about buying an abandoned Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole. Mayes’s recent books are travel writing, love songs to Italy – about food and sights and her life in Cortona. (They would make great travel guides.)

Back home I read “Bella Tuscany” where Mayes asks rhetorically, what depletes and what replenishes. “What wrings you out and truly, what rinses you with happiness?” She answers: “What comes from my own labor and creativity, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it, stays close to the natural joy we all were born with and carry always.”

A reminder that energizes for all sorts of work – cooking, the garden – a poem.