Saturday, December 25, 2010

Italy Day 3: Christmas Day

We awoke on Christmas morning to another rainy day. Rather than lounge about in our pjs, we hustled off to the crypt of the other giant cathedral-ish building in town, the Basilica of St. Dominico, built in 1226. This church has always seemed to me very threatening and dangerous and vaguely unpleasant, perhaps because its gargantuan brick hulk squats precariously on a sandstone bluff on the edge of the old city; perhaps because of its unsurpassed collection of atrocious art, from simultaneously insipid and violent pastel frescos to horrid and yet engaging dark modern stained glass to positively treacherous sharp cast metal doors; perhaps because of the sad state of disrepair of the nave; or perhaps because of the displayed thumb and shrunken head of the local insane St. Catherine. Yeah, it’s probably the head.

Compared to the nave, the 1300s crypt where the Christmas morning service was held, locally called “the Church Down Under”, was positively cozy. Even the locals don’t want to go to mass in the giant, cold and freaky church above. We only stayed for the first bit of the mass, driven out by the combination of the cold, the shockingly out-of-tune organ, and my losing battle with not snickering at the sermon, which featured the phrases “pico Jesu bambino” (little baby Jesus) and “nostro piccolo dio” (our tiny God) and the like so often that Talladega Nights was too much in the forefront of my mind. And, in case you didn’t know, we’re not Catholic anyways, so all these services were getting to me.

As an alternative to worship, we visited another ancient fountain (of which Lisa has an inexhaustible knowledge) which all amaze me with their proof of the continued functionality of the ancient underground aqueduct mazes. And of course we took a ridiculously circuitous route back to the apartment that just had to necessitate the use of the outdoor escalators (the hill was so steep even the Sienese didn’t want to walk up it) and through some unmodernized neighborhoods. To my family’s chagrin, I became temporarily obsessed with staring at doorknobs and the intersections of the ‘ground’ and doorframes. We did eventually make it home for lunch (pasta with tomato and hare ragut, and grilled zucchini).

With bellies full, we admired (or rather, lovingly snickered at) the ‘glorious’ Christmas tree Lisa had so nicely put together from the dollar store, and enjoyed opening our presents to one another: a chocolate each (notably, Kinder eggs) with bonus bookmarks for me and Ma, and a shared package of coconut candies. Of course, our main present to all of us was getting to spend our Christmas together, which we greatly appreciated with extra hugs.

After praising the superiority of European confections and with bellies even more full, we took a constitutional in the drizzle. In keeping with the day, we went to another ancient fountain (ironically called the Fonte Nuova, which was under repair), a plain neighborhood church (Oratorio di S. Rocco, which was closed), an ornate neighborhood church (the baroque white-marble-facaded S. Maria di Provenzano, which was also closed), and the Basilica di St. Francesco (which was open!). This church, like the morning’s, was huge and empty and sadly unlovely and in declining repair, but less threateningly so. Its great claim to fame is a miracle of a box of 400-year-old not-rotten communion crackers (I do not jest). It had less horrible art but also less lighting than S. Domenico’s, and was painted to look stripey like the Duomo.

Our intrepid guide (Lisa) brought us from there on a steep and circuitous route through some then-as-yet-unexplored-by-us neighborhoods and over to a particularly odd alley/street in the southeastern section of the city, Via Degli Orefici, with especially narrow twistiness, a proliferation of potted plants, original terra cotta drain pipes, and a dead end.

We, notably I, required fueling before returning home, and so stopped off at the vaguely-American bookstore-cum-coffee shop to rest our feet and consume not only the required cappuccinos but also a tart thing with mulberries and red currants on it. Rejuvenated, we made it back across the city to enjoy another lovely meal by Chef Lisa, this time grilled radicchio with ribolita (Tuscan bread soup, i.e. bean soup with a lot of stale bread turned to mush in it, much much tastier than you’d think). A lazy evening watching a documentary on the city’s famous annual horse race, then sleep.

No comments: