We were up bright and early to catch our tour of neighboring Italian villages, a farmhouse and winery, and Pisa. We hopped on the comfy bus that would take us on the guided tour at about 8am and then headed off, listening to the comedic stylings of our funny Italian guide.
The bus drove us through Florence, with our guide explaining the sights as we passed by. Before long, we had passed the town borders and were deep in the Tuscany countryside, with vineyards, gardens, and small houses dotting the horizon along the way. Eventually we arrived in Siena, a lovely medieval town that transported us back through time to the days of castles and forts and gothic architecture.
Siena is a very hilly town so we got quite a workout on our guided tour. The guide, a Siena resident, took us by the oldest surviving bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which was founded in 1472.
Eventually we made our way to the town square, where the palio (horse race) is held twice each year. During the race, ten horses and riders, who represent ten of the seven Contrade or town wards, race bareback three times around the town square and finish in less than 90 seconds. The Sienese take this race very seriously and winning is an enormous sense of pride for the victorious Contrade.
Our tour continued through the town of Siena, stopping by the stables where the town horses are kept before the palio and then at the Siena Duomo, or church. We happened to be visiting at the rare time when the beautiful floors of the Duomo aren’t covered to protect their colors and designs. Our guide said this hadn’t happened in over 20 years.
We had some free time to roam the streets of Siena and do some souvenir shopping, and then we were off again to board our tour bus. This time we were headed to a farmhouse and winery in the Italian countryside for lunch.
Then we made our way into the farmhouse and were seated among our other tour group members at long wooden tables. The lunch was composed entirely of food grown or made there at the farm, including the best wine we had had all trip. We made sure to purchase a few bottles to take home. We also ate garlic bread with olive oil, salad, meats and cheeses, and a delicious pasta, followed by a few biscotti cookies and a dessert wine.
This time the bus was headed to San Gimignano. We wandered around the town, stopping in shops for souvenirs every now and then. One of San Gimignano’s claims to fame is the supposedly best gelato in the world. Well, that was just too tempting to pass up. We waited in a relatively long line and eventually selected our favorite gelato flavors. While we had sampled many different ones, strawberry and lemon were leading so far as the best gelato flavors in Italy.
The one problem we ran into in San Gimignano was the bathroom situation. We were only able to find one public bathroom in the town (which although public, still cost money. I believe it was 50 euro cents), and this bathroom was coed with only one working stall. As you can imagine, the line grew very fast. We all wanted to take a bathroom break before the next leg of our bus tour, but the line was scarcely moving. The clock was ticking and we only had a few minutes left before we needed to be back at the bus. Somehow, everyone got separated as we got out of line to look for another bathroom. Luckily it was a small town, so we eventually found each other, but with only a couple minutes to reach the bus. We ran through the town, down the stairs, through small alleys, somehow remembering our way even though we had never been here before and had only traveled this route once. We breathed a huge sigh of relief as we spotted our bus in the parking lot and breathlessly made it to the door only moments before they were going to pull away.
Amid the applause of our other tour mates, we made our way to our seats and plopped down. Next stop, Pisa!
The main attraction in Pisa is, of course, the leaning tower (incidentally, there is very little to see beyond this). We took the quintessential leaning tower pics and wandered around the square, observing the tower from all sides and baffling at how this leaning structure came to be. Apparently, architectural mistakes = cultural icons.
This was the first attraction we had visited where the presence of peddlers and potential pick-pocketers was definitely felt. The people selling goods on the outskirts of the tower were very aggressive and insistent, but eventually we boarded our little choo-choo and were on our way again! The choo-choo took us for a short tour around Pisa, including a glimpse of the university where Galileo once attended and taught, and then back to our bus for the relaxing ride back to Florence.
The views on the return ride were lovely and the Italian countryside looked so beautiful and peaceful as the sun set behind vineyards and olive groves. We eventually found ourselves back at the train station where we had begun the morning (that was where we boarded the bus), and after a very long wait in a long line for a cab, we were back at our hotel, thankful for the big comfortable beds where we could rest after this long and wonderful day.