Sunday, 29 November 2015

Monteriggioni: Armed and Preposterous

Monteriggioni, Italy (Monteriggioni, Italia) 
The threatening skies only let loose their droplets once we left Siena. So thoughtful. 
Not wanting to camp in the rain, we booked a hotel for the night only to discover it was more difficult to find than a  Where's Wally puzzle (aka Waldo for my American readers) while blindfolded. We drove around the general area we knew it to be in for about twenty minutes, and mistakenly fixated on a farmhouse with tall fencing. Eventually we found it, and were greeted by a man who spoke Italian, Tuscan and Sienese, but not English or French. He showed us our room, asked when we wanted breakfast and explained many things that we will never know. After settling in, we drove to the hilltop fortress of Monteriggioni. 
While the town has a colourful history (it was built as a frontline defence by Siena during the wars between the city and Florence), we visited for an altogether more modern reason: Monteriggioni is a main location in Assasins Creed II, a video game in which the character Ezio Auditore murders a bunch of people. 
As Yannick is a fan of the game, he just had to don my raincoat's hood and assume an assassiny pose.  
We paid a few euros to walk along the town's fortified walls, which was unfortunately a bit lame. Most of the walls were blocked off, stating entry was "severely forbidden". This clashed unsettlingly with our perception that "Noting is true! Everything is permitted!" (according to the laws of video games, and not real life). 
Though not a player of Assassins Creed myself, I also had a go with the butter knives. And to be honest I felt pretty badass. (Though I did realise that I looked more like a cuddly teddy bear than a killer. Such is life. And yes, I did feel weird carrying two knifes around in my handbag, even if the toughest thing they could cut through was stale bread. All the other tourists milling around were middle-aged retired couples under umbrellas, who certainly didn't recognise the reference. I guess it's good after all that I didn't look threatening.)
Driving back to our hotel, we were treated to excellent views of the fortified walls and towers, with vineyards in the foreground. It's so Tuscan it pains me to behold! (For I am there no longer. Sob!)
Restaurants within the walls seemed too tourist-centric to deliver proper Italian meals, so we searched elsewhere. At an agriturismo down a dirt road, we dined upon ravioli and pasta carbonara at Ristorante Antico Ulvieto. As the TripAdvisor reviews promised, our waited did bear a resemblance to a young Johnny Depp! Though we didn't stay in the accommodation, we greatly enjoyed the meal, reinforcing our ideas that agriturismos are awesome. 
And finally, what you've all been waiting for: Yannick in his pose as Ezio, morphed into the game system. Fancy a 'gentle push', anyone? (I don't know what it means either.)

Today's post was almost called: He's Happy - Don't Tell Him It's Not Real

Siena, day two: Jesus' Inner Chianti - Would You Like Fava Beans With That?

Siena, Italy (Siena, Italia)
With just one day left in Siena, we made the most of the Via di Città. 
Requiring coffee and pastries, we breakfasted at Nannini. It was immensely popular, having a huge line and nowhere to sit, so we ate our tasty morsels at a standing table. Not quite full enough from our cornettos and cappuccinos, we also sampled the local almond biscuit Ricciarelli di Siena (mmmm). 
As OPA passes are valid to be used for three consecutive days, on our second day we visited the sights we handn't yet seen. Entering the Battistero di San Giovanni, we were awed by the ornate decoration. It seemed almost more impressive than the duomo, as the ornamentation was condensed tightly into a smaller space, whereas inside the cathedral everything was massive and spread out. In the centre of the battistero was the basin in which babies are dunked headfirst, and directly behind that was a painting portraying Jesus pouring some water over himself. Yannick assumed that the painting was showing the story of Jesus inventing baptism, and that's why the priest next to him looked so confounded. 
Much of our time in the baptistery was spent angling the mirrors provided to visitors in an attempt to create interesting photos. We got there in the end!
One painting in particular that drew Yannick's attention was the above, in which some dude probably becomes a saint. What my ever immaginitive parter saw, however, was a dove beaming down a lychee to an elderly gentleman, who welcomed it with suitably agape mouth. 
Down a flight of stairs we visited the cripta, which was amazingly only discovered in 1999. It's situated right under the duomo's pulpit and boasts paintings from the 1200's (these aren't frescoes, but rather 'dry paintings' - a fresco is paint applied to wet plaster). They illustrate scenes from the messiah's life, death, rebirth and...death again? Many were in unbelievably good shape, probably because they had been forgotten for so long. 
One particularly weird part of the crypt was a kind of temporary exhibition showing a painting in which Saint Catherine of Siena is "drinking the blood from Christ's wound". Um, what?! Yes. Apparently the blood holds a source of salvation, so at the request of Jesus she starts suckling away from his corpse's ichor. I cannot fathom how people think this is not some cult-like behaviour. Seriously, wtf Jesus. 
Needing to be "nourished by love" ourselves, we returned to Pizzicheria di Miccoli for a repeat on the sandwich awesomeness of the day before and saw that other customers had ordered wine to go with their panini. (We also saw that some had ordered antipasto platters with a variety of cured meats and cheeses, but the quantities were enormous! With the relatively high prices (~€8 for a sandwich, much more for a platter), we would settle with bead stuffed with cheese and salami). Our sandwich was a bit more expensive than the day before, as you pay for the weight of cheese and meat inside, and our moustachioed vendor explained (in a stereotypical Italian accent) "I made you a big one!"  
We enjoyed our large sandwich with a small bottle of Chianti while standing outside the shop. With no tables whatsoever, lunchgoers either take their food away with them or are given wooden boards placed upon barrels at the shopfront. Standing there nomming, we made a great advertisement to passersby who may have been looking for a lunchtime panino and tipple. We were also under the close eye of a boar's head wearing spectacles - that's the kind of place di Miccoli is! A bit quirky, but overwhelmingly in favour of all manner of meats. (Also note my scarf - this was the pesky runaway who I recaptured the day before.)
Full to bursting, we needed to wait a while before dessert (gelato!). We sat on the Campo for a time, though it was much cloudier than the day before and a wind made the usually sun-soaked bricks unfavourably cool. Wanting to breathe warmth back into our legs, we wandered into the courtyard of the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, which dates back to the twelfth century and contains a sweet well. 
This moody photo we snapped of the duomo shows just how cloudy it was. Luckily it didn't rain, but I definitely required that errant scarf in order to stay warm!
Once our bellies had enough space, we visited what could now be referred to as our usual stomping ground: Venchi. This time around we opted for sorbets and fruit-based gelatos to test out their skills - were they only good at making the chocolate-based flavours, as that is their main product? Nope! Their sorbets were excellent, proving to us that Venchi (though a prevalent chain) were damn fine gelartisans. Yes, I made that word up. What of it?!
The last sight on our OPA pass was the Oratory of San Bernardino, where we took in a cornucopia of Madonna del Latte paintings, in which the Virgin Mary breast feeds 'our lord and saviour'. It was so bizarre! And the artists clearly had never seen a naked woman before, as quite often the breast in question was emerging from the centre of her chest, and was altogether too close to her neck to be anatomically realistic. 
Outside on the piazza, we were treated to an art installation of several obese women in various poses. I suppose it ain't over til the fat lady sings. As the piazza is shared with the University of Siena, we theorised that it may be a student's doing. 
So, did I prefer Siena or Florence? Well, it's too early to say. You'll have to stay tuned for my Florence posts. 

Today's post was almost called: Under the Spell of the Bespectacled Boar

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Siena, day one: Sweet City Splendour and the Sandwich Vendor

Siena, Italy (Siena, Italia)
Apparently Siena has a famous rivalry with Florence. Lonely Planet states that visitors will feel drawn to stand by one or the other as their preferred city, and I was very intrigued by this. 
My first view of Siena was from the bus, as we had caught one from our campground right after checking in and setting up our tent. I immediately saw a sculpture of the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus receiving nourishment - typically a symbol for Rome, the she-wolf is widespread through Siena as well as allegedly the city was founded by Remus' son. 
Stumbling off the bus in what we hoped was the right direction, we came to the one of the best streets ever. The Via Banchi di Sopra turns into the Via di Città, and this long stretch of pedestrian street is flanked by brilliant eateries and grand palazzos on either side.
As we walked, we passed by a popular bakery Pasticceria Nannini, and a Grom. Then, in a surprising turn of events, our vision was captivated by a pyramid of gold bars. But these weren't any gold bars. They were Venchi chocolate bars wrapped in gold paper! In New Zealand we had sampled some mouth-watering rum chocolates and had vowed to visit this fabled Venchi when we were in Italy. We hadn't yet looked up where a store was located, but there by pure coincidence one was right at our very feet! Not only that, but it was also a gelateria! 
Stocking up on chocolates, we planned to return later to satisfy our rabid gelato addiction. 
We settled on Pizzicheria de Miccoli for lunch (a pizzicheria isn't related to pizza - rather, it is similar to a salumeria selling dry meats and cheeses). The atmosphere inside was a little overwhelming at times: the tiny space was crammed full of hanging legs and salamis, and like Spanish jamón, the place smelled quite a lot like must and sweat. 
Having seen the patrons before us order, we knew that one sandwich would be plenty for the both of us, so we asked for a panino. The jolly moustachioed man at the counter asked if we wanted cheese and salami, and we nodded assertively. Two giant slabs of cheese and several thick chunks of salami later, the soft baguette was full and we retreated into the alcove of a palace doorstep to eat. It was amazing, and of course also on Via di Città. 
The high quality of the products paired with wonderful bread made for the best sandwich either of us had ever eaten. And that's with only cheese and salami inside! We vowed to return the next day.
As the lines were too long for duomo tickets, we found ourselves back at Venchi to sample the gelato. Imma just tell you all the flavours we had (sorry not sorry): an extremely chocolatey sorbetto Azteca, crema Venchi, cappuccino, pistachio, caramel, and cremino. I had hoped that although Venchi was a chocolate shop (and a widespread one at that), their gelato would be decent. But it was so much more than that! The flavours were delicious, and what's more - the cremino was one of my all time favourite flavours! It was a mixture of super creamy hazelnutty goodness mixed through with a smooth chocolate ganache. 
We ate our ridiculous mounds of gelato seated on the immensely popular Campo, a piazza facing the town hall, aka Palazzo Comunale. It has a crazy tall tower! We enjoyed the view for around an hour, shifting anytime a shadow drew near from the lowering sun, and took a quick peek in the palazzo's inner courtyard before trying our luck with the duomo line again. Upon exiting il Campo, I found a scarf seller who offered me a bargain at €5! The autumn temperatures were dropping, and adding a scarf made me both warmer and more European-chic. 
Back at the duomo, we hardly had to wait in line and purchased one of the offered combo OPA passes available for the many Sienese sights. After much debating, we picked one with a roof tour inside the duomo, and the assistant informed us we had 35 minutes before we had to be inside for the tour to begin. 
Yet upon leaving the ticket office, we were ushered straight into the duomo museum (Museo dell'Opera) with our museum ticket clipped! A bit distraught, we quickly toured the museum with our mental clocks ticking down. There were some fascinating pieces originally from the cathedral, and it was nice to be able to see the real deal as they aren't kept inside the duomo any more. So many saints!
Just after we left the museum (great timing as always) I realised that the scarf I acquired less than half an hour ago was missing. I had dropped it somewhere in the museum! I hurried up to the desk and asked what to do - I didn't have time to go back in and look for it as the roof tour was starting soon. They told me to come back later and hope that someone nice had handed it in. 
I was still feeling annoyed with myself as we ascended the steps to the roof, but all discontentment fell away when I saw the array of beautiful sights that greeted us. 
From such an elevated viewpoint, we could see aspects that we wouldn't be able to from the ground, including details in the stained glass windows, saint statues, and paintings. We were also provided with excellent views of the surrounding city. 
Back at ground level, we took in the sheer size of the cathedral. Not only was it huge, it was very impressive and ornate. The tile work on the floor was of particular interest, depicting scenes from biblical stories. I also liked the dome with its starry sky motif. 
One room off the main duomo was a library, the likes of which I had never seen before! It was bright and airy, with intricate paintings and sculptures. It seems that it was created to be so beautiful to distract visitors from the fact that there weren't actually many books (just over a dozen large tomes), all of which contained medieval music for bald people to chant. 
Once finished with our duomo visit, we doubled back to the museum. Luckily, someone had handed in my scarf! Unluckily, the museum was closing so we weren't allowed in to scale the steps to another vantage point over the city (as can be seen above from our duomo roof tour). The ticket collector, earlier punching our museum ticket and hearing our woes, had promised to let us back in once our roof tour was complete, but we were too late!
For dinner, we gorged ourselves with more gelato! Could you have guessed it? At Kopa Kabana we supped upon: strudel, coconut, amaretto, fondente, berry sorbet, and crema caramel. The flavours were pleasant, but nothing compared to Venchi (or San Crispino). We stumbled to the bus stop where we hoped we could catch a ride back to our camping and waited until we saw a likely looking bus. Not knowing if it was trundling in the direction we wanted, we asked the driver in our flawless Italian "camping??!". He shrug-nodded and we spent the rest of the trip squinting out the window at the unlit surroundings, trying to spot our camping in the dark (and pushing away suspicious thougths that maybe the shrug-nod had simply meant "I don't care" instead of "Sure, idiot tourist, your camping is on my route"). Yet we made it back to our tent safe and sound and collapsed into a gelato-induced stupor. 

Today's post was almost called: Striking Gold on Via di Città

How I Stay Glam on the Road: Beauty Tips for the Travelling Girl

After traveling for a few years now, I've boiled down my toiletries bag and grooming routine for when I'm on the road. If you're planing on travelling soon, have a look at my tips below for staying glamorous with limited resources and time. 
1. Minimise your makeup
Cutting down on your makeup supplies can be challenging, but it is the best thing I did for my toiletries bag. Of course, what you leave behind is up to you. I decided that I could easily live without foundation or even BB cream, and instead I only take three items: eyeliner, an eyebrow pencil and mascara. But if you want that glowy skin, maybe you could swap eyeliner for some concealer or BB cream? Lightening the load on your baggage as well as cutting down on the time it takes you to apply your face in the morning are key. 

2. Cleanse your face twice daily
When at home, I wash my face in the shower every morning and in the sink with soap and water every evening to remove grime from the day as well as makeup. When camping, I found that it was such a bother in the communal sinks that I wasn't washing my face at all in the evenings, which is no good! Getting a pack of makeup removing wipes from a supermarket is a cheap and super easy way to clean your face at night, meaning clearer skin and no panda eyes. 
3. Drink water - but not too much!
I will always provide this as a beauty tip no matter the circumstances: drink water. Drink it all up! Water is just good for you, and especially your complexion. Now, when travelling you should exercise some restraint as toilets aren't accessible all the time, but drink as much as you safely can (see my post on finding toilets in unfamiliar cities here). Tea is good too!

4. Minimise your hair routine
As with the makeup tip, minimising your hair routine can be even better for your baggage. At home I usually use a hairdryer and occasionally a hair straighter for unwieldy bits, but whenever I go travelling it's air drying all the way. There's no chance I would take up valuable bag space with a hair dryer. Instead of heat styling, you can look at different hair styles to try or just live with whatever your hair decides to do. I have also made the change to only washing my hair once per week, which allows the natural oils in the hair to come through and give you volume. You can read about my no-poo (no shampoo) experiences here. For some travellers it could be the perfect way to save money and improve hair health. 
5. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise!
This may go without saying for many of you, but moisturise! After your shower, moisturise your face, neck and hands at the least. A simple cheap moisturiser from the supermarket will do unless you suffer skin irritation. When you have more time available, moisturise the rest of your body. 

6. Leave the hair product at home
A trick for moisturiser is that it can also be used as a kind of hair conditioner - I never bring hair products on my travels but when my hair is a bit frizzy I spread a thin layer of moisturiser on my hands and lightly apply it to my hair. Voila! Works a charm, and no exorbitant prices for product or bag space taken. 
7. Protect yourself from the sun
Ideally, look for a moisturiser with built in SPF for added protection, but you should always apply sunscreen when going out into the sun for periods longer than half an hour (note if you are travelling to Australia or New Zealand this time is reduced to ten minutes due to the hole in the Ozone layer - you can burn fast so be prepared). You do not want to get sunburnt, so apply that SPF like your life depends on it because someday it actually might. 

8. Maintain your nails and eyebrows
Nail clippers and tweezers don't take up much bag space and let you maintain a good level of grooming. About once a week to once a fortnight, I take the time to trim my fingernails and toenails and pluck my eyebrows. You may not feel like it, but you will look that much more polished. 
9. Get your beauty sleep
This has become something of a cliché, but you need your beauty sleep. The "right amount" varies person to person, some needing as little as six hours and some not being able to function with less than nine. Just listen to your body to help you determine what's right for you. To help you fall asleep in potentially bright or loud situations, bring an eye mask and ear plugs. On those nights that I'm wide awake and the minute hand keeps ticking on, I listen to soothing music or use a noise making app that plays rain sounds such as Infinite Storm. Sleep tight!

10. Don't overdo it on the partying
If there's one thing that will make you and your skin feel like shit the next day, it's drinking to excess. You'll wake up parched and hungover. I know that when you're travelling it can be temping to go out and party, especially at events like music festivals, but trust me on this: if you limit your alcohol intake to one or two standard drinks and consume plenty of water, you will look and feel much better. 

Now go be a nana like me and have a nap, moisturise your dry elbows and drink a cup of tea. Do it!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

My First Agriturismo: Podere il Casale, Pienza (Italy)

Pienza, Italy (Pienza, Italia) 
Funnily enough, we stayed at our first agriturismo by accident. The only remnants of the campsite we had planned to stay at were a couple of signs so worn they looked post-apocalyptic. Using precious 3G data, we found a site nearby that had only eight tent pitches, and decided to try our luck. The website (www.podereilcasale.com) didn't much sound like the kind of campground we were used to, and with the limited number of pitches we thought they may have been fully booked. But we found the agriturismo (even our SatNav Synthia was trying her hand at making us turn back, stating the last two kilometres would take twenty minutes to traverse). 
What we discovered was a wonderful spot with tent pitches available overlooking the Tuscan hills. A number of animals were out and about, including a few peacocks who roamed free, a couple of donkeys and a pen of goats near our pitch. 
One peacock busied himself with cleaning our car - we hadn't put it through a car wash since hiring it so there were a fair few bugs for the taking. It seems that even after being squashed flat at high speed, splattered bugs make for a better meal than foraging in the grass for fresh specimens. 
The agriturismo sources food from their own farm, or neighbouring ones when they can't provide the ingredients themselves (a rosé I ordered, for example). We enjoyed an antipasto of cured meats, followed by goat's cheese wrapped in bacon, mutton ragu over pasta, and finished with apple pie and fruit cake. At Podere il Casale, they focus on using every part of the animal so nothing goes to waste. I have to say that I didn't mind eating mutton for the first time in my life, and wouldn't necessarily choose lamb over it in the future, especially knowing that the animals have a far surperior quality of life here than many farm animals. 
We enjoyed our meal so much that in the morning we booked another night's stay and dinner reservation. The wifi reception was sketchy, but when sitting at the outdoor tables it worked just fine. And look at that view!
The problem with this was the temperature. Autumn was in full swing and we took to wrapping ourselves in sleeping bags to keep warm. (And my feet required 24-hour sock coverage.) But the views over the Tuscan countryside were well worth it! 
Each morning we awoke to the crowing of roosters and the barking of dogs. Upon emerging from our tent, we were hit by a smell of goat poo. I'm not a country girl, but I loved the atmosphere. (However, I don't think I could have spent much more time there than those two days. I love city sights and good wifi.) On our second evening, we dined on eggplant parmigiana and chicken cacciatore (hunter's style) followed up by biscotti paired with dessert wine. The owner of the property was our server, and she told us all about how each year kiwi sheep shearers are employed to fleece their flock of sheep. I knew that shearing within New Zealand was a big thing, but I had no idea we were known for it worldwide! Apparently they can charge €2 per sheep, and do a roaring trade in Europe and South America. As the sheep aren't bred for their wool, most of it is sent to China to be used as insulation. 
I relished my time at the agriturismo, and would stay at another in a second. The problem is that most seem to only have rooms available and not tent pitches, meaning that the price is much higher than for camping. The term "agritourism" is vague, and can mean any type of activity that brings visitors to a working farm, whether it be dining, accommodation, products for sale, or even feeding the animals. In Italy it usually refers to a farm stay, but the majority seem to be rooms in a farm house rather than my preferred accommodation of camping. 
If you're in the area of Montepulciano or Montalcino, I highly recommend you look into staying or at least eating at Podere il Casale. They'll make you feel like one of the family!
Currently they are running an IndieGogo campaign to improve their fencing and increase their number of animals. If you're interested in receiving some delicious cheese or sponsoring a peacock or lamb, take a look here! Even €10 would help them towards their goal, and they also have many more rewards for higher donations. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pienza, Montalcino and San Quirico d'Orcia: the Tuscan Dream Continues

Our exploration of Italy's thigh continued, as we enjoyed new areas of the Tuscan landscape and hilltop villages dotted across it. 
Pienza, Italy
As the agritourismo we were camping at was in very close proximity to Pienza, we ended up hunting for a bakery there in order to fill our stomachs with breakfast pastry treats. Once we had finished nomming on marmelata(jam)-filled cornettos, we were enticed into the centro storico by well-placed maps in the park. 
Though it's entirely ignored by Lonely Planet, Pienza is a World Heritage Site and actually has a rather intriguing history: originally a village called Corsignano, a child was born there who would one day become Pope Pious II. Once becoming papal, he decided to rebuild the village into an ideal Renaissance town, and Pienza was born. He consecrated the new duomo in 1462, and we can attest that it is a pretty great duomo. We were thwarted when trying to get a photo, though, as a truck driver edged his ill-timed camione right into our shot. The town hall, which lies across the piazza, had a bell tower built that was a little shorter than that of the duomo to symbolise the undaunted power of the church. Trust a Pope to orchestrate that. 

Montalcino
Our main stop was another hilltop town with a prized wine to its name. Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine that must be aged for five years before going to market. As such, any brunellos we found were way out of our price range. I'm talking around a minimum of twenty euro for a bottle here! The Rosso di Montalcino is made from the same grapes, but is only required to be aged one year, so it's more affordable (but still more than we were willing to spend as we had already purchased a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano). 
We wandered all over the old streets, seeing many churches and wine shops. When researching the town, I discovered that Montalcino had a boom in population in tenth century - this was because Saracen troops razed a nearby town of Roselle in 935 and the residents fled to neighbouring towns. Roselle had never been rebuilt because of a malaria outbreak (malarial swamps, anyone?) and is now an archaeological site. Having been occupied since Etruscan times, the site contains Etruscan as well as Roman ruins including tombs, villas, baths, temples and even a small amphitheatre. The town (referred to as 'Rusellae' to the Romans) was rediscovered during larger excavations of the area in the 1950's. I'm now a bit gutted I hadn't known about it at the time and could have visited!
It's unspeakably lovely to round a corner and see the golden Tuscan landscape spread out over the terracotta rooftops. Though we were only beginning our time in the region, I was already falling head over heels.

San Quirico d'Orcia
Another town that LP shunned was San Quirico d'Orcia (the valley that these towns sit in is called the Val d'Orcia). The only reason we stopped here was because when driving through, it looked interesting enough to warrant a trip, so we elected to take a look on the way back to our agritourismo for the evening. 
Having parked at a supermarket which quaintly closed for four hours in the middle of every day for lunch and siesta, we walked into the park which was between us and the centro storico. The park itself was pleasant, but there was an odd art installation which made it appear as though a small fleet of spaceships had crash-landed. 
We found a swell church with an even sweller well outside. Though there were a few tourists around, San Quirico was much quieter than the other Tuscan towns we had visited, yet seemed to be just as great! (For a random instance of how great it was, they have a trebuchet off the main square. Squeee!)
One large factor in its awesomeness was the fact that it was one of the main stopping points on the Via Francigena - the ancient central road that led from northern Italy and the rest of Europe down to Rome and southern Italy. This route was frequented by merchants and pilgrims, and the revenue from their stays allowed San Quirico to enjoy economic security (this is in contrast to many other Tuscan towns - even Montalcino was in financial hardship until Brunello came to popularity in the 1960's). 
Each of the towns were unique and wonderful in their own way, but there's one thing that is the same for all of them: you can trust that I will be comparing prices in their multitudes of wine shops!