I went to Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa on a one-day tour…
… and took the wrong camera lens with me. Ugh.
The one-day tour of Tuscany was my best friend's idea. She and her husband were only going to be in Florence for a few days, so she wanted a full-day activity that would get us maximum exposure in minimum time. The tour would take us from Santa Maria Novella station to gothic Siena (pictured above), a Chianti vineyard for lunch, through the cobblestoned streets of San Gimignano (location of the "best gelato" too, just so you know), and then to Pisa. There's no way I would have gotten all that done in a day on my own, so €90 for the Walkabout Florence tour made total sense.
I didn't have mobile wifi on me so I nearly missed my friends at the station that morning (I had no idea where our group was assembling). Her husband found me three minutes before we needed to board the bus, so THANK GOD for that.
I did zero research on Tuscany. As opposed to my fevered study of all things Duomo and Medici, my approach to this tour was follow-the-guide… which was nice because every pit stop presented many pleasant surprises.
Siena, which I knew absolutely nothing about, was old and gothic and lovely in a small town kind of way. I couldn't picture myself actually staying there for more than a day, but I appreciated how visceral history was in the city and how different it was from the tourist-riddled streets of Florence.
The second I saw the Siena Cathedral, I had to stop in my tracks. How I had not heard about this church prior to my visit was a little unbelievable considering how incredible and magnificent and ASTOUNDING it was, from the outside in.
Even when you're walking behind the cathedral, you're caught off guard by how close you are to its facade. There are a ton of steps that take you from behind all the way to the entrance of the church, it's all pretty overwhelming and then you realize that this vision in front of you isn't even the front of the building. The perspective you get from being in such close proximity to the church's massive walls makes you feel like you're sat in front of a gothic painting come to life.
It takes a couple of minutes for the line to the cathedral's entrance to move, which is no problem since you'll want to spend some time gazing up at all the detail on the church's facade anyway. Considering the amount of STUFF going on here, I don't think anyone can ever have enough time to take it all in.
So then, you step inside and it gets even better. You would think that the people behind the Siena Cathedral would have been exhausted by the time they were done with the facade. Nope. Because their gusto just took the interior to the high, high heavens. There's so much more detail in here compared to the Florence Duomo.
My friend was practically aghast at the visual cacophony in front of us that she had to wonder out loud. "Surely, there would have been someone who thought, 'Here's some black stone, here's some white stone. Let's layer everything and make vertical black and white stripes and put the stripes all over the church.' Whose idea was this?!? And whose job was it to approve everything and say, YES?!?" We had no clue (clearly). Our minds were appropriately boggled.
One of the prettiest rooms in the church is the Piccolomini Library, which you're able to walk into for a brief turn. Looking up at the ceiling of the library is like being sucked into a gothic kaleidoscope. Seriously. When you think about how many centuries these murals and paintings have been up there, it's impossible not to (literally) applaud the conservation efforts that have kept these shining and shimmering and splendid all these years.
Aside from the chic striped columns (I'm now thinking of Sephora…), I love the celestial ceiling of the cathedral. So beautiful.
For most of the year, the floor of the Siena Cathedral is covered up to preserve the art. We were lucky enough to be there in September for a brief exposition, so we weren't only craning our necks to check out the ceilings but were also looking down to see the beautiful artwork on the floor. So good.
Once you're done touring the cathedral you step outside and are reminded, yet again, of how amazing the detail on the exterior is. I had to capture the facade one more time before leaving Siena—which I couldn't do because I left my other lens at the hotel. (Praise the iPhone!)
Another spot you can't possibly miss in Siena is the Piazza del Campo where Il Palio (a traditional horserace) is held twice a year. This square is HUGE. It also reminded me of Tokyo's Disney Sea (which is a terrible thing to say, but alas, it is the truth).
After Siena, we headed to Fattoria Poggio Alloro, a family owned vineyard, for wine-tasting, a tour of the grounds and cellars (which we skipped because we were done walking for the morning), and a yummy Tuscan lunch. The views I'd seen from the window on my flight to Florence came to life here.
How great would it be to take a sabbatical in this place?
You could say that the world's first skyscrapers were erected in San Gimignano. The town is known for its towering medieval structures. Like Intramuros in Manila, the town is encircled by a 13th century wall. If Siena's Piazza reminded me of Disney Sea, these towers had me singing Tangled (in my head) all the way through.
Our guide, Cecilia, made sure we all had enough time to get a scoop of gelato at Gelateria Dondoli, purportedly home of the best gelato. I don't think you could go wrong with gelato anywhere in Italy, but I would have to admit that the scoop of mint I got from this place was the best I'd ever tasted. The mint leaves were so fresh, it was remarkable. It's chaos once you get into the shop, but the hype is pretty justifiable (and I don't even eat a lot of ice cream).
San Gimignano's rolling hills really do afford you the best views. These Italian rooftops are seen over Punta Panoramico, a lookout point just across the street from a restaurant that was serving the most gorgeous looking crostini al fresco. Va bene!
After San Gimignano, we boarded the bus and made it to Pisa in time for golden hour, which was perfect. The parking lot for the actual landmark is a 10-minute walk away from the church—you have to wind through some empty streets, get past some local shops, and walk over train tracks until you see the Piazza dei Miracoli or Field of Miracles (lovely name!) in front of you. The number of people taking selfie stick shots with the Tower is a little laughable, but when in Rome…
One of the things about the Tower I could not believe was how gleaming and clean it was. It's pretty amazing, the amount of restoration and preservation work that goes into a structure like this. This bell tower has been able to keep its tilt since the 1100s. HOW?!?
While the rest of Pisa (at least what we saw on our short walk) seemed quiet and pretty empty, the Piazza was alive with tourists, local folks bringing their dogs for walks, and kids running around.
The tour wound down with us watching the sun set over Pisa. We were exhausted and ready for the bus ride back to Florence, but feeling exceptionally lucky to have seen so much of Tuscany in just 12 hours. I would've never joined a tour like this on my own, so I was also thankful to my friends for having brought the idea up. I mean, it was worth it just for the views.
Italy, you are absolutely gorgeous.