The sun was strong as we work to the rather stark bells of our town. No melody here; straight bells that tell the time, and then the half hour. We were determined to see more hilltop towns. The children were roused and made to dress (imagine their delight). We were going to see Siena and San Gimignarno.
It was still ten o’clock before we were in the car. Samantha told us that it was an hour and a half to Siena. Really? Oh well. If that was the case, then we must just settle into it. The car is an interesting phenomenon with the kids. We have these long silences. I’m not sure what they are doing in the back; Paris has lost his ipod so they are not listening to music (though I’m usually frantically scrolling through the stations on the car radio looking for something to listen to – I hadn’t realised how dependent I was on the talking bit of radio). But they are quiet, often for full hours at a time. And then suddenly, one of them will say something (this is not always the same person) and they will burst into conversation about something, usually about a film or a TV show or about the kings and queens of England (about which, they are obsessed). Sometimes they will sing (currently, they are singing songs from Horrible Histories, Total Drama and – bizarrely – ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’). And then, silence again. It is very weird.
And then we were climbing into the sky again, and another town before us – this one was Siena. Sam told us to go right to the top of the hill, but – our experience at Volterra – we decided it was better not to drive right into the old town, but to park on the outskirts. There was a park too, on the side of the road, so it was to be. We walked up a steep road and then, again (like a kind of waking dream) we were in another town sprung from some other time.
I know we have seen a lot of churches and I have written about them. But, with the exception of the Sagrada Familia (which is special in a way that no other building – church or otherwise – is), the cathedral of Siena is the most amazing. The floors are incredible, with images inlaid but not as mosaics, as kind of whole pieces of marble or some kind of stone. All the walls are painted, the ceiling is the night sky, and there are busts of every pope around the church. The same striped marble effect in Florence and Pisa is here too, and more beautiful. But then you can go underneath to the church that was built before this one (and on which this one is built) with its colourful frescos of Christian suffering and multiple archways. The city has restored much of this, and have built windows in the ceiling of the old church so you can see up into the new one (‘old’ and ‘new’ being relative terms). So you can stand in the old church and gaze up into the cathedral and at its night sky. As if you are somehow imagining this new church from the stones of the old one. You not only look up, but forward.
Underneath this crypt is another smaller church of the same vintage as the cathedral that sits above all of them called the Battista. We didn’t quite work out the function of this (Myles proffered the idea that it was the ‘extension’), it is a smaller space anyway, with a wonderfully painted ceiling – not the night sky, stories. In this church, there are mirrors on some of the pew so you can see the ceiling without have to crane your neck. I don’t mind the craning, but perhaps the elderly appreciate having a mirror. I gazed into the mirror for ages (not looking at myself, you understand, but at the ceiling) and it was a strange feeling, seeing the roof at your knees. Sort of like chewing gum with your feet.
There is also a museum of some of the sacred art (the children were most gratified to see that these statues wore pants), and a view of the whole of Siena from the top. Out there, in the air, with the most glorious sun pouring down, it was all a bit special (if only half the family didn’t suffer vertigo).
Saint Catherine of Siena is an important figure around hereabouts. I did some work on her when I was doing some post graduate stuff; she was one of the most amazing anorectics of the Catholic Church and I think, if I remember this rightly, would drink pus to mortify her flesh and desires. And, I think, she is also the saint who has a vision in which she is married to Christ and he gives her his foreskin as a ring. Now I can’t be making that up, can I? I must look it up again when I get home (or if we ever get internet connection again beyond several minutes in a shop).
Siena is also famous for a horse race and as a Melbournian, I feel much affinity with this. This race is called the Palio and it is run around the large Piazza del Campo in the town. Ten horses and riders take part (there are in fact fourteen districts these can be drawn from; they all have their own flags) and they run three times around the piazza. I hope they put down sand or something. Those cobblestones are slippery and the corners are a doozy. We did something far less athletic in Piazza del Campo. We had lunch. The table was in the sun and we ordered soups and melanzane, and wine, and vegetables and bread. There was olive oil. There were no complaints. I was ready to have a little sleep in the sun. But we are tourists. We must away to another point of interest.
And it was here that we found Niccolo’s new bag. He saw it and immediately had to have it. That kid knows his mind. And as it was 12 euros, Myles was happy to buy it for him. Job done.
We loved Siena very much. But before the sun left us, we wanted to see San Gimignano. It was three as we left and we pulled into San Gimignano at about 4pm.
Another gorgeous medieval town high in the Tuscan hillside. This one is ringed by towers – there are now fourteen left but apparently there had been up to seventy at one stage. It is dramatic, and must have impressed not only the peasants in the surrounding fields but visitors to the city. The streets are steep (few cars, if any, come in which is a blessing). We walked to the top and a walled garden where you could see the whole of Tuscany spread out like a picnic through a door in the wall. Very like a painting. And a woman was playing a harp and singing sad, Medieval sounding songs.
I sat in the sun with some older, Italian couples. They were liking the sun too, but one of the men couldn’t sit still. As we sucked in the sun, he waddled about checking whether the tap worked in the fountain, pushing branches aside in the bushes to see what was in the middle, checking that the screws were tight on the statue. It was restful knowing that I had no need to do any of those things.
So we saw another knockout town.
What is it about seeing? (Ah seeing. We are so dependent upon it. What about the other senses? I took a photo of a lovely valley, and as I did so, a cock crowed. This is for me alone, the crowing of the cock. I can replicate it for anyone. Though it did worry me that the cock crowed at sunset; is that right? Does this particular cock have issues?) This problem of seeing occurred to me at Volterra too, but was very apparent today. We go and we see. And then we leave, as if that is the point. I’m not sure that it is the point, but it does explain the concept of tourism, and the mania for arriving, walking and eating, and then leaving. In most towns, I ask Myles: would you live here? And he always answers (well, not always, but mostly): no. My question is clearly not serious, but I think it might be asked because the seeing a town seems somehow … well … slightly silly. And the seeing is accompanied by photographs (the proof of the seeing, the offering of the seeing to others). I think that there must be an impulse to live (‘could you live here?’) that moves beyond looking and into contributing. The looking and the seeing seems to be an act of taking. I’d like to come to a town and be more than just that (the vampire stuff that is now associated with Volterra is perhaps closer to the mark than Hollywood really meant). You know, get to know the people, tell a joke or two, meet in the local place for drink o’clock. Plant a tree. Cook some melanzane. For others. This trip is great and we have loved it, but there is something at this end of it that does feel slightly empty. Actually, if it were not for sharing the experience and being able to take about it with Myles and the kids, I think it might feel more than a touch empty.
Perhaps I’m seeing something in those ‘A Year in Provence’ narratives after all. You can’t always just come and see. Sometimes you have to stay. But perhaps you don’t always have to have a romance with the local dark eyed minstrel.
We are not going to stay here. Not this time.