Friday, December 24, 2010

Italy Day 2: Christmas Eve

We started the day on a decadent note by having half a Panettone for breakfast. If you are not familiar with the traditional Italian puffy Christmas fruit cake and its bulbous boxes, picture a squat cylinder with an orb top for the shape, the color of caramel or dark toast. Its consistency is a combination of slightly stale Italian bread and a croissant, airy and fun to pull apart with the fingers but not very layered. Its flavor is dominated by the scattered embedded pieces of citron (candied orange, lemon, and lime peel).

Rather than visit many tourist destinations, we made the city itself our destination of the day, wandering the streets and looking at the streets themselves and the walls surrounding them. Siena is incredibly old, settled at least as far back as the Etruscans of 700 BC (i.e. pre-Roman), with bits of their stonemasonry still in evidence. Most of the existing buildings are from more around the 12-1300s, with some 1500s thrown in. Because Florence dominated economically and politically from 1348 on (thanks to Siena being decimated by the plague and being hopeless in battle), Siena, like York in England, didn’t have the money to keep up with the architectural times, and therefore remains an unsurpassed time capsule of medieval architecture.

Perched on a small series of hill ridges creased with steep valleys, tiny Siena (dense population steady at 60,000 for the last 1000 years) is dominated by brick and stone just the color your Crayola upbringing would suggest. Its antiquity and the extremely steep topography thwarts any relation to modern city planning, tending more towards a street map like a bowl of spaghetti or the efforts of a drunk maze designer. The streets have about three possible widths: barely wide enough to squeeze two Fiats past each other (which they drive buses down), barely wide enough for one Fiat and a Vespa to share, or too narrow or steep for any Fiats and therefore devolving into a staircase. To say this city isn’t accessible to the physically handicapped is a gross understatement. I particularly enjoyed the errant angles and slopes of the streets, and the frequency with which the buildings on either side of the street actually touched at the top or leaned into one another with narrow arches, creating frames for the views beyond.

My mother and I particularly enjoyed the walls of the buildings (as well as the old city walls) because of the way they had been patched up and had windows and doors added and filled in and reinforced and painted and broken etc. so many times over their existences. It brought strongly to mind the philosophical question of identity and physical continuity, i.e. if over time you replace all the parts of a thing, is it still the same thing as the original thing? Any answer would still have these walls being genuinely old, though, since most of the repairs etc were themselves ancient.

We covered a fair bit of the city in our wanderings, made easier by my sister’s familiarity with its layout, allowing us to stride blindly after her. When Petra and I visited Siena briefly years ago, we spent most of our time lost and consulting our map. This time, we saw the Piazza Gramsci at which we arrived and the Porta Camollia near which we are staying, the gargantuan and useless Medici fort, the length of the Via Di Camollia/Montanni/di Sopra/di Citta (as if the map weren’t confusing enough, the streets change names every few blocks), the grand Il Campo plaza (generally agreed to be the best plaza in all of Italy and recognizable from such recent films as James Bond Quantum of Solace and the red cloak scene from that Twilight movie), some of the ancient Jewish ghetto, the environs of the University, the oldest spot in the city (Castel Vecchio which is more like a courtyard with a garden-shack of a stone tower), and every tiny slanting street in between.

My sister Lisa made sure to treat us to coffees at a tiny local café as soon as possible. We all had café macchiato, which was just as strong and tiny and generally Italian as one could wish. Ma didn’t like it at all, made amazingly funny distressed faces, and had a hard time finishing her thimbleful. As she is of the coffee sipping school, I think she rather generally missed the point of it. We will make a second attempt to encourage her Italian coffee appreciation another day.

It was a good day for coffee as it was very rainy at first and remained grey and drizzly rest of the day, though not too cold. Outside stayed a fairly consistent 48 degrees all day. Thanks to the rain, the matte light and shiny streets and profusion of umbrellas made for some great photographic conditions.

We of course took lots of pictures: as we only brought the one camera between us, Ma and I had a back-and-forth photo commentary going all day, improving upon one another’s compositions. It’s a very challenging city to photograph in, though. The composition itself is difficult, not only because of the mental overload of such a visually rich environment, but since the views are very narrow and cropped, it’s nearly always hard to either get far enough away or close enough to whatever the focal point of the frame is. More difficult is the lighting, which has extremes of dark and light in almost every possible frame. A majority of the images we snapped this first day didn’t turn out as we had hoped.

Over lunch we enjoyed a truly grand sweeping vista south from the edge of the old city’s mesa. I certainly didn’t expect turning left from a cramped street through a stone doorway past the University would lead us to a wide green field with olive trees and benches, a modern park built above a recent parking garage but in keeping with what would have been the grounds of an old nunnery. Our food was tasty crunchy hot two-euro things called ciacino like pizza ham and cheese sandwiches.

As a bit of a rest, we visited Lisa’s school. Lisa is working with the head of the Siena School of Liberal Arts and the Getty family to found a new art school, called the Siena Art Institute. They will have art classes as well as artists in residence, workshops, community programs, and more. It will all very high-caliber stuff with a decidedly international bent: English will be the main language of the Institute. They already have lovely premises in an airy, light-filled building near the cathedral in one of the highest and oldest parts of the city. Many of the rooftop and vista pictures you’ll see are from their windows.

To increase the day’s surreal quotient, Babo Natale (i.e. Santa) arrived in one of the city’s ancient plazas via a covered wagon drawn by some pint-sized wet and shaggy draft horses. A ragtag band dressed in Santa-inspired garb played carols lugubriously while children pranced and Santa was much photographed with the tykes and handed out plastic crap toys. The adults all delighted in doffing sparkly red caps, even bedecking the ever-patient horses. Then it was clearly time for more coffee. Ma had tea this time. I had a nearly-perfect cappuccino.

Dinner this night was back at the apartment, light nibbles perched around the tiny flowery kitchen table. Lisa whipped up a delectable appetizer of fresh organic ricotta drizzled with local fresh-pressed olive oil and salt and ground black pepper. Then bread (one puffy and one cracker-like with rosemary) with cheese (soft and hard pecorino) with a chestnut honey and a tomato and pumpkin flower tapenade, accompanied by a local adventurously-non-chianti red from the local Monte Chiaro. For dessert we munched on some hard biscuits (i.e. cookies, related to British digestives, vaguely like graham crackers) called Grancereale, in four varieties: original, crunchy, fruited, and chocolate. My favorites were the crunchy, which lived up to its name and was very buttery, and the chocolate, which was actually rather nutty.

But no, that was not the end of the day, not with my sister at the helm. She sings regularly with a local chorus, which was performing as the choir at the Christmas Eve mass at San Giuseppe’s, the Church of the Onda (i.e. Wave) Contrada, now tucked amongst other brick rambles on a hillside on the south edge of the old city. As they needed more altos, I joined as a ringer with no rehearsal, which was fine because they were very haphazard themselves and it was all Christmas music anyways. I was excited to get to enter the church by an iron-gated courtyard and barred side door rather than the public front door entrance. After making my way up a very worn steep stone staircase about as wide as my hips and high as my shoulders and thanking my blessed stars I wasn’t proportioned like the average American, I joined the cantada in the organ loft, a frighteningly creaky ancient wooden balcony about the size of two twin beds on which about twenty people and the ancient organ were crammed. It gave us a great view from which to see the colorful ornate gilded and frescoed nave and apse of the small sanctuary, and to watch the congregation freely ignore the priest’s long, dynamic, rambling sermon (in Italian so I couldn’t understand a word). Dolphins, light blue, and clouds, and gold were the dominant decorative features, and “bellissimo” was the most common recognizable word. We sang admirably. They gave us each a darling clutch bouquet with pink roses and fluffy greens and a sparkly silver thing in thanks: my inner six-year-old-girl/diva was thrilled.

Though it was already past 11pm, we all trekked from there up to the city’s cathedral, Il Duomo, an old ornate stripey stone thing from the 1200s plunked on a plaza high on one of the hilltops. For the holidays they had uncovered some of the delicate floor murals, which was a treat, and had created not only a giant crèche of incredible levels of tackiness, but had a veritable forest/mountain of poinsettias adding some color to the general zebra/op art/moiré décor. Ma and Lisa stayed for the cultural experience of the endless midnight mass, but I bowed out in favor of sleep.

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