Tuscan Blogger Adventure Days 4 – 5: Officially in Love with Italy

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Days 4 – 5: Officially in Love with Italy

 

This post is brought to you by CalChews, calcium goodness you can chew which gives you your daily recommended dose of Calcium, Vitamin D, and K, for optimum bone health, minus the risk of heart disease; and by the Lifestyle Network, the premiere cable channel for women in the Philippines. This 5-day getaway was my prize as the official winner for the Tuscan Blogger Adventure by CalChews.

Day 4: Last day in Florence!

I think it’s perfectly fine to admit that I left my heart in Tuscany.

When you visit a city that’s been on your mind for years — sometimes to the point when you’d forgotten it was even on your life list — then you start to see things with gratitude again. Life becomes a holiday for a while, and you begin to live in a moment that you’ve only visualized in daydreams. Tuscany was like that for me. In terms of my financial capabilities at this point in life, a European holiday was furthest from my mind. So, when this trip landed on my lap (or, more like my email inbox!), I knew it was an answered prayer. So, thank you, God, for the blessing! And thank you, CalChews and Lifestyle Network, for taking care of everything! OK, a few more snippets of my last day in Florence. Day 4 of our stay was another life list item checked off: Visit to the Uffizi Museum. I went, I really did. Here is the proof:

Outside the main entrance of the Uffizi

Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza dela Senora, where the Uffizi is located

Guards outside the gate. Couldn’t resist this shot, lol!

My ticket!

The Uffizi Museum is home to such masterpieces as the Birth of Venus and La Primavera by Botticelli, the Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael, and The Baptism of Jesus, which was Leonardo da Vinci’s first-ever painting, a collaboration with his master, Verrocchio. No photos may be taken of these, or anything in the museum for that matter; in fact, we saw one of the gallery guards take away a tourist’s camera phone for sneakily stealing a shot of the Birth of Venus. I wish I could have taken a photo: I actually cried when I saw these paintings. I suppose it was because I had waited so long to see them, and I finally did, for free!

Photo from Wikipedia.com

Photo from Wikipedia.com

A view of the famous Ponte Vecchio, from the windows of the Uffizi. This is from a hallway, in the only part of the museum where you are permitted to take photos of the OUTSIDE view, not the artwork.

All I know is that I was amazed by every nook and cranny of the Uffizi, as I was by the rich history of Florence. After the our museum tour, we spent the rest of the day shopping and sightseeing. We had just enough time to walk the city on foot, taking in more of the sights, the sounds, and of course, the smells and tastes of the city’s glorious food. We also never seemed to have our fill of beautiful buildings and landmarks. (Sadly, I found no snow globe of the Duomo, which romantic-ol’-me would have wanted to buy, just so my While You Were Sleeping moment would have come round full circle!)

The imposing Palazzo Vecchio, the original seat of government during the high middle ages

Jewelry shops on the Ponte Vecchio, late at night. The old wooden security gates hearken back to the traditional ones they used during the Renaissance. To this day, only goldsmiths and jewelers are permitted run their businesses on Ponte Vecchio.

My Florence! Tu sei una stella, Firenze! (You’re my star!): This is the BEST view in the city, from the Piazzale Michelangelo. You see all of the city, from the Ponte Vecchio on the left, the imposing clock tower of Palazzo Vecchio, and the unmissable, magnificent Duomo. This is one view I will never forget.

I now understand why an artist like my mom loves this city: It lives and breathes creativity, invention, beauty and culture. From the buildings of old to the many statues, fountains and corner shrines that accentuate the city, Florence is as passionate as it’s ever been about finding beauty and preserving it for future generations.

Day 5: Rome, and Home

Our final day in Italy comprised a 90 minute train ride back to Termini station in Rome, a whiz through Rome to see just one tourist site (according to our group leader, Patrizia, traffic would be terrible on a Monday), and then a 45 minute shuttle ride to Fiumicino Airport for our flight to Amsterdam-Taipei-Manila. Whew.

Rome has a very different architectural landscape from Florence, a bit more magisterial than romantic. In the oldest parts of the city, ruins intermingle with more modern structures, but nothing is 21st-century in its appearance. Everything is still rather old, and some sites, even dilapidated. Still, the capital of Italy still makes for great photos!

We had a total of 45 minutes in Rome, so we had to choose one of the city’s landmarks, and only one, to have quick runabout and photo op. After deliberations, we went for the most iconic of historical sites — and another life list item of mine.

I’m finally here! Celebrating with a gelato, my last this trip.

I love Japanese tourists. They’re always so enthusiastic, haha! (Please get out of the way, I need a photo right about now. Arrigato.)

There we go!

Arched entrance to the Palatine Hills, ruins of Rome’s ancient patrician villas, where the nobles used to live.

The Arc of Constantine stands between the Colosseum and the ruins of the royal palace.

Palazzo Romano, the residence of the Roman Emperor. This is situated on a hill overlooking the Colosseum grounds.

I spied this guy on the grounds. You can pose with these locals dressed as Praetorian guards, for 2 Euro. I’d rather get one for free and sneak a shot with my phone. Hehe.

Despite the touristy vibe outside these ruins, you can still feel the ancient soul of the city. I don’t know if it can be compared to the feeling of seeing a celebrity, though: Being in this old, old part of such an important historical city was like a trip out of time. Me being me, I naturally visualized what these grounds must have looked like in Rome’s golden age, even during its decline. We didn’t get to go inside the Colosseum (Lines were too long, and we had a plane to catch!), so I am more motivated to return. When? I don’t know. But if and when I return to Rome, I shall do so with the hubby. He is a total Gladiator fan, while I am a history buff.

There’s another thing to add to the list.

I’ve been back in Manila for over three weeks now, but my Tuscan adventure (and my Roman blitz) is still vivid. I know that, in time, it will seem like I just dreamed it all up. Looking back at these posts, the photos, and all my musings, I am grateful. But more than that, I believe I am more hopeful as well. I don’t know when I’ll be able to cross off another trip on my life list — so thank you CalChews for supporting me, and making this trip a reality! All I know is, from now on, I’ll be dreaming bigger, more specifically even.

Read the other entries in this Tuscan Blogger Adventure Series:

Day 1: Planes, Trains and a Taste of Things to Come

Day 2 Part 1: Siena? Si!

Day 2 Part 2: Chianti and Pisa

Day 3: A Passion for Food

 

 

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Day 3: A Passion for Food

This post is brought to you by CalChews, calcium goodness you can chew which gives you your daily recommended dose of Calcium, Vitamin D, and K, for optimum bone health, minus the risk of heart disease; and by the Lifestyle Network, the premiere cable channel for women in the Philippines. This 5-day getaway was my prize as the official winner for the Tuscan Blogger Adventure by CalChews.

It’s been a while since I continued with my Tuscan Blogger Adventure posts. “Life took over,” as they say! But it’s always a pleasure to go to these posts and relive Tuscany all over again. So, on to Day 3, which was all about food, food, FOOD.

After being on the road for most of day 2, Day 3 of the Tuscany trip would be in Florence for some homegrown delights. We started off early at 8 AM, to meet our food guide, Paul, a chef who’d been living and working in Florence for a while now. Half Sicilian, half Australian, Paul grew up in Perth, the “cowboy country” downunder, where he learned the art of good food. He loved food enough to go all the way to Europe to pursue chef-dom, and eventually teach other chefs, which is what he does now in addition to his job as a chef at one of Florence’s best restos.

Since he’s an Aussie, he said he tried to surf. Tried, he emphasized. He says he’s better with food.

I believe him.

Paul is the kind of person who can make you fall in love with food.

This is Paul, our guide. Loved his passion for food!

He warned us: “This city will make you fall in love with it!” He’d only planned on staying in Florence for a year, and has been there for five. Well. Who wouldn’t fall in love with Florence? Right, mom? (It’s my mom’s favorite city.)

Our day began when we made for the city’s main food hub, the Mercato di San Lorenzo. It was a Saturday morning, so the market was bustling with busy shoppers who were preparing for Sunday lunch, which is like the motherlode of meals here in Italy. Paul said that most Italians start the market day with a cappucino or macchiato and a brioche, and so that’s exactly what we did. (He also said that if one ordered any kind of coffee with milk any time after breakfast, you were considered odd!)

A morning at the market means experiencing Florentine living at its best. The Mercato di San Lorenzo marries the sounds, smells and sights of the Florence food scene. You get to talk to the jovial and helpful local vendors, who will even recommend how to cook your produce or meat or seafood, because that’s how their moms taught them, or their grandmothers. The vibe, energy and passion for life and food is what makes the market a real feast of an experience.

I’ll let the photos tell the story.

Fresh seasonal berries. This is “normal fare.” Love it!

Every kind of bell pepper you want is in this market.

All the makings of a great pomodoro.

Catch of the day: Octopus! Italians just love it grilled, drizzled with olive oil and lemon. Nomnomnom.

Paul made one thing clear: In Tuscany, eat as the Tuscans do. Tuscans love, love, love food and wine. And in Florence, we had no shortage of good food. Wherever you go, there’s always a place to get something good if you have the munchies. Pop into a deli for some salami on bread, or the pasticceria for something sweet, even the gelateria for something sweet, creamy and cold. In every corner and around every bend, Florence has good food. Eating and good times are so synonymous here, even my some of my companions said McDonald’s in Florence was top of the line. (I’ll take your word for it, guys.)

Back to the good stuff.

Paul took us to his favorite stalls. Just as in any market culture, Italians patronize certain shops and food providers, so Paul took us to all his favorites in the market. Some of us in the group taught him to say “suki” (Filipino for “store regular”) when he introduced us to his butcher-friend, Bruno. So, suki ni Bruno si Paul.

This is Bruno, and an old friend:

Every stall in the mercato is run by a family. I must say, as much as the food and fresh produce were a feast for the eyes, so were a lot of the merchants. I’m married, of course, but I can appreciate God’s creation, know what I mean? (See below. Photo grabbed from Em Millan.)

Suffice it to say, this was no ordinary market for us Pinoys!

OK, so back to the food.

All kinds of dried goods!

Paul, telling us about regional foods and eating seasonally. 

You can get everything you need for a meal, right here in the Mercato di San Lorenzo. We had a mini lunch in a deli and wine shop that Paul frequents, where we had more Chianti wine and a spread of breads, cheeses and deli meats. We were all on our feet, as most people are when they eat at the market, but no one minded. The food. Was. Just. Incredible.

parmegiano reggiano with aged balsamico

Parmegiano reggiano drizzled with aged balsamico. Heaven.

Salami on Tuscan bread. Tuscans never put salt in their bread, did you know that?

Duck pate. (Oh.My.God.So.Good)

Truffle infused cheese. If you want a girl to say “yes” to you, give her this. (SO.GOOD.BABY.)

After our mini lunch at the market, Paul took us along the streets of Florence towards “the best gelato in Florence,” he said. I later on learned that we were going to Perche No!, a world-famous gelateria that makes its gelato from scratch daily. Perche No! (which means “why not?” in Italian) is an accredited “slow food” provedore, using seasonal ingredients in its gelato. That means that everything is sourced locally, from Tuscan farms and suppliers who use traditional, environmentally-conscious methods to grow food.

Sign on the door of Perche No! It’s an accredited “slow food” purveyor.

They have wonderful “standard” flavors (chocolate, stracciatella, caffe, etc.), but they carry a selection of fruit-based gelatos that are made from whatever is currently the produce of the moment. Since it was the early fall, figs were abundant and in season. (Aside from the fig gelato, Perche No! also has several vegan, dairy-free flavors to choose from.) Paul recommended we have the fico (fig) sherbet with a nice helping of crema (vanilla). The result was a flavor combo that was out of this world.

I won’t even attempt a foodie-like explanation, because it’s so-not-me. But observe and drool.

Match made in heaven: Fig and vanilla gelato from Perche No!

I had two cups of this combo that day: We went back to Perche No! in the evening for dessert. Honestly, it spoiled these “artisinal” ice creams I see all over the place here in Manila, but not in a snooty way. Sure, there’s novelty in a bacon-maple-cheese ice cream or what have you, but I never really took to those. There’s something endearing and humble about using what’s in season, what’s plentiful, what’s inexpensive. Italians are all about that: If something’s not in season, not accessible or affordable, then it’s not plentiful or fresh, so they won’t use it. This philosophy made me even more appreciative of our country’s seasonal veggies and fruits. (Our mangoes and bananas here are much better than those in Europe, for the record.)

At the end of the food walk tour, Paul recommended some of the other food haunts in the city. We were advised to never eat in the touristy spots, or in any restaurant that had pictures on their menu. “Talk to the people around,” he advised. The more quaint and hidden, the more out-of-the way, the better.

In return, we taught him an all important Filipino word that expressed our gratitude: “BONGGA.” (Credit to Em Milan. Winner ka, sister. **smile**)

I should have taken a video of him saying it, but he might lose his job. (He’s actually right now teaching around 15 culinary students from the Philippines, in his culinary school in Florence.)

My take home thought from this food walk tour was simply this: Good food is simple, seasonal, and prepared with passion. Our foodie guide was the best person to take us around because he was involved; he had a relationship with food, and this passion (for food, for his craft as a chef) was inspiring. He was excited about food and educating people about it. (It’s kind of like how I’m excited about writing, about my community of work at home moms in Manila, about the work at home life.)

Read the other entries in this Tuscan Blogger Adventure Series:

Day 1: Planes, Trains and a Taste of Things to Come

Day 2 Part 1: Siena? Si!

Day 2 Part 2: Chianti and Pisa

What I Wore on the Tuscan Blogger Adventure

What I Wore on the Tuscan Blogger Adventure

So let’s pause from all the travel for a while, shall we? Since my blog is all about “dainty” things — the small, pretty and sometimes trivial delights I savor — indulge me for a moment as I tell you about what I wore on my five-day Tuscan Blogger Adventure with the Lifestyle Network team.

Since this trip came as a complete surprise (and in the fall in Europe, at that), I had absolutely zero things in my closet for our Tuscan excursion. (My last trip to cool weather was six years ago, and those clothes were long gone.) I didn’t have a clue about what to shop for, admittedly out of touch with cool weather clothes. Since I happen to be an indecisive Scrooge when it comes to shopping, I also wanted to be sure I only bought what I needed and could use what I’d bought even after this trip.

Thankfully, my friend Vanessa Ordinario was just a Tweet away! I emailed her about helping me with my shopping list, and she happily obliged by providing me with a simple look book for the trip. If you’re traveling to Italy any time in the next few weeks, these basics are must-haves for the early autumn weather (Oct-Nov).

The Basics

The basics were the obvious:

I had most things here, save the cashmere scarf and the peacoat. Instead, I opted for a short black jacket and my favorite nude polka dotted scarf. I was basically set, and needed a few more things to give me a little bit more variety.

Siena/Chianti/Pisa

I won’t bore you with details of my Day 1 travel outfit, because I slept through most of the journey! (But, if you’re going on a 12-hour plane ride, do dress comfortably.) Let’s just skip to Day 2. We were going to be traveling a lot on our second day in Tuscany, and so I wanted something simple, comfortable, and bearable enough to wear on the 2 hour-long bus rides from one town to the next. (Yes, we went to Siena, Chianti and Pisa all in one day!) So here’s what Vanessa put on my shopping list:

This is me on Day 2, upon arriving in Siena. The oversize sweater was from Mango, while the nude scarf with polka dots was an old find, (Greenhills tiangge) as were the black leggings, satchel and brown booties from The Ramp.

Food-Walking in Florence

Day 3 of our stay was a food-walking tour of Florence with our passionate foodie guide and culinary instructor, Paul. Now, I don’t normally care about what I wear when food tripping here in Manila, but when in Rome (or in this case, Firenze), do as the Romans do (or Florentines do). Here’s Day 3’s picks from Vanessa, followed by what I wore.

 This photo is backlit (but I don’t mind — that’s the Duomo di Siena behind me, outshining me!), but I’m wearing stuff I already own! No need to shop for these basics, which are simply my usual separates all layered in a kind of Parisiene look. (Polo; sweater – Mango. Jeans; scarf – Promod) Because the temperatures changed throughout the day (very cool in the morning; warm at noon, then cool again by evening), layering was really the way to go.

Uffizi Museum/Shopping

From the famous masterpieces of Botticelli and Raphael at the Uffizi Museum, to the exquisite though off-season works of art at The Mall (i.e. Florence’s outlet mall for Prada, Armani, and Valentino, to name a few), Sunday in Florence was about appreciating Italy’s most renowned artisans. In the morning, we reveled in the Uffizi’s priceless treasures (including The Birth of Venus and The Madonna of the Goldfinch, two of my most favorite masterpieces); in the afternoon, we salivated over the beauteous bags, shoes and apparel by the gods of modern fashion.

 The jacket is all cotton, very lightweight, from Promod’s fall 2012 collection. I already own the sweater (Zara), but I bought a short skirt from Rustan’s (Culte Femme) and the black boots (Janilyn). (That’s a new bag, which I bought on Day 3 at the leather market.)

Rome, then home

The trip back to Manila was on the evening of Day 5 of our trip. The first half of the day was a runabout Rome, and we had some time to check out the Colosseum before hopping on the bus for the airport. (We were flying back via Amsterdam-Taipei again.) Again, the trip home called for a comfy getup, so I opted for leggings again and a dress.

Here were Vanessa’s recommendations:

The grey cotton-cashmere dress from Promod was light and soft — I adore this! Old brown booties and the standard leggings, of course. Forgive the most non-outfit-of-the-day manner of wearing my bag. Patrizia, our guide, warned us of pickpockets being most notorious around the Colosseum grounds, so I was paranoid.

And me being me, I had to take another shot:

Again, clinging to the bag! But at least, I look more relaxed here.

So there. I hope you enjoyed my little flight of fancy, because it’s not often that I post so photos of myself, especially when it comes to anything even remotely close to fashion! This is really my way of saying “thank you” to Vanessa for being such a great help, and for helping me save big bucks on spur-of-the-moment buys. Even after this trip, I can still use the few items I bought for the trip — not one peso wasted!

For style tips, or to consult about your lookbook for your trip or wardrobe — or whatever (!), contact Vanessa Ordinario at @vanessaordi on Twitter. You can also visit her style blog, The Pink Mate Project, where you can also find her other contact details.

 

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Day 2, Part 2: Chianti and Pisa

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Day 2, Part 2: Chianti and Pisa

 
This post is brought to you by CalChews, calcium goodness you can chew which gives you your daily recommended dose of Calcium, Vitamin D, and K, for optimum bone health, minus the risk of heart disease; and by the Lifestyle Network, the premiere cable channel for women in the Philippines. This 5-day getaway was my prize as the official winner for the Tuscan Blogger Adventure by CalChews.

 

Next stop on Day 2: Chianti!

I made sure I had antihistamines with me, especially for this part of the Tuscan experience. I wasn’t going to miss this region’s most important and famed product, the Chianti Classico, even if I am allergic to tannins! I’m not the most experienced of wine drinkers (My first taste was when I was already in my 20s!), so I didn’t really know what to expect during our trip to the Castelo d’Albola, which is one of the oldest wine-growing estates in Tuscany.

The beautiful vineyards of Castelo D’Albola! I just had to do this pose!

The Castello d’Albola is situated on a hill in Radda, Chianti, the wine region of Tuscany. The vineyards in this region date back to the early Middle Ages, with some ruins dating back to the age of the Romans and Etruscans. The Castelo d’Albola belonged to a feudal family of nobles, the Monterinaldi, and was later passed on to other prominent Tuscan noble families. Today, the 12th century castle is open to tourists, and has gained fame for its impressive wine cellars, which have been making Chianti’s finest wines since the early 1830s.

Our group was welcomed by Alessandro Gallo, the Castelo d’Albola’s current director. We were graciously received in the castle’s tasting room, where we were treated to a welcome drink of proseco (yum!) and a sampling of the Castelo’s premium wines and olive oil variants.

The courtyard of the Castelo D’Albola; an old wine press in the tasting room.

The cellars in the Castelo d’Albola. 

The cellars were amazing. I had no idea what a wine cellar really looked like, and these huge oak vats were each about eight feet high. The wines in this particular cellar had been aging since February 2012. The temperature in the cellars is regulated, so it’s always cool.

Beautiful gardens on the grounds! All the fresh vegetables and fruit we ate during our meal was grown here.

Part of the tour to the Castelo includes a traditional Tuscan-style lunch in one of the dining rooms. We were actually dining with Alessandro and some of his business associates, one of whom happened to be the son of the estate’s current owner. It was sure to be an interesting lunch, and our group was excited to sample some of the region’s traditional fare.

The team, seated at table, family style! By this time, we were all geared up to eat, famished after all that walking in Siena!

And boy, it was worth the wait.

Antipasti: Bruschettas (L-R: Tomatoes, olive oil and basil; chicken pate; lardo or pork fat with herbs and spices)

Primi: Zucchini and parmegiano risotto. This was absolutely divine. I think I had three helpings!

Fresh garden-grown beans and bell peppers, braised in wine and vinegar. Perfection!

Secondi: Roulade of chicken, verdure, prosciutto and egg, with roasted potatoes. I’m totally going to try making this at home!

Dolci: Apple cake, which was accompanied by a lovely dessert wine that we all had too much off!

Some of the group! (L-R: Gladys; Rommel; me; Christie; Alessandro Gallo, the director of Castelo D’Albola; (seated) Gab; Millet; Pia; M., and Annalyn)

It was around 4 PM when we left the Chianti Classico region — which meant we had an approximately 2-hour bus ride if we still wanted to reach Pisa. (And we did!) We managed to arrive in Pisa just before the sun began to set. We had about fifteen minutes for a flash photo-blitz around the Piazza dei Miracoli, the main cathedral square of the city of Pisa.

Despite our rushed visit, we were able to have our fill of Pisa’s piazza, the site of the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, its elaborate baptistry and, of course — Pisa’s most famous “mistake” and landmark the Leaning Tower, or the campanile (bell tower) of the cathedral.

The grand baptistry and duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, an 11th century structure. Seeing this for the first time felt like I was looking at  a postcard! (I ended up buying a magnat with a painting of this scene; it’s now on my fridge.)

I just love this old doorway. I don’t know why, but I have a thing for doorways, gates and passage ways. I have so many photos just of doors during this trip, because there were so many pretty ones in Tuscany. (I feel like breaking into song, a la “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: “Doors/Open doors/They are yours to open wide/Take a step, take a chance…” — Still one of my favorite musicals.)

The door above was from the old wall surround the piazza; the door below was a side door of the duomo.

Of course, we were there to see the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I approached the structure with bated breath.

 Wow. There it is!

I’m really here! (Frances, that’s your satchel.)

And, of course, I did my own “leaning”  pose. I didn’t feel like doing the “oops-the-tower-is-falling-on-me” shot, but I did my “hey, beautiful” pose, like this:

By the time we had all finished taking photos and grabbing a few souvenirs, the sun was setting.

Early evening in front of the piazza in Pisa

Chianti was a totally new discovery for me; Pisa was an item checked off my travel bucket list. And being in Siena earlier that day, as you know, was just a dream come true. Being able to visit three beautiful places in a span of 14 hours was hella tiring, but completely worth the long bus rides, the aching feet (and backs!), and the tireless clicking away of our cameras. (One of my companions, Millet, was totally out of phone memory by the end of this day!).

Patrizia, our group leader, said that there was just too much to take in in Tuscany, and recommended we return for a month just to see all there was to see in this one region. I believe you, Patrizia. I’m already planning (and saving!) to return. I want to discover more, to be even more amazed, and to have my breath taken away all over again with each new discovery.

Read the other entries in this Tuscan Blogger Adventure Series:

Day 1: Planes, Trains and a Taste of Things to Come

Day 2 Part 1: Siena? Si!

Day 2 Part 2: Chianti and Pisa

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Day 2, Part 1: Siena? Si!

Tuscan Blogger Adventure Day 2, Part 1: Siena? Si!

 

This post is brought to you by CalChews, calcium goodness you can chew which gives you your daily recommended dose of Calcium, Vitamin D, and K, for optimum bone health, minus the risk of heart disease; and by the Lifestyle Network, the premiere cable channel for women in the Philippines. This 5-day getaway was my prize as the official winner for the Tuscan Blogger Adventure by CalChews.

“Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.” 
— Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun

*This post on Siena deserves a solo spot, partly because it was my most favorite stop on this Tuscan adventure, and partly because I took too many photos!

There seemed to be no end to the travelling, come day 2 of our Tuscany itinerary. Ordinarily, I would have winced at the idea of spending five hours on a bus, but not this day. That’s because we were going to three of the most illustrious cities in the region: Siena, the Castello d’Albola (home of the famous Chianti Classico wine), and Pisa. (It took about 90 minutes to 2 hours between each city!)

Our first stop: Siena.

Siena is about an hour and a half drive by bus from Florence. Its city center is, in fact, a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its medieval cityscape that has remained virtually unchanged since the High Middle Ages (just before the Renaissance of the 1400’s.), Siena still echos with stories from the past. Being a history buff, I was giddy. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to see this ancient city I’d only read about in school textbooks and encyclopedias.

Our tour began when we met our guide, Costanza, who had grown up just outside Siena . We met her in front of the Basilica of St. Dominic. Situated on a hill outside the city center, the basilica is still home to the Dominican Order, and the shrine of one of its most important personalities, St. Catherine of Siena. (Her relics are venerated in the main church, which is why photographs are strictly disallowed.)

Our Siena guide, Costanza; the door into the Basilico di San Domenico 

History began to come alive for me, as we began the tour of this basilica. Like its patroness, Catherine, the humble exterior of the church is simple and unimposing. But, as you go inside — into its very heart and sanctuary — the spirit of the city begins to speak; Catherine’s soul is still very much alive. The church’s interior chapels, altars and artwork, which were all crafted by artisans of the 1300-1400’s, showed how the Christian religion was heavily intertwined with everyday life. Everything was sacred, venerated, and adored.

In the same way, there’s a somewhat sacred vibe that resonates in Siena, especially as you walk through its labyrinth of medieval streets and alleys. The mere age of the city amazed me, and seeing how not much has changed in the last 800 years made it even more alluring.

The edge of the city of Siena, overlooking the basilico di San Domenico. My husband said it looks like a Wikipedia photo.

 If these streets and walls could speak, what secrets they would tell! My friend Gab says this looks like a still from The Bicycle Thief.

This is the side gate from the Duomo’s baptistry, which leads to the front courtyard of the basilica. (Yes, it’s just a gate!)

The show-stopping Duomo di Siena, an imposing Romanesque-Gothic cathedral, completed in the 14th century.

I honestly did not mind all the walking we had done up to this point. Seeing the Duomo in all its splendor made me forget how my back was smarting from the long plane ride the day before. (And of course, my morning dose of CalChews was surely doing its work.) I remember alternating between my phone cam and Lumix, frenetically capturing as many angles and details as I could of this masterpiece.

Time to get cultured! (OK, that came out weird. Anyway…)

 The vastness of the Duomo di Siena!

The inside of the Duomo di Siena is just plain awesome. I tried to imagine how the Sienans back in the 1300’s must have felt the first time they set foot in this place. Back then, this was the equivalent of today’s latest mind-boggling gadget: It wasn’t just a cathedral; it was a technological wonder of its time.

Everywhere I looked, there were just details, details, details. Everything was created with purpose, with a story, from the pulpit with a 360 degree marble etching of the story of salvation, to the marble panels on the floor that illustrated famous Bible stories. Being in the Duomo di Siena was like rediscovering God all over again, and how he really is Creator, the originator of everything beautiful, of the author of every design.

I also breathed a prayer of thanks for the arts. As a totally right-brained kid, I appreciated that I was given the freedom to revel in my creative side, whether it was through painting and sketching, or writing short stories and poems. I felt totally at home amidst this artistry. It was brilliant.

The different marble floors in and around the Duomo di Siena

The “Madonna del Latte” by Paolo do Giovanni Fei (1300’s), is one of the first daring paintings showing a nursing Mary. Tweeted this out to some of the nursing moms I know!

The ceiling in the Duomo’s Piccolomini Library, which tells the life story of some of Siena’s most important figures.

Illuminated choir manuscripts with Gregorian chants. These were ginormous! 

Even with world-renowned heritage sites, Siena is still a simple, beautiful and traditional town. If you’re from a big city like Manila, you’ll find it rather inconvenient, to be honest! But, the people there have made the most of their rich heritage, their unique culture, and their artistic treasures, their traditions. In fact, every year, they still hold annual horses races (known as Il Palio di Siena) in the Piazza del Campo, a plaza hailed as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. No prize money is awarded to the winner of the race! He receives a higher honor: The privilege to display his emblem around the town square.

Our group in the middle of the Piazza

Siena made a deep impression on me. Being a rather “unschooled” learner at heart, it was amazing to walk through the city, to see things first hand, to have those high school World Culture lessons leap out from the pages of my old textbooks. I don’t know if one can be overly-fascinated by a place, but that’s exactly how I felt. Even Costanza, our guide, mentioned to me, “I like you! You are very interested!”

Aww, shucks.

I felt like a student again.

It felt fantastic.

It’s true that when you visit a place, you become a part of it. In Taglish (Tagalog-English), some might say “nag-fe-feeling lang siya” (or, “she’s just feeling it too much that she was in that place), but please reserve judgment. When you’ve been dreaming of a place so badly — ever since you were a little girl — the experience of a dream come true is just phenomenal.

Kinda like my wedding day all over again. Or the time I became a mom.

It is fantastic.

Our half-day in Siena had opened a new door into Tuscany for me. I couldn’t wait to see what else lay ahead.

 Ciao, Siena!

Read the other entries in this Tuscan Blogger Adventure Series:

Day 1: Planes, Trains and a Taste of Things to Come

Day 2 Part 1: Siena? Si!

Day 2 Part 2: Chianti and Pisa