Plan: We will depart on train from Venice to Siena and then will relax and check out the scene in Siena.
What really happened (per Christine): We got up early, checked out of Albergo Doni, ate breakfast there (we had this cool red orange juice that Rick Steve comes from Sicilian blood oranges) and then took the vaporetti to the train station. Once there, we found that train reservations were full until 1:30pm. We were kinda bummed, but decided to walk around in Venice near the train station. It ended up being a lot of fun going shopping in the stores and then we got a quick (1 hr) pizza lunch before heading back to our train. We changed trains in Firenze and then finally got to Siena by 1800. Then we took a taxi to the villa (since the train station is on the outside edge of town).
The villa was absolutely beautiful, as was our room. It was apparently Orlando's great grandfather's villa and it was enclosed by big stone walls with a gate and a garden and patio inside the walls Orlando, Helen and there two kids live upstairs and they rent out three rooms on the ground floor. Our room was huge with our own bathroom with shower (heaven!). Helen reminded me a lot of Barb Spinos; she was really friendly and motherly and gave us a bunch of maps and showed us exactly how to use the keys and everything. It felt like we were family who came as guests to their home, rather than just renting a room. We found out that June 2 was a holiday, Republic day (kind of like our Fourth of July, but no fireworks), so many services were closed. We also found out that the next day would be the last day of school for most kids in Italy, so most people had plans to go to the sea shore after that. Helen was quite concerned when she found out we planned to go to the Cinque Terre next with no reservations, so we assured her we would call ahead.
We had planned to find a laundromat when we got to Siena, but Orlando didn't think any would be open because of the holiday, so we just went down to the center of town, to Il Campo, a big shell-shaped open area near Siena's houses of government. It was very cool; like a big party going on. We ate dinner at one of the many restaurants lining Il Campo. I had some homemade pasta with vegetables and Mike had pizze marinara - it was the best pizza of the trip so far, very flavorful and just a little bit of cheese to accentuate it. After dinner, we went and got some gellato and ate it on the gellaterio's balcony overlooking Il Campo. Then we walked home to bed.
Mike really liked Siena. He called it a "medieval college town." It's got both an old and a modern feel to it; kind of like Bath, actually. Supposedly a lot of tourists come here in the summer, but it didn't seem all that touristy or crowded, maybe because we were mostly hanging around in the evening.
Plan: We will go on an all-day Chianti countryside tour.
What really happened (per Christine): We got up and met up with Roberto, our tour guide at 9am, outside of Orlando and Helen's villa. We then picked up a family from Oklahoma who were joining us: Phil, his wife Donna, and their four "kids" (teenagers and early 20s): Jared, Lesley, Brittney and Chelsea. Phil is an electrical engineer who works for an electrical utility in Oklahoma and Donna takes care of all the kids. Jared apparently is in the Peace Corps for 2 years and had spent the last 11 months in northern Africa, teaching basic computer skills. He gets vacation, but it didn't sound like he could return to the States, since he said that he had to fly into and out of Paris. Their whole family had taken the train to Siena the day before just for this tour (and they had big problems getting there because of a train strike in France), then they were taking the train back to Paris that evening. We found all this stuff out due to long drives and lots of wine! :-)
Our tour guide, Roberto, was absolutely great! He apparently had studied finance in school, but never really liked it. His real passions are history, archeology, linguistics. At each place we went to, he gave us a mini-history lesson, but it never seemed boring or irrelevant. It was very cool!
We first went to a site of an ancient (6th century BCE) Etruscan tomb. If we had just gone by ourselves, it would have been like "oh wow, an empty stone room," but Roberto filled us in with lots of details. The first people to live in the Tuscan area were shepherds with no written language and very little was known about them (pre-8th century BCE). In the 8th century, a group of people now known as Etruscans moved to Tuscany from an island near Greece and started farming the very rocky soil. They brought with them a language that used the Greek alphabet, but was not Greek. They had an amazonian culture, meaning that men and women were equal and complementary in power. (ie, women gained power by being more feminine, not by being more masculine, as in a western culture). These tombs were the burial places of important people and they were buried with some of their belongings (almost like the Egyptians). Unfortunately, the tombs that he was showing us had been found whole (not collapsed), so they had been robbed long ago, but he showed us pictures of some of the artifacts of his other digs from collapsed tombs. The tombs were unique because they had lintel roofs, a precursor to Roman arches. Apparently, the Romans were originally a blending of a tribe called Latins and Etruscans at the city of Rome, until the farmers decided that they didn't want to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy and took over - thus Rome was started. And Rome proliferated because it created an economic structure where cities produced one or only a few products and then traded with other cities for what they needed. This economic model was so efficient, it out competed the Etruscans and their culture lost out. Really interesting.
We next went to a small medieval village called Vertine (pronounced Ver-tee-nay). Mike thought this was very funny because it sounded like "very teeny," which the town was. It had only 25 residents. Roberto explained how the feudal system in Italy worked, with the largest local rulers being "bishops." When the population got too big for the bishop to rule alone, he build a castle fortification and appointed a "homo" (just what they were called, not referring to any sexual preferences) to rule there during his lifetime (it was not an inheritable position). The homo was then responsible for the protection and productivity of all the people in the area and was directly answerable to the the bishop. Roberto said that Vertine still had a medieval government up to the 1800s and there were some small towns in southern Italy which had a medieval government up to WWII! Vertine was very cute and picturesque and had been added on to over the centuries as the need arose.
After leaving Vertine, we went to a small restaurant nearby. We ate bruschetta, and other toast with mushroom and artichoke spread and drank wine. There was proscuitto for the non-vegetarians (everyone but Mike and I). Everyone else ate pasta with either bolognese sauce (meat sauce) or a meaty asparagus sauce. Mike and I got a great meal of pasta with a zucchini sauce (made of both the zucchini fruit and the flowers). It was awesome! We talked about our families, about politics and economy (Roberto was really concerned about the European Union constitution vote) and lots of other stuff.
After lunch, we went to the Capanella winery. This is a very small (40,000 bottles/year) Chianti winery, with an emphasis on quality. We got to take a tour of their cellars while Roberto told us about the wine making process. He talked about how there are two main wines in Tuscany, Chianti Classico (which has a very specific percentage of a certain kind of grape in it, has a specific aging process and goes well with typical Tuscan cuisine) and the "Super Tuscan," which is more flexible in its grapes and has a more international flavor. The grapes are fermented in big steel vats and then transported into oak barrels to age. The Chianti Classico ages only in Slovakian oak barrels. The Super Tuscans then spend some time in non-virgin french oak barrels (apparently virgin french oak would impart a vanilla flavor to the wine, which is specific to french wines). The oak barrels impart tannins to the wine, which are acids to flavor and preserve the wine. In Italy, they are forbidden to add sugar or any chemicals to the wine. Apparently, in America, certain states will allow the addition of sugars or sulfites to preserve the wine (the sulfites are what causes wine headaches). We then went on to the "nursery," the room where all the bottled wine goes to age. It was huge. And we got to see the special vault where large-volume customers' wines age. They have a machine to continuously monitor temperature and humidity of the room. The winery then sends this information to the buyers every month, so that they know the conditions in which their future wine is kept! It's more controlled than drugs in a pharmacy! (At least I don't think we get actual temperature and humidity data from the manufacturer's and wholesalers). Anyway, then we went upstairs to taste two different wines, one a Classico and one a Super Tuscan. He warned us that we may not like either one, as they are very dry. He said that in Italy, the legal drinking age is 14 and that most kids get a little bit of wine with a meal from their parents before then. Wine is drunk with a meal, to complement the meal, not as an alcoholic beverage; most people in Italy have a very sophisticated palate for wine by the time they are 21, when people in America are just being legally allowed to drink. The first one we tried, we drank first by itself. It was dry and kind of had sour taste along your jaw. But when you ate a small piece of parmesan cheese and then drank the wine....it was really smooth and mellow. It was amazing! The second wine I didn't like as much, probably because it was a dry wine that made a taste like a bubble on your tongue and didn't have the cool food trick. So, now you know. First try your wine by itself, then try it with food and see how it changes. It was cool! Well, they gave us a bunch of wine to taste and we all drank what they gave us (like any wine-tasting in America), but I think we were only supposed to have a few sips and then dump the rest. Owell. So, we were all a bit toasty on the way home (except Roberto, who did not partake of the wine-tasting).
I would highly recommend Roberto's tours if any of you go to Italy. It was expensive but totally worth it! After the tour, Mike took a nap, while I got a phone card, made reservations for the Accademia gallery in Florence, tried to get a room in the Cinque Terre (unsuccessful) and went to the grocery store for snacks (oranges, cookies and water). After Mike got up, we went to a laundromat, brought our clothes back when done and then went and hung out on Il Campo again. We ended up eating a piece of pizza each as a snack and then getting more gellato (yum!) before back to the villa.