A Tale of Two Duomos

When I think of Italy there are two Italy’s that come to mind: One is the whirlwind of Rome and Milan where posh women in tight skirts while zip by on Vespas — Making it look easy as pie. Where curly haired men smoke cigarettes in front of shops and bars, wearing suits a shade of blue I’ve seen nowhere else — A deep mix of cobalt and navy.  Where city’s steps and squares fill at nightfall with the young and beautiful, their conversations blending together to form a uniform hum rising to the apartments above.

The other is the Italy that exists outside of the city swell, in places whose center is dictated by something simple and steadfast, like a church or winery that’s stood in place for centuries. Where community replaces city anonymity and cozy stands in for aesthetic.

This recanting is of the later.

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Leaving Florence I fell in love with everyone I passed on the street, regardless of their gender. Everyone is a supermodel. And I’m talking the fun kind of supermodel. Think 90’s Cindy, Naomi or Kate, where each step taken oozes attitude. De-training on our morning journey from Florence to Siena, it was clear within minutes we were in a different kind of town. We had to take six escalators to get up the hillside before we were spit just minutes away from the Porta Ovile, which dates back to the 11th century. As I pass through the gate with my wheeling suitcase behind me I feel a bit odd, and odder still when I hear the thing clunking over the city’s ancient cobblestones. The steady thunk thunk thunk behind me seems to hiss “you’re not meant to be here”.

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We arrive at the door of our inn and buzz up, waiting for the proprietor to open up the massive and heavy door. The Palazzo Coli Bizzarrini is a gorgeous building, but it required three separate keys to enter our room. The owner Michelle couldn’t tell us “Go to the third floor and unlock the first door”, instead she wound us through several halls and into the world’s smallest elevator that could scarcely hold the three of us. During our slow and intimate elevator journey she pointed out the elevator key (the small one), the front door key (a fob that would jerk the door open abruptly, like a haunted house in a Vincent Price film), and our room key (the deadbolt may stick, but we were warned not to turn the key hard as it will snap off).

A quick tour of the room commenced, then Michelle walked us through the alternative route to the entrance, which was down a series of steps with the longest carpet runner I’ve ever seen, and I swear I passed knights armor enroute. The building is a historical 16th-century palace, and it shows. I was mildly afraid to touch anything, for fear that upon checkout I’d be charged $6,000 for accidentally taking with me a 15th century pen that was owned by Medici’s tailor. 1:00pm and tired already, we did the most reasonable thing someone who’s just entered a Tuscan town can do. Eat.

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Carl and I have a weekly meal we’ve affectionately dubbed as “small foods”. On a Sunday or Monday, post grocery-store-trip when neither feels like cooking, we’ll stick to the basics for dinner: bread and oil, cheese, olives and salad. When we found that La Prosciutteria existed in Siena, specializing in boards of meat and cheese, we took the 12 minutes needed to exit our building and arrived at the restaurant’s doors nearly panting.

A pair of young Italian hipsters were kind enough to recommend wines and point us towards the appropriate amount of food for the both of us, and bless their souls, I couldn’t have been happier.  Our board was overflowing with prosciutto and salami, cured ham flecked with lavender, cucumbers coated in balsamic, goat’s cheese with fig jam, parmesan topped with honey and almonds, bread smothered in truffle butter, or fresh and garlicky tomato paste, and that’s not even all. I felt like Bacchus as I gorged myself silly. It was absurdly decadent and if ever I were depicted as the Roman god, in place of his usual crown of grapes I’d wear one of cheese.

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Hopped up on cheese and cured meat Carl and I made our way towards the Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square, to conquer the Torre del Mangia. The sky had been flirting with the prospect of rain all afternoon, and with currently sunny skies it was the appropriate time to make the daunting 400+ step climb up the narrow and winding tower stairs. When visiting Italy, come prepared to climb. Want to go up Florence’s duomo? Or see Siena from above? You’re going to have to climb, baby.  I’m talking a claustrophobic, dizzying, hug-the-700-year-old-wall when someone is coming down kind of trek.

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Up top is nothing short of gorgeous, making my mild case of vertigo totally worth it. Beneath are hundreds of terra cotta roofs; the Siena cathedral stands out looking gothic and imposing, and in the distance are those rolling hillsides that are synonymous with Tuscany: land painted in gold and olive, dotted with those tall and spindly trees that remind me of swizzle sticks. It’s so beautiful I don’t even mind the duo of college students that pop up every couple of minutes managing to look totally displeased by their surroundings. I oblige to take a few photos of them, which they smile magnificently in, only to glower at the photos once I hand the iPhone back. I wonder if they’re hangry and if I should tell them I know a place that will melt the sour off their faces.

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Down, down, down we spin, and my eyes are thrilled to see light peeking out from the end of our rabbit hole.  My feet are ecstatic to touch solid ground. The rain has come. That summer rain that hits in huge droplets, leaving a crater on my arm where the water first hit. It creates goosebumps and clings to hairs for just a moment, before falling off completely. All of this happens within a second, and the drops fall so intermittently it takes minutes to realize that it’s raining at all.

Our destination is one so beloved to me that a little bit of rain wouldn’t drive me away: The library. While in High School my sister and I once drove to the library on a snow day, arriving only to find that the place was closed. In total this teenage journey would take over an hour, but that’s where we wanted to be. Among the books.

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With only 12 hours in Siena the schedule is packed — Like all things, there’s oh so much we want to do, and oh so little time. Luckily for us, the library is located within the Cathedral, so this trip will check off several things: Intricately patterned marble floors — Check. Busts of hundreds of white dead men carved into the walls — Check. A library 500+ years old that’s wall-to-wall covered in glorious frescoes — Check. And a staple of the country — The duomo. Duomo Check. This duomo has my number, it’s not as pizzazed as the big show in Florence, but still has a bit more umph than the pantheon in Rome. It’s all stars and what I’d describe as “high-end Beetlejuice stripes”, both subdued and spunky. On the scale of 1-10 duomos, I’d give it 8 duomos.

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Outside, rain no longer falls and the sky is low and gray, with sun intermittently bursting through. Walking away from the center of town meandering to the Fonti Medievali, I turn around and am met with a view of the cathedral and duomo, towering above the brick dwellings swelling around it — This is the most Red Keep-esque thing I’ve seen, and I think of the Lannisters living in their ornate fortress surrounded by the city below. Taking photographs I wonder if my lens is dirty before realizing the clouds are dotted with black crows. Rome’s age shows in the browning of its walls. Siena’s shows in its magic.

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At dinner we ate next to a wild peacock. Ristorante/pizzeria All’Orto de’ Pecci is off on its own — We pass the main palazzo and head down into a valley. In front of the restaurant kids play soccer in the field and a children’s party is in full swing under an outdoor tent. Middle aged couples, each beautiful and chic drink wine, languidly watching over their children noshing on pizza at a nearby table. The indoor restaurant is empty though, and in gestures and very animated eyebrow-based expressions we inquire about a table — The host/chef hesitates a moment, then seats us. We still wonder if the restaurant was closed that night for the event and he took pity on us.

Our table is in front of the open patio doors, letting in the early summer air. Within moments a peacock struts up to our table and sits, patiently. After taking our order the server chases this fellow away by luring him outside with olives, throwing a couple as far into the field as he can reach. We’re brought a carafe of house wine that we sip overlooking the party. After a seasonal vegetable torte arrives our plumed companion is back. Standing a couple feet away, occasionally tilting its head, staring. This guy has a nest somewhere with an embroidered pillow saying “It’s Not Over Til It’s Over”. Respect. For the sake of the restaurant I don’t dare share my truffle, mascarpone and anchovy topped pasta. I can only sympathize with the wet, black eyes in front of me. Only when the peacock strays towards the party and the children begin chasing the beautiful beast does it fly on top of the tent, in fear of the toddler mafia.

I never knew a peacock could fly. I just thought they survived this long because they’re so damn beautiful.

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As we cut into our chocolate lava cake the server and the chef are watching over our shoulders, holding their breath. When only a trickle of chocolate seeps out they immediately take the plate away, letting us know it’ll be another 20 minutes til we receive another. On our second slicing a stream of molten chocolate flows and our two witnesses sigh happily, leaving us to our cake. While the food here is wonderful, I’ve had better dishes elsewhere in the country. However, no other establishment matches the heart this place has.

We leave the table at dusk, making our way back into town and our ironclad hotel. Along the way our feathered friend emerges again, walking with us for a minute until he veers back from whence he came. In another life I want to be this animal. Days filled with sunshine and olives, and evenings full of Siena sunsets.

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The palazzo is empty in the darkness — A group of young women sit on the brick. Half are chatting, half are on their phones. As much as I love travelling to foreign places, there’s a part of me that’s comforted knowing that wherever you go, people, in their heart, are the same.

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There’s a peacefulness here that I could curl up in. That I feel as I pass a Capitoline Wolf statue, documenting the legend of Siena’s founding, when Remus’ sons Senius and Aschius fled Rome, taking with them the statue of the She-wolf to Siena. I imagine life here. Christmas mornings when breath catches in front of your nose, summers with the shutters open when only the sound of the breeze comes in through the windows, and winter nights when darkness weighs on the eyelids gentle as can be. I want this life. And it’s up to me to try and take it wherever I go next.

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